Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

In Phnom Penh, Hopefulness Replaces Despair

February 11, 2007
Next Stop


T'S a late Saturday afternoon in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and the waterfront along the Tonle Sap River is the place to be. As clusters of elderly women sit on concrete benches overlooking the water, peddlers set up stands from which they sell slices of fresh pineapple while youngsters on motorbikes deftly weave among the crush of pedestrians. Boat captains yell out to passing couples, offering sunset rides on their tiny wooden vessels, as shirtless children swim or fish in the muddy water. Suddenly, a lone elephant, gently guided by its young handler, majestically makes its way through the crowd.

At this moment, Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, seems frozen in time, as the scene in front of you plays out much the way it must have 70 or 80 years ago, when Cambodia was part of French-controlled Indochina and the city was known as the Pearl of Asia. But then you notice the bank of A.T.M.'s in the nearby storefronts, the Internet cafes crammed with fashionably dressed teenagers checking their e-mail, the sleek air-conditioned bars with names like Metro and Heart of Darkness. And all around you, you hear a polyglot of languages — English, French, Korean, Spanish, Chinese — that are a testament to this city's reappearance on the global tourism map.

In fact, after a few days in this city, you notice that Phnom Penh has something of a “next Prague” vibe about it — a place where many young people from around the world, heady with excitement and the thrill of the unknown, are coming to reinvent themselves. At least that is what it feels like as you run into groups of Americans hanging out in one of the cramped nightclubs along Sisowath Quay, or vie with Australian expatriates for a table during the crowded two-for-one happy hour at the Elephant Bar in the Raffles Hotel, or scan page after newspaper page of job listings in the English-language Cambodia Daily.

New high-end restaurants are just around the corner from stalls doing a brisk business selling street food. A stylish boutique hotel — the 10-room Pavilion — has recently opened, bridging the gap between the palatial Raffles and the tiny, bare-bones establishments catering to the backpacker crowd. And the National Museum, which after years of neglect and near-ruin under the Khmer Rouge, is slowly coming back, its incomparable collection of centuries-old Khmer art, including some stunning stone sculptures, now attracting hundreds of visitors a day.

That museum is no sleek tourist attraction, but instead a quiet, largely open-air gathering spot, with overhead fans gently cooling visitors eager to escape the sometimes oppressive midday heat. (Air-conditioning was recently installed in one room for an exhibition of Rodin watercolors from the Rodin Museum in Paris.)

On a recent morning, a visitor to the museum would have encountered a group of young monks sitting quietly in the corner of the lovely contemplative garden, while nearby a mother with a young child took a quick nap, and a British couple played several hands of gin rummy. Meanwhile, French tourists just off a bus busily made their way through the galleries before heading off to the next stop on their itinerary: the Silver Pagoda, a few streets away.

Thanks to the influence of the French, and the easily navigable grid system of wide boulevards and numbered side streets they left behind, Phnom Penh is a highly walkable city. Well, it would be if there were a few more sidewalks and if those that exist weren't crowded with parked motorbikes that make passage almost impossible at times, thrusting the unwary pedestrian out into death-defying traffic. Even the most determined of walkers will eventually give up and hire a tuk-tuk to navigate the city's neighborhoods. (Be sure to negotiate. You'll be surprised at how quickly that first price quoted you — say $4 for a trip from your hotel to the National Museum — is cut in half the moment you show any hesitancy or start looking around for another driver.)

No matter how you get around Phnom Penh — by foot or by tuk-tuk — you will undoubtedly end up at some point at the Foreign Correspondents' Club, commonly called the F.C.C.

The food here is undistinguished (at best), and the toothache-inducing fruity drinks should be passed up in favor of a cold bottle of Angkor Beer. But perhaps the best seat in Phnom Penh is one of the stools in the F.C.C.'s third-floor bar at happy hour. (Yes, happy hour seems to be a big thing here; almost every bar and restaurant in town has one.) Here, as the sun slowly sets behind you, you can watch the action below on the quay slowly shifting from day (vendors hawking their wares, young monks taking a stroll along the waterfront) to night (clubgoers ramping up the energy and noise level).

Sitting at the F.C.C.today, one can barely imagine what Phnom Penh was like in the 1970s, when the country was under the brutal repression of the Khmer Rouge -- a period later immortalized in the film, "The Killing Fields." But a remnant of that past can be found at Tuol Sleng, more commonly known as the genocide museum. No matter what you remember from history books or news reports, nothing can quite adequately prepare you for reality of what Cambodians lived through while under the four-year rule of Pol Pot, when nearly 2 million Cambodians (about a fourth of the country's population) were exterminated.

Set incongruously in a lovely residential neighborhood, the genocide museum brings you up short almost immediately with a sign warning that any loud talking or laughter is strictly forbidden. That warning seems all but superfluous as you enter the first-floor galleries and see the walls covered with black-and-white face shots of the Khmer Rouge's many victims: Most of them, boys and girls alike, are heartbreakingly young. Some, incredibly, even managed a smile for their photographer. Silence seems the only appropriate response.

Upstairs is another photo exhibit of some of the victims, with their life stories recounted by surviving relatives or friends. You want to turn away, but you can't, so you read about the daughter snatched from home and never heard from again, or the son whose mutilated body was found years after he had left for work in the morning. You leave, like the other visitors, somewhat dazed, and find yourself at the nearby Boddhi Tree garden cafe. It looks as if some of the other patrons have sought some post-museum refuge here: More than a few seem to have a stunned look on their faces.

Then, however, it's back out into the daylight, and a leisurely walk back toward the waterfront, passing the ornate homes on Street 57, the shops and cafes on 240, all buzzing with activity, the smell of grilled meat wafting toward you, a snippet of Beyoncé heard in the air.

This, you tell yourself, is Phnom Penh today. And you feel better.



Phnom Penh is easily accessible from most major cities in Southeast Asia, with several nonstop flights each day from Bangkok on Thai, Bangkok or Siem Reap Airways. United States citizens need a Cambodian visa to enter the country. Those can be purchased upon arrival at the airport for $20, but you'll need to bring a passport-size photo. The U.S. dollar is accepted for all financial transactions in Cambodia, and most prices are quoted in dollars.


Raffles Hotel Le Royal, 92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh, (855-23) 981-888; www.phnompenh.raffles.com. This elegant 78-year-old hotel, which reopened in 1997 after a major renovation, is one of Phnom Penh's prime gathering spots. On weekends, the lushly landscaped pool area is often crowded with expatriates who come to see friends, catch up on local gossip or just hang out with their children. The Elephant Bar is usually jammed as well, particularly at happy hour, and Le Royal restaurant is one of the prettiest (and most expensive) dining establishments in town. Room prices start at about $260 a night, but deep discounts — particularly on the weekend — are often available if you call the reservations desk directly. The hotel also has a business center, but communication with friends back home can be expensive: You'll be charged $1 for every e-mail message sent on the hotel's computers.

The Pavilion, 227 Street 19, (855-23) 222-280; www.pavilion-cambodia.com. A small, but well-appointed boutique hotel a few blocks from the Royal Palace. The lush garden is a popular place for guests to gather for an early-evening cocktail. Double rooms start at $50 a night, and the hotel offers free Wi-Fi access.


Friends, 215 Street 13; (855-23) 426-748; www.streetfriends.org. One of a collection of nonprofit restaurants in the city that employ young Cambodians to help them get started on a career. Among the offerings are an excellent Kkmer seafood soup with lime, and a coconut lime cake with passion fruit syrup. Main courses run about $3 to $5.

Boddhi Tree Umma, 50 Street 113, (855-16) 865-445; www.boddhitree.com. A pleasant garden cafe, across from Tuol Sleng. A Cambodian noodle curry costs about $2.

Foreign Correspondents' Club, 363 Sisowath Quay, (855-23) 724-014. Forget Cambodian (or even Asian) cuisine here: the menu runs more toward pizza, sandwiches and salads. But the real attraction is the open-air setting and the unsurpassed views of the Mekong, plus a chance to mingle with other Western tourists. Main courses $6 to $10.

For truly authentic Khmer cuisine, one must go to nameless little places all over town where you'll spend less than a dollar — but it might not be advisable to ask just exactly what this meat you are eating is. A more upscale (and perhaps less-adventurous) alternative is Malis, 136 Norodom Boulevard, (855-23) 221-022, highly recommended by locals for its expertly prepared contemporary and traditional Khmer cuisine served in an elegant garden setting. Dinner for two should run about $30.

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