The Royal Palace
The Royal Palace

Karishma Kirpalani recounts her bittersweet moments in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia

Phnom Penh (pronounced Nom Pen) has an intriguing, even mysterious, ring to it. A visit to the Cambodian capital, I knew, would bring out mixed emotions within me — and it did. From colourful tuks tuks, vibrant markets, the sacred Shivalings, The Royal Palace, and stunning Mekong, to seeing skulls, splashes of blood, and prison cells, this unique land, called the Pearl of Asia, has been marked by the Khmer Rouge movement.

I decide to take it on the chin and plunge right in… Landing in Cambodia, I ask my guide, Puthiya, to take me to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, which is a 30-minute drive from the main city. There are about 20,000 such fields in and around the city, however this is the biggest, and was made famous by the Hollywood film ‘The Killing Fields’.  These are stretches of land where the genocide took place in the 1970s, and locals were either shot, or made to work and not given food, leading them to ultimately die of starvation. This stretch of green fields encompasses around 17,000 graves.

Cheung Mey, the survivor of Khemr Rouge genocide
Cheung Mey, the survivor of Khemr Rouge genocide

Later, a memorial was constructed in honour of all who had lost their lives due to the atrocities of the Pol Pot. If you’re visiting here, make sure you dress appropriately and remain silent. Many locals visit the memorial in remembrance of their family members who lost their lives during the mass killings. Seeing the skulls at the memorial brings tears to my eyes.

In a solemn mood, we drive to our next destination, the Tuol Sleng S-21 Genocide Museum. Formerly a school, it had been converted into an interrogation prison cell. In fact, on reaching, our guide advises us to use our headphones and do a self guided tour. His mother had been imprisoned here and it was here that she took her last breath. The walls bear bloodstains and photos of the victims who were tortured here.

Stupa at Choeung Ek
Stupa at Choeung Ek

Out of the 18,000 prisoners that were detained here, there were only seven survivors and I actually get to meet one of them. The 87-year-old Cheung Mey, who had survived the horrific killings, personally greets and visits people here. He had lost his entire family in this prison and survived only because he was a mechanic, a person of skill, and was granted a pardon. Despite losing everything, he is simply grateful to be alive. He is evidently happy and is well taken care of by the Cambodian Government. The clouds part and meeting Cheung Mey brings a ray of light and happiness to my trip. This is the moment after which I begin to view Phnom Penh as a happy city.

That evening I visit the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club). This bar and restaurant has historical significance. During the movement the club had shut down, however when it reopened in 1979, it was a mark of peace and happiness in Cambodia. The lively band, great cocktails, and scrumptious food makes it a must-visit. To add to this, it faces the Corniche and stunning Mekong River. Sitting here I actually feel I am sitting at Mumbai’s Not Just Pizza by the Bay, facing Marine Drive. It is the perfect spot to capture a sky and sunset full of tints, shades and hues.

Buddha Statue at the Royal Palace
Buddha Statue at the Royal Palace

The next morning, I start off for my first destination for the day, the Royal Palace. The structure here is  unique and I am intrigued by the hues of creams, mustards, and yellows. I recommend you visit the part where they showcase the outfits that the King and Queen wear, and every local is allowed to make a similar outfit on their wedding day. In the past, Cambodians had to wear a particular colour for each day of the week. Don’t miss the Buddha collection at the palace and the five-feet jade Buddha. There is a very touching story around the palace, the King Norodom Sihanouk who passed away in 2012, has his ashes kept inside a memorial built when his daughter Princess Kantha Botha died due to leukaemia.

When in Cambodia, don’t forget to indulge in some shopping in the markets of Phnom Penh. The painted German Market is the perfect spot for some picturesque moments. The gold of Buddhas, colourful shawls, blue greens and yellows in the crockery, and well crafted cane baskets will make you want to shop till you drop. This place is the perfect destination to buy all your souvenirs and take home gifts at around half the quoted price.

Central Market is another artsy place, to buy beautiful paintings and home decor at throwaway prices. Another great market is the Jet’s Container Market, similar to its Thai counter

Jet’s Container Market
Jet’s Container Market

parts. A great place to unwind in the evening, grab some beer, eat Cambodian food and shop for accessories.

No trip to Phnom Penh is complete without a massage at the city centre. Being the centre of Cambodian history and also a city with so much light, colour, shopping, food, this capital will leave you with a few sighs and many smiles.

(Karishma Kirpalani is a Travel Blogger @globejamun)

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