Its been two weeks of real life here in Phnom Penh and there are a few observations that I’ve made. I am living in a country of contradictions. Before I share my thoughts and a few photos let me offer you a very short history lesson (trust me it will be short as I am not a historian by any measure, those of you who are forgive my many simplifications) as it will offer an explanation to my observations. This amazing country has a history that while long has also been troubled. (Check out this guy, he has great short videos on many countries…he explains better than I do)
Most westerners know of Angkor Wat. This is the largest temple complex in the world and was the crowing glory of the Angkor-Khmer civilisation. At its peak in the twelfth century it covered most of the territory we know as Cambodia, some of Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and into the Yunnan province of China. The capital city, Angkor, could boast a population of over a million people. To compare, the same time period Europe was still in the Dark ages and Paris had a population of about thirty thousand.
A general decline occurred over several hundred years marked by conflicts with their neighbours. This period also sees the rise of European exploration and colonisation. In Cambodia it was the French who arrived and exerted their influence. This influence remains evident in many aspects of culture today, food, architecture and the general prevalence of bakeries and French language speakers and schools.
The Vietnam war rages for almost 20 years and draws in both Laos and Cambodia. Ultimately, the war ends and the Americans and their allies leave but the wounds of war are evident. The Khmer Rouge a communist party lead by Pol Pot takes power in Cambodia and begins invoking exacting, grim and cruel policies. Between 1975-1979 over 2 million people were killed (21-24% of the population). The main targets of this genocide were professionals, intellectuals, monks, journalists, and ethnic minorities. Cambodia sadly remains on of the most heavily land mined countries in the world.
Since the removal of Pol Pot there has been significant international foreign aid and redevelopment, though there have been made road blocks to this endeavor.
So, what have I seen? What is it like here? First, I have to say that the Cambodian people are gentle and kind, their smiles as genuine and easily offered. From shop keepers to tuk-tuk drivers to the locals who work at the school I have been treated very well. But I spoke to you of contrast.
There are virtually no old people. The genocide killed so many adults that this is a very young population, the average age is about 25 (compared to Canada’s 40). This has been a strange thing to see. Despite logically knowing this before coming over I think the vision of the great Angkor Temple in ruins covered in roots from the jungle had fossilised the concept of old in my brain. The people while generally young belong to an ancient and amazing civilisation.
Then you take a look at the buildings. There are towering modern towers of condos, hotels and offices. The cityscape is full of cranes building more in any city view you can imagine. Immediately beside these towering examples of modern life there are shop houses build during colonial times and almost as soon as you set foot outside the city life is as has been for ages. Our staff enjoyed a boat ride along the Mekong. We boarded along Riverside on the Tonle Sap near the Palace. There was no dock, the boat simple pulled up to the concrete angled shore and let down a gangway and we boarded. It was great to visit and get to know some of the people I will be working with. Once we turned into the Mekong, we passed a community of locals who clearly make their living off fishing the mighty river. Children were playing barefoot in the dirt, cooking fires, nets and laundry hung on lines. People gathered and life was simple. Behind this group towered sleek modern skyscrapers and cranes. It is a bit jarring to see such simple life in the foreground and modern super structures in the background.
I had to leave work one day this week to go open my local bank account. My driver and human resources translator took me to one of the modern office buildings, my account was opened with little fuss. On our way out we hit the lunch break. So many people working in this sleek, marble building headed straight outside to grab lunch at one of the street carts crammed beside the construction wall of a new building site. Ladies in heels and men in shirt and tie gathered around these carts to enjoy hot food while the coffee shops and restaurants inside were fairly quiet. Another example is every morning as I wait for my ride a fellow walks by with his cart offering breakfast items for people on the run. He walks along the road pulling his cart as Lexus’, motos, and tuk-tuks race past him.
This city has so much to offer a foodie, and trust me when I say I will do my very best to try it all! Neighbours Thailand and Vietnam have very well-known food styles but the same can not be said of Cambodian. My experience is that it is fresh, healthy and no where near as spicy as its neighbors. The contrast is that I rather expected a refined Khmer food style, rather the food scene is so incredibly international I feel like I could travel the world just by going to all kinds of different restaurants. I will keep you posted on this front as there is lots more I want to try. The variety of restaurants stems from the large expat community, historical interactions with its neighbors and its geographic proximity to other flavours.
Pandan coconut raisin bread…yes its green! Supper yummy!
A part of the pub and restaurant scene in Bassac Lane. Lots of little places on several floors the alley/walkway may be small but inside its full of fun and laughter.
The last contrast I have to mention is the currency. Cambodia has its own currency, the Riel. the bills are colourful and have illustrations of important landmarks and people on it. But this currency is much like coin change as anything that costs more than a dollar is paid for in USD. This has taken some time to get used to, even for a math person like me. It is kept simple by having a “working” value for exchange. 1USD is 4000 Riel in stores and restaurants. Automatic payments can be withdrawn as either USD or Riel and payments in stores can be made in a mix of currency. For example a 6 300 Riel tuk tuk ride could be paid in 1USD and 2300 Riel. It can be hard for many people to make change for large bills so it is advised to withdraw $90 at a time from the ATM so you don’t get stuck with a $100 that no own will accept.
I arrived a month ago and I have to say that already this country has found its way into my heart. The contrast that confronts me daily is thrilling and exhilarating in a way that I have never experienced before. The energy of this young population is palatable even with their gentle and calm nature it shines through. I am really excited to learn and experience more about it and to be apart of its 21st century development.