Phnom Penh, Cambodia….a city of contrast shaped by a bloody past.

Wat Phnom in the heart of the Phnom Penh's commercial district

Wat Phnom in the heart of the Phnom Penh’s commercial district

I have been looking forward to coming to Cambodia for quite a while and realized as I headed out that I knew very little about the country and its people.  If you are a baby boomer like me, the bombing of the country by the United States starting in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War, which is estimated to have killed 500,000 civilians, was your first recollection of this small South East Asian country. This was to be followed by the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1978 where it is estimated that up to 2.5 million people died out of a population of 8 million people. But what about the present?

Now it is pictures of the Angkor Wat Temples at sunset and descriptions of boat cruises down the Mekong River that brings us an awareness of Cambodia.  Well like everywhere, Cambodia and Phnom Penh in particular is a mix of the old and the new woven between fact and fantasy.

Everyday is a NASCAR day on the streets of Phnom Penh

Everyday is a NASCAR day on the streets of Phnom Penh

I landed at the small Phnom Penh International Airport and thought this is a far cry from what one is accustomed to in South East Asia where the airports are gleaming hi-tech temples to the modern traveler.  This was almost a throwback to a different age in travel…where men wore white suits and Panama hats while the women had on nice dresses and wore white gloves. It is small, low and intimate…..integrated into the tempo and landscape of the city.

Ones first impression of Phnom Penh is that one has landed in the middle of a giant NASCAR event where people go both ways on the track simultaneously. In Cambodia the rules of the road have been suspended and it’s every man for himself…so what if you turn left into the oncoming traffic before you can get to the other side of the street….ladeda, ladeda!

Pavilion on the grounds of the Royal Palace Phnom Penh

Pavilion on the grounds of the Royal Palace Phnom Penh

Even with the madness on the road I find myself really liking the feel and flavor of the city. One thing you realize almost immediately is that almost everyone is young…the median age is 22 years old and only 3.8% of the population is are over 65. This translates into a frenetic pace of life from morning till late at night. A mix of cafes, cinemas, art galleries, restaurants, hawkers, tuk tuk drives, scooters, bicycles, bars, temples and markets all combine to either tantalize or drive one to madness.  I for one am tantalized and keep thinking “I could live here”

Young Monks buying books if front of a Buddhist University

Young Monks buying books if front of a Buddhist University

The country has almost 15 million people and Phnom Penh has about 1.5 million but somehow it does not feel that big. Perhaps it is the heat which slows down the pace of life or the lack of large scale commercialism (there are no malls or shopping centers) that combine to give it a 1950’s small town feel. My friend Barbara Weibel and I took a river cruise one evening in a leaky old wooden boat to see the sunset behind the Royal Palace and the boat moved so slowly that I thought time had stood still.

 

The old Russian Market in Phnom Penh where one can buy anything & everything

The old Russian Market in Phnom Penh where one can buy anything & everything

Once one has visited the Royal Palace with its Silver Pagoda and the National Museum there is not a lot to do in the traditional tourist sense.  There are no zoo’s or bird parks, no great gardens or historic houses….this is a country still rebuilding a life after 3 years of Khmer Rouge destruction and 10 years of Vietnamese occupation. We must always remember that in 1975 the city of Phnom Penh was emptied….2 million people were force marched out of the city leaving a ghost town and it is against this backdrop that we should form our impressions of Phnom Penh.

The sleek design of the Central Market in Phnom Penh

The sleek design of the Central Market in Phnom Penh

But there are ample things to experience from the lively nightlife to the burgeoning art scene and of course there are always the temples and monks to engage your sense of what we imagine is Asia.  I make it sound pretty good…I might start looking for an apartment any day!

About Larry Bosco

In 2010 I had one of those “Is this all there is” moments and so in January 2011 I retired from Real Estate Appraising, sold off all my worldly goods and headed out as a solo traveler in search of a new place to live. Since then I’ve traveled around the world, made new friends and had many great adventures and some not so great. After staying almost a year in Cuenca, Ecuador I have headed back to South East Asia where I began the journey in 2011. Currently I am living in Chiang Mai, Thailand
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5 Responses to Phnom Penh, Cambodia….a city of contrast shaped by a bloody past.

  1. Claudia Hammer says:

    I am amazed that the city looks so good. I think your photos are getting better! I imagine that the older population is not around because of the Vietnam war. Glad to see that they are thriving.

    • Larry Bosco says:

      Claudia, It is because of the genocide…where almost 25% of the population was slaughtered. Thanks for the compliment on the photos…I’m working on getting better.

  2. LindaRose says:

    Hey, amigo, are you really considering a move there???? Is the weather similar to CM?

    • Larry Bosco says:

      No my dear, it is hotter than the 3rd ring of hell….between 90 & 100 all year long with no break. I could live there except for the heat. No plans to move there this year.

  3. Gene says:

    Of course I am sure you are going to Ankor Wat…maybe you have already been and I missed the pictures and trip experience. Charlie’s aunt and uncle went last year and throughly enjoyed SE Asia.

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