Looking beyond the past in Phnom Penh
07.03.2011 - 09.04.2011
Before you head into Cambodia very few people know or talk about much beyond the genocide of Pol Pot; upon leaving the country that incomparably dark moment of human history is one of the last things you associate with Cambodia.
Lets deal with it first; the scars of the aggressive social restructuring which took place here under Pol Pot are everywhere in Cambodia. If it is not the missing generation of 40-60 year olds that tips you off, then the numerous subsequent victims of history will; amputees from the
land-mines laid by the retreating Khmer Rouge; poverty in what should be a prosperous country, examples are never hard to find.
It is true that many parts of Cambodia stir up unparalleled sadness and despair; child prostitution is rife; street kids are as much a part of the major cities here as postcards are in European cities, and they are exploited by adults and poverty alike, with many of them forced to sell various wares to tourists well into the night. Robbed of their childhood and innocence, there is a sadness about Cambodia that is haunting.
Despite the apocalyptic images that greet you at the various genocide sites that dominate most visitor’s thoughts, Cambodia also leaves you with many images of hope as a counterbalance, that without you would begin to question all humanity.
The stunningly good restaurant Friendswas set up as a training centre for the most vulnerable children to give them the chance to pull themselves out of poverty and give them a chance at life that many take for granted in the west. Not only does it arm the children with skills that will benefit them immeasurably as Cambodia’s tourist industry expands exponentially; but it also gives them confidence and humanity in a way few other things can bring. Best of all the food it delivers is some of the best I came across in the whole trip.
In truth I could spend the rest of this entry listing examples of hope and despair ad infinitum but that would be gross disservice to a destination that is as intriguing as it is intangible.
Maybe it is because we only spent limited time here that pinning down what Phnom Penh really is, becomes such a challenge. It is a heady mix of trash and glamour with a hint of danger and excitement thrown in. The past, along with numerous scare-stories, ensure the element of unease is never too far away come nightfall, however during the day it is as trashy as it is glamourous.
Two massive markets dominate the centre of the city the Russian market and the northern market. Both sell unlimited tourist tat and are aimed specifically at the travellers looking for cut price SE Asian chic. Tiger Beer t-shirts, hammocks, cambodian shorts, i could go on all day...
And then comes the glamour.
The Royal Palace, a complex of buildings that rival most on earth for architectural beauty stands in the middle of the city magestically hinting at the glories of centuries past. Added to some fantastic french colonial architecture and it is easy to see why this city was once know as the 'pearl of asia' amongst the travelling fraternity.
Even to this day I don't know what Phnom Penh is. Is it sadness and unspeakable darkness; it is the hope and unspeakable humanity; i guess a was to sum it up would be schitzophrenic but prehaphs a more fitting way to describe Phnom Penh is ‘an experience’.