Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, is unfortunately often skipped by backpackers that focus on Angkor and southern beaches only. As much as Angkor symbolises Cambodia’s ancient and glorious past, Phnom Penh bears the marks and monuments of the country’s recent, dark history.
Additionally, Phnom Penh is now a bustling, fast-growing city that has a lot to offer, especially when it comes to food!
We had only limited time in Phnom Penh before flying to southern Thailand – less than two days in total, so we had to be efficient. We thus found a driver that would take us to must-see places for those interested in Cambodia’s recent history, more precisely to the Genocide Museum and the so-called killing fields.
The genocide museum is actually hosted on the grounds of the infamous Tuol Sleng Prison, aka S-21, a highschool turned into the most famous incarceration and interrogation/torture center of the Khmer Rouge‘s regime. During the two-hour visit, we learned about the atrocities committed by Pol Pot‘s regime between 1975 and 1979, including some gruesome details about the torturing techniques used in S-21. To give you an idea, about a fourth of the population died in less than four years. Assisted by an audio guide, we walked through cells and torture rooms that have remained almost untouched since the Khmer Rouge fled the city in 1979 (when defeated by the Vietnamese army). We listened to uncensored horrifying stories of some survivors as we walked by torture tools displayed on the walls and countless pictures of prisoners that were interrogated, tortured and executed, sometimes just for the crime of wearing glasses or being able to read.
After this emotionally intense visit, we pushed it further and drove to the Killing fields, located about 15 km away from the city center. This is where prisoners were brought after admitting whatever their torturers had forced them to say. They were blindfolded
and executed one by one before being thrown into freshly dug holes, sometimes with hundreds of other bodies. We walked around the fields, between what have been and still are mass graves… Yes, thousands of bodies are still buried there. Only some of the graves were exhumed and the victim’s bones exposed in a shrine built in the middle of the fields. The rest remains untouched because there would not be enough space to store their bones but also to leave them in peace. However, this also means that you can see bones, blindfolds, or pieces of old clothes everywhere that were brought to the surface by erosion and rain. Every 2 to 3 months, the bones and other remnants are picked up and put into boxes.
For obvious reasons, we did not take pictures of some elements at the Genocide Museum, and even less in the Killing fields. It took some time to digest all of what we saw that day…
Talking about digestion, though (sorry for the complete topic change): Phnom Penh offers some quite interesting culinary experiments. We went to one restaurant that offers job opportunities to marginalized youth and tried one of their special dishes: Ants stew. It came with some tender slices of beef and lemongrass which made you almost forget what you are eating, but this was obviously a rather easy way to eat insects. We weren’t really able to isolate the taste, although some ants can apparently even taste quite lemongrassy!
Our second evening, we met with a local friend that explained us a lot about Cambodia’s recent history and its relation to its past. She also recommended us a restaurant offering higher-end local cuisine. After seeing them on menus a few times, we were really curious to try the Cambodian version of frog legs. Not that strange actually – it’s like a mix of fish and chicken. It came with a tangy tamarind sauce and was delicious! Some other dishes below.