A different street food, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Phnom Penh – The heart of darkness

Dark tourism isn’t for everyone. But a journey to Phom Penh can never be complete without a heartrending lesson in contemporary genocides. Because behind the Angkor Wat group tours and the colonial facades of the city lures a dark past. An era of torture, persecution, and extermination, that will change your conception of Cambodia forever.

Choeung Ek killing fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

On a dusted road in the suburbs of Phnom Penh lies an old school. Inside, a beautiful courtyard were children used to play, chasing each other in the long corridors. But everything changed in 1975. The Khmer Rouge regime seized power and transformed the school into a detention center. The so called S-21 Prison soon became the national center for tortures, interrogations and executions during the regime. Of all the people who got deported to the prison, only seven survived.

Everything changed in 1975. The Khmer Rouge regime seized power and transformed the school into a detention center. Of all the people who got deported to the prison, only seven survived.

Interns had to learn specific rules to obey at all time. If not, they were punished with electric shocks from large batteries. Strapped to beds, the cables were put to the prisoners’ head, feet, and genitals. You can still see the fences set up outside the rooms, to prevent the prisoners from taking their own life by jumping in order to escape the torture. The S-21 Prison, today the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, is in parts left unchanged since the Khmer Rouge was driven out of power in 1979.

S21 Tuol Sleng prison, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
S21 Tuol Sleng prison, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
S21 Tuol Sleng prison, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
S21 Tuol Sleng prison, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
S21 Tuol Sleng prison, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

The Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot regime started to obtrude communism on the Cambodian people as part of the Marxist–Leninist movement. Deportations, executions, and starving killed about one fourth of the population in five years. Chances are the taxi driver who picks you up still bears scars from the era. Something I became first hand witness of as I stepped out of the Phnom Penh International Airport.

Chances are the taxi driver who picks you up still bears scars from the era. Something I became first hand witness of as I stepped out of the Phnom Penh International Airport.

”We used to catch snakes and eat for dinner”, the driver said as he glanced at me in the rear-view mirror. ”Having no food, I was so hungry I would eat anything. But if you complained about the situation, you were taken away”. Needles to say, the Pol Pot regime has marked the people of Cambodia for generations. Something that was very easy to understand after my next stop.

Boy selling snacks, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Monk walking in the rain, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Half an hour drive from the S-21 Prison, at a remote location in the village of Choeung Ek, is a large field. Every morning, a truck filled with prisoners from the prison arrived, in order to get executed. Most of them were beaten to death, since it was deemed too expensive to use bullets. The bodies were then burned or buried in mass graves on the fields.

Today, the Choeung Ek Killing Field is a memorial site for the people who died during the time, and a heartrending memory one of the worst genocide in Asian history. In the center of the fields is a ten meter high monument filled to the top with sculls from bodies found in the mass graves. Most of them never got identified.

Choeung Ek killing fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Choeung Ek killing fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Choeung Ek killing fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Choeung Ek killing fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

I had to clear my mind. Shake off the day’s impressions. It was too much to take in, too much to process. I walked along the waterfront, or La Corniche, as the French colonists would have said. The Mekong River, with it’s brown and muddy water, quietly flowed through the city. A monsoon rainfall passed by, making the streets wet and shiny.

The street vendors in Phnom Penh don’t sell you wristbands, t-shirts and Rolex replicas. They sell you a culinary experience beyond your wildest expectation.

The street vendors in Phnom Penh don’t sell you wristbands, t-shirts and Rolex replicas. They sell you a culinary experience beyond your wildest expectation. Worms, frogs, and cockroaches. Small ant eggs and black spiders with long legs of fur. Crispy bugs that crack when you chew on them. Either as a complete meal or just a after dinner snack. So, how is it? Well, it looks worse than it is. It tastes like salted chips. Especially the little fried frogs.

A different street food, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Street food, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Street food, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Street food, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Street food, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

The retreat for the night was not far away. Reminiscent of Rex Bar in Ho Chi Minh City and Raffles Hotel in Singapore, the Foreign Correspondence Club, or the FCC to use the local acronym, is a Phnom Penh classic. It’s one of those places journalists got together, had a couple of drinks, and telefaxed the latest news story to the editor in London, New York, and Paris. Sixty years later, it’s still the best place in town.

Reminiscent of Rex Bar in Ho Chi Minh City and Raffles Hotel in Singapore, the Foreign Correspondence Club, or the FCC to use the local acronym, is a Phnom Penh classic.

I sat down on the terrace overlooking the Mekong River and called for an Angkor beer. It was hot and humid. Small drops of water embellish the ice cold bottle. Not far away, in the dense jungle of Cambodia, Francis Ford Coppola transformed Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness into the fictional movie Acocalypse Now. Picturing the Vietnam War, the horror in the film was soon to be repeated in real life by the Pol Pot regime. I just waited for Marlon Brando to enter, sit down and have a couple of drinks. After all, you never know what will happen next Phnom Penh.

Foreign Correspondents Club, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Foreign Correspondents Club, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Foreign Correspondents Club, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

All images © 2020 Erik Ekberger.

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