Saturday, October 06, 2012

Ashes of the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel

With the prison sentence of a Cambodian radio station host this week, for broadcasting political messages on the wrong side of the present government, I got a rush of memory about a riot started by the very same kind of medium back in January of 2003 - when the streets of Phnom Penh went crazy, all around us!

Reportedly the result of a broadcast about comments made by a Thai actress stating that Angkor Wat really belonged to Thailand, an angry and destructive mob ruled the streets for a night.

Ash was visiting at the time, and Rach and I were living behind the National Museum - we had a view from our balcony of some of the action including gunshots in our street, all carried out by several herds of people on motorbikes.  The power had gone out, and we watched on in safety above the streets.

As foreigners, we seemed to be perfectly safe, with the mob being very targeted to Thai owned businesses. In the aftermath the border between Thailand and Cambodia was closed, but not for non-Nationals of either country, and Thai nationals were evacuated from the city.  The political blame game in the week after just added to the bemusement of expats and the ongoing corruption allegations that were rife.

Of the Thai businesses around the city that were targeted, and set alight and allowed to burn down to the ground, the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel struck a chord with our group living and working in PP, as that was the venue for our Xmas lunch just the month before.

Adding to the surreal nature of the week, in the days after the riot people off the street brazen enough to walk past the nonchalant "security" guards with guns at the entrance were able to walk through the ruins of the Hotel.  These photos are what it looked like on the day I went for a look.

It was irresistible to go and try to walk through the burnt out shell of the building, through the corridors and rooms, and past the pool in it's devatated state.  Where else would you ever get such a chance to see something like this!  Effectively a crime scene, with no one really caring to preserve or bother with the course of justice.

Cars and vans in the parking lot out the front were burnt out, and remained where they had been set alight.

People stood around and watched on - but the real activity was going on inside the building. Looters were working away at pulling everything of worth out of the rubble, with most focus being on the copper within the wiring of the rooms.  Teams of kids and men were frantic, getting their score of goodies.

There was still smoke billowing out of sections of the rubble as we walked through, soot and ash floating around the air and coating the tourists and opportunists the same.

Given the standing structure of the building, it didn't feel gravely dangerous to wander around in there - but a thrillingly forbidden experience nonetheless. There were certainly areas where you needed to tread more carefully, but given the volume of people in the building, and the path of the looters in the hours before, we were fine.

Unlike the jail sentence this week, there were arrests made after this riot in 2003 for incitement, bail was posted after much controversy about the arrests and no trial was ever set.  Life went back to normal pretty quickly, buildings were rebuilt in no time, and all that was left was a wondrous disbelief about whether it all really happened!

This post is part of a series marking 10 years since I travelled to Cambodia to work as a volunteer.

1 comment:

  1. I am not surprised by this news. Cambodia is such a complex country and I was disturbed by how quickly I saw tourism develop there, I am afraid the country will have issues for a long time.


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