Phnom Penh’s Ghosts


“Phnom Penh city wakes up early to take advantage of the cool morning breeze before the sun breaks through…. Street vendors push food carts piled with steamed dumplings, smoked beef teriyaki sticks, and roasted peanuts along the sidewalks and begin to set up for another day of business.”

Loung Ung, First They Killed My Father

Phnom Penh is still recognisable, forty years on, as the city which Loung Ung so vividly recalled from early childhood, before the horror began.

The architecture the French left behind is mostly still standing, although often close to derelict. There are still the apartment blocks built in the optimistic first ten years of independence in the Bauhaus-inspired Modern Khmer style.

Street food vendors still congregate on every corner. Locals still breakfast on Phnom Penh noodle soup. Motorbike engines still echo through the streets; and cyclos still pedal round looking for custom.


The old Olympic Market which Ung wrote about – in disrepair then – has since been demolished and replaced with a concrete monstrosity. But the street markets are still what they have always been: meat and vegetables laid out on mats on the ground; fish swimming in washing up bowls.

The French installed Norodom Sihanouk as king, because they imagined him to be malleable; but he ended up leading Cambodia to independence, and tacking to the right or the left as events seem to demand. He was ostensibly neutral in the Vietnam war, but instinctively anti-American and worried about a South Vietnamese invasion; so he let the communist North build sanctuaries in Cambodia.

The US secretly carpet-bombed them, with much collateral damage among the peasants. Sinahouk allegedly approved the bombing in private; and the CIA allegedly approved the coup by General Lon Nol which deposed him.


Sihanouk, in exile, made an ally of convenience of a Maoist insurgent group known as the Khmer Rouge. His endorsement lent them popular support and they controlled the country by 1975. Sihanouk was nominally head of state again, although in reality under house arrest. They killed much of his family.

The Khmer Rouge cleared everyone out of the cities – even patients from the hospitals – and sent them to work on the land. The five year-old Luong Ung and her family joined what was, for many, a death march. Her parents and two of her sisters were killed.

S21 was a school when the Khmer Rouge arrived. They closed it down and turned it into a political prison. It is preserved as the Genocide Museum. Two rooms are filled with photographs of some of the victims, mostly Khmers, but a handful of Westerners too: an Englishman, an Australian, a couple of Americans and Frenchmen.


All were tortured horribly until they signed preposterous accounts of how they had been recruited by the CIA or KGB (the two were much the same to that paranoid regime). Then they were taken away and killed. But not shot. The Khmer Rouge did not want to waste money on bullets. They used anything heavy or sharp which happened to be to hand.

There are no captions at the Genocide Museum. None is needed. The facial expressions of the victims are as eloquent as a page of text. Many betray the terror which all of them must have felt. Some look beaten in spirit; but quite a few look defiant. One even managed to smile.

Further out of town are the Killing Fields, where the victims were forced to dig their own graves. There are still mounds of earth where the bodies are piled. Human bones sometimes wash up in storms. Few, if any, of those killed had done anything wrong. They might have worked for Lon Nol’s government, like Luong Ung’s father. Or been ethnically Thai or Vietnamese. They might have been monks, or intellectuals, or just looked like intellectuals. Wearing glasses was enough.


The West was wary of getting involved in Southeast Asia after the fall of Saigon; and plenty of Western intellectuals convinced themselves that Pol Pot’s Cambodia was, in fact, a socialist utopia and all the reports were smears. It was, ironically, Communist Vietnam which intervened and toppled the Khmer Rouge in 1979. A quarter of Cambodia’s population was dead, by then.

Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, died peacefully at home in 1998. The Western thinkers who had praised the Khmer Rouge or questioned reports of its atrocities simply stopped talking about Cambodia and it did their careers no harm. At least one is now a rock star of political thought. Sihanouk returned as king in 1993. He reigned until 2004. I was in Phnom Penh in January 2013, between his death and cremation. The country was still in mourning.

© Richard Senior 2015   

7 thoughts on “Phnom Penh’s Ghosts

  1. Well-written and informative. I have read the book you quoted from and lived in Cambodia as well. Their past is a tragic one yet Cambodians are, as a whole, very cheerful and engaging. I can’t wait to return this December. I know many changes will have taken place ( I was there in the early 90s) but I am still eager. Cheryl

  2. Thank you. I am sure it’s changed much since the early 1990’s. When I was there two years ago, they were in the process of renovating some of the temples and villas but much was still in a sorry state. But – despite everything – a lot of the heritage was still intact. It hadn’t been bulldozed for offices as in so many places. Most of the Khmers I met were as you describe and it was hard – as it always is – to comprehend how the horrors of the KR could have happened there.

  3. Another fascinating history lesson, as always, informative and engaging. My English is definitely improving after reading your pieces. I like they way you tell the story – like someone who is respectfully observing the changes and not getting involved.

  4. Thank you very much.

    Obviously I have opinions on the events described but as always try to ‘show and not tell’. The reader might have a different – and who is to say, perhaps better – angle.

    I trained as an EFL teacher. I never thought of setting my own writing as a text 😉

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