A Postcard from Phnom Penh

It had to be the AK-47.   Sure, the M16 looked kinda slick, and who hasn’t thought about firing off an old fashioned Tommy gun?   But the AK-47 is the weapon of the revolutionary, the tool of liberation, bloodshed, freedom, and all the misery that comes with it.     Plus, it only cost 100AED to fire off a magazine, whereas a rocket launcher would have set me back 800AED!    I put on the camouflage jacket and followed a young guy into a dark, narrow room.   A target was stapled about 30 feet away.    I put on my tight orange ear guards, took a seat at a table, too busy feeling the cold weapon in my hands to listen to the advice on how to shoot the damn thing.  Loaded, cocked, point, aim and fire.   The shooting range, located outside Phnom Penh, had a menu with pump action shot guns, hand grenades, RPG’s, Coca-Cola and Fanta (sorry, no pictures allowed).    Ten minutes away was the site of one of the worst massacres in modern history.   Cambodia, it appears, is heavy on the contrasts.

Torn between the forces of communist Vietnam and US-backed Thailand, Cambodia’s modern history is literally a minefield.      At the heart of one the worst genocides in history lay Pol Pot, a ruthless dictator who built an army of brainwashed kids committed to returning the country to the Stone Age.   Genocide, famine, civil war – Cambodia in the 1970’s became synonymous with everything wrong with humanity.   Scarred by the past, it has come a long way.

Riding on the back of a “moto taxi”, I saw children playing on the dusty streets of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Smiling and waving, the motorbike zipped past shacks located next to brand new furniture stores, alongside street vendors selling fruit and vegetables late into the night.   My guesthouse was located along the Beong Kak Lake, its deck built onto the lake itself, complete with hammocks, pool table, DVD library, music, and fresh cooked, excellent food.   I paid less than $10 a night, but the sunsets over the lake were priceless.

There are not many must-dos for the traveller in Phnom Penh.   Its main temple, with its famous Silver Pagoda, is beautiful, but most visitors come through Bangkok, and having seen the Thai capital’s magnificent Grand Palace, the Silver Pagoda feels like a lesser, if still stunning imitation. Guesthouses and tour operators sell packages consisting of one full day with a guide and a tuk-tuk that includes a popular if somewhat distasteful shooting range, the Silver Pagoda, the National Museum, and two of the most disturbing attractions for a traveller anywhere; the Killing Fields, and the Genocide Museum at Tuol Sleng.

Ruling for four, bloody years, the Khmer Rouge outlawed money and religion, closed schools, disrobed monks, destroyed temples, took over all farms and businesses, and created an army of brainwashed children.  Phnom Penh was forcibly evacuated and became a ghost town, while refugees flooded to the borders.  Intellectuals, politicians, teachers, students, doctors and professionals were rounded up and butchered.   Reliving the horrors of Pol Pot and the Killing Fields is not easy. Most of my group was reduced to tears, staring at row after row of skulls, innocent victims who had been bludgeoned to death with bamboo sticks to save bullets.   Whereas the Nazis had managed to destroy much of their evidence before the allies liberated the camps, the Khmer Rouge were caught off-guard by a liberating Vietnamese army.   The thousands of mugshots of young, innocent victims are on display at Tuol Sleng, a high school that was converted into a hell for 20,000 people. Only seven people walked out alive.

It estimated that two million people lost their lives in the four years of Pol Pot. After the horrors of the World War II, the world promised it would never happen again, and yet it did.   I was staring at a cabinet piled with 8000 bludgeoned skulls to prove it.    That it took place just three decades ago meant anyone over forty in Cambodia today was either a victim, or a perpetrator, and so it was surprising to find how friendly Cambodians were.   Locals are warm and generous to a steadily increasing flow of tourists, and despite legendary corruption, there is much hope for Cambodia’s future.   Phnom Penh might be considered by many to be a poorer version of Bangkok, but the legacy of its tragic history, coupled with its beauty and bizarre activities, will fascinate those looking to learn from the world in which they travel.