Thursday, May 9, 2013

Cambodia: Phnom Penh

Warning: This post contains photos from S21, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, where prisoners were tortured by the Khmer Rouge.  It's disturbing material.  If you'd rather not see them, don't click through at the jump break.

"Tuk-tuk?  Killing fields?  Genocide museum?"

So called the tuk-tuk drivers, advertising the most popular tourist "highlights" of Phnom Penh.

With attractions like that, Phnom Penh sounds like a rather grim destination.  B. would agree, I think (exacerbated by the fact that he spent most of our time there in bed feeling miserable).  And yet, I found Cambodia's capital to be charming and exciting.

Phnom Penh sits at the confluence of the Tonle Sap, Mekong, and Bassac rivers.  It was once considered to be the "Pearl of Asia", one of the loveliest French-built cities in Indochina.  In the 1970s, however, the Khmer Rouge shelled and then forcibly evacuated the city; during their genocidal reign from 1975-1979, approximately 1.7 million people -- 21% of the country's population -- died.

Since the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Phnom Penh -- and, indeed, Cambodia as a whole -- has been rebuilding.  It is, in many ways, a very young city and a very young country.  I loved the city for its rawness and its potential.  For the palpable feeling that, if we return in 5 or 10 or 20 years, the city will have grown and exploded and regained more of its former glory.  I look forward to that day.

On a decidedly less sentimental note... by the time we'd reached Phnom Penh, B. was several countries overdue for a haircut.  We found a bright orange, super inexpensive hair salon with a bit of English on the door and figured they couldn't mess up his hair too badly.  The ordeal involved several electric razors that couldn't cope with B.'s quantity of hair, a broken electrical outlet, and ultimately resulted in a haircut was a bit short on the sides, a bit long on top, the front was gelled to a point... and the hairdresser refused to change anything, despite our laughing insistence.  That's what a $3-4 Cambodian haircut gets you.  (Note: this wouldn't be the last time an Asian hairdresser had her way with B.'s hair and then refused to change anything.)

Click "read more" below to see photos from S21, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

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