I should know by now to suspend all my expectations about a place until I get there. If I’d done so on this trip, I wouldn’t have been so startled seeing Phnom Penh for the first time.
I had expected more destruction, more sadness, more residual damage from the Khmer Rouge. But as soon as my rented van rolled into the city, it became evident that pockets of beauty, art, and joy still reside here, after so much suffering. Not that the sorrow has gone, nor the living reminders of the not-so-distant past: one can’t help but stare at the twisted limbs of beggars, many of them children, doomed from conception by the Agent Orange that still lingers here.
But the Phnom Penh landscape also boasts glimmering temples, wreathed in heady incense smoke and adorned with lotus blossoms sold by street vendors. Children run along the walkways of vast, manicured and clean public parks amid fountains, tropical blossoms, and sculptured bonsai trees. The sprawling Royal Palace complex, resplendent with twinkling lights, is a burst of golden color and majesty, with elaborate pagoda tops spiraling into the sky. Here in Phnom Penh one can see glimpses of the ancient Khmer kingdom, the subject of endless fables and mysteries, tales of a city which would become known as the “Paris of the Orient” and which lured travelers, writers, and adventurers from around the world.
But it was also the seat of power for Pol Pot, who led his scourge of the Cambodian people from this very city: 750,000 to 1.7 million dead, many more scarred for life both inside and out. I hadn’t expected anything of Phnom Penh’s glory to survive him; I thought it would have fallen into the state of other cities in developing countries, with trash everywhere, pollution, shanties, poverty and misery gripping the streets like a cancer. Don’t get me wrong: that all exists in Phnom Penh in spades. I just had never seen it coexist so naturally with real splendor.
Emily and I made our way up to Wat Phnom, a pagoda atop the city’s highest hill that, according to legend, was built in the 14th century by a devout woman named Penh as a place to honor the Buddha; the artificial hill, and its surrounding area, thus became known as the “hill of Penh.” Buddhist “spirit houses” were everywhere — I’d been charmed by them in a previous trip to Thailand and here they are again, of all sizes, the lovely miniature shelters for celestial spirits. At Wat Phnom, spirit houses of all shapes and sizes led us up winding pathways to the temple on top, where we removed our shoes and paid $1 to ogle the giant golden Buddha seated serenely atop an elaborate altar, surrounded by walls and ceilings painted with complex murals of his life. Around the wat, too, were more beggars — and souvenir hucksters, T-shirt sellers, and salesmen with big cages packed full of cheeping birds — you’re supposed to buy one and free it, as an offering to the Buddha. I admit the idea appealed to me until Emily told me its wings are clipped and the bird’s freedom only lasts as long as it takes for the salesman to catch it again. We instead bought packaged food which we handed out to the beggars, thinking it perhaps a better offering than 5 minutes of freedom for a caged bird.
Emily was especially struck by two young brothers who flashed us decayed-tooth smiles when we gave them packs of oat crackers; she took a photo of them, the older boy sliding a stumped flipper arm protectively around the younger as they beamed for the camera. I don’t think they’d ever seen a picture of themselves before, and they giggled at the digital image on Emily’s screen with real delight.
At night, Sisowath Street, which follows the Tonlé Sap River, comes alive with nightclubs, open-seating cafés and strolling tourists, just like any other cosmopolitan world city. The beggars, too, come out at night when the tourists do; among them appear to be refugees from the Myanmar earthquake. Food doesn’t seem to be enough, but it’s all we have to give, and they always open and eat it right away. Back in Vietnam we’d bought stickers, hair bows and little toys to distribute to the kids who approached us with big smiles, but such indulgences are out of place here. The kids in Phnom Penh need to not go to bed hungry, here in the shadow of the shimmering Royal Palace.
Originally published 2008 in ExplorerPod.com