Phnom Penh was amazing, but it also had a raw side that we found very challenging. We had crossed into Cambodia around noon, by boat as the last river leg of our tour of the Mekong river delta, and transferred to a minibus that drove us to Phnom Penh, arriving at 3. The heat of the day was fading a bit, and we explored the neighborhood around our hotel, which was a block away from the Royal Palace complex.
The architecture in Phnom Penh was quite different from what we’d seen in Vietnam. The divide between the rich and the poor was more striking, though. We had become accustomed to a consistent prosperity in Vietnam with almost no conspicuous displays of either wealth or poverty. That changed at the border, and we saw luxury cars next to maimed beggars—not an unusual scene by any means here. Although the official currency is the Khmer Rial, we found that prices were listed in US dollars, and for amounts under one dollar, change was given in Khmer Rials—which is the only time we saw Rials. Imagine what it would feel like to pay for something in the US with British pounds, and then receive whole pounds, and a handful of US coins as change.
The other contrast came later; when we’d rave about how wonderful Vietnam had been, people were sometimes surprised that we went, and many asked if there was any antipathy towards Americans there. When we talked about Cambodia, nobody asked that. In fact, we felt much more awkward and culpable in Cambodia than in Vietnam. We didn’t experience anti-American sentiment in either country (Vietnamese seem surprised by the suggestion—they did win the “American War” as they call it; why should they be angry with us?), but we would not have been surprised by it in Cambodia. Vietnam has recovered from its conflict, and feels vibrant and thriving, if very non-western (not anti-western) . While some echelons of society in Cambodia are clearly thriving, the echoes of U.S. carpet bombing, civil war, genocide, and the cultural amputations of the Khmer Rouge are visible constantly.
They are not without hope, however. There are a number of charitable organizations, both Khmer and international, that are doing wonderful things. We ate lunch at Sugar & Spice Café, which is part of the Daughters of Cambodia project to train young women in vocations that are sustainable, and get them out of the sex trafficking industry that is so common here. It was one of the best meals we had in Phnom Penh. They also run an associated spa, which is another vocational school, and Lana had a great experience there, repainting the scary nail job she’d gotten in Saigon. We’ll try to keep the rest of this post upbeat, but if you want more info, Wikipedia has a slightly sanitized overview of Cambodia’s history as a starting point.
We toured the Royal Palace on the second day, and the bulk of these pictures are from the complex. Despite some ransacking during various regime changes, the buildings and grounds are fantastic. Lana took the 7D for this outing, and David took the G12; we both enjoyed the change.
Lana saw a monk posing for pictures, and then checking the results with his photographer. Theravāda monks in Southeast Asia seem to have the flexibility to travel and sightsee; we even saw one taking pictures with a DSLR. He may have been a temporary ordainment, or he may simply have borrowed it from a friend. Regardless, it was nice to see them mixing with lay people.
Both of us are pretty shy about asking people if we can take their photos, but both of these guys seem to appreciate Lana’s asking, and it was fun to watch their posture change and their faces to soften a bit.
The view from our hotel rooftop was also stunning. We could see the river and over the palace. Some of the buildings were ramshackle gorgeous, and some were just ramshackle.
While we only spent a couple of days in Phnom Penh, we thought it was a painfully beautiful place. It’s splendor has been dulled, but it’s still glorious.