Phnom Penh – Impressions

There are some cities in the world you just want to visit. No real rhyme or reason, no pressing sight or experience to be ticked off the list, you just want to go. 

Cambodian tourism is thoroughly dominated by Siem Reap and the sprawling Angkor complex of temples nearby. It’s on almost everyone’s bucket list, and as a result is heaving with visitors to the point many ensure they get up before dawn to try and experience it in some kind of solitude. That’s not to say it is in any way underwhelming – just the opposite, it’s magnificence is the very reason so many want to go. But like with many destinations where one location so overwhelms all others, it makes a visit to the rest of the country country a little bit special. 

Capitals rarely define life in an entire country, they operate as miniature states in their own right, but equally they have a particular style and life of their very own, making them somewhere that tends to evoke strong opinions both in favour and against. 

With so many Asian cities becoming urban sprawl where the historic heart is little more than a memory, it’s delightful to find somewhere that still beats to its own particular rhythm. Certainly the horrors of 40 years ago are anything but forgotten (more on that in a later post) but nor has it become simply another megacity with little to differentiate it from anywhere else. It’s predominately a low rise place, though this is beginning to change, and is a mix of affluence and grinding poverty. But for the visitor, the abundance of colonial era architecture, its position next to the confluence of the Tonle Sap, Mekong and Bassac rivers lends an exotic air to the Riverside area in particular. 

Great bars and restaurants (I’m writing this from the rooftop of the Foreign Correspondents Club) are plentiful and getting around is easy and cheap subject to traffic, and the rain in particular. Ah yes traffic. You’ll hear a lot about how bad it is, but in truth Bangkok and Yangon are worse, and Jakarta is infinitely worse. It isn’t great, but it does at least move, most of the time. 

It’s also a green city, not in the environmental and ecological sense, it’s anything but that, but in the fact there are open spaces and the streets are tree lined to an almost excessive degree, a legacy of the French desire for their colonial capitals to be vaguely reminiscent of Paris. Indeed the waterfront is not dissimilar to the Promenade Des Anglais in Nice, although given it’s a recent addition that’s probably a coincidence. 

There are plenty of downsides to the city’s rise as an attraction; sex tourism in all its exploitative grimness is as noticeable here as it is in many others, but it’s also a city undergoing change. Not all of it is good, the corruption and displacement of people to make way for the latest tower development is something few beyond those who stand to make money would be pleased to see, but it’s also somewhere that has a beauty all of its own. 

In 20 years time, or perhaps even less it will have changed radically. That is rarely a reason in itself to come somewhere, but perhaps here it matters. There are strong echoes of its historical self, and it makes for a beguiling, extraordinary attractiveness. It’s worth seeing.


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