Some Observations of Phnom Penh

Yesterday I came to Phnom Penh hoping to get ahead of the banking week so I could do some business. I also needed to get out of the country relatively soon to meet my visa requirements. Unfortunately, I forgot to check the holiday schedule and ended up in a four day weekend that runs until Tuesday. The Water Festival (of which I’ll write another time) is on and I’m stuck here until Wednesday before I can conduct any business at the bank.

In the meantime, I’ve taken some photos and made a few observations. Here they are:

1. I find the skin tones of Khmers much more appealing than the Vietnamese. I also think they are more attractive in general. But I also think this of the Laos, so who can complain.

Attractive men moving ice on a side street.

2. Traffic here is less concerned with pedestrians than in Vietnam. While in Vietnam the cars will swerve to go around someone on foot. That is not so here. They won’t go around you but they do move slowly enough–at least at intersections–to walk amongst them. In Laos the traffic moves so quickly that one has to race between gaps.

3. The dominant shophouse architecture remains, interspersed with villas and modern construction. Many of the buildings now tower above the city through there is still no defined downtown or CB. Construction is rampant and has made a change of the face of Phnom Penh in just five years. I wonder what it will look like in five more.

A row of shophouses in Phnom Penh.
Two of the skyrises that now dot the city.

4. Tuk-tuks have morphed. Only a few of the facing-seat kind remain. They have mostly been replaced by a new, smaller, single-bench model that is covered by a wraparound canvas. They are individually a whole, unlike the old style that was a motorbike attached to a carriage, and have only three wheels. Perhaps its the area I’m spending time in, but the drivers also seem a lot less aggressive.

One of the old tuk-tuks that I grew familiar with when I lived in Phnom Penh.
A new tuk-tuk. Small and uncomfortable looking.

5. Everything is more expensive here. Even cheap food is a few cents more while average food is twice the cost in Vietnam. I paid for a lunch of fried noodles and pork three dollars, what I would have paid little more than a dollar for in Vietnam. It is also spicier here. The food itself is peppered with chilis where in Vietnam spice is an option prepared in a side dish. Perhaps it is the Indian influence.

What the woman called Pok. A ground pork and spice dip for veggies and rice. $2.50.

6. Clothing here, too, is distinct. Plain pants, or skin tight jeans, and monochrome button-up shirts. Cheap tailoring that isn’t quite right. And then some wear the checkered scarfs. At least that’s the men. I haven’t observed the ladies for reasons that shouldn’t be required to be enumerated at this time.

A mother and child walking past the Water Festival spectators.

7. The city of Phnom Penh is laid out on a N-S-E-W grid along the river–where the Tonle-Sap and the Mekong meet. While French, there is a greater utility to this city’s structure than to the contorted layout of Ho Chi Minh City. More organized than Vientiane, too, that has a brief grid and then dissolves into randomness.

A map of Phnom Penh proper. Notice how nicely it’s lined out.

8. Coffee and beer are not as central to Cambodian life as other countries in the region. There are numerous cafes, but only the high end ones seem busy. I’m now sitting in a cafĂ© cum restaurant on street #110 north of the riverfront area and I’m the only patron. Admittedly, its too expensive to be cheap and too cheap to be prestigious. Beer, on the other hand, doesn’t play in to the game nearly as much as Vietnam–who drinks the most per capita in South East Asia–or Laos–who drinks to forget. Cambodia drinks, sure, but it is a social experiences, not a condition.

9. Regulations that govern the day-to-day lives of the people seem largely unchanged. The green netting of construction sites, the traffic laws and power of the police, and the ease with which expats live to excess remain in place.

Construction of a towering shophouse on street #110.
Policeman lazing away the afternoon while waiting for the Water Festival to end.

Finally, Cambodians, too, seem more friendly. They smile and laugh and call a stranger brother. Here, the brother isn’t age specific, like in Vietnam, it’s simply an address of equality. While the Khmer Rouge took millions of lives in their experiment with Communism, the survivors seem to have grown into a welcoming, cheerful society despite the pain. Cambodia is indeed, a Kingdom of Wonder.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.