To be in Phnom Penh is to be in the midst of change. This edict is, on some level, true everywhere, but in Phnom Penh, it isn’t a fact of life as much as it’s a mantra. Change in Phnom Penh is more like shock treatment. While living here, I’ve read books about the country’s history. After several thousand pages, I have a good grasp on the picture of Cambodia until 1979. Once the Rome of Southeast Asia, its power degenerated until it was cut into pieces by competing neighbours. Then came the high colonial era, where the French stepped in to ‘protect’ the country. In doing so, they transformed the fluid borders and shifting loyalties into a concrete nation-state in the Western sense, with a distinct identity and history (whose endgame anointed the French as savoirs). As colonialism fell, Cambodia’s secondary status in French Indochina allowed it a relatively peaceful transition to independence. For the next twenty years, the country and its leaders tried their best to throw off the reputation as a colonial backwater. Corruption, and disinterest in the well-being of the rural people, would hamper the effectiveness of those efforts. But ultimately, the Vietnam (or American) War couldn’t help but spill into and ultimately consume this country of small size and clout.. Under a curtain of American bombs, conflict allowed the Maoist/Communist Khmer Rouge to exploit the chaos and recruit the disenfranchised. The long suppressed and once obscure Khmer Rouge took the capital with relative ease in April of 1975.
There aren’t a few sentences with which anyone can describe, much less explain, what came after. On paper, the paranoid, xenophobic, puritan, and blood thirsty regime would kill as many as 2 million people in its quest to create an agrarian utopia. But that short sentence doesn’t fully encapsulate the cycle of violence, repression, tyranny and delusion that powered this machine of destruction, nor does it touch on the exceedingly complex whys and hows. I am certainly no authority to discuss these issues.
For most people outside the country, that’s where the Cambodia’s story ends. That history continues to dominate popular understanding of the country, with the various investigative reports into the country’s social issues that have surfaced in mainstream media almost always framed by a description of the Khmer Rouge nightmare. As, perhaps, it should be. The Khmer Rouge tore apart up the country and all of its institutions from the inside, and the by-products and consequences of those 4 years continue to haunt the present. I couldn’t bring myself to visit Toul Sleng (the torture prison where 17,000 were killed during the regime) until my final week in Cambodia. Walking through the facility, like most people I was most struck by the display of mugshots taken of incoming (or ‘outgoing’) prisoners. But unlike most tourists, when I looked at the rows and rows of frontal, black and white photographs, I felt like I was seeing images of my Cambodian friends, acquaintances, colleagues and peers. Squinting my eyes, I could have sworn the picture in front of me was of the fruit vendor across the street from my office, or the moto driver on the corner. It was a strange and disturbing experience. And yet, still, I have a hard time coming to terms with the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime. As I’ve said before, in general, the Khmer are some of the friendliest, honest people I’ve ever met. I never feel the need to count my change at the market, and sometimes I have to plead with my moto driver to accept a 1,000 riel ($0.25) tip. How could the same people have turned on each other, and themselves, with such barbarism and indifference? I’m not the only one who has pondered this question.
If contemporary Cambodia doesn’t provide the answers, than Phnom Penh barely offers a clue. This is partly because the Khmer Rouge evacuated the city, but its also due to the rapid transformation that is undergoing. While the Central City still largely follows the colonial city plan, just outside those boundaries, development of all kinds is exploding out into what was ride paddies only five years earlier. Shanty towns, American-style suburban subdivisions, Chinese-style mega factories, minimalist convenience stores and futuristic gas stations all mingle on these edges. Inside the city, no fewer than 4 skyscrapers are under construction. Visible on every corner of every street is concrete frames covered by forest green construction skirts and spindly bamboo scaffolding, a pair of workers (in flip flops with no helmets) dangling about on the upper stories. Traffic is chaotic, with motorbikes barrelling down the streets in all directions, only stopped by the gargantuan Lexus SUVs of government officials (‘VIP’ signs affixed to the window frame). In five years, even monks won’t be able to ‘frogger’ their way across the street. While some colonial and mid-century gems still dot the grand avenues, the residential and public buildings of yesterday are being systematically replaced by parodies of Greco-French villas faced with mirrored glass and bathroom tiles. In other instances, brick skeletons and 60s concrete block are being encased by colored glass, chrome, LED signs, vinyl advertisements and the odd billboard. The slanted roofs of traditional Khmer wooden architecture occasionally sit atop bright colored cell phone stores and trendy boutiques selling tiny clothes. People often describe third-world locales as a ‘kaleidoscope’ of color and sound. In Phnom Penh, this cliché is true, but only if your kaleidoscope includes day-old piles of trash, strip malls under fluorescent light, migraine inducing power ballads and the incessant quaking of bottle scavengers alongside the exotic food and chanting monks. If all this makes Phnom Penh sound like a charmless, unpleasant place to live, that’s because it is. At least if you look at it from a certain angle. It certainly can be a difficult place to live in. Difficult to digest, with food that’s often of dubious origin and quality. Difficult to justify, with the aforementioned luxury SUVs cutting off children on bicycles, or the hordes of barang who supposedly work to develop the country but mostly bide their time at ‘posh’ bars, spending five times the average Cambodian salary on Wednesday drinks. Difficult to tolerate, as the temperature sores above 40C by late spring, only falling with the arrival of monsoons that leave stagnant, garbage ridden floods in their wake. Difficult to understand, as Cambodian mores and superstition can make any situation (or false step) into a calamity. In short, living in Phnom Penh is often a frustrating and heart-breaking experience.
And yet, with all this in mind, as my leave-date approaches, I look at the calendar with sadness and even gloom. I’m not the only one. All my expat friends ask, ‘so when are you coming back?’ When I say I don’t have concrete plan to do so in the near future, they don’t look at me with shock, but with curiosity: ‘oh…since when have you decided that?’ For many, Cambodia is an easy, cheap place to live. Most people speak enough English that learning Khmer is unnecessary. After a few months, I looked at $3 main courses as fancy, and anything above 5 as sheer indulgence. I’ve never bought (normal size) beer over $2. But for others, its clear they’re attached to Cambodia and PP in a more personal way. Perhaps some of them can better explain my attraction to this city. I guess there is always something to surprise you here. Its a little place, and you get to know people fast. For an expat, there’s certainly less pressure to ‘be’ someone here, to have 3 blackberries or a designer purse (it doesn’t hurt that decent fakes start at $5). Most expats who work hard here to so because they want to, not for some weird status symbol (and certainly not to make serious money). And for all their strange logic, vexing work ethic and entrenched cultural conservatism, Cambodians are remarkably easy to get along with. In 6 months of putting up with erratic, absurd traffic, I haven’t seen a single incidence of road rage. After a dozen or so trips to the Wat, I’ve never felt any pressure to convert to Cambodian Buddhism or even donate to the institution (the opposite has occurred more than once, they’ve given me small change to donate, even though I protested that I had my own). Even the most hardened market vendors and street sellers, for whom barang are walking money, will melt after you utter the simplest Khmer phrases. The people that who remain uninterested and unimpressed often seem as though they are putting on an act. Unfortunately, it seems that many, if not most, expats spend the majority of their time complaining about the locals.
But while my love of Phnom Penh is hard for even me to understand, my love of Cambodia is not. While the vast majority of my time in Cambodia has been spent in Phnom Penh, but I predict that in the future, when I look back on this time, it the image of the Cambodian countryside that I’ll remember, not the individual cities, the temples or the attractions. Even now, the many short trips I’ve taken around Cambodia are melding together in my mind, so that it seems like one long bus trip, with various stops along the way. Outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a place ruled by the seasons. When I first arrived, the landscape reminded me of the American Southwest: dust plumes of red-brown dust floating over expanses of brittle, hay colored ground, the odd cow in the distance. For the duration of the dry season (thru April), this scene persisted, even though occasionally pockets of small green and slate colored ‘mountains’ would frame the picture. The sun is simply merciless, and during the dramatic finale of the dry season, the last two weeks of April, even the shade is unbearable. I’ve never been covered with sweat in the same way. For nearly five months, it didn’t rain once, and there was barely a stray cloud in the sky.
And than the rain came rolling in. Bursting in is a more apt expression. That first monsoon is an experience at which every first-time witness must marvel. As the high point of wet season approaches (late June or July), the storms become more frequent, and the 10 degree drop in temperature and roaring winds become an almost daily alarm to put on your poncho and store your electronics. Vegetation takes root everything, clinging to omnipresent power lines, creeping out over the rising river. The rice paddies transform into a checkerboard of mud brown, pastel yellow, and jade green, the blades of more mature paddies swaying in the wind like prairie grass. As the sun sets, they become reflecting pools for the spectacular Southeast Asian sunset: magenta, blood orange, lavender, until you are surrounded by an ocean of shimmering silver and finally the tops of palm trees disappear into the sky. The sunsets in Cambodia are incredible, even in the most polluted parts of the capital or on the most banal days. In the dry season, the ever-cloudless sky resembles every sunset postcard you’ve ever seen, a perfect rainbow of gradient shades. From a high point in the countryside, the perfect maroon circle disintegrates as it falls into the misty horizon, animating tiny streams and mammoth rivers with dancing tongues of fire. During the wet season, the sky and the Mekong would blend into a single grey tone landscape, junk boats powering into the abyss. It is scenes like this that I quickly took for granted after only a few weeks, and that I will miss the most.