Friday, May 2, 2014


Crumbling French colonial building with collapsed ceiling in Phnom Penh
Stepping out for a walk around today’s Phnom Penh, I find a vibrant city, humming with commerce. Strolling through the old downtown, I spot a group of French tourists also out for a stroll. I’m surprised I’ve seen so many French in Southeast Asia. These countries used to be their colonies, and they had lost them. There weren’t many Americans around, except me. 

The French certainly feel at home with the surroundings, as French architecture is still dominant. Familiar French shutters, ornate mouldings, and neoclassical designs leave a hint of romance for the colonial days. 

Yet the years of neglect and tropical weather have taken their toll. All over the city, these old colonial shells are crumbling. 

Unlike in Vietnam, only a small percentage of Cambodia’s French colonial buildings survive in excellent condition. The former French Embassy – gone. The Notre Dame Cathedral – also gone, destroyed by the atheist Khmer Rouge. With so many decades of poverty and war in Cambodia, survival had to take precedence over the maintenance of old buildings. 
Vacant ex-colonial government building

Continuing my walk on Samdech Sothearos Boulevard, I pause before a faded gem of a structure. A former French colonial government building, it’s glory days are but a memory. Romanesque pillars hold up sagging ceilings. Shutters have been looted, leaving gaping holes for windows. The yellow colonial paint has weathered away, leaving a dark bare underside. 

What should be an architectural treasure, is totally vacant. This is prime real estate downtown, and nobody is living there. It sits empty of life. There was a time, when all of Phom Penh was as empty as this old building. 

It wasn’t so long ago, when Phnom Penh was a ghost town. 

When the radical communists known as the Khmer Rouge captured the capital on April 17th, 1975, Cambodia’s long civil war had finally ended. The people of Phnom Penh were hoping for a peaceful transition. They hoped that the Khmer Rouge would be reasonable. They were wrong.

And none of them could have predicted what was about to happen next. The victorious Khmer Rouge immediately forced everyone out of the city that same day. 

Everyone. Without exception. 

Upon entering the capital the Khmer Rouge soldiers, some not even teenagers yet, ordered the entire population of the city to immediately evacuate Phnom Penh. Blaring orders over truck borne loudspeakers, they announced the ludicrous claim that “the Americans are coming to bomb the city”

Anyone who resisted the order was killed. More than 10,000 people were murdered that fateful day, including many high officials of the former US backed government that had peacefully surrendered. The people of Phnom Penh quickly learned that the end of the long civil war, had only meant the beginning of a whole new nightmare. 

At the point of a gun, Phnom Penh’s city folk were forced to walk for days out into the countryside. Families were separated, many never to see each other again. Everyone was forced to live in rural communist work camps and agrarian communes. City folk were instantly converted to farmers. They had became slave labor, working rice fields for the Khmer Rouge in their ‘communist paradise’. 

Individual freedoms, private business, and even money were outlawed. Any resistance brought beatings, or death. The brutal Khmer Rouge leadership officially declared this new beginning as, ‘Year Zero'. For nearly three years, ALL of the apartments, shops, hotels and offices that I see around me in Phnom Penh, were totally vacant. The city’s empty streets saw only the passing of a rare Khmer Rouge patrol. 
Phnom Penh became a ghost town after the Khmer Rouge takeover (museum photo)

Today as I look around at all the Khmers going about their daily business here, one undeniable truth exists for everyone I see that's over 30 years of age. Anyone in Phnom Penh old enough to remember that time, has a heartbreaking personal history. Absolutely EVERYONE was left traumatized from those horrific years. All can tell you shocking tales of relatives that were tortured, and killed. Others are still missing, having disappeared long ago. These Khmers survived years of repression, slave labor, and famine. And that’s just the beginning of the horrors that they went through, the list goes on. The only thing good that can be said of those awful years, is that they’re over. 

These Khmers are true survivors. 

No comments:

Post a Comment