As with Ho Chi Minh, our time in Phnom Penh was going to heavy. The main tourist attractions here, if they can even be called that, are The Killing Fields and the Prison Museum. Both of these sites were once part of a horrific system, implemented in the 1970s by Pol Pot and his party (the Khmer Rouge), which sought, out of some mad Marxist delusion, to cleanse the country through mass national genocide.
It was a system which draws obvious parallels with that imposed by the Nazis in Gernany, though it is not discussed in schools at all . This is wrong if not surprising because people should be taught that in a mere three or so years, one quarter of the Cambodian population was wiped out by the Khmer Rouge in the most clinical yet barbaric of way. Streams of innocent people were taken through the prison and sent to the Killing Fields where they were routinely killed by axes, maces and hammers because guns were deemed too expensive. Babies were even smacked against trees until dead.
And the country, or at least Phnom Penh, is clearly still suffering. It's not an attractive place. On our way to the Killing Fields we were exposed to a level of poverty we had not seen since the slums in Mumbai. Garbage was everywhere and the stench of sewage was potent. Houses, or rather shacks, barely had four walls. Even within the city, whilst there were some nice buildings and monuments, they were interspersed with run down buildings and scaffolding. The city was literally being rebuilt. In casual conversations Cambodians were even telling me how it had changed the people, making them unfriendly, harder maybe. That wasn't our experience but it is easy to imagine that such a recent horror would impact upon the collective psyche of the country.
In terms of tourist attractions, I felt that whilst the prison museum was interesting (if horrifying), the Killing Fields was underwhelming. There just wasn't anything to see. The audio guide stated that bones would be sticking out of the ground but there was nothing. Even the infamous killing tree failed to have much of an impact. It might be a bit perverse to actually want to see and be horrified by such things, but it felt like this was in fact the effect the government wanted the Fields to have. Instead, the area actually looked very pleasant with the flowers in full bloom and the sun shining. As with Auschwitz, it was important to visit in order to acknowledge the tragic historical moment, but that's about all you could take from it.
After visiting these two important sites, common consensus amongst travellers is that you're done in Phnom Penh. And it's fair to say there isn't all that much to do there. However, we still ended up staying four nights. This was mainly because we caught wind of a wildlife sanctuary nearby which, with Alice being such an animal lover, was a must see.
The sanctuary was a lot of fun. We were shown a whole host of different animals by our guide, a lovely Cambodian lady, most of whom were roaming free around us. This was one of the main reasons we chose to visit. Unlike zoos, and some other so called sanctuaries, here, animals had been rescued from one danger or another and were being protected by the government funded sanctuary. So they were given a lot of space and a lot of care. The reason they were not released back into the wild was because they were either injured or no longer had the capacity to survive in the wild.
The monkeys were a notable part of the experience. As we walked through the first circuit in the sanctuary, they ran, climbed and jumped around us, seemingly engaging in some act of mischief or another. Continuing on with our tour we reached a gibbon, who our guide informed us would extend her hand if she liked us and wanted us to hold it. She did and we were not hesitant in taking it. After some time a second gibbon jumped up and the guide quickly pulled me away. Her husband, she said. And then, in the most casual of tones, she continued: 'if he gets to you he will, um...what's that word? Uh, oh yeah. He will kill you.' Ahh, nature.
Unfortunately, the monkeys also provided the clear lowlight of our visit. As we approached one rather aggressive monkey, caged because of his erratic nature, he came right up to the fence and, looking directly into my eyes, began to pleasure himself. The guide had said she didn't like him and I had to agree. I felt so used.
The best part of the trip was the elephants. I don't remember having seen one in the flesh before so it was exciting to b eclose enough to observe what is a universally beloved animal. Admittedly I was slightly disappointed that I couldn't touch them but feeding the baby elephant some bamboo was still cool.
Overall, the trip to Phnom Penh was pretty memorable, even if it was for wildly varying reasons. Our stay in Siem Reap, home to world renown temples, promised to be the same.