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Royal palace, Phnom Penh
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Phnom Penh streets
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Chilling Tuol Sleng, aka "S-21", a school turned into an "interrogation" centre by the Khmer Rouge

Breakfast was served in the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, a cool and breezy place to sit and watch the world waking up. Down in the river dozens of fishermen were out in the boats, casting their nets and leaving them to run downstream while they held their position. It was a pretty sight to see especially set against the backdrop of the flags of the world that line the riverfront promenade.

Our hotel was close to the Royal Palace which was our first stop of the day. It was very warm already, despite only being 9:30 in the morning. From the outside the Palace looks spectacular. The style is similar in some ways to what we have seen in China, Laos and Vietnam with low hung sloping roofs but here the ornamentation is different. The tiles are painted yellow so that they glint and glimmer in the sun and at the end of the roof curly decorative parts reach skyward like flicks of flame running away from the building.

There were guards outside who looked gruff and stern but they were friendly enough and were happy to have their photo taken. They pointed us down the road to where the entrance is and off we toddled. I had not expected to be able to walk around much of the Palace grounds and large sections are sealed off but you can still explore and enjoy the beauty of some of the buildings. The first one you come to is the throne room, a large airy room with a cooling breeze blowing through. It was rectangular in shape with the throne positioned on a raised platform at the far end, out of reach of passing tourists. There were no other chairs in the rest of the room so I suppose people either stand or sit on the floor.

To the left of the throne room was an unusual iron house given to one of the Kings by Napoleon of France. It looks oddly out of place set against the backdrop of the traditional Palace buildings and it reminded both of us of the iron church in Arica, Chile, which had been designed and built by Eiffel. It somehow looked cold and uninviting although ornate at the same time. I suspect that it must get pretty hot inside with all this strong sun beating down on it.

A small passage leads through into a bigger courtyard, enclosed by a colonnaded gallery. Frescos decorate the walls of the colonnade, colourful scenes depicting tales from the Ramayana. The courtyard itself is also full of colour with plants in pots providing a setting for the various monuments and stupas it houses as well as its main centrepiece, the Silver Pagoda. Italian marble staircases lead up to the pagoda which is a temple. Its name comes from its floor which is covered in silver tiles.

Carpets cover the tiles to protect them from the multitudes of tourists who come to have a look. While I can understand the need, to me it detracted from what must be a magical sight with reflections bouncing around the temple between its floor and the collection of bits and pieces that are on show. Here they have an emerald Buddha, made from such fine green crystal that it is almost translucent. Display cases around the temple housed different royal and religious artefacts, a rare find as the Khmer Rouge destroyed over 60% of the palace’s riches. Behind the temple is a large model of Angkor Wat, a sight we will see in a few days time. They also had an area where some crafts people were still plying their trade, a man painting religious murals and a woman sat weaving away.

By this time the heat had got to us and we went in search of a cooling drink. This area looks like ex-pat and embassy territory and the bars were very western in look and feel. Refreshed we headed towards the National Museum, stopping en route at a bookshop to stock up on reading material. The National Museum is a large building set around a courtyard but again built in traditional style with large sloping roofs. As with the Palace, no photos were allowed inside which is a shame as they had some incredible pieces of furniture and ceramics as well as a large collection of statues, many of which had come from Angkor sites.

In the afternoon we took a tuk tuk out to the infamous Tuol Sleng S.21 complex. Set in the middle of a residential area it was originally a school that was turned into a prison and interrogation centre by the Khmer Rouge. Basically it was a torture chamber and death camp with only seven of its inmates surviving. The leaders of the Khmer Rouge seem to have been a barbaric lot, often turning on their own ranks and imprisoning, torturing and killing them too.

Inside some of the rooms have been left as they were when the buildings were an interrogation centre. What used to be school rooms were subdivided into tiny cells some with windows, some without. I couldn’t decide whether it would be good to have the window or not. The fresh air would probably be welcome but the heat of the sun beating down into your cell would probably be quite unbearable as there was no space to move into shadows.

Most of the buildings have now been turned into an exhibit with pictures of the people who lost their lives here. The Khmer Rouge, apparently like the Nazi’s kept good records of their victims both before and after torture/death. These galleries made for quite a haunting visit. People of all ages were shown in the pictures from young children to the elderly and, strangely, some were smiling. I overheard a guide telling his group that the guards would tickle the inmates to make them smile, take their pictures and then send them to their superiors as a way of demonstrating how happy the inmates were to be there and to be helping out the regime. They also had displays showing some of the torture techniques used.

The whole of the top floor of one building has now been turned into a gallery with brief stories from different people affected by the turmoil here. Some were soldiers in the Khmer Rouge, others were victims or members of their families. The stories were also harrowing and clearly showed that it was a time when you couldn’t really trust anyone else. Such a sense of fear pervaded society that it seemed that sometimes the only way to survive yourself was by informing on your family, friends or neighbours.

As we left I dragged Stef into a fair-trade shop across the street which was selling locally made handicrafts. I bought a small silk bag, a bargain at just a couple of dollars. Our total spend though was soon increased. Outside Tuol Sleng some very badly deformed and disfigured beggars were hanging around hoping for a handout. Stef gave some money to one and soon they were all following him. They were very sad cases, we think victims of the war either directly or indirectly through land mines.

We made our way back to our hotel and popped into the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) on the corner for a drink or two. It was totally out of place here being very smart and swanky and I could picture groups of journalists all sitting around, sharing stories and rushing to finish their copy in time for their editor’s deadlines. They have an open air rooftop bar and we sat here watching life, and a man walking his elephant along the river bank, go by drinking a couple of very good smoothies.

At the FCC Stef had also had lassi, an Indian drink with yoghurt and ice, and not long after we got back to our hotel it started to do nasty things to his guts. He was in a pretty bad state for a while and must have been feeling poorly as he declined the opportunity to go for food. I headed out on my own to the Cambodia club, opposite the FCC, and settled in with my book. About five minutes later a power cut sent everything dark, except for the FCC which must have its own generator. This, and the quality of the food that eventually arrived, made me wish that I had gone back to the FCC for my dinner!