Within the city limits, Tuol Sleng is a concrete building that was once a school before becoming a prison and torture center, and which now functions as a museum documenting the harrowing events that happened when the country was under Pol Pot’s control. Millions died in a few years from execution and starvation. There are exhibition stands with photos of the thousands of victims, each with an ID around their necks. The sight is almost unbearable.
On the outskirts of town is Choeung Ek, also known as Killing Fields. Here are the mass graves and memorials in honor of the victims of the Khmer Rouge, a deeply moving place. Almost everyone you meet in Cambodia over the age of 50 will tell devastating stories about how their family and friends were affected by the regime.
At times like these, Cambodia seems to be one of the most optimistic places in the world, given the horrors its people have suffered in living memory. You are tireless; its resilience has been tested repeatedly, most recently with Covid and its decimation of the tourism sector on which so many rely for a living. With Cambodia reopening, people here are eagerly waiting to see how quickly visitors will return. The future can seem fragile and at times hopeful, which is Cambodia’s script for as long as I can remember. The firm belief that tomorrow will be a better day can rub off on every visitor. Perhaps there is an even bigger reason to believe now that the country writes the next chapter in its history.
Highlights of Cambodia
Angkor and the Siem Reap Gate City are now open to visitors and this is the best time of year to visit. International flights currently only land in Phnom Penh (via Singapore). From here, visitors will have to continue overland on the recently upgraded road (and it will take a little over four hours). The Angkor Archaeological Park, which extends for approximately 154 square miles, is home to hundreds of Hindu and Buddhist temples built between the 9th and 15th centuries – some impressively restored, others haunted in ruins.
The masterpiece is Angkor Wat, but there are dozen of temples throughout the area flanked by reflective ponds and surrounded by moats. There is Banteay Srei, with its intricate carvings of sensual heavenly dancers, and the Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom, whose towers are etched with enlightened bodhisattva faces. The bas-reliefs of the Bayon depict ordinary Khmer life rather than Hindu mythology seen in most of the temples; It shows families preparing dinner, men getting drunk, a woman helping another in labor, and monkeys peeking out from between the spokes of bicycle wheels.