Phnom Penh’s Past and Present


The Tragic Past And Positive Outlook All In A Day In Phnom Penh


20121231Cambodia_PhnomPenh 003

There was a group of people doing the Gangnam Style on the boardwalk, with arms wildly swerving and legs kicking to the full Psy effect. Their leader, a young fitness enthusiast with a microphone hooked to his ear, shouted out the instructions and with him the rest of the group turned left and right, moved back and stepped forward in such uniformed precision capable of rivalling the contestants in an International Line Dancing competition.

This was just one of the many merry scenes I encountered as I took a walk on the riverfront, after having spent the day exploring Phnom Penh’s past. Among the dancers, the lingering crowds, the street vendors and the businesses dependent on the now thriving tourist trade, there was a certain positivism in the air, and despite the country’s recent tragic events, the locals in Phnom Penh seemed to be pushing beyond their grief and living their present life to the fullest.

Cambodia’s Tragic History

However, venturing out to the outskirts of the city, the atmosphere became a little solemn as we explored the many sites associated with life under Khmer Rouge.

20121231Cambodia_PhnomPenh 031Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia under Pol Pot’s dictation. As part of his social engineering reform, approximately two to three million people were killed. From political activists to intellectuals, anyone with any connection with revolutionaries and scholars, their families, including children as young as a couple of months old, were captured, tortured and killed. In a country where war and genocide is a thing of recent history, everyone knows someone who knows someone who was tortured, imprisoned or killed. Our guide, Sontong, was beaten for reading a book that was considered forbidden, and was starved for three days as punishment. He considered himself lucky. Many others in similar situations were tortured and killed, along with anyone related to them.

Survivors at the Genocide Museum

20121231Cambodia_PhnomPenh 030“So you see, I was really lucky”, Sontong concluded after describing the treatment he received in prison. Many like Sontong had survived the tragedy to tell the tale, including Bou Meng, Chum Mey and Vann Nath, the three of a small handful of survivors of the S21 Prison, now Phnom Penh’s Genocide Museum, where the irony of suicide prevention barbed wire still surround the buildings. I was led into original prison cells still stained with blood, black and white photographs of victims stared blankly back at me, and a small shrine dedicated to those victims who couldn’t be identified, my heart sank, and I could not imagine anyone wanting to ever return. However, bearing scars of their past, the three survivors now lead tours through the museum, re-living the days of their torture, help with history education and sell books of their stories for a living.


20121231Cambodia_PhnomPenh 044

Silent Tears at the Killing Fields

Further down the road, through dusty residential streets, was the Killing Fields, where mass graves were discovered when the world first uncovered the events of Cambodia’s past. Solemnly, I followed the footpaths past the main monument, filled with skulls of unidentified persons excavated from this site, through to the ‘Killing Tree’, where it was said the soldiers killed children by brutal means.

20121231Cambodia_PhnomPenh 043

Colourful bracelets now covered the grounds and the fencing around the tree in memories of the young lives lost, and I excused myself to hide behind a wall for some silent tears.


Phnom Penh’s Recovery and Positive Outlook

Along the riverbank I reflected on what I’d seen while watching the rest of Phnom Penh live on. I had the urge to join the dancing group and to shake it all out until I realised that I was beside a busy main road in Phnom Penh, along the river broad walk where couples and families come for a bit of down time after work and stage fright kicked in. Self-consciously, I nodded my head along with the music and continued walking, followed the general direction towards where crowds have started to gather, into the night market of Phnom Penh.


To The Night Market!

20130101Cambodia_PhnomPenh 142

By passing the shops selling trinkets and clothing, I located the area where smoke was emerging from makeshift stove tops. Before me were stacks upon stacks of various fish cake offerings, of various dimensions and sizes featuring novelty shapes such as the Angry Birds.

As I took bites off the birds that have caused me hours of frustration, I sticky beaked into the pots and pans around me that were frying up the most fragrant spices with rice and noodles. Around me, families and groups of young people gathered in the middle of the food court where bamboo mats on the floor replace the standard table and chairs, and bowl after bowl of curry noodles and warm salads are eaten cheerfully in picnic style.

After a day filled with emotional tribute I was ready to sit down, kick back, and enjoy some down time with the locals, and took comfort in the steaming curry broth.

Written by Amy McPherson
Amy HuangBased in Sydney, Australia, Amy is a writer stuck in the corporate world. A Business Analyst by profession, she works her life around travelling and has managed to squeeze in postgraduate studies in writing somewhere in between. Amy met her husband in 2006 while working on a community development project in Peru, and the travel-holic pair celebrated their love by getting married in Vanuatu in 2010. Amy keeps a blog on various travel topics at

Author: Amy McPherson

Amy McPherson is a freelance writer based in Sydney, Australia and she is obsessed with the world. Since spending a year studying broad in Germany more than ten years ago, Amy has not stopped wandering the world to learn new languages and cultures. From backpacking South East Asia to volunteering with communities in Peru, even her corporate career cannot stop her from her real passion. She met her husband in Peru and the pair has made traveling a priority in their relationship. Amy keeps a travel blog at

Share This Post On


  1. Hi Amy,

    Such a beautifully written account of Phnom Penh!

    I have never been there but the article caught my eye because my brother spent time in that very city during the Viet Nam War. It was the late 60s and his letters home described a city of unrivaled beauty.

    Your story of the Killing Field is so poignant. Lots of emotion around this article, and my reading of it, with my memories.

    My brother is gone now, but I would love to go and experience the place as the new and happy place it is today.

    Travel well and be safe,

    Post a Reply
    • Hi Josie,
      Thank you so much for your lovely comment!
      I hope you’ll make the trip one day. Cambodia on a whole is a really pleasant and friendly place. It unfortunately has many issues it needs to sort out, but which country doesn’t? 🙂

      Post a Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Are you ready to Travel for Free?

Do you want to know how I have traveled to over 50 countries for Free?


Join our community and get my new ebook about how to travel for free just like the pros!

You have successfully subscribed! Check your email for your ebook.