SE Asia Trip Dispatch: Part Five (Phnom Penh)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

After leaving Siem Reap I decided to break up the impending grueling 12-hour bus ride and head to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, about 6 hours to the southeast. It’s probably safe to say most people don’t know much if anything about the city, and the first thing they wonder is how to pronounce it (for the record: drop the first “ph” in Phnom and the “h” in Penh and you’ve got it).

Far from the recent, turbulent history of the city, Phnom Penh is now a bustling capital, much like Saigon, with construction going on all over the city, and a burgeoning middle and upper class emerging. Brimming with NGO workers, rural migrants, and, yes, Cambodian yuppies, Phnom Penh is a surprisingly lively, vibrant city.

The city’s most famous landmark is the Royal Palace, located near the Mekong River near the center of the city. Built in 1866, the complex is home to the King of Cambodia, and despite its relative newness (at least compared to Angkor), the grounds are amazingly beautiful and well maintained.

Phnom Penh will probably forever be linked to the violent Pol Pot regime, from 1976 to 1979, when an estimated 2.5 million Cambodians died under his rule. Beside the killing fields — where many Cambodians were killed and buried in mass graves — the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is perhaps the most notorious symbol of the violence. Once a high school, the five buildings were converted into a prison and interrogation center.

Today, the prison has been preserved and turned into a museum. The cramped holding cells and dark classrooms where the torture took place are a stark reminder of the violence and inhumanity that was commonplace during this time period.

To lighten things up a bit, I headed to the Russian Market, a sprawling market in the city that is home to, what at least some have billed, as the best iced coffee in Phonm Penh (it must be true: check out his Facebook page). The iced coffee in Cambodia is famed, and the ones made by Mr. Bunnarith, are probably the best of the bunch. Consisting of an extra shot of espresso, ice brimming to the top, and a generous portion of sweetened milk at your disposal, Starbucks has nothing on this guy.

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