I am eating fish cakes shaped like Angry Birds and deep-fried dumplings with my friend CJ at the night market in Phnom Penh. In an effort to get acquainted with the city, we’re trying to have dinner in a most Khmer way, sitting on a mat. Around us, families and young people are enjoying the evening straight out of work and school. A young woman sings on a stage nearby, her rendition of a Khmer pop song strikes with a sense of familiarity. I have heard this type of music over and over – on the hotel television, on the bus, in food stalls.
I am still in Cambodia, I remind myself.
Just a day before, I was in Battambang. I relished the serenity of the countryside, where I fell for the town’s colonial architecture, the languid lifestyle of the locals, and the breeze while riding the motorcycle. On the other hand, the bustle of Phnom Penh is overwhelming. The in-your-face chaos and the hubbub feel like I’ve traveled to an entirely different country overnight. But as I listen to the woman singing, I’m slowly finding the Khmer-ness of the capital. I’ve been so preoccupied dodging the motorbikes whizzing through the boulevards and ignoring the remork-moto drivers who pester us that I almost failed to appreciate the underlying resiliency and unbreakable spirit of its residents.
Our exploration of the city starts nearest at our hotel – the riverside. As the early sun starts to peek from the junction of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers, the locals engage in a game of sepak takraw and aerobics, which seems to be Phnom Penh’s favorite activity. Featuring a cornucopia of flags from different countries flapping in the wind, the riverside seems intent on announcing that the city is now back on its feet and ready to join the rest of the world.
Across the boulevard, the Royal Palace stands majestically, the morning sunlight casting a dramatic golden hue to its distinctive structure. Children and young people sharing space with pigeons at the adjacent park, monks walking alongside bikers, roadside vendors plying their wares – Phnom Penh is an early riser and we woke up just about the same time with the rest of the city.
In fact, too early; we are left with nothing to do. The adjacent National Museum is closed until an hour later, and, due to an official event, the Royal Palace won’t be open to the public until three in the afternoon. So we hail a remork-moto to the Psar Thmei area – Phnom Penh’s central market, both due to its location and its size – to arrange our tickets to Siem Reap at the nearby bus station. Here, the boisterousness of the city reaches a crescendo, with people jostling for space among the bus station’s benches, and moto drivers and pedestrians contributing to the bedlam of the congested streets.
Going back just off the riverfront after a breakfast at a Lucky Burger branch, we emerge at the front gate of the National Museum, its terracotta façade striking a perfect match with the blue sky, and its traditional architecture seemingly an anachronism in a city that strives to catch up with modern times. The bustle of the outside street disappears here, especially at the lovely central courtyard, where only the chirping of birds and the trickle of small ponds can be heard.
Viewed from outside, the museum itself is stunning, but inside, where a collection of some of Cambodia’s greatest sculptures are on display, the fine artisanship of the Khmers is much more visible. A large statue of the mythical Hindu bird Garuda greets us at the museum entrance. Following a clockwise path, we stroll into the hallway containing relics from the pre-Angkorian period, notably some ancient Khmer inscriptions, and a crowd of statues depicting the supreme deities of ancient Cambodia. Turning right, at the corridor opposite the entrance, Angkorian artworks, such as an Avalokiteshvara statue and a relief of Buddha with worshippers, vie for my attention. The final corridor features post-Angkorian items, and as such, are relatively recent artworks like the head of Risi and a few textile equipment.
At noon CJ and I walk through the Wat Botum park to have lunch at a noodle stall on the other side. The mélange of colors of the herbs and sauces catch my eye, but I’m more excited at the prospect of having a more personal encounter with Khmer cuisine. When we sit down at a table, a young woman takes our order and suggests how we can maximize our experience. “Try the green fish curry on your noodles, it’s not too spicy,” she says cheerily, maybe with the assumption that our naïve palates may be untrained for anything more than mildly piquant. But I’m up for it, so I order the red fish curry along with thin rice noodles and add some chili paste. CJ orders the green curry.
Back in the streets where the sun is searing down, we stroll some more at the park. A large group of men walks towards the Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument and offers what seem like prayers. A couple of moments later, their solemnity turns into a rowdy photo session. Sensing the group’s unwillingness to relinquish their monopoly of the area, CJ and I proceed to southwest of the Wat Botum park, where the Independence Monument stands. The lotus-shaped commemoration of the country’s 1953 liberation from France rises from an elevated platform in the middle of a busy roundabout that forms the city’s central axis.
A few minutes later, at just about past three in the afternoon, we walk back to the Royal Palace grounds. Turning left from the admission booth, we enter the palace compound and come face-to-face with the Throne Hall, where the country’s monarch meets his guests, as well as where royal ceremonies are performed. South of the palace ground lies the Silver Pagoda compound, where the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, a testament to the ingenuity of Khmer architects, stands. Numerous national treasures such as gold and jeweled Buddha statues pack the interiors of the building, including the namesake Buddha statue, a small baccarat crystal image of the revered sage from the 17th century. Visitors can easily spend half a day strolling the grounds and marveling at the structures inside the area.
Finally getting used to the orientation of the streets, and hence, the chaos of the city, I’m starting to see the real Phnom Penh – a capital where beneath the topsy-turvy veneer lies a carefree attitude that stems less from apathy than a desire to show the world an aspect of it that has long been forgotten due to its bloody years. And to better get a more up-close view of the city’s streetscape, CJ and I spend the late afternoon ambling along the riverfront.
Our walk eventually brings us to the dock where boats wait for passengers for the sunset cruise, and we ride on one. As the sun dips into the silhouette of the Royal Palace and the Phnom Penh’s skyline, the noise of the boulevard fades into the distance, with only the gentle laps of the water, the hum of the engine, and the conversation of the driver and his wife in the background. The driver’s son walks around the boat, repeatedly saying something in the local language. A speedboat cruising by disrupts the tranquility and steals the boy’s attention. “Look, ma! A boat,” the child seems to say to his mother. His mom returns an acknowledging smile and resumes the discussion with her husband.
Phnom Penh became Cambodia’s capital when Angkor Thom, the last city of the Khmer empire, fell to the invading Thais in the early 15th century. Its more central position and riverside location allowed trade to flourish, with traders from various countries carrying out commercial activities with the city’s residents. But the decline and eventual collapse of the Khmer empire left the kingdom at the mercy of the increasingly powerful Thais and Vietnamese, both of which gradually took more and more of the empire’s territories. Only when the French turned Cambodia into a protectorate as part of its Indochinese territory was the country saved from being an extinct political entity. Phnom Penh under the French experienced swift progress, while its population ballooned post-World War II. By the mid-20th century, the city has earned the nickname “Paris of the East.”
But it was not to last. As soon as they gained power, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge brutally sought to turn the whole country into a traditional and self-sufficient agrarian society, bereft of any trace of capitalism and anything they saw as a contamination by Western culture and values. The Angkar stamped a brutal brand of Marxism, claiming that there should be equality in society. In theory, this parity was true; honorifics were done away with and everyone was forced to wear the same attire – black shirt and pants with the krama, the traditional Khmer scarf. But in practice, members of the ruling Angkar government bullied their subordinates, drove city residents to rural areas and forced them to work for twelve hours daily in the fields. The educated populace, ethnic minorities – particularly the Chinese, Vietnamese and Cham Muslims – and virtually anyone the government feared could lead a rebellion were executed.
The aftermath of Pol Pot’s atrocities left the nation struggling to move on from nearly four years of a horrific regime. Cambodia was bathed in grimness, as though the whole country had been turned into a massive graveyard. The once mighty empire had turned into something of a pariah state, its glorious history overshadowed by fear of current events. The dark years during the Cold War era left many asking whether the country, and Phnom Penh in particular, can ever come to terms with the tragedy and stand up once again on its feet.
Learning of this tragic past is what comprises much of our agenda the next day. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a palpable reminder of that unfortunate history. The former high school compound at the southwestern part of city was turned in 1975 by the Khmer Rouge into a prison and torture facility, which they called the S-21. What were once classrooms are now eerie yellow chambers containing either rusting iron beds with torture devices, claustrophobic brick cells, or wooden chambers. In other rooms, chilling photographs of the people who suffered unspeakable pains are on display, their anonymity adding to horrifying atmosphere that permeates the area. Barbed wires encircle the fences and hang on the side of the corridors.
With prisoners numbering around 14,000, the S-21 increasingly became too small to contain them and to serve as their burial grounds after being killed. The Khmer Rouge thus herded the victims by trucks to other sites, most notably the Choueng Ek Killing Fields, a former Chinese graveyard located 17 kilometers south of the city. The prisoners, under the impression that they were being transferred to a new facility, were then barbarically executed by their captors. To save ammunition, the guards carried out the killings using slow methods such as poisoning, bayonets, bamboo stakes, or slitting throats. Children and babies were forcibly taken from their mothers and their heads were bashed against a tree trunk, as Pol Pot believed that failure to kill them could allow them to grow up and take revenge for their parents’ deaths.
Today the serenity of the place belies the horrors that occurred here. As I stroll the trails of the memorial grounds, I’m finding it more and more difficult to imagine that this seemingly bucolic site bore the hardships of one of the most brutal episodes in history; thousands of people died by the lake that now sits silent. Only a tall memorial containing the skulls of some of the victims and a few other glass casings of their paraphernalia are vestiges to the grisly events that took place almost four decades ago. An audio guide helps in filling in the visitor’s imagination the anguish this place has witnessed.
By the turn of the 21st century, Phnom Penh has experienced tremendous change, in large part due to the liberalization of the country’s economy. Some fear that this could jeopardize small-scale local industries, on which much of the rural areas depend. And with corruption and a glacial justice system plaguing the country, Cambodia remains a laggard in the world’s political and economic arenas. Yet as with anything, there are silver linings. Foreign aid arrived along with investors and high-rise buildings. Western trappings, once banned by the communist regime, are now slowly becoming regular features, with KFCs dotting the streets and first-run Hollywood movies showing in international standard cinemas. There is a clear need for sustainable progress, but for now, Phnom Penhois and Cambodians in general are just glad to have been given a shot of adrenaline they have long deserved.
On our final evening in Phnom Penh, CJ and I stroll at the Wat Botum Park. The fountain at the center is playing an impressive light show to the tune of classical music. A few meters away, dozens of locals of varying ages are doing aerobic dance steps while Latin music blares from a boom box. Between them and the fountain, a group of young men are playing football using a small ball made from rattan. Vendors are selling anything edible, from noodles to crickets.
The cacophony of Phnom Penh is once again in full display. But I’m no longer overwhelmed. Instead, I feel the warmth of a city and its residents coming to grips with its past and happily embracing whatever lies ahead. As we cross the street to return to our hotel, a remork-moto driver calls us, asking if we would like him to take us around the city. I just smile at him. I have seen his city. I’m glad I experienced it, too.