Phnom Penh, Cambodia … a crazy busy capital city with a heartbreaking history

One day of our travels in Cambodia included a quick flight from Siem Reap to the capital city of Phnon Penh. This is a crazy busy big city of over 2 million people, where many Cambodians go for work in big company headquarters or large manufacturing factories, like the textile industries.
Phenom Phen

All photo credits in this post are a mix of: A.L. Wiltse & M. Charbonneau

We traveled with 4 of our friends from the village in Siem Reap that we sponsor so they could experience flying in plane and staying in a hotel for the first time in their lives, as well as to allow them to see the monuments to their Khmer history. Two of our village companions are sponsored university students, so this was also a chance for them to see the career possibilities and living conditions in the capital city.

Our Cambodian friends visiting outside of Siem Reap for the first time 🙂

The ride through the city in morning rush hour traffic was a wild, crazy, polluted cacophony of noise and smells and new sights. TrafficMonks ShoppingTemples line the streetKid in Car 1Riverfrint BoardwalkWe had arranged for private tuk-tuk drivers at a reasonable rate for our travels through the hotel where we stayed: The Rose Emerald Hotel … a clean and comfortable newly built hotel in the center of the city. Unfortunately, when we returned to the airport the next day, the drivers wanted more than was negotiated, which was quickly resolved by a strong “NO WAY” (in bit stronger words). These drivers are associated with the hotel, so I would highly recommend having the hotel manage all your transportation requirements, and getting this billed right to your hotel bill so you don’t negotiate directly with the tuk-tuk drivers!

Once we finished a wonderful breakfast of soup and iced coffees, we made our way out of the main city center to a more rural, very poor area of Phnom Phen, on our way to the Killing Fields memorial site. A very, very dirty and dusty ride – be sure to bring your pollution masks with you for this trip if you’re not in a private car!Very Poor CountrysideSmog and dust are terribleLike you see in most of Cambodia, you could buy gasoline at a regular gas station, but it’s much cheaper just to buy it out of old refilled Pepsi bottles at the side of the road, as you can see in the far left of the picture below.Gas StationFor my dear followers who are strongly moved by the darkness of humanity, you may want to skip this last bit, as it deals with the very disturbing subject of the Khmer Rouge genocide lead by Pol Pot against his fellow Cambodian people.

According to the Wiki post for the “Killing Fields”, it is estimated that “Analysis of 20,000 mass grave sites by the DC-Cam Mapping Program and Yale University indicate at least 1,386,734 victims of execution. Estimates of the total number of deaths resulting from Khmer Rouge policies, including disease and starvation, range from 1.7 to 2.5 million out of a 1975 population of roughly 8 million. In 1979, Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea and toppled the Khmer Rouge regime”. Source:

Khmer Rouge Uniforms

Situated about an hour’s tuk-tuk ride outside of Phnom Phen, we finally arrived at the Cheung Ek Killing Fields memorial site. The first sight you see is the impressive memorial Stupa. A distinctive stupa architecture from the outside, but as you move closer, you realize it is filled from top to bottom with the skulls of over 8,000 victims. The skulls are listed in chronological order of age and sex. You can purchase incense to pray for these lost souls in whatever style you are comfortable with. I prayed a metta meditation there that ended in tears – this place broke my heart – and it was only the start of the tour.Abbey at Killing FieldsClose Up of Killing Fields MemorialAs you continue through the site, there are various signposts that guide you through the Killing Field grounds. A very informative audio guide is available in many languages as you stop at each point. Every Cambodian alive today has been affected in some way by this inhumanity, including our friends with whom we were traveling. One of our young travel companion’s mother was a nurse who escaped the Khmer Rouge. His father was captured and tortured, and only managed to escape detention by passing as Chinese. They met while in hiding in the jungle, joined together and started to form the village community of people we now sponsor, just outside of the Angkor Wat park. The photos below tell a very sad story of man’s inhumanity.

Bracelets in Offering at the Killing TreeMass Grave Markers Bracelets on mass grave sitesFriendship bracelets left at the site of mass graves Killing TreeThe Killing Tree where mothers were raped and killed after seeing their babies murdered by having their heads bashed against this tree – literally swinging the babies by their feet.A Beautiful Tree,,,ButA beautiful palm tree, but the sharp trunk fronds were used as execution tools to slice open people’s throats.

The murdered bodies were buried in mass graves, some over 5 meters deep. Whenever it rains, pieces of bones and clothing rise to the surface. Once a month the monks collect these bones and hold a ceremony to honour the dead. It’s very difficult to walk on the path throughout the memorial area without stepping on exposed bones.

Bone CollectionBone and FlowerBone SignBonesBones and Clothes and RagsWe then returned to the city center to visit the genocide museum. “Between 1975 and 1978, about 17,000 men, women, children and infants (including nine westerners) were detained and tortured at S-21 prison (now Tuol Sleng Museum). If they didn’t die of their torture, these prisoners were then transported to the Killing Fields for execution to avoid wasting precious bullets”. You can read more on this history by clicking on this link.

Genocide MuseumChild SurvivorsGenocide Museum - RegulationsGenocide Museum - Torture RoomOne of many torture rooms where victims’ bodies were found by the Vietnamese liberators in various stages of decomposition. Those who survived their torture sessions were often shipped to the Killing Fields for execution.Prison RoomsBloody Handprint in Torture RoomA bloody handprint on the wall in one of the detention rooms

Looking in through detention windowNaron’s mother … a survivor.Survivor 1SurvivorMany survivors were artists commissioned to document the regime’s rise to power by the notorious “Duch” of Pol Pot’s inner circle. “Duch” was brought to trial to answer for his war crimes. Pol Pot was never charged for his role in the genocide. He eventually died of heart failure in  1998.

Pol Pot’s plan was to eliminate all the educated population and focus only on the “pure” laborers – almost along the lines of a communist regime. He literally eradicated all the doctors, lawyers, teachers – anyone with education. This is why Cambodia is recognized as an “underdeveloped” country. From a child’s perspective, just imagine losing the knowledge, wisdom and guidance of a whole generation. It’s this generation whom we sponsor for their education, in the hope that this small helping hand will move this next generation forward, but it may take a few more decades to see true progress in this country. These final photos document Cambodia & her people … past, present and the future hope.  Namaste Chandy & Adam GrandmotherBeautiful SmilesAdam and So PiaFlorida School Kids 1Beautiful GirlsSponsored KidsThe Village BoysSo Pia Angel








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