Once called the Paris of Asia, Phnom Penh is starting to once again live up to that reputation.
The Cambodian capital set at the crossroads between the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers smells and is racked by poverty. Expect to be pestered by tuk-tuk drivers, touts and beggars.
Expect to be haunted by the past, too. Phnom Penh is the site of the Tuol Sleng (‘Strychnine Hill’) Genocide Museum: a former high school that operated as the notorious Khmer Rouge Security Prison S-21.
Twenty kilometres south of the city at Choeung Ek lie the world-infamous and fly-infested Killing Fields, the pits and trenches that served as mass graves for victims of the ultraMaoists. In the middle of the fields stands a soaring monument to the thousands butchered in the area. Shelves carved into the monument groan under the weight of scores of skulls of the victims. They were bludgeoned to death rather than shot, in order to save bullets and to speed up the process of the brutalisation of the murderers.
These tightwad terrorists, in their attempt to turn the clock back five thousand years, decreed that anybody who could use a pen should die. They turned Phnom Penh into a ghost town but failed to kill its spirit: the city now has a population nudging 2 million - as many souls as died nationwide during the 1975-1979 reign of terror.
Like the Laotian capital Vientiane, Phnom Penh is compact enough to cover on foot. Its tree-lined boulevards lined by cream-hued French colonial villas radiate charm. So too does the starkly named but intriguing National Museum. Blessed with the aura of a shrine or monastery, the dusty red building’s high-ceilinged galleries house dazzlingly patterned prehistoric jars and Angkor-era statues of kings and Hindu gods.
The museum’s courtyard sanctuary teems with shrubs, hedges, statues, trees and ponds studded with lotus blossoms. Buddhist monks complete an archetypically oriental scene and underscore the city’s religious roots.
Phnom Penh started life in 1372 as a monastery, founded by a rich Khmer widow called Penh, after she discovered four Buddha statues in a tree trunk on the banks of the Mekong.
Now, the so-called ‘Pearl of Asia’ is awash with a new wave of tourists. Some are attracted to that magnet for upwardly-mobile Cambodians, the green-domed Sorya mall. Others are drawn by Sisowath Quay’s lightly spiced Khmer-French fusion dishes, such as green mango seafood salad. Lined with palm trees, the quay, which lies just over the road from the museum, has a ‘next Prague’ vibe
and dozens of bars and restaurants offering air-con and roadside seating.
Just down the Tonle Sap river, which supports a floating village and a crocodile farm, stands the royal palace’s Silver Pagoda, Phnom Penh’s most striking temple. Mysteriously spared by the Khmer Rouge, the pagoda serves as the official temple of the King of Cambodia and in no way suffers from understatement. Partly remodelled with Italian marble on the exterior, inside it is inlaid with over 5,000 silver tiles. The glitz reflects the lustre of the statuary: a 17th-century green-tinted crystal figure known as the Emerald Buddha of Cambodia, and the near-life-size Maitreya (messiah) Buddha, encrusted with 10,000 diamonds.
Good karma and a touch of divine guidance might come in handy because, as in so much of southeast Asia, the traffic is anarchy. Discard assumptions about rules of the road. Prepare to see mopeds freighting pigs or with as many as six people aboard. Phnom Penh is wild but also lovable in the same way as an unruly child: its chaos is part of its charm.
Feel free to do pretty much what you like, except criticise the Government. Obviously this injunction on criticism doesn’t itself comprise criticism of the government. The authors and publishers of this book think that Cambodia’s totalitarian regime is simply wonderful – but then again we would say that, as on our next visit we’d prefer not to be asked any difficult questions by any of the government’s thought police.
Avoid getting drunk and straying down dark lonely streets in pursuit of the vibrant night-life. Stick to populous areas such as Sisowath Quay because, after sunset, the well-armed town with a dark past has an edge.
That said, Cambodians are renowned for their ability to smile: wherever you go, it always seems to be happy hour.
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