Phnom Penh – West of Saigon and slightly wilder
Phnom Penh has this reputation as being slightly wild west’ish. It has a reputation for unbridled corruption, girly bars, gary glitter expats, locals with guns and other assorted depravities and vices. What many people fail to mention is that while some of the above may exist in The Penh it’s easily avoided and hardly indicative of this charming town.
I sat atop a puttering boat on the Ton Le Sap river, drinking a few beers with friends watching Phnom Penh drift by. Sipping my Beer Lao I watched tiny Mekong style boats throw out fishing nets. Father to steer the boat, mother to unfold the nets into the muddy water and youngster to get in everyone’s way. Rounding the bend we came across a little fishing village, with it’s corrugated shanty town type roofs and wooden quays for boats to tie up. Across the river and into an eclectic little bar, officially called Maxines but more well known as Snowy’s place, named after the Australian owner, artist, long time PP expat and all round easy going guy with good music and a cosy bar anyone would love to own. The sun set and the lights across in Phnom Penh flickered on and cast their shadow puppet like rays on the shifting waters. A dinner that night riverside with dancers who look like they’ve just fallen off the wall of Angkor Wat and come to life. I marvel at the lithe dexterity of this flower holding beauty as I dig into my meal of water buffalo. A 45 minute flight from Saigon but I felt a world away.
And then again the next day I felt a world away again as I viewed big skulls, medium skulls, tiny skulls, their jaw bones missing, craniums caved in and teeth missing all piled atop another in a gruesome yet affecting memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge. I wondered at the skulls, the eyeless staring sockets, the empty places where noses are meant to be. How could there be so many. So many in one place and there were many places like this. When I say this ….I mean a killing field. Just outside of Phnom Penh, a tourist tuk-tuk ride away another tourist site to be visited until you see the skulls. There are layers of skulls in this museum to the dead and all I can think of is wishing they’d stay buried….but then perhaps it wouldn’t feel so real. It suddenly makes the overheard tour guides story of babies being beaten to death by being swung against a nearby tree feel less like a story and more real …..and yet …..so unreal …could someone really do that I kept thinking. I guess the evidence was before me.
I returned to town, my thoughts washed away by a brief turn through the Russian market with it’s freshly slaughtered animals and beheaded fish with tails still flapping. Walking along the street I stop at a street vendor’s to look at the fried spiders a friend had told me to try (she’d even claimed they were delicious). I looked and looked and looked …. I thought about it, thought about it some more and finally … I just chickened out and walked on …I didn’t even try the snake on a stick, the handfuls of maggots, the fried cockroaches or even the thumb sized grasshoppers …I leave slightly disappointed in myself …here I was determined to have new experiences and there (on a stick even) was a new experience and I just passed it by …..
Later I sat with friends in the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) and watched the river float by while we downed gin and tonics. I doubt the club sees many journalists today ….perhaps they ought to rename it the NGO Club for that’s what most expats here do. A town full of people who work hard all day, party and eat well at night, get frustrated at corruption that’s endemic and soul destroying but return to work the next day. They’re a stubborn, hopeful bunch these NGO’s and while they sometimes despair it’s clear to the visitor that Phnom Penh is the better for their presence. I think these things as I sit in a leather seat and watch an elephant trundle past down below.
It’s a great little town is PP. It’s not quite the wild west but it is undeniably interesting, relaxing and thought provoking. I heartily recommend a visit.