Susan's Shanghai Blog - Week 63

This is the start of our Chinese New Year 2013 vacation blogs. Since we took close to 500 pictures, I'll split these into a few different weeks. This first week will cover Phnom Pehn.

As with my blogs that have a new country for us to visit, I always start with the history and geography. The Kingdom of Cambodia, as it is officially named, is in Southeast Asia, sitting between Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. It has almost 15 million people total, ranking as 68th in the world by population. At 181,040 square km, it is 86th in the world by area. The majority of the population are Khmer (the "native" people) and the official religion is Buddhism. There are minority groups, including Chinese and Vietnamese, but they make up a relatively small percentage.

The name of the country has changed a few times throughout history. The Khmer Empire began in 802AD until around the 15th century. The empire collapsed and it was ruled by its neighbors until the French colonized it in the mid 19th century. In 1953, Cambodia became an independent country again when it gained indepedence from the French. That lasted until 1975 when the Khmer Rouge (under Pol Pot) took control of the country, and between 1975 and 1979, it was named Democratic Kampuchea. When Pol Pot's government was forced out in 1979, it went by the People's Republic of Kampuchea and the State of Cambodia and was a socialist state with Marxist-Leninist ideologies. In 1993, it became the Kingdom of Cambodia as a constitutional monarchy.

Phnom Penh was founded in 1434 and is the capital, as it has been since the French colonization. There are French colonial buildings scattered throughout the city. The city is growing, from around 1.9 million people in 2008 to 2.2 million in 2012.

Phnom Penh literally translates to Penh's Hill and the legend of how the city started was that in 1372, an old nun named Penh found 5 Buddha statues floading in a dead tree in a stream of the Mekong River. She built a temple on a hill to house these statues and named the temple Wat Phnom (Hill Temple). This hill is now a park and just happened to be right next to our hotel. You can see the park and a stupa on the hill in the first picture, taken from our hotel balcony.

The temple is on a hill, as you can see. As you walk up the stairs, the first landing that you come to has a few nice bronze bas-reliefs.

The temple, as with all of them that I can remember, have 2 lions at the entrance

Inside the temple, the walls and ceilings are very colorfully decorated with the big Buddha in the middle and lots of other Buddha statues around the outside. The last picture shows the money that is put with the statues. Each statue had money put somewhere as an offering.

The stupa behind the temple also with the Lions on the corner.

There was this really cool snake, a cobra, created out of reeds and bamboo on one side of the park. The first picture shows the back view of the cobra head with the snake body out behind. Then the second is the front. We aren't sure whether this is there all of the time or just for this year, which is the year of the Snake. We are somewhat thinking it is always there, since the snake is very prominent in Cambodia especially in the temples in Siem Reap (which we'll get to in a few more blogs).

Behind the snake, up on the start of the hill, they had this big clock, which actually worked. You could stand there and see the minute and second hands moving around. Kinda cool!

There were lots of little kids around the temple trying to get you to pay $1 to "set a bird free". They have these cages with lots of little birds that they will let fly away if you pay for their freedom. we didn't as we read that it was a scam and that the birds are trained to return to the cage. So they fly away and then fly right back to the cage.

We don't always do pictures of our hotel, but this on was really nice. As I said, it was right next to this Wat Phnom and the park. We had a pretty big room on the 2nd floor with this great balcony. It had a little table and chairs with an umbrella that you could sit out and enjoy the sun and warmth. Downstairs in front of the hotel, you can see the guys sitting with the little rickshaws waiting for people who need a ride around town. From the balcony, you can also see this new building being built, dominating the skyline.

I said we were right next to the park, well, our balcony also overlooked the US Embassy, which to me is a really ugly building (sorry).

Here we start the depressing part of the vacation, and another short history lesson. The Khmer Rouge (translation: Red Khmers) refers to the Communist Party of Kampuchea, which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 (during which time it was called Democratic Kampuchea) under the leadership of Pol Pot. They attempted to change the country into a purely agrarian-based Communist society, which basically means pre-industrial, non-urbanized. They forced everyone out of the cities (approximately 2 million people) and into the countryside to work as farmers. Everything was controlled: from what clothes you wore to who you could talk to.All private property was confiscated and everyone worked in "collective farms". They closed schools, hospitals, and factories. They did away with money and closed all banks.

They wanted to eliminate anyone who would be a potential threat to this, including intellectuals, suspected capitalists, professionals, people connected to foreign governments. This meant the mass killing of teachers, merchants, and anyone educated. In some cases, things such as wearing glasses made you an "intellectual" and that also got you killed. Religion was banned and anyone taking part in any type of religious rituals were also executed. Families were basically disbanded and you could be killed if found talking to family members. In many cases, family members were dispersed to different parts of the country and there was no telephone or postal services, so families couldn't keep in touch. It was a total communal living: you ate with everyone else in the commune.

However, they were really bad at this ... and during their 4 years in power, the population was basically overworked and starved. As for the number of people who died in these four years, nobody quite agrees or knows for sure. The high and low numbers seem to be 740,000 and 3,000,000, although the most popular numbers range between 1.4 million and 2.2 million, with about half coming from executions, and the rest from starvation and disease.

Now the warning ... the pictures in some cases are a little disturbing. IF you want to skip the depressing part, click here.

One of the first stops we made was to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, or "The Killing Fields" as it is known, where mass graves have been found that were used by the Khmer Rouge as part of the genocide between 1975 and 1979. In total, almost 9,000 bodies were discovered in this one site, which prior to the Khmer Rouge, was a former orchard and Chinese graveyard just outside of the city.

As you come through the gates, there is a plaque where the "truck stop" was. As you can read, this is where the trucks would stop and unload the people that were going to be killed.

Straight through the gates is the Buddhist stupa, which was built as a memorial. The third pictures shows the victims clothes that were found in the mass graves, cleaned, and put into the bottom tier of the memorial stupa. Then you start the skulls and bones, in different tiers based on bone type (skulls start at the bottom) and age of the victim

Then we started walking around the area, and they have all of the mass graves that were excavated still shown with a depression (although the pit itself has been somewhat filled in).

As mentioned this used to be a Chinese graveyard, and you can still find these Chinese tombstones scattered around.

This is a tree next to a mass grave that contained just women and children. The tour guide told us that (based on witness testimony), they would kill the mothers and then take the babies and kill them by hitting their heads up against this tree. You'll see lots of red/colored things on both the tree and the fence around the pit .. these are bracelets and ribbons that people have left.

Next we headed back to the city to go to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. This was a former high school that was used as the Security Prison 21 (S21), and was where the majority of the people executed at Choeung Ek came from. Tuol Sleng was only one of at least 150 execution centers in use by the Khmer Rouge. The buildings are shown today as they were when the Khmer Rouge left in 1979 (except the displays were added)

Our tour guide explains that the "important" prisoners were kept in these larger rooms. There was one bed in the middle where the prisoner would basically be chained.

When this was a high school, this high-bar was used for exercise, but during the Khmer Rouge, this was one of the ways that prisoners were tortured, being hung upside-down and their heads plopped into the big vats below, that supposedly would contain human waste.

These two maps show how the population from the cities were sent out through the countryside.

Interestingly enough, they kept really good records. Upon arrival at the prison, each person was photographed and required to give detailed autobiographies, beginning with their childhood and ending with their arrest.

Another building, this one with smaller cells (note the wire across the open areas to keep people from escaping). You can tell that the prison was "constructed" quickly .. here a classroom is converted into a bunch of cells by quickly throwing up small brick walls, that didn't even go to the ceiling. There were no doors but none were needed, since they were chained to the floor. These were small, too .. you couldn't really even lay down unless you were really short. There were a few places where you could still see dried blood on the floor.

Okay, done with the depressing part!

Lunch was at Khmer Surin, which was a really nice, open-air restaurant. The meals were included in our tour package and we had requested the "local" Khmer set menus in all of the restaurants, so we could get a taste for the local cuisine. We started with fried spring rolls with a dipping sauce, and then a seafood soup. Next was a traditional fish (we found out later since we had it a couple times) where they brought it out in this really cool dish. It had 7 little compartments, each with a lid, containing the same food. We ended with fresh fruits, including banana, pineapple, papaya, and dragonfruit.

The National Monument, or Independence Monument, was built in 1958 to celebrate Cambodia's independence from the French in 1953. The shape is a lotus-shaped stupa and is meant to be in the same style as the tours at Angkor Wat (again, you'll see this in a later week's blog).

Next up was the National Museum of Cambodia. The museum houses one of the world's largest collections of Khmer art, including sculptural, ceramics, bronzes, and ethnographic objects ... over 14,000 items. The Museum buildings were really great ... inspired by Khmer temple architecture and built 1917 and 1924. They didn't really like pictures inside, so we got 1 statue and then a view outside in the courtyard.

Then we headed over to the Royal Palace, built in 1866 after the capital was moved from Oudong to Phnom Penh in 1863. As we got to the entrance, we saw these monkeys hanging out near the eaves of the building, sometimes going up under them, then across the roof. Here is one of the buildings with a big picture of the late King.

This is (I think) the compound located on the South side of the palace complex. Inside are multiple stupas along with a model of Angkor Wat (located in Siem Reap, that you'll see photo's of in another week's blog). Around the outside of the model is a stream containing fish and turtles.

The Silver Pagoda is a magnificant building! Traditional Khmer roof architecture, with columns that are inlaid in Italian marble. It doesn't look like a "pagoda" (the chinese type) but more like a temple. It gets it's "silver" name from 5,000 silver tiles on the floor .. most of which today are covered by rugs for protection from the visitors, but you can see them clearly around the outside. There are lots of buddha's inside (sorry, no pictures).

There was another smaller temple where we could take a picture inside.

Unfortunately for us, the King of Cambodia had recently died and the country was somewhat still in mourning. The Throne Hall and most of the other buildings were closed off or under renovation, but we did grab a picture of the Throne Hall through the closed gate.

As we headed out, we went through a few other rooms that contained history and artifacts, including this first display which shows the stairs used by the king to mount an elephant. The Kings in Cambodia historically ride white elephants, and you can see the Kings "chair" on top of this elephant model. We also went by a group of people playing traditional music.

Next was the Central Market. The art-deco building was constructed in 1937 in the shape of a dome with form arms branching out. They (supposedly) sell almost everything here, although we can't really tell you since it would seem that the market is run by the Chinese since it was Chinese New Year and the market was basically closed. There were some stalls around the outside still open, selling clothes, books, shoes, jewelry, and food. But the main market itself was closed.

And lastly, our dinner in Phnom Penh. Nice, fairly small restaurant, looked very new inside. We started with drinks (yes, that is Tom with a green apple martini!) and then had a 1st course that was a corn salad. Next was chicken in a fresh vegetable salad, followed by green curry beef (YUMMY!) Two different deserts: one was fruit and some fried dumpling-kind of things, and the other was a coconut flavored pourridge with what seemed like tapioca balls in it.

Continue to see our drive from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, Cambodia