Beyond the Killing Fields. Phnom Penh Finds its Feet In The 21st Century.
Even with its brash, new look, festooned as it is with gleaming high-rise apartments and office towers, Phnom Pehn still tends to wear the remnants of its dark history indelibly stitched into the fabric of this bustling Southeast Asian metropolis.
At street level, there is distinct energy, a feeling of unbridled optimism and fortitude that resonates along its busy lanes and in the bustling markets. Yet, even with the overwhelming feeling of bonhomie, there is a sense of profound melancholy that hangs in the air which speaks volumes of the horrors of Phnom Pehn’s recent past.
This is a city of survivors where everyone has a story.
Phnom Penh’s air has a sweet, almost smoky scent of slowly roasting cardamom seeds spread over open fires of the roadside food stalls that hug the perimeters of the street markets.
Throughout the day a continuous roar of traffic made up of cars, buses, motorcycles and a plethora of sputtering Tuk Tuks permeates the city. The steady flow of vehicles alternates between a river of slow-moving treacle to becoming a phalanx of solid toffee, and yet, motorists seem to endure the gridlock with doggedly good humour.
The 19th-century French traveller, Xavier Brau de Saint-Pol Lias described Phnom Penh to be: “unlike any other place he had ever seen; “the red-tiled roofs, the white and gold - leafed temple domes and pagodas make for a splendid port servicing the Mekong Delta from Siam to Indochina.”
Phnom Penh was once a lawless haven for adventurers, misfits, hedonists and pirates who revelled in a city that had no real law enforcement, perfect for the characters who embraced its fleshpots with undisguised gusto. Today, a new class of small-business owners, entrepreneurs and millennials see this place as one of boundless opportunity.
On Norodom Boulevard, one of Phnom Penh’s oldest arteries, a huge, LED screen dramatically outlines the tiered eaves of the Buddhist temple, Wat Langka interspersed with advertisements for luxury cars and high- end apartments. A towering statue of the late King Norodom Sihanouk, founding father of modern-day Cambodia, looks down on teenagers dressed like K-pop stars who zip through the narrow back streets on motorbikes while talking animatedly on their mobile phones.
It is this juxtaposition of the traditional
and the modern that now redefines this capital that sprawls for miles across
the delta. Gleaming, glass-enclosed high-rises have forever transformed the
skyline while below, stylish restaurants, serving global cuisine have arrived
en masse to cater for the changing palettes of its ever-growing
population. Even with this frantic race
towards modernity, the city has managed to retain a gentle provincial intimacy
found along its tree-lined streets where orange-robed monks stroll in the light
of early mornings.
Still recovering from the Khmer Rouge’s near-total cultural annihilation in 1975, the city was miraculously spared the wholesale destruction of its architectural treasures when the marauding army arrived.
Unlike the Chinese Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, the Khmer Rouge did not destroy many buildings, that task was left to modern day rapacious developers who, in recent years have obliterated vast swathes of the city. However, some of the most exciting architecture in Phnom Penh was built in the 1950s and 1960s in a kind of tropical-Modernist style known as New Khmer Architecture. These, easy on the eye buildings sit comfortably alongside beautiful and elegant colonial structures that are a poignant reminder of its French past.
It is a little disappointing that Phnom Pehn’s architects and city planners seem intent on copying the ostentatious style of contemporary China by approving large, shiny glass and marble edifices topped with quasi-traditional roofs as if this afterthought will somehow reflect Cambodia’s cultural roots.
Thankfully, one of the things that haven’t changed here is the wonderful markets that come alive before dawn and thrive until long after the sun has set
Each neighbourhood in the city has its own charming bazaar and, even though most require patrons to navigate their way through a series of sweaty labyrinths filled with numerous obstacles, they retain an alluring charm. Central Market, the city largest resembles a giant yellow four-legged spider that sells everything from fresh produce to jewellery, clothing, electronic goods and flowers in an atmosphere of organised chaos.
The Russian market, a sprawling covered edifice close to the centre of the city, is one to visit as this seems to be the centre of ‘knock-offs’ in South East Asia. Laid back traders will offer you every brand item your heart desires and bargaining is at a slow and altogether gentle pace. Patek Phillippe and Rolex watches sit stacked in random piles beside stalls selling Hermes handbags Jimmy Choo shoes and where a Tom Ford button-down shirt will set you back all of $8.The busy trading is conducted amidst a series of small cafes offering bowls of noodles with chillies and frogs legs, complemented by some of the finest coffee in Asia. All served with a giant smile.
Getting around Phnom Penh can be a delight when sitting in the back of one of the primary forms of public transport, the ubiquitous Tuk-Tuk. It’s a perfect way to see the city as the traffic never really moves that fast and they are surprisingly comfortable for two passengers. However, it is not unusual to see up to six or seven monks squashed into the back of one of these vehicles no doubt wanting to split the fee!
There is a lot to love about Phnom Pehn with its yellow-walled Royal Palace and the impressive National Museum, a virtual treasure trove of Buddhist and Hindu sculpture. It’s worth a visit if only to see the statue of the eight-armed Vishnu from the seventh century.
To understand this city and indeed Cambodia as a whole is to appreciate its people's resilience. One cannot ignore nor put aside its tragic, recent history, in which over two million Cambodians were tortured and killed under Pol Pot's disastrous program of agrarian socialism. The Khmer Rouge regime here ruled with unbridled terror, and it is sobering to think that the entire city was emptied of ALL its inhabitants in just one day!
Over twenty- five per cent of the country’s population perished during the period of ‘madness’ between 1975 -1979. It is sobering when one looks around at the people thronging the boulevards and sitting on the banks of the mighty Mekong that anyone over the age of forty went through those terrible times.
Perhaps nothing summed up this city more than an advertisement attached to the side of a passing Tuk-Tuk which read, “Visit The Killing Fields, The S21 Torture Prison and The Go-Go Pussycat Club. Just $15.”
Ah, Phnom Penh, you are indeed a loveable city.
Paul v Walters is the best selling author of several novels. When not cocooned in sloth and procrastination in his house in Bali he scribbles for several international and vox pop journals.