Impressions of Cambodia – 1. Phnom Penh

Where does the money come from? This is not a country rich in oil or minerals but there are Bentleys and Rolls Royces for sale and being driven about on the roads of Phnom Penh. This is proper ostentatious wealth, completely different to the branded clothing that everyone wears, because when Gucci branded clothes are available at the market for the same prices as something that doesn’t have Gucci written all over it, then of course you’ll buy the branded items and believe you look rich. But to drive about in a Roller, Gucci or no Gucci, you have serious money. And Cambodia is not a rich country. So where did you get the money to buy that flash car? 

For a country ranked around 100 in the world wealth rankings (that’s the bottom half), there’s a lot of wealth in this city, you can see it in the new high rise apartment blocks that are rising up across the city’s skyline. Apartment blocks, office blocks, hotels – all catering to the monied of Phnom Penh.

There’s a crazy kind of mixed-up-ness to the city. The Russian Market, the Central Market – yes, they sell food and vegetables and spare parts for your tuk tuk and clothes in sizes that would only fit the frames of local people; but they also sell Cambodia beer t-shirts and Buddha statues for the tourists. The knock-off Rolexes and handbags and designer wear could be for locals or tourists.

It’s a hot city at the best of times, and in the hot season (the worst of times) it’s even hotter. Those who can afford it take shelter in aircon. Those who can’t afford aircon sit in the draft of a fan. Those who can afford neither hope for a breeze or sit outside in the shade. You might think it’s a short walk from here to there but after five minutes you’ll feel the sun hitting your head like a hammer. After ten minutes you’ll feel a sheen of sweat forming on your body. After 15 minutes you’ll be shaking your water bottle, wondering why it’s empty. After 20 minutes, you’ll be checking your phone to see how much further it is, and is it worth hailing a tuktuk to get there?

Phnom Penh in not a green city which doesn’t help with the heat. Like many cities in developing countries, the grab for status and investment and construction seems to take precedence over leaving green spaces for people to breathe in an increasingly concretised city. (Is concretised a word? It should be.) Unshaded streets bounce the heat of the sun back up. People skulk along the footpath on the shady side of the street, where there are footpaths to skulk on that is.

The greenest spaces in the city are around the temples – it seems only the Lord Buddha is allowed a quiet green contemplative space, and only in his presence can people of the city find a quiet green contemplative space. The tiny green space of ODOM garden is only temporary – it’s due to be redeveloped and the quiet green space with playground will disappear.

Outside spaces are popular for picnics and in the absence of anywhere green, the riverside parks and embankments are a popular place to gather in the evening. Breezes off the river, space for kids to run around, food vendors so you don’t have to cook. It’s a free communal space. Here’s where you see the real life of the city that you won’t find in the airconditioned shopping malls and glitzy rooftop bars. Monks taking selfies with their mobile phones. People buying lotus flowers to leave as offerings at a shrine. Watch the sunset light up the river. Watch the lights come on across the city. Sigh with relief as the temperature finally switches from unbearable to just plain hot.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s