phnomenal penh

Our introduction to Cambodia came at the end of a beautiful and fun, but long and tiring day floating slowly up the Mekong. Our reaction to the enormity of the river and the colossal amount of water flowing in it was akin to when kids from the sticks go to the big city – they don’t make rivers like that in Australia…

We’ve previously commented that Thailand was a land of contradictions and indeed, most places aren’t without them. Cambodia’s contradictions are, like its history, more brutal and perplexing. As we drove into Phnom Penh, we both found ourselves humming lines from Springsteen’s song Atlantic City –  “down here it’s just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.”

The dusty highway teemed with vehicles – swarms of motorbikes and mini vans, laden with cargo and young guys suicidally hitching a ride on the roof or atop precarious piles of gas cylinders. Meanwhile, dozens of sleek luxury cars speed past, no doubt containing military brass and senior officials of the long ruling People’s Party. Lexus 4WDs, Range Rovers, Mercedes, Hummers: the juxtapositon was grotesque.

It doesn’t end there. In the shadows of the Royal Palace and massive redevelopments, an estimated 20,000 kids and at least as many adults eke out a living on the city streets. Corruption is rife – we paid our first bribe of the trip at the border crossing (a $2 “administration fee” – although maybe this was just because Linds spilt chilli sauce on his arrival card?) and the traffic police seem to exist for no other reason than extorting cash from the passing motorists.

It is trite to say that Cambodia’s recent history is horrific and tragic. The one thing we feel compelled to say is that the banality is chilling. The S-21 prison, a former school, sits squarely in the suburbs and bears a striking similarity to your own high school. The Killing Fields site was formerly a longan orchard and has now returned to its previously peaceful state, with music and playground noises floating across from the school next door.

And yet, Cambodia is also the first country where we’ve been able to buy newspapers and books that are critical of the regime and deal meaningfully with the country’s history. People have a ready sense of humour, we were met with some humbling warmth and despite having caught a lot of bad breaks, most seem to just be trying to get on as best they can.

And so, it wasn’t so much that Phnom Penh revealed its charms to us, but more that we got used to it. Kind of. As much as one can get used to lawlessness. And I don’t ever want to get used to begging children.

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3 Responses to “phnomenal penh”

  1. Marshie Says:

    Linds, I’ve just been looking at your pics, and I am terrified by your shoe gloves… WHAT is going on there?
    p.s. hugs. x

  2. beyondbagot Says:

    marshie you’ve got to look after the tootsies. Shoes are too hot, no shoes too dangerous – the foot glove is a beautiful compromise.

    Have a peep at http://nymag.com/health/features/46213/ for less bogus arguments.

    Love your pics only question is did you require whole suitcase just for your jackets?

    dodd

  3. Marshie Says:

    OMG – I only took two jackets I’ll have you know. Jamie took more jackets than me…

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