Wednesday, July 27, 2011

WHY I LOVE PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA

If you're ever lucky enough to find yourself in the middle of Phnom Penh, the first thing you should do is put your camera away. Don't worry, as far as I can tell, the place isn't a pickpocket's paradise, though maybe I was one of the lucky ones. (Always exercise caution while weaving through human traffic in any crowded city -- or nightclub!) It's just that Cambodia's capital is not a picture-postcard place where there's always another photo op just around the corner.

Though the overall look is sort of stuck in the '70s, the people aren't. On my way to dinner my first night in Phnom Penh, I spotted a teenage boy sitting on the sidewalk, logging onto Facebook on his laptop. (Hooray! No more Facebook ban!) In the restaurant, there was a computer in the corner available for use by patrons, and my three-and-a-half star hotel room didn't have a window but it did have a complimentary computer and an extremely slow Wi-Fi connection. (Other modern touches: ATMs that dispense U.S. dollars, the primary trading currency throughout Cambodia, I'm told, and people who are eager to show off their surprisingly good English-speaking skills.)

Architecturally, though, the place could use some work. Temples and palaces aside, many of the buildings are old and tattered, in a state of near-decay. Most of the construction and upgrading seem to be happening along the Tonlé Sap and Mekong Rivers, which frame the city center, but that's a lot like adding a cleft to your chin without lifting the rest of the face.

But enough about the buildings. Chances are if you find yourself in the middle of Phnom Penh, you didn't come to digest the architectural wonders. Phnom Penh is all about the people. Beautiful and fascinating, whether at work, at play, or at rest, they could hold my attention for hours.

I'm still debating whether it's the Buddhist influence that makes them so calm and friendly. The images I've collected as I walk though the streets are vastly different from the ones conjured during my visit to Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (aka The Killing Fields). (The 18-kilometre trip out there by tuk-tuk involves some of the most interesting non-human scenery in the vicinity. See the video below, which I filmed on the way back and made my first-ever YouTube post.)

After the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, it was probably one tale too may from the crypt, and it threatened to shake my faith in the basic decency of people, though not Cambodians. Just as I wouldn't dream of letting stories from the century before the last one about the horrors of slavery cloud my view of white people in the United States today, I won't associate the genocidal actions of the Khmer Rouge 30 odd years ago with the people before me.

Of all the places I've visited so far on my tour of Southeast Asia, the culture here is perhaps the most distinct. "It's like another world, isn't it?" an Australian woman (from Melbourne!) said to me, gazing out at the surrounding squalor, as the bus made its way into town yesterday. It's the only world most of these people know, I thought to myself. And the pride and dignity with which they inhabit it perhaps will be the most indelible Cambodian image of all.

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