Phnom Penh See And Do
This pair of Phnom Penh sites, Tuol Sleng prison and Choeung Ek killing field, vividly commemorate the abuses and the victims of the nightmarish 1975–79 regime of the Khmer Rouge, during which an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians—20 percent of the population—were executed or perished from disease or famine. At Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge converted a former high school in the south-central suburbs into an interrogation and torture center. Of its estimated 17,000 prisoners, only a dozen were spared death; one of the survivors, artist Vann Nath, chronicled the horrific electrocutions and waterboarding sessions in graphic paintings now displayed at the museum. More haunting are the black-and-white mug shots taken of each prisoner, including young children; doomed detainees gaze at the camera with looks of fear, fatalism, anger, and even nervous grins. After "confessing," they were trucked 10 miles south of the city to an old fruit orchard in rural Choeung Ek commune, beaten to death with hoes (bullets were considered too expensive), and buried in mass graves. Eighty-six of the site's 129 death pits have been unearthed, and the bones of their 8,985 victims are now housed in a vaulted, glass-sided charnel house. The wooded grounds are oddly tranquil—until you learn the executioners smashed babies against the trunk of a flame-of-the-forest tree. Troubling, yet unforgettable, the site is marred by a tacky gift shop selling the usual tourist-oriented bric-a-brac as well as banned wildlife items like tiger teeth. The two sites can easily be toured in a half-day; it's best to visit Choeung Ek first, in the cool of morning.—Christopher Cox
Choeung Ek open daily 8 am to 5 pm.
Tuol Sleng open daily 7 am to 5:30 pm.
Corner of Streets 13 and 178
Tel: 855 23 211 53
With its wide-ranging collection of Cambodian antiquities, the fetching National Museum of Cambodia is an ideal adjunct to the monumental ruins of Angkor. Dedicated in 1920, the red sandstone, Khmer-style structure holds a trove of artifacts, organized chronologically in a series of open galleries surrounding a lush interior courtyard. Visitors are greeted by an immense, 10th-century statue of a winged garuda from Koh Ker, a remote temple in the north-central plains. Other treasures include an 11th-century reclining Vishnu (one of the largest bronzes ever cast in southeast Asia), and a 13th-century statue of the Leper King from Angkor Thom, now the centerpiece of the harmonious courtyard. There are also several rescued pieces, such as a 12th-century bas-relief plundered from Banteay Chhmar temple in western Cambodia and returned by the Thai government in 2000. The inventory also includes 19th-century ivory-and-wood elephant saddles and several venerated images, such as a 15th-century Buddha, still worshipped by devout Cambodians who bring offerings of flowers, incense, and money (imagine that happening at the Met). English-speaking guides are available, although most signage is in English, French, and Khmer. Just north of the museum, Street 178 is lined with numerous art galleries, should you yearn for your own bust or portrait of Jayavarman VII, the king who built the Bayon, Ta Prohm, and Srah Srang.—Christopher Cox
Open daily 8 to 11 am and 2 to 5 pm.