How odd that Phnom Penh should feel so much like home. And yet, how perfect.
This place of bizarre contrasts both beautiful and horrible, with its smiling, struggling people and endless flatlands of rice paddies, dust and sun-baked vistas, welcomed us back to its bosom like a mother embracing her baby after a period of separation. It’s been a year, but it feels like we never left.
Awakening to the sounds of birds singing, a familiar warble unlike the call of any birds I’ve heard elsewhere, I began the day with a smile on my face. It’s one of the unique sounds of the city that resonate within my soul and touch my heart with a familiar, comfortable yearning. The quiet side streets echo with the calls of lonely vendors selling coconuts, bread and rice noodle soup, while the city’s major arteries pulsate with endless streams of motorbikes, tuk tuks, cyclist, cars, buses and the brilliantly polished chariots of the rich and powerful: expensive SUVs emblazoned with Range Rover, Lexus and Cadillac.
BMWs are showing up more frequently since we left; a dealership opened last year near the airport, penetrating a market of wealthy Cambodians ever poised to strut about with the latest in material goods. Opulence speaks a special dialect here, and those fortunate enough to possess its vocabulary scream it all day and night without restraint or shame. Last week, the son of a Cambodian tycoon crashed his $200,000 Mercedes Benz coupe into a parked SUV while speeding through the Wat Phnom section of the city in the morning’s wee hours. His family, alerted to the accident, scurried to the scene and dispatched the unfortunate SUV’s owner and onlookers with enough cash to seal their mouths and put the matter permanently to rest.
We had been warned that the city has changed in a year. That traffic is worse, that the unrestricted construction had changed the skyline, and that the obscene Aon mall had corrupted the landscape and had begun to choke small businesses throughout the city.