Friday, August 26, 2011

Across the Border

By Fiz
Photos: Kathleen Ahamed-Broadhurst
A monk has his picture taken
So having been in Phnom Penh for a couple of days we have noticed a few things.  The first is that the money here doesn’t have silk sweatshops on the backs, and the second is that the architecture is a pleasant blend of modern and traditional.  For example the hotel we are staying in is a concrete rectangle seven stories tall, though the shape of the roof is traditional, and so are the tiles.

I can’t see the roofs of only a handful of buildings when I look out the window of our room on the 5th floor, and most of those are still under construction.  Phnom Penh is a huge city that has, very literally, recently started exploring new heights.

Between the broad boulevards and well lit roads lie small neighborhoods of the less fortunate, with dark, winding alleyways between corrugated steal roofs, which seem to be the only modern part of each house. Many of them are built on small stilts, as the flooding here certainly gets high enough to be a problem.

Birds for sale at a temple
Polka-dotted between the steel roofs the traditionally tiled roofs, some with a white trim, stand out in stark contrast in the afternoon sun.  But what stands out even more are the sleek new shopping centers popping up by foreign architects, attracting fast food restaurants like KFC like flies. 

Buddha on a gate of the Grand Palace
Inside these malls you could forget you are in a third world country, forget you are in a world which only 15 years ago was torn apart by a regime bent on the destruction of its own people, even forget that you are in a world still recovering from the Khmer Rouge.  But as soon as you walk out the doors, and the refreshing AC can no longer keep the oppressing heat at bay, you remember where you are, even if the people around you don’t.

There is a curious phenomenon amongst the younger generation of Cambodians, they hear stories from their parents about the tragedies they lived through and witnessed, they can see the killing fields where their countrymen were slaughtered.  But few of them really believe it happened.  They think the experiences of their parents are ghost stories, like we think of the tales of the Boogey man.

Since Pol Pot was removed from power there has been no conversation, no discussion in schools or colleges about the atrocities committed not two decades ago.  Although this is starting to change, many are concerned about the affect this will have on the future generations, they worry that the fun, peace loving youth of today will harden, becoming more aggressive.

The Cambodia of today is a safe place, for anybody to come to, although it was not so some ten years ago. Today I was listening to a story told by an Aussie fellow who has been coming to Cambodia since 1994 at first for pleasure, then for work, and now to give back to the country he fell in love with, giving money to NGO’s and charity organizations.  The story he told was from one of his first visits to a friend of his who lived here in Phnom Penh. 

Getting dinner
He sat down to dinner at said friends house and he noticed that his friend had an AK-47 in his lap. Why? He wondered out loud. He found out that his friends house had been broken into eight times while he was at home, hence the 3 inch solid steel door.  They went for an after dinner stroll, and everybody who was invited to dinner was handed a pistol, with extra clips, just in case.  His friend still carried the AK.

But as I said earlier, Cambodia is safe these days.  Sure there are pickpockets (our first night here we ran into a guy who’s bag got stolen off a bus), and Tuk Tuk drivers who will try to rip you off, among other hazards that every city seems to possess, but you really have to do something rash to warrant any hostility.

The beggars are tame, and so are the street vendors, a shake of your head is all it takes to get somebody off your tail.  A smile goes a long way here, so does common curtsey.  Don’t be shy to have a conversation with the Tuk Tuk driver you employ for five minutes, you wont ever see him again in the throngs of people, and you might just enrich both your lives.

In this country you really do get what you give.


  1. Even when staring at the splendid grandeur of the Egyptian Pyramids, you can't help but be greeted with the sight of those familiar golden arches in the background.

    Fast food joints are a cancer upon this world, doling out nothing but diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and halitosis.

    It is eerie to know that 30 years ago, over 2 million innocent people had their lives come to a brutal end in the place that seems to alive, bustling, and vibrant.

    You have to respect a culture and the people who can come out of the darkness like that and rebuild entire lives and futures.

    "In my understanding, it seems that the Khmer Rouge wanted to kill all Cambodians and replace us with a new people, a new nationality, but I'm not sure what nationality. If they wanted to help Cambodian people, why didn't they give us enough food and enough rice to eat?

    We produced a lot of rice and I saw piles of rice after harvest. I think that all the rice was exported to China, or to other countries, but they did not allow us to eat enough."

    -Our Sok Hon 2002

  2. How sad that that was the solution to a war tore country. You lose so much history and understanding of your culture when it is ripped away from you.