Phnom Penh -The Royal Palace

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Phnom Penh sits astride the great Mekong River, a city with a long history of greatness, war, famine, poverty, genocide and re-emergence. The city reflects its history in its daily life with broad streets lined with trees from the French colonial era, to modern developments of office blocks and condominiums, to tight narrow old streets lined with small shops and roadside traders selling food and souvenirs, and huge covered markets with stalls selling food clothing and everything imaginable. The roads hum with gridlocked traffic and the driving attitude that is the tradition in Asia, where every small inch of road is occupied, and drivers manoeuvre so close to one another that one wonders how and why the scooter riders survive. It’s a mystery but the driving is a culture that all observe and no one complains of.

 

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The city is busy energised and at times frantic, but it all works with a sense of purpose and style. The restaurants that line the edge of the Mekong thrive at night with every food imaginable with sellers, performers and buskers everywhere. Bright neon lights contrast with dark side streets most simply carrying a number to identify them. An old lady walks down the street leading an old man by a rope around his neck while he plays a Tror a Thai stringed instrument and they collect money. There is always something going on.

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In the midst of all this seeming chaos sits the serene peace of the extraordinary Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. Dating back to the 19th century when the capital moved back to Phnom Penh the Palace sits alongside the Mekong and is the residence of the Cambodian Royal family today. They live in a part of the Palace shut off but the rest you can wander in. This includes the throne hall, a magnificent enormous room of gold and white still used today for religious and ceremonial functions. The detail intricacy and the symmetry of the buildings are beautiful and although they have similarities of design they are unique.

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The Palace reflects the place of Buddhism in society with the silver Pagoda sitting alongside the palace buildings. The Palace is walled so that the endless noise of traffic and daily life does not intrude and is like entering another world. The Palace reflects how Cambodia has both retained its links with its historic past of the Khmer kingdom down to the present day and Cambodia’s emergence into the 21st century.

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The Temples of Angkor, Cambodia

 

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A 5-hour drive north from Phnom Penh brings you to Siem Reap, the home of the temples of Angkor, the most famous and best known being Angkor Wat. Built near the Great Lake with its supply of water fish and fertile soil these temples and buildings date as far back as the 6th century reflecting the mix of Hinduism brought by the Indians and Buddhism in an extraordinary array of temples which are even now emerging from the jungle that overwhelmed them.

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The Angkor Temples have become a major global tourist attraction with the sleepy provincial ton of Siem Reap now housing an array of large and luxurious hotels that accommodate the vast numbers who come to see this fascination every year. But for those less disposed to western hotels in Asia you can still find great accommodation more in tune with the area close to the site. Entry costs $20 for a one-day pass brought from a huge modern ticket office near the site.

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The sheer scale of the buildings and their sophistication given the period when they were built is hard to express. Built of stone, intricate, tall, beautifully designed. They are filled with passages, rooms, staircases and views over the surrounding lush green countryside. Built over a long period period of time these buildings are testament to a sophisticated society. Angkor was the capital city of the Khmer empire from 11th century. At its zenith it was the largest pre industrial city in the world and incorporated the Hindu religion until the 12th century when Buddhism took its place. The development of the magnificent buildings was achieved over 300 years from the 9th to 12th centuries.

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Some of the temples are simply piles of stones, other remarkably preserved and restoration happens all the time. Surrounded as you are by the lush vegetation of the area it seems and almost secret place each temple seeming to emerge from the jungle as you reach it.

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To get the true sense of time and scale you see that some of the temples have blended with nature and formed the foundations for trees that have grown into and onto the buildings, sometimes appearing to be some enormous triffid that has consumed a building. That vision gives you a sense of both the power of the natural world and the ability of man made structures to survive the revages of time. The area has survived nature, war destruction the Khmer Rouge and endless attempts to loot the place, but survives in all its grandeur and splendour.

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The site is hidden from Siem Reap and the contrasts between that town of modern Cambodia and the wonders of Angkor tell lots about the march of history. Anyone in Cambodia has to go. There are many extensive books about the history of the area and the site but I think good to read after you have felt the atmosphere of this extraordinary place.

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The Killing Fields of Cambodia.

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A visit to the killing fields of Cambodia at the memorial park at Choeung Ek outside Phnom Penh is an eerie experience. You don’t really know what to expect drawn as you are to a place where some of the 1.3 million people executed by Pol Pot and his Khymer Rouge regime were found. When you add together those who died of starvation and exhaustion some 2m people, a quarter of the population died in that terror.

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As you approach the entrance to the park, after a tuk tuk ride from Phnom Penh through suburbs and villages, the sombre attitude and downcast eyes of those leaving strike you. The ticket price is $6 to include an audio guide, which takes you through the park, its history and the experiences of those who both survived and worked there. People were brought here from the infamous S21 prison, a former school, and a visit to that before Choeung Ek is a sobering enough experience.

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People were brought there from S21 prison having endured torture and horror simply to die and they were executed brutally and immediately at night. Every effort was made by the guards to make this exercise and cheap and as quickly as possible. You are struck by the simplicity of the place, there is nothing that immediately draws the eye there other than the Buddhist memorial set in the middle of the park which houses the remains of many of those 70000 people who were murdered in this place. The sense of quiet respect and reverence is palpable and embraces you as you wander through hearing the story. The site speaks for itself, these were indeed fields, and the graves, which have been excavated, leave hollow areas in the ground with still visible fragments of clothing and bone which appear most years when the rains come and the topsoil is washed away. In other places such items might just be litter, but here they have a very different significance.The undulations of the ground mark spots where mass graves have been excavated and left as simply as that. That simplicity throughout the site, is a very powerful exposition of what happened there, since it ignites your imagination in trying to visualise the horror.

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Outside, the area and village continues its modern day life, and the site is fringed with fields that are worked by the very people who at that time might have been brought here to die.

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The Cupola at the centre of the area, a Buddhist shrine to the memory of those who died, houses some of their remains, carefully excavated and recording the age gender and size of the person. It is simple and gives a strong sense of the sheer scale of the slaughter. The design is tall thin and simple, encased in glass with the skulls and bones visible to all who pass by or enter.

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Possibly the most poignant moment is to stand in the shade of a big tree out of the hot sun, just a big leafy tree in a park, and realise that this is the infamous killing tree against which babies and small children were smashed to death before being thrown into the mass graves. That really makes you think, and you too leave with downcast eyes. We are part of that same human race that did this.