After a 23-hour flight (including layover in Hongkong and Singapore), I landed in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, but did not get into our hotel until 2 hours later because of the heavy traffic. I passed out as soon as I hit the bed.
Having skipped dinner, I woke up hungry, so I went to the hotel restaurant as it opened for breakfast. The hotel had a rooftop restaurant with an amazing view of the river. While eating breakfast, I was entertained by the most amazing crimson-colored sunrise that appeared and disappeared behind the clouds before becoming yellow and reflected on the river below. Perhaps, the absence of high rise gave the sunrise a more dramatic vibe.
|Sunrise reflections on the river below and pool water above|
The first thing on our itinerary was to visit the grand palace, but it was closed for Buddha's Day. So the schedule got changed to visit another main tourist attraction (if you can call it an attraction), the S-21 prison where the horrific Khmer Rouge rounded up and tortured the intellectuals (doctors, lawyers, teachers and pretty much everyone with education) and nationals they suspected to be traitors, forcing them to confess to crimes they never committed, then transferred to the killing fields for execution. S-21 was a former high school campus that looked more like a college campus from the outside. Inside, a few rooms that were turned into torture chambers just had beds and shackles in the center. The middle building had some graphic, black and white photos of dead inmates and foreign journalists. There were rooms showing all the mug shot of the prisoners, the Khmer Rouge documented everyone. There were rooms with blocks of tiny wooden holding cells, just big enough for somebody to lie down. I got emotional seeing the rooms that housed the most horrific acts. I met and had photos taken with two survivors who had written a book about their ordeal.
Our guide brought his personal story into the fold. Like all families, they were evacuated from the city and sent to work in the agricultural work camps where they became slaves to the government. The Pol Pot’s government believed that Cambodia should become a self-sufficient agricultural collective and the grand plan was executed in the most horrific ways. Food was rationed to near starvation level. The sad reality hit me when I realized that our guide looked no more than 50 years old. These horrific events were only forty years ago, and Cambodians over 40 must have lived in this dark history. It was not a ‘feel good tour’. Sobering and painful as it was, S-21 was dedicated to peace and warning visitors of the reality of evil and how it can take over people and government. It was an eye-opener and a good reminder to read history books and ask why did 'they' let holocaust and other genocides happen. It couldn't be more timely, especially since we have a US president who believes in bringing back torture, racial profiling, and suppression of the press. US citizens need to wake up, and see places like Cambodia first hand as a warning of what government so called ‘acting for the good of the people’ can do. We must stand up and tell our president that we don’t want to be the next Cambodia. We need to hold on to the rights that the founding fathers gave us and not let fear-mongering force us to sacrifice these rights.
At noon the Royal Palace reopened, so we had the chance of seeing some beautiful architecture and artworks. In total contrast of the attraction we visited earlier, the Royal Palace evoked peace and serenity. The complex was divided into four main compounds. We visited the four main
buildings in each of the compounds: a glimpse of Khemarin Palace, visited the Throne Hall and the Inner Court and the Silver Pagoda or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha which was the main attraction. Some of the buildings were rebuilt as late as the 1960's and some dates back to the 19th century. I was busy taking pictures, I heard very little about the palace history, but heard some tabloid talk about its resident (the king). The king is apparently single, but once had a French girlfriend. Now he lives with his mother, and lives like a Buddhist monk. So I don't have much to write about the Royal Palace except to share some pictures. Photography was not allowed inside the temples.
1. Preah Tineang Tevea Vinichay or the Throne Hall
The Throne Hall is the primary audience hall of the king, used for coronations and diplomatic gatherings. The original building was demolished and rebuilt in 1917. Pictures were not allowed inside, but one of the most interesting aspects of the structure was the 59-meter spire and its intricate design.
2. Phochani Pavilion
Built in 1912, Phocani Pavilion is an open hall originally constructed as a classical dance theater. The Pavilion is currently used for Royal receptions and meetings.
3. Preah Tineang Chanchaya or the Moonlight Dance Hall
One of the many temples on the north side of the complex. It seems to be the only temple inside the complex flocked by a flock of birds.
4. Beautiful frescoes adorn the inner walls within the Silver Pagoda complex
Ramayana Frescoes. The frescoes are scenes from the Reamker, which is the Khmer version of the Indian Sankrit’s Ramayana epic.
5. The Silver Pagoda or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha
I wanted to get a close-up of the door and windows that reflect the central spire of the temple. The Silver Pagoda is so named because its floor is covered with more than 5,000 solid silver handcrafted tiles. But it was covered with carpet, so I didn't get to see the silver tiles. However, I got to admire the 'Emerald Buddha' in the middle and the large collection of bejeweled Buddha statues and relics .
6. King Norodom Stupa
A few stupas that hold the ashes of former kings and queens and members of the Royal family can be found within the complex. King Norodom Stupa is one of the few stupas with very detailed and intricate designs within the grounds of the Silver Pagoda.
7. Buddha Tree or 'Shorea Robusta Roxb’
One more interesting feature before leaving the complex: A towering tree with beautiful and rich color pink flowers. It's said that this tree blooms in perpetuity that's why it's a symbol of fertility.
NOTE: All photos by the author