Reflections from my tour of Phnom Penh, Cambodia

36 years later, across the street from the Royal Palace gate, in a public square, a dozen small children were playing. His parents, mostly in their twenties, were not yet born when the horrible Khmer Rouge event took place. They looked just as happy and innocent as their children. Time has healed, life has moved on.

Phnom Penh became the capital of the Khmer kingdom in the 15th century, replacing Angkor. Legend has it that an old woman named Penh found four Buddha images that had perched on the bank of the Tongle River. A city grew up around the hill where it housed them for worship and came to be known as Phnom Penh (Hill of Penh).

For centuries, Phnom Penh struggled to survive repeated attacks from its two powerful neighbors, the Vietnamese and the Thais, until the arrival of the French in 1863, who made Cambodia a protectorate and in fact protected it from foreign invasions until their departure in 1953..

The French gave the city the layout we know today. Phnom Penh therefore has a specific colonial feel: grand boulevards lined with century-old trees, elegant villas surrounded by lush gardens; However, it seems that a new face of the capital has been formed, as some modern structures are being built, a landmark of the modernity that the country seeks.

In fact, the capital appears to enjoy a distinctly higher standard of living than the rest of the country: Large off-road vehicles abound, the safe deposit box business is a huge success as people find ways to store their newfound wealth. and international schools are full of local children. wealthy families. Of course, that image does not represent the majority of the people of Phnom Penh. Certainly the working class is still very concerned about their daily income. However, an impression of ease and abundance is quite characteristic of the city today.

I decided to walk to the bank of the river in front of the Royal Palace. It is a place where you can meet Cambodians from all walks of life: monks, intellectuals, businessmen, housewives, food vendors and beggars, drawn by the fresh air and the healing effect of the river. In one corner, there was a small Buddhist shrine, where devotees offered candles and lotus flowers on a fresh coconut. I noticed a middle-aged couple ceremoniously shaving their young son’s head. The latter was sitting in a chair, his eyes closed and his hands clasped in a gesture of reverence. Apparently, he was preparing to enter the monk to fulfill his duty as a man and son, bringing merit to his family, a tradition shared in all Theravada countries such as Thailand, Laos, and Burma.

Despite all of Phnom Penh’s interesting sightseeing tours, its laid-back markets, bars, restaurants, and the seemingly carefree laughter of its youth, I still cannot forget the tragic events that have killed a quarter of the population of this country less ago. half a century. I went into a bike shop to rent a bike for a ride. The manager of the store, a young woman in her twenties, did not know how to get to my destination. He had never been to the Choeung Ek death camp, a museum of his country’s past genocide only 13 kilometers away, it is probably a part of history that he prefers not to know.

The Choeung Ek death camp was surrounded by serene rice fields and villages. At first glance, the elegant memorial tower located in the center of the site did not look horrible at all, until I saw the pyramid of skulls with thousands of victims who had been killed at this site during the Khmer Rouge regime. My audio guide took me through all the mass grave sites and then back to the memorial tower. There were no words to describe the sensation resulting from touring the site. The entire site was a terrifying display of the darker side of the human psyche, where circumstances turned people into killing machines, unable to connect with the most basic human consciousness: that of the value of life.

“The choice of the divine bird Garuda and the divine serpent Naga on the roof of the memorial tower is symbolically very significant,” said the tour guide. “In mythology, they are eternal enemies. Therefore, when worn together as ornaments, they represent a strong desire for reconciliation and peace.”

In fact, this spirit of reconciliation had been an attitude adopted by Cambodians in order to move on, keep smiling and rebuild their country. This is how Phnom Penh has managed to put traumatized memories in museums and books, looking to the future and living life to the fullest now.