Phnom Penh

An early morning flight from Bangkok into Phnom Penh, one quickly realizes how rich Thailand is compared to its neighbor. Cambodia has seen incredible suffering in recent history, and the decrepitude of buildings and infrastructure show it. However, one senses how eagerly the people want to catch up with their neighbors on both sides. Where public transportation is lacking, enterprising motorbike drivers over-eagerly step in; in a place with average per-capita GDP of $2600, western goods are easily found (though the mythical days of being able to purchase an AK-47 on the cheap at the local market are apparently gone.)

What has struck me, after a few days in this city, is that between the abandoned buildings and young beggars, next to unlit alleyways, often exist shiny new cafes and night-spots. In fact, the popular waterfront strip and surrounds have dozens of eateries with Parisian street-side seating and Western fare. This is surely in no small part due to the influx of UN peace-keeping forces and NGOs that brought occidental tastes and demands starting in the 90s, leaving it with more classy places than I’d seen my entire time in Thailand. Cambodia is not yet completely overrun with tourists, but there is much untapped potential here. It will be very interesting to come back here in ten years and see how it has developed.

My old friend Douglas met me at the airport, impressively negotiated a taxi fare in Khmer and brought me to his old apartment, which he left at my disposal. Having lived here for the last couple of years, working as a journalist at the Cambodia Daily, he recently moved into a new apartment with a month to go on his old lease. Perfectly located near the National Museum and near the Sisowath Quay waterfront, I found myself air-conditioned and cable-ready in a city that would make me sweat with high temperatures and humidity. This is indeed a dangerous combination, for I lazily slept in the next couple of mornings.

What little there is to do in Phnom Penh revolves around the brutal recent history (Killing Fields, etc.), glorious ancient history (National Museum, etc.) and perusing numerous markets. It would make sense for many tourists to quickly leave town for more cosmopolitan destinations after a few nights of trinket shopping and waterfront beers; I was, however, happy to explore the alleyways and busy markets for hours on end. This place is a treasure-trove of photographic opportunity, full of people and places with faces that speak pages; if ever there is a place for the old cliché this is it. The Central Market, a dirty, yellow art-deco winged dome of a building houses vendors peddling everything from fresh fruit and organ meat to photocopied guidebooks, used electronics to pirated DVDs and cheap knock-off clothes (for scooter parts and a better pirated DVD selection, head to the Russian Market.) Nearby, a more modern shopping center recently opened. Being the first building in Cambodia with escalators, there are attendants there to help you on your first ride.

After observing the traffic situation for a day I decided to follow my own advice and rented a scooter. Faithful readers will already be familiar with the difference between driving in the States and rural Thailand. So keep that contrast in mind when I tell you that traffic in Cambodia follows its own set of rules entirely; a dangerous mix of chaos theory and Darwinism. If you decide to drive here, basically shelf any traffic schooling you may have endured as a teenager and revert to more primal instincts. As Doug put it, “Cambodians believe in traffic laws like you and I believe in ghosts”. Drivers don’t obey street signs unless they absolutely have to, whereas foreigners often get pulled over for such offenses as driving with lights on during the day (one would wish that local residents were made to turn on their lights at night, however.) Should a foreigner be stopped, there are rules to follow: a. don’t stop; b. if you did stop, hide the key to your bike or they’ll steal it and seek a bribe; c. pay a small fraction of the bribe they ask for, and ask for a receipt. The absurdity continues when traffic accidents do happen. Douglas, who has heard his share of horrors at the news desk, explained that after collisions occur and the surviving driver has driven off, elders gather around the broken bodies in the street, chanting to ward off spirits and rubbing tiger balm on the wounds.

These points in mind, I set off on the 13km ride to Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, dodging cattle and pigs along the way. By any account a depressing tourist destination, it stands as a brutal memorial to the millions of people murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Within earshot of a Spanish tour group, I picked up a few too many details of the gory methods employed at the camps. Beaten paths meander around mass graves, with signposts along the way. The site is solemn as it is depressing — with barely anything to see above ground, one is left to ponder the history at one’s feet.

Time spent in Phnom Penh, one isn’t confronted with the brutality of the recent past unless it is sought out. On the contrary, despite widespread corruption, there is much hope here. Though there are many kids trying to make a dime begging or selling books in the streets, many NGOs are empowering underprivileged children by teaching them valuable skills and instilling a sense of entrepreneurship, giving them opportunities their parents did not have.

Optimistic, I save my visit to Tuol Sleng genocide museum for another time, enjoying the local cafes and wine bars before my trip north to Siem Reap.

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