Beat of the Khmer heart

From ancient temples to modern memorials, John Witzig follows the nation's survival through its capital, Phnom Penh.

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh in their black pyjama-style uniforms like a gathering storm; an unstoppable force. Under the leadership of Pol Pot, they set out to "restart" the country at Year Zero. Phnom Penh was emptied of its people. Money was abolished, schools were closed and the educated persecuted.

During the four years of their rule, nearly one-third of the population would die. It was genocide at an extraordinary level.

I don't ask his name. He offers me a lift when I end up at the wrong place while looking for a cafe that has an exhibition of photography. He is distributing flyers for his new fitness business.

His telling of his family history is spare and unemotional. His father, a high official in the government overrun by the Khmer Rouge, was killed. His mother and sister starved to death. He was taken to Australia as a young refugee. Four years ago he came back to run fitness centres in two of the major hotels in Phnom Penh.

Now he has his own place, catering to the expatriates working in non-government organisations in the city. He drops me off and I wish him luck.

The recent history of this country is the backdrop to everything a traveller can experience in Phnom Penh.

National Museum of Cambodia

The museum is built in traditional Khmer style, with four thin sides that enclose a splendid large courtyard. It holds the treasures of the high point of Khmer civilisation.

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Between the 9th and the 13th centuries, one of the triumphs of Asian antiquity was constructed in a large area around Angkor, in the north of the country.

That it survived in remarkable order is fortunate and a tribute to the quality of the building work. Angkor Wat was its final exclamation mark on a grand scale but the surrounding constructions that preceded Angkor are equally impressive. The temples at Angkor were looted over centuries. What remained, and what has been discovered since, is housed in the National Museum, just two blocks from the Tonle Sap River and the heart of Phnom Penh tourism.

Inside the building is a breathtaking collection of sculptures. The Greeks were wonderful sculptors and so were the ancient Khmers.

Maybe it's that the images are often those of people (or gods with human form) that makes these figures so compelling.

National Museum of Cambodia, Street 13, Sangkat Chey Chumneas, Khan Daun Penh, 8am-5pm daily, ($3.30), cambodiamuseum.info.

Foreign Correspondents' Club

Better known as the FCC, it sounds like it should have been around since the days of the war in Vietnam. In fact it's a relatively recent arrival but manages the masquerade well. During my visit there's an exhibition of war photographs from Vietnam in the 1960s.

In a lovely old building on the river, the FCC has a coffee shop on the ground floor and restaurants and bars on the second and third floors. On the first floor, and in an annexe just down the street, are a few rooms.

They're relatively luxurious and relatively expensive - $US60-$US120 a night ($65-$130). They're stylish and smart but can be noisy when there's live music. The food is good and the location is great. It's at the heart of tourist-central in Phnom Penh. The clientele is overwhelmingly Western, except, interestingly, for the restaurant.

I stay in two hotels in Phnom Penh: one by recommendation - the FCC - the other through an online search. My find is the Frangipani Villa 90s, described by one guest as an "oasis". A magnetic word and, in this case, fitting.

FCC Phnom Penh, fcccambodia.com/phnom_penh. Frangipani Villa 90s, #25, Street 71, S. Boeung Keng Kang I, K. Chamkarmon, rooms from $US40, see frangipanihotel.com.

Central Market

There are two markets in Phnom Penh: the Russian and the Central.

The former was the "foreigners"' market - the Russians were the foreigners when it was built, hence its name. It's crowded and congested and has all of the stuff that visitors to any market in Asia would recognise.

The Central Market is undergoing a facelift and only about half is open when I wander through. It's a wonderful art-deco building that is being renovated colourfully. It's spacious by comparison with the Russian Market and sells much of the same goods. These include what are termed "overruns" from Chinese and local clothing factories. This might be the case, or they could simply be fakes. Some have recognisable labels and many are well made. I had reluctantly paid $US3 for a shirt to be laundered at the FCC that morning. At the Central Market I bought two shirts for $US3 each and a pair of shorts for $US4.

Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek

In many ways, these two sites are the reasons I have come to Phnom Penh - to actually see where such depravity had taken place.

A former high school, Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, was the jail where perhaps 17,000 people were tortured and "confessed" between 1975 and 1979. They were taken to Choeung Ek to be killed and buried.

In Tuol Sleng this was carefully documented - each prisoner was photographed. Seven are known to have survived. The rooms where the last to be killed were found have been kept as they were in 1979. On the wall of each is a photograph of a body strapped to a metal bed or, in one case, next to the bed. Other rooms had multiple tiny cells built within them. Everywhere there are photographs to remind you of whathappened here.

Choeung Ek, 15 kilometres south of Phnom Penh, is surrounded by rice fields and at first glance seems unremarkable. There is a tower that houses the thousands of skulls recovered from mass graves but it's the very ordinariness of this place that is devastating.

At Tuol Sleng I was surprised that I'd absorbed the facts and figures, the evidence of atrocity, without an immediate emotional response. At Choeung Ek I'm speechless. When I try to thank my guide, I can't talk.

Some days later I'm talking to a young woman at the reception desk of the FCC. She feels there had to have been an external influence over the Khmer Rouge. "Khmers couldn't do that to our own people," she tells me.

A couple of days later I'm sitting in a cafe on the street beside the river when a furious storm hits. The tuk-tuk drivers wind down their plastic blinds, don their colourful raincoats and sit it out. A woman begging on the corner with a small child and a baby moves into the cafe. So do the children who sell postcards and photocopied books. In this storm, everyone is sheltered. There's a lot of laughter. The rain is torrential for several minutes and then it's gone.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Street 113, Boeng Keng Kang 3, open daily 8-11am and 2.30-5pm, tuolsleng.com. Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, Dangkor District, open 8am-5pm daily, adults $US5, cekillingfield.com.

Singapore Airlines flies to Phnom Penh via Singapore (8hr and 2hr) for about $1133. (Fare is low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax.) Malaysia Airlines and Thai Airways fly via their hub cities. There are also many fares and flight combinations on Tiger Airways and AirAsia. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days.

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