Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Heartbreak and Hope, Phnom Penh

Hot, dirty, chaotic, desperately poor and utterly charming – welcome to Phnom Penh. Once called the “Paris of the East”, there’s a lot to see and do in the Cambodian capital, so I’d set myself a busy few days.

I started with a visit to the Royal Palace, which is also home to the Silver Pagoda. The grounds and buildings are beautiful, and after the tour busses of the north in Siem Reap, it seemed blissfully empty. The busiest place was not surprisingly the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Silver Pagoda), home to the Buddha of the Future. Made from 90kg of pure gold and bejewelled with over 2000 diamonds some more than 25 carats big, it was truly spectacular and very beautiful.

Just up the road is the National Museum, housing an impressive array of exhibits, more than 5000 pieces. I also visited both the Central Markets and the Russian Markets, and also squeezing in a visit to Wat Phnom.

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One of the reasons to visit Phnom Penh was to learn more about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, who wreaked havoc in Cambodia from 1975-1979.

Tuol Sleng was a former secondary school, however when the Khmer Rouge came to power they converted it into a prison and, not to put too fine a point on it, a torture centre. Thousands of innocent people – teachers, monks, doctors, students, foreigners, diplomats, engineers and so on – were “interrogated” here and forced to make confessions to made up transgressions. Unimaginable horrors took place here and now a museum, it was difficult to see the meticulously recorded photographs of victims, and read about the atrocities that were performed.

If prisoners survived the torture, they were sent to the ‘killing fields’, where death was certain. One of Pol Pot’s many deranged sayings was, “It’s better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake”. Around 20,000 innocent people lost their lives at what is now the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre. It’s shocking to think that is only one of around 300 killing fields in Cambodia. Men, women, young, old, children and babies: no one was spared. Reports differ, but somewhere between one quarter and one third of the population was killed by Pol Pot and his army in the lunacy of killing innocents by mistake in case of sparing an enemy. It was a very difficult place to visit; visiting the killing fields was truly heartbreaking.

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As a result of Pol Pot’s madness, Cambodia has a very young population. One article I read suggests that around 50% of all Cambodians are under 20 years old, which places a heavy financial burden on younger family members. This in turn has been one of the contributors to another Cambodian tragedy, the sex trade. I visited one organisation which provides some hope for an alternative.

Daughters of Cambodia was set up to support girls who have been victims of trafficking. It aims to empower the young women to leave the sex industry through teaching them skills that will help them find other employment. Although unwillingly sold into prostitution, usually by their families, they don’t leave because of the overwhelming pressure to send money back to the families in the provinces (yes, the same ones who sold them into prostitution in the first place). Daughters of Cambodia now run several businesses including two cafes, a spa, a gift shop, and a hotel. The businesses serve as training organisations, and pay above market wages to both upskill and provide alternatives to working in brothels. Specialist health care and counselling is also provided, amongst other programs to support the young women. The aim is that one day all these businesses will be completely self sustaining, and some of them already are. Women spend up to two years with the Daughters of Cambodia, and 98% of the “graduates” do not return to sex work. They’ve also recently started a new organisation called Sons of Cambodia, which supports “ladyboys”. It’s a really fantastic organisation giving genuine hope and opportunity to young women that there is life outside of the sex industry.

If you’re ever in Phnom Penh I would encourage you to go their visitor centre and cafe. Apart from anything else the food is sensational.

My final day was quite a sombre one, following the visit to the killing fields, so a gentle cruise down the river seemed like a fitting end. It comes alive in the evenings, filled with Cambodians enjoying the last of the sun – there were exercise classes, boys playing soccer, families having dinner. It was a good way to purge the memories from the past. Phnom Penh is dirty and chaotic, but it is brimming with life and hope for the future.

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Phnom Penh, Cambodia

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