The complex in the photo above was called S-21 by the Khmer Rouge. Today it is known variously as the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields Museum of Cambodia.
The facility had been converted from a public high school to an incomprehensibly brutal prison in 1975-79, when up to 2 million Cambodians died. Of the 14,000 ordinary citizens believed to have been incarcerated there, only seven survived the starvation, inhuman living conditions, torture and outright execution.
Toul Sleng is a 10-15-minute walk from my home, and I have occasion to pass by regularly. It is wholly visible from the roof of my 15-story building. Seeing it Continue reading
Cambodia’s minister of culture and fine arts, Phoeurng Sackona, spoke warmly about the artist Sopheap Pich, standing at her left, in front of the sculpture called Big Being.
No one would describe Cambodia as a vital center of the visual arts in Southeast Asia.
While there are art schools and art exhibitions, the output does not tend to be memorable. (When it comes the visual arts, I find photography to be the most accomplished.)
One reason must be Continue reading
The imposing main building of the French Embassy greets visitors just inside the gate.
An annual series of events around the world under the umbrella of European Heritage Days had escaped me until this year, but last Saturday’s activities in Phnom Penh allowed me and hundreds of others to enjoy access inside some otherwise private international venues.
I learned about the possibility of seeing the French Embassy only the day before by reading a one-inch item in a local English-language daily. Unfortunately, I didn’t see anything about also being able to tour the British ambassador’s residence, UNESCO offices and a restored colonial-era building where the high-end Van’s restaurant operates. (I had dined expensively at the restaurant once and have felt no need to return.)
Still, visiting the French Embassy proved to be notable for Continue reading
In guest post, the writer explores the Khmer Rouge’s violence and violence today.
This illuminating post is published verbatim with the permission of journalist and novelist Philip J. Coggan, whose blog is the source and is well worth following. If you are in Cambodia, you also likely will appreciate his new book, Spirit World, available at Monument Books.
Here is the big question: how and why did a Buddhist nation produce one of the 20th century’s worst genocides, and one which is marked by so many horrific instances of cruelty and savage violence? A whole chapter in my book Spirit Worlds is devoted to this and for my answer I relied heavily on Alexander Laban Hinton’s Why Did They Kill?. This article therefore stands as a sort of review of Hinton’s book, which is essential reading for all those who want to understand Cambodia.
At one point in my book I remark that underneath the Cambodian smile there lurks Continue reading
Opening night of the festival at Phnom Penh’s Chaktomuk Theater. Source: CIFF/Vann Channarong
The Sixth Annual Cambodian International Film Festival Is a Hit
Despite my expressed vow to avoid writing during the holidays, I was so captivated by the sixth annual Cambodia International Film Festival (CIFF) that I had to share with you my enthusiasm about the event, which was held in disparate Phnom Penh locations Dec. 4-10.
Not only was the festival organized with the precision of a three-star restaurant kitchen, but the quality of most of the films I caught was dazzling.
There reportedly were more than 130 from 34 countries in all, none costing more than $1 for admission, and I cannot explain why this was the first festival I’ve attended. Only jet lag and ignorance of the screenings kept me from seeing more than the eight or nine (four in one day!) that I caught last week.
Angela Jolie Pitt, Continue reading
The cremation of Cheat Sim occurred at the top of this structure, completed over two weeks.
Chea Sim was only president of the ruling party in Cambodia, yet he was remembered last week in a ceremony befitting a head of state following his death at 82. The day of the funeral, June 19, was declared a national holiday; however, it was not strictly observed.
There were pomp, circumstance and elaborate decoration at his cremation in a park in the center of Phnom Penh.
Unfortunately, Continue reading
Except for the boulevards, few drivers
recognize street names anyway
Long-time residents who can navigate Phnom Penh’s miserable traffic with assurance often fail to remember the names of the streets that they travel. (Farther down, more about names that bring me up short, and there is a pretty big hint above.)
By “long-time residents,” I include bicyclists and pedestrians as well as most of the numerous tuk-tuk operators and motodops who clog corners in search of passengers and then cruise our thoroughfares when they get lucky.
I frequently come upon tourists and transporters with heads together puzzling over laminated maps that seem to offer little help. An address Continue reading
Wat Sampeou lies approximately 12 kilometers from Battambang at the top of a high hill and well worth the long, hot and steep climb. (The temple has various spellings.)
Battambang is the second largest city in Cambodia, yet it feels much like a one-horse town.
As Wikipedia puts it (why write when others have done it for me?):
Founded in the 11th century by the Khmer Empire, Battambang is well known for being the leading rice-producing province of the country. For nearly 100 years, it was a major commercial hub and provincial capital of Siamese province of Inner Cambodia (1795-1907), though it was always populated by Khmer with a mix of ethnic Vietnamese, Lao, Thai and Chinese. Still today Battambang is the main hub of the Northwest connecting the entire region with Phnom Penh and Thailand, and as such it’s a vital link to Cambodia.
The city is situated by the Sangkae River, a tranquil, small body of water that winds its way through Battambang Province providing its nice picturesque setting. As with much of Cambodia, the French Colonial architecture is an attractive bonus of the city. It is home to some of the best preserved French colonial architecture in the country.
Walking along the street doesn’t Continue reading
A major artery in the capital city of Phnom Penh (click to enlarge photos)
Among the numerous images that I have retained from my recent travels in Cambodia are two indelible ones.
Those impressions involve a family in the seacoast city of Sihanoukville on the one hand and, on the other, works of tourist art in sprawling markets as well as in hotel rooms and lobbies.
In a country of grinding poverty, there is no avoiding beggars, child laborers, individuals asleep where they work or on the street, shop after shop that literally is a hole in the wall, and one-room hovels that many must call home.
Thanks to Nicholas Kristof’s‘ superior work aimed at ameliorating and his writing on humanity’s deprivations around the world, child labor, sex-trafficking and child abuse cannot be far from one’s thoughts.
What remains engraved in my mind is Continue reading