Situated at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, Cambodia’s capital city, dates back to 1432. Phnom Penh was revered as the finest architectural examples of French and oriental fusion heritage in Indochina, a legacy almost entirely lost during the unutterably sad time of the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot. 

Between the tragic years of the inhuman regime, from 1975 to 1979, its entire population of some two million inhabitants were forcibly evacuated throughout the Cambodian countryside as part of the regime’s idealistic agrarian social programme, and its buildings deliberately bombarded as part of their cultural reset to year zero. 

During the period of abandonment, the city was inevitably much neglected and further left to decay, with only a skeleton populace of the regime’s most trusted and brutal figures left behind to oversee the torture and execution of many of the city’s former intellectuals and other ‘undesirables’ not invited to take part in the ‘new Cambodia’, part of a disastrous socio-political experiment that would ultimately claim the lives of a quarter of the country’s population. 

Subsequent to the eventual overthrow of Pol Pot’s insanity by the Vietnamese in 1979, the city began to slowly overcome its troubled legacy, remaining impoverished and largely neglected until the late 1990’s, when serious effort began to restore the city were initiated following the country’s determination to rise above its past and take part in the modern community of prosperous Asian nations.

 

The city’s central area sits adjacent to its delightful waterfront, with its promenade, western style bars, the Public Garden, Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda, named after its 5000 silver floor tiles. Nearby the National Museum of Cambodia provides a comprehensive collection of artefacts and sculptures dating from prehistory, and includes the world’s finest collection of artefacts from the Angkor era.


Fortunately for Phnom Penh, some of its religious structures were spared the wilful dynamiting that the Khmer Rouge inflicted on many other buildings of the city’s fine architectural heritage, the most visited example of which is Wat Phnom, with its resident troop of monkeys. 

Wat Ounalom, Phnom Penh, Cambodia 

Other notable sights in the city include the magnificent Wat Ounalom, dating to1443, the Independence Monument and the Cambodian-Vietnamese Friendship Monument.

Tuol Sleng Museum, formally a high school was the site of Prison S 21, was notoriously used by the Khmer Rouge to ‘process’ many thousands of individuals, including many children, deemed to be enemies of the perverse regime.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The museum, dedicated to the memory of those who passed through its gates, includes a chilling display of photographs of the victims taken and in cold efficiency catalogued by their captors, and has preserved some of the rooms intact from the period, giving a detailed and sobering account of Khmer Rouge activities and torture methods, reflecting a dark period in both Cambodian and human history.

Implements of torture, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Beyond the city the site of Cheoung Ek and its memorial garden marks the final destination of almost all S 21 inmates, and is one of many such execution pits spread throughout the country.

 

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