I didn’t know what to expect from Phnom Phen, or Cambodia in general for that matter. I’ve admittedly had a minimal education of the area, aside from brief history class lessons, lodged deeply in the recesses of my mind and the occasional film such as The Killing Fields. I knew about The Khmer Rouge and thus imagined Cambodia in a perpetual state of recovery. In my mind I pictured the countryside, lush green and flat, with sporadic palm trees and wooden ramshackle houses showing their age. The city, I viewed as dusty and tired, monotone grey buildings filling the streets. I knew my preconceived images to be faulty, by I hadn’t expected how modern, colorful, and teeming with life Phnom Phen would be. Though a bit more dirty and malodorous than previous cities it none the less boasts a quite modern feel.
Down the grand boulevard in front of the palace and silver pagoda lies the river where many tourists go for mediocre meals and locals cross for better. We found an exceptionally cute cafe (The Shop) a few blocks up serving chocolate croissants, kompot pepper crusted dark chocolate, lychee mint coolers and just about everything a homesick expat could need.
With only a day and a half we spent most of our time wandering the city on foot, exploring the city from the post office the only building not to be bombed, to the Russian market where sellers crammed in claustrophobic isles hocking almost anything you could think of. We also visited the S-21 genocide museum, a former high school the Khmer Rouge transformed into a prison and torture facility. Tens o thousands died here, and although we knew of the atrocities it is quite another, very harrowing, experience to see evidence first hand. It was of course, upsetting. Mostly, it was confusing as neither of us could even begin to grasp how another person could cause others, including children, so much pain.
It is these experiences that further my belief that there is no better education that the road. Much of what I learned throughout my adolescence (aside from mathematics and the hard sciences) slipped through my mind without ever really latching on. Much of what I know of world history (an especially geography!) I know because of travel. It is much more difficult to forget what you learn about the past when you’re standing on the ground on which it occurred, or when you meet the descendants of those involved, or see the places they saw. It has increasingly made me feel more connected to the world outside the US bubble, and unlike when I was young I absolutely can’t wait for what I’ll learn, or perhaps relearn next.
Phnom Phen was an excellent introduction to the country, and an opportunity for me to visit my first US Embassy abroad to get more passport pages. Now onto one I the most anticipated parts of our trip. Siem Reap and Angkor Wat!