Phnom Penh can be a pretty overwhelming place, even by Southeast Asian standards. I’m no slouch; I studied Southeast Asian history in school, can speak a little Khmer, and had been to the border a couple of times. I’d also traveled pretty widely in Laos, the poorer parts of Thailand (visit the countryside in the northeast for a few days and be reminded that it’s still a developing country), and Vietnam. So I was arrogant enough to think I’d have a pretty good sense of what to expect when I finally got there last year.
But of course, I was totally wrong. There were a number of things that reminded me of other Asian cities I’d visited, particularly in Thailand, which modeled many of its architectural and ceremonial traditions after ancient Cambodian precursors, and exerted a significant influence in the other direction in subsequent centuries. There are also obvious parallels to Laos, and to other parts of the Theravadin world. But there are also at least as many unique and sometimes deeply startling aspects as well.
The most immediately jarring features of this colorful, bustling, extremely friendly, and still more than a little unsteady little metropolis are without much doubt the urchins and the amputees. Little kids selling shoeshines, postcards, water, and other stuff throng the little clot of tourist-oriented hotels, bars, and restaurants along Sisowath Quay. Landmine victims beg for change at the temples and on the streetcorners.
I gave a lot, bought a lot of stuff I didn’t need, and got into a lot of conversations with the street kids, especially over the first few days, but with deep misgivings. I knew that the kids probably weren’t getting the money in the end. I recognized with particular discomfort that the surprisingly fluid English of one adolescent girl with an armload of bootleg guidebooks was riddled with lies. Of course she is needy, and I’m sure her true story, whatever it is, is compelling, but she was also obviously hustling me. It was hard not to feel creeped out, and worried for her future.
The next thing I found startling, maybe even more than the poverty, were the city’s striking parallel, or even multiple, economies. Not so much for the shockingly expensive luxury-tourism facilities that are proliferating—Cambodia’s worth going to, and where people want to go, expensive hotels get built. But the facilities set up for those who are there to stay were more amazing. There’s a very healthy international development community that has taken up residence in some of the best-refurbished colonial buildings the old quarters of town, and international development aid budgets, have to offer. They’re clearly setting up for the long haul, and doubtless living a lifestyle that, modest though it may be by international standards, is all but incomprehensible to their Cambodian neighbors.
Maybe even weirder, there’s also a growing community of Western aesthetes—antiquarians, artisans, clothing designers, restauranteurs, and others—who’ve made Phnom Penh their home base. Surprisingly expensive galleries and ateliers abound, offering everything from handicrafts to modern silk dresses. Coffeeshops and bakeries that would not be out of place in Palo Alto, California, (except for the fact that they’re served in French mansions from the 1930s), right down to the kiwi tartlets and $2.50 lattes, dot the urban landscape to service fellow expats.
In spite of all this, and in spite of the heaps of garbage and pervasive dust and all the other problems that the Khmer capital will continue to wrestle with well into the future, there is also a real sense of hope in many quarters. Dozens of restaurants and shops supporting worthy causes can be found around town. Alongside (and even among) bloated government expenditures some positive impact is being had by local and international NGOs. And independent of all the global concern their long term guests seem to express, local people are mostly very warm, open, and welcoming.
Finally, grungy and shambolic as it is, the city itself has a great deal of charm in its own right—historical architecture, lovely markets, temples, and riverside promenades are all worth experiencing if you like urban areas.
So go and visit. Try to see more than just the grim monuments to the tragedy of the 1970s, and try to spend conscientiously, but be prepared for at least a little sensory and cognitive overload.