Phnom Penh, My Friend

There’s something to be said about old friends.

Sure, new friends are great, too. There’s that whole period where you’re just getting to know each other and every new detail makes that person seem that much more awesome. Wow! Really? You’ve been to Antarctica? That’s just so awesome. And you used to be in a band? More awesomeness. Then you start noticing all their idiosyncrasies. Ugh! If he starts off with “There was that time I was in Antarctica one more time...” And “OK, Bryan Adams, you were in a band. That was so 1981. Let it go”.

Old friends are simply better. They know all your foibles. Yeah, so you get cranky when you don’t win at Mah Jong. (That is purely hypothetical, by the way.) Or maybe you only own one cutting board so anytime anyone wants to cook, it’s an ordeal. But you know what? Your old friends still love you anyway. You can almost finish each other’s sentences. And spats cool down almost as quickly as they flare up. And even when you haven’t seen each other for a while, you can just seamlessly pick up where you left off.

While I’ve been loving living in Ho Chi Minh City for the past few months and have met lots of great new friends, I felt a hankering to be around some old friends last weekend and so packed my overnight bag and headed over to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where I’d lived for 10 years. And while there, I realized that Phnom Penh was just as much an old friend as any of my buddies that I spent the weekend with.

As I was heading into town via the 6 hour bus from Saigon, I passed familiar, impossibly green rice fields.

Even though it’s a city on the rise, with construction almost everywhere you look, the countryside literally starts 20 minutes from the city center. I used to love driving over the Chba Ompeu Bridge, where paved roads quickly gave way to dusty dirt ones. Kids who couldn’t even dream of Wii or XBox were happy playing with drums fashioned from a powdered milk tin with a bit of rice sack stretched across it and a pair of chopsticks.

It was those same villages that flooded in the rainy season, with telltale coloration on the wooden boards of the houses marking how high the water reached the year before. People left their motorbikes on higher ground and paddled their way back to their houses.

Once you get to know a friend, you get to know their past, and at their most unguarded moments, their past comes out through a word, or a gesture, or an unexplainable quirk.

Cambodia has had a horrific past, much of it playing out in the city of Phnom Penh. It’s almost inconceivable that only a few decades ago, this metropolis of millions was practically deserted when the Khmer Rouge took over and tried to turn the country back to an agrarian Year Zero. Over the years, I’ve met so many who have their own stories to tell of that tumultuous, terrifying time. Ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese who staged their own epic journeys through jungles and waterways to make it to the safety of Vietnam. Cambodians who survived beatings and deprivation in rural villages. It’s not always easy to hear, but knowing someone’s deep, dark past helps you to understand their present.

A visit to Tuol Sleng, a former school turned concentration camp turned museum, helped me to see why initially I thought Phnom Penh was so backwards, compared to the relatively nearby megacities of Bangkok and Saigon. It’s hard to recover from an entire generation of educated teachers, doctors and lawyers, almost completely and systematically wiped out. Although I hear it’s been politically correctly sanitized, I remember going out to the Killing Fields, one of the many mass graves from the period, more than 10 years ago and seeing bits of cloth and bone and teeth underfoot, and a map of Cambodia made entirely out of skulls, often with puncture wounds speaking of a violent death.

After that time and even into the 90s, Cambodia was a Wild West of sorts. The new government encouraged people to repopulate Phnom Penh and those brave enough to come back to a deserted city were rewarded with the housing of their choice. Want a multi-bedroom villa? No problem. Just move in. The past owners were probably dead. Fortunes were to be made. The poorest of the poor could easily buy a piece of land for tiny little pieces of gold. Fast forward 30 years and swampland has been filled in, roads have been made and properties bought for $100’s now sell for the tens of thousands, instantly creating a nouveau riche out of common laborers, farmers and returning soldiers.

Everywhere I look, the divide between the Haves and the Have Nots is great. Shanty towns exist in the shadow of huge casinos.

People live directly above sewers, the stench unbearable to the uninitiated but disturbingly nonexistent to longtime residents.

For most of my time there, I spent doing volunteer work among Phnom Penh’s poorest communities. I rarely dipped into the fashionable circles populated by the hundreds of well-funded, silk-scarf-wearing NGO workers about town, exploring restaurants and drinking spots in which 95% of the city’s residents could never dream of setting foot. Not that there was anything wrong with that. It just wasn’t my style.

But that really helped me to see the real Phnom Penh. The one where I’d get to talk to real people. Like the family who had the cutest gibbon as a pet. (I ran home to research where gibbons came from, having never seen one before. Unfortunately, I learned that babies are often torn away from their mothers to serve the pet trade. And once they reach sexual maturity at about 5 years of age, they turn from lovable pet into aggressive menaces that most people cannot control, relegating them to a sad caged life.)

I spent early mornings walking along the riverside, passing groups of people doing tai chi, waving plastic swords and fluttering fans in slow motion. There was also the rowdy group of matrons doing a practiced dance routine of aerobics to loud pop music where anyone could join in the fun for R500 (~USD0.12). If you hung out long enough, you’d see Sam Bo the elephant come strolling down the street on his way to Wat Phnom where he’s been a fixture for decades giving tourists, both domestic and international, a bumpy ride around the grounds.

While I rarely frequented expensive restaurants (my local friends could never even dream of the decadence of such places and often I felt guilty whenever I succumbed to a buffet craving), the flip side meant that I ferreted out awesome local places. Like the Chinese dim sum place that was completely packed out with local Chinese-Khmer old folks and families every morning until about 10am, everyone loud talking and reading the Chinese paper. Can’t find a table? No problem. Just sidle up to people already seated, give them a quick nod, and put in your order. Of course, there’s no menu. Simply choose from pork or shrimp dumplings or buns or sticky rice stuffed with Chinese sausage and mushrooms all wrapped in a banana leaf package out in the steamers out front. In the chaos, I was always amazed that I’d actually get what I’d ordered, as four different people would yell out their orders to the same harried girl as she picked her way through the crowded tables.

Or there was the noodle shop (only open in the mornings) that never failed to deliver the most flavorsome bowl of yellow egg noodles with wontons and all the fixings. It was a delicate balancing act to arrive just as there was only enough broth to make a few more bowls. Come too early and the bones wouldn’t have cooked down enough. Come too late and they’d be packing up. But come at exactly the right time and you were rewarded with the grittiest, most satisfying bowl of noodles ever. It got to the point where I’d just sit down and they’d know my order. I think they even got used to me slurping down the very last drops of that wonderful broth.

And there was that time when I tried the fried crickets at the market. I tried to work up my nerve to sample the fried tarantulas, but that never happened. Maybe in another 10 years.

There was no lack of weird and wonderful foods to try. Skewered snakes? Didn’t get to try those either.

But like an old friend where you thought you knew everything about them, then out of nowhere, they reveal some surprising detail that you never knew before, Phnom Penh never failed to show me unexpected sights on an almost daily basis.

There was the jackfruit that the owner obviously was afraid someone would jack.

Or people (kids and adults) spontaneously coming out to the streets for a shower during a heavy rain.

Or the weird ziggurat meets Art Deco architecture of the Central Market.

(Cool story. I posted the photo on the left of the market onto my Facebook page. Within a few days, talented reader and artist, Gwen Healy drew her own funkified version of it! Thanks, Gwen!)

I really could go on and on about how much I love Phnom Penh. (And I really did. Catch my latest post, “11 Reasons Why Phnom Penh Should Be on Your Travel Itinerary“, on the Indie travel site Bootsnall.)

Phnom Penh has been my friend for over 10 years. And sometimes, you don’t appreciate your friends until you’ve moved away and don’t have the luxury of seeing them whenever you want anymore. But like a true friend, I know Phnom Penh will always be there for me. And when I get back there, we’ll pick up just where we left off…

What about you? What’s your favorite city in the world and why?

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10 thoughts on “Phnom Penh, My Friend

  1. Gwen Healy

    Greetings Jimmy,
    wow! what a journey that was. It felt as if the journey was mines as well, the descriptions, sights and sounds, the aromas of the various foods and the introduction to so many of the people made this a memorable journey. Thanks for the addition of my painting. As your trips inspire you to write, they inspire me to paint, and in so doing , my world is expanding to include peoples and places I could never hope to visit until now. Thank for the memories

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  2. James Post author

    So cute, huh? Unfortunately, I can’t take credit for that one. It was taken by an Australian friend, Darren, who used to live in Cambodia. So, Darren, wherever you are now, kudos on a great shot!
    James recently posted..The Birdmen of SaigonMy Profile

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