A Mildly Uninspired Afternoon in Phnom Penh


There’s not a hell of a lot to say about Phnom Penh, really. You’ve seen one hardscrabble, impoverished, backward, big, poor, provincial city in Southeast Asia, you’ve seen Phnom Penh – except this one is a national capital.

Phnom Penh is the place on the globe most exactly opposite in every way to Vienna. It’s haphazard as Vientiane, the capital of Laos, but it’s ten times the size. It has a sort of genial, low-rise sprawl that wanders on into the outskirts until you find yourself in uninterested rabble and uninspired local markets with livestock in between.

We hired a Corolla and pointed our way down Preah Monivong onto Mao Tse Tung Street. The official street signs look official, but behind them on the sides of buildings you get an occasional peek at the French colonial “Rue Mao Tse Tung” versions, in peeling paint.

Mao Street itself, as we swung right onto it, greeted us as a warehouse district stocking steel bars, tubes, channels and shapes, and then PVC pipe and tubing. It stretched several kilometers this way, away from the river, and while most businesses were open air, there were occasional enclosed A/C restaurants, the odd “hand phone” shop, and a bright new sleek Intercontinental Hotel.

I pondered the Suki Soup Wedding Hall.

Phnompenh2 The drive was more of an amble, even when the road was flat, maybe thirty-five kilometers an hour, because of the crush of scooters and the vague driving rules. The Cambodian left turn across traffic is really a gentle, gradual veer that can take up hundreds of feet and introduces oncoming traffic directly into your lane at any given moment.

The third road off Mao Street wasn’t really tarmac, and with rainwater filling the pot holes, it’s a marvel how the scooter riders’ clothes stayed spotless.

I’m a little disturbed how under-disturbed I was by the Cheong Ek Genocidal Center. It’s a simple place with a glass stupa filled with skulls, and clothing in the bottom, and sections like “elderly woman” and “young man.”

We took pictures of monks taking pictures of themselves. There was a souvenir shop. How garish. It just had all the usual stuff, and “Beware Land Mines” t-shirts and “Pol Pot Money.”

It took almost an hour to get out the fifteen kilometers to Cheong Ek, and the same to get back.

– From the archives, impressions of a previous trip to Cambodia. Click the photos to make them bigger, and see more photos in the Cambodia Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

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