Published: November 15th 2009December 2nd 2006
The visit to Phnom Penh was certainly one of the places I was most looking forward to on this trip, and I wasn't disappointed. Unlike so many of Asia's capital cities, Phnom Penh has a distinct character to it without all the buildup. There isn't a building over seven or eight stories in the city. That is certainly starting to change as Cambodia is one of Asia's fastest growing economies. As it is uniquely positioned between Vietnam and Thailand, Cambodia should grow by default. I certainly see this with the amount of tourists now including Cambodia along with Vietnam and Thailand on their travels. It was interesting, though, that there was very little truck traffic at the Vietnam/Cambodia border crossing. This is so unusual. I'm not sure why, but one of the reasons could be the lack of a bridge across the Mekong. The other could be longstanding differences between the two countries. Remember, it was barely 25 years ago when Vietnam invaded Cambodia to oust the Khmer Rouge.
As with Saigon, Phnom Penh is beautifully laid out with wide boulevards and large roundabouts. This I have to credit to the French. This gives those cities a colonial feel to
them. However, today, English rules the streets of Phnom Penh - much to dislike of the French. I have actually been overwhelmed by the amount of English spoken here. As a result, I have only learned how to say "Thank You" in Khmer. I know... pretty disappointing.
Phnom Penh was much more developed, though, than the countryside. At least, it had real gas stations! However, there was a noticeable lack of American institutions (i.e. MacDonald's KFC, Starbucks). I guess that can't be too far behind.
On our visit to one of the larger shopping malls in the city, I was shocked to see all the latest movies released on DVD (i.e. Borat and Casino Royale). The young lady at the store said that they came from Malaysia. Obviously, respect for copyrights still has a way to go in Cambodia.
Another thing that I have seen over and over in this part of the world is how vendors will concentrate in the same place to sell the same goods... For example, in Saigon, I needed some bike parts, but all the bike shops seemed to be concentrated on one street. As well, I can be riding for 30
kilometers and not see one fruit stand to then have five within 750M with all the same fruit! I just don't get it.
Other than some great meals (yes, Keith I did try Amok), the highlight of my stay in Phnom Penh had to be the visit to the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Museum. Genocide in its truest form is there for all to see. The Killing Fields was an area outside of Phnom Penh where mass executions took place during the Khmer Rouge's years in power. Thousands of bodies have been recovered in this area, with, no doubt, many more thousands yet to be found (there were an estimated three million people killed during the four years the Khmer Rouge were in power). Tuol Sleng was equally disturbing and even more graphic than the Killing Fields. Tuol Sleng is an old school in Phnom Penh that was turned into a detention center and used for torture -- torture that was deeply disturbing. Whether it is Hitler, Stalin, Saddam, or Pol Pot, it seems like we have yet to put an end to these kinds of atrocities.
One final thing of interest was the number of Indian restaurants I found on my last night in the city. There appears to be a small Indian community here.