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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Phnom Penh - from Killing Fields to a Humane City



Phnom Penh-a great Cambodian City

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Time began with the Big Bang about 13.77 billion years ago. Our universe originated and began expanding from Day One which included formation of our planet Earth. But not so long ago, on 17th April 1975, a Cambodian school teacher Pol Pot (who had been to Paris on scholarship to study Radio Electronics and returned to Cambodia to take up a teaching assignment) declared Year Zero in Cambodia. That was in line with the concept of Year One declared during the French Revolution. The idea was to discard and destroy all culture and traditions within the society and bring in revolutionary culture. President Lon Nol fled Cambodia on 1st April 1975 following a bloody civil war that lasted for five years. And on 17th April 1975 a swarm of locusts in the guise of Khmer Rouge descended on Phnom Penh to devour teachers, artists and intelligentsia of the Cambodian capital. Pol Pot’s intention was to eliminate threats to his idea of agrarian society. That was the beginning of a carnage that even seemed to surpass the holocaust under Hitler in many ways. Pol Pot's army flushed out their own people, i.e. Cambodians. Forcibly sent those to toil and perish on remote agricultural fields due to vagaries of exposures to unfriendly and totally alien atmosphere, and those who showed or hinted even slightest resistance were packed off to detention and torture camp in the city (S-21 Prison – a High school taken over by Khmer Rouge).Brother Duch, also referred as Butcher Duch, was the head of this prison camp. The prisoners went through inhuman torture on instructions of this former school teacher before being taken for execution at an old Chinese graveyard about 15 km away from Phnom Penh. The executions were painful as axes, iron rods, shovels etc. were used in place of bullets which were found expensive. After execution the bodies were dumped in hastily dug shallow graves. As I walked down the Killing Field (which is now Cheung Ek Museum) near Phnom Penh with audio guide I was stupefied as to how such inhuman event could have taken place and that too for almost over four long years . So sombre is the tale of Cambodia in the seventies that it befuddles a normal human being to wonder as to how distorted and warped were the minds of the perpetrators and how they survive today with such memories as most of them went scot free. Strangest of all is that in the seventies, when we were students, we never even got an inkling of such a massive genocide. Whereas we joined the world in condemning the gruesome acts of Hitler and his army during World War II. So hush-hush were the acts that it was only in 1979 that two Vietnamese photojournalists first discovered S-21 prison camp  and since then till 2009 around 300 such Killing Fields and 23745 mass graves have been discovered in Cambodia. As on date a sordid statistics tell us that out of eight million Cambodians, Pol Pot wiped out three million from the face of our planet. Still he lived a full family life with his grandchildren in a village near Thailand border till his death in 1998.


 Phnom Penh today is a totally different metropolis. Kudos to the generation born after 1980. They have made the city benign and at the same time smart and lively. It’s a sheer coincidence that we stepped into Phnom Penh on the first day of three day long water and moon festival. Initially in our hotel rooms at Tea House Urban Resort we mistook the boom after sunset for thunderstorm. But when we were told about the festival we wasted no time and headed for the Mekong River. Illuminated Royal Palace, Illuminated boats floating slowly on the Tonle Sap river, fireworks producing huge multicoloured fire balls and exploding with thunderous sound just by the side of the full moon over the river were spectacles that heralded the start of three days water moon celebration. This festival signifies victory of the naval force during the reign of Jayavarman VII in 13th century, unique phenomenon of reversal of current in Tonle Sap river (the river starts flowing towards Mekong),beginning of fishing season and coincidence of full moon of the Buddhist calendar month of Kadeuk. With each boom of thunder ball the huge crowd would turn into an ecstatic rapture, cheering and clapping. A sense of euphoria prevails, which is commendable in a nation deeply disturbed and upset over the carnage that took place hardly forty years back. In the day Boat races take place on the Tonle Sap and Mekong where thousands of skilled oarsmen from all over Cambodia participate. As foreigners we were given a place in the tent next to their Royal tent for watching the events.. We were also served Cambodian Beers free – a part of their hospitality. The boat race was spectacular and colourful. We enjoyed every bit of it. We also saw the Royal Palace. The legendary King Norodom Sihanouk once lived in this palace. Now most of it is museum. Shunning all that happened in the past, Phnom Penh is a remarkable city. A clean city, wide roads, disciplined traffic, friendly Tuktuk drivers, nice Khmer and Vietnamese eateries and very hospitable locals- polite and always ready to help.



Water moon festival takes place in November and regarded as the biggest festival in Cambodia. Decorated and Illuminated Boats parade slowly on the Tonle Sap River at Phnom Penh. As this is an age old festival the boat is decorated with images of Angkor Wat and the nagas,


View of another illuminated boat


The Royal Palace on the shores of Tonle Sap and Mekong decorated and illuminated on festival nights.


Crowds throng the sprawling area outside the Royal Palace to watch the fireworks. The full moon can be seen behind the fire balls.


The cute mannequins of Cambodian ladies welcome you to the Royal Palace.


The Royal Palace of Cambodia


Another view of the Royal Palace


The main thoroughfare outside the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh


Colourful Boat Races take place on the river Tonle Sap and Mekong during the three day long Water Moon Festival. Skilled oarsmen come from all over Cambodia and is held on a grand scale in Phnom Penh



A view of the Boat Race


Pavilion for foreign tourists. 


Silk Island on Mekong River


Watching the process of silk weaving



Evening Cruise on Mekong

Phnom Penh from Mekong



Photographs of Choeung Ek Killing Field near Phnom Penh

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. This monument marked by Buddhist stupa encase around 5000 human skulls exhumed from the mass graves of the Killing field and can be viewed through clear acrylic windows constructed on all the sides of the memorial.

Killing Tree 

A view of the Killing Field . Pits are still littered with human bones and signs are put all over cautioning against stepping over the bones

This is the spot where trucks used to offload the hapless victims.


Working office of the Executioners


The Killing Tools. These tools were used as bullets were costly

Pol Pot
Photographs of a celebrated singer and actress of Cambodia who perished during Pol Pot's regime




Nice highway which connects Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, and passes through lovely countryside,traditional Khmer houses and rice paddies.

Giant ibis buses are very comfortable. Although there are no on board toilets, these buses stop at places enroute where proper wash rooms are available.It stops for lunch or refreshment at Banyan Tree restaurant on NH 6 near Kampong Thom


Photographer : Arundhati Sengupta


Getting to Phnom Penh: We travelled by giant Ibis Bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. This is a comfortable and exciting mode of travel between the two places which are about 300 km apart. Bus journey takes around 5 hours. Tickets are available online.


Where to stay: There are several good hotels at Phnom Penh. We stayed at TeaHouse Urban Resort.It is close to the Royal Palace and also very centrally located. From the Ibis Bus stop we had taken a Tuktuk to come to this hotel.This hotel has excellent massage parlour,swimming pool, WiFi etc. Breakfast was complimentary. We booked this through Booking.com. There is a TukTuk stand right outside the hotel. TukTuk service is also available for S-21 Prison and the Killing Field which is around 15 km from the city. It takes around 35 to 40 minutes from the hotel to the Killing Field. It takes around half a day at the Killing Field.



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13 comments:

Kamilla Tyminska said...

Very nice photos. Always wanted to visit Cambodia but it is too far from my country. And I am afraid of insects :-)

Bratati Hore said...

Holocaust study in South Asia..brilliantly written by Biswajit Sengupta....

Ruma Bhattacharya said...

Nice information. Thanks for sharing

Sandip Chakraborty said...

Mam sotti .. Darun lekha ta .... onek kichu janer o nijer moto kore dekher bisoy ache ....

Satadipa Barick said...

Holocaust ar ak ta example pelam...Hitler ar conectration camp gulor motoi...onek ojana cultural events somporke janlam..khub valo lekha..

Bratati Hore said...

Civilization itself seemed to have been murdered during that regime . It needed a word found in the medieval history, a FURY....

Tapash Chandra Sen said...

Holocaust : Pal Pot Rule in Cambodia!
.......BRUTAL FIERCEFUL HORRENDOUS STUPENDOUS GROTESQUE GRUESOME ANNIHILATION of Innocent Humanities!......Simply CRUEL BUTCHERY of Millions of Precious Human Lives!..... Nothing more than GENOCIDE!....Contemptuous and Disdainful and Ignominable acts,committed by so-called Civilized Regime,yet not CIVIL for no Barbarians are Civil despite having been belonged to a 'Civilization'!

Nandita Chowdhury said...

Na Jana tathya janlam, ridhya holam, thanks Mam.khamotar hunkar ki ajo ses hoyeche? mone hoy ar rup ba dharon palteche matra,----tabe manus i ses katha bole...........

Suparna Ghosh said...

Sotyi ojana chilo....janlam

Arundhati Sengupta said...

Cambodia-A chilling past that should not have taken place.

Justin LaFountain said...


be an interesting vacation spot on

empressone said...

Nice blog filled with good information and pictures of Cambodia

Anonymous said...

Nice Content