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. Baloney.
After three weeks of walking the streets, feeling the pulse and breathing Phnom Penh’s unique smog, slightly redolent of smoke and dust sometimes coupled with sewage and garbage, it still looks and feels mostly the same. And this city has a powerful institutional memory, a capacity to recall its residents and keep connected to people who made an effort to learn something about this weird and wonderful place. While walking from our hotel for coffee one morning, I was approached by a tuk tuk driver on the corner of Street 51. “You want tuk tuk, brother?” he asked, playfully grabbing my chest with one hand and slapping my butt with the other. Where else on earth would a perfect stranger breach your personal space in such an inoffensive, engaging way? Nowhere, and at this point I think I know of which I speak. And that’s one of the things we love. The “Oh, you look so fat today!” comments, along with the questions about cost, health a host of other subjects that are clearly off limits in the West. Here, asking personal questions and exchanging information is like talking politics in Massachusetts: a god-given right. So I’m back in love with Cambodia, where orange-clad monks stroll the sparkling aisles of the Aon Mall, and where the nightly cacophony of feral cats makes us smile and sends us to dreamland. Where the locals greet another challenging day of adversity with smiles on their faces, bounces in their steps and a profound sense of hope that something good will come their way. Where deep disappointment walks side by side with opportunity and promise, and where the seasons come and go with metronomic predictability, much like the annual changing of the mighty Tonle Sap River’s direction come rainy season. One day last week I rented a mountain bike, plunked down the 500 riel (12.5 cents) for a ferry ride across the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers, and disappeared into the mango groves and vegetable plots of Kandal Province. Aside from a few signs of progress (a paved main road replacing a rutted, dusty path; new petrol stations where once stood rusty oil cans full of diluted fuel) life has continued unabated in this quiet rural oasis only 20 minutes from bustling Phnom Penh.
I smile as I look around at the crowd of people on the boat, the only foreigner in a wash of reed thin travelers either going to market or home. There are men with knockoff Armani shirts, some with “Glock” proudly displayed along with a handgun graphic. Young women avoid eye contact and fret with their frilly blouses that fall over fashionable jeans. The chaotic, unscripted ballet of life marches on. Once again, I am reminded how much we have to learn from a people that we from countries of wealth and power have spent decades and billions to “educate” and “help progress.” There’s a simple predictability here, a backdrop of gentleness that clashes mightily with the sensory overload, alarming disparity of wealth and, at times, shocking brutality. But I know it, feel its pulse, and I love it. Give me the tangle of electrical and telephone wires over buried fiber optic cables. I’ll take the barefoot monks seeking morning alms over religious charlatans espousing their dogma to willing TV audiences. I even prefer the horribly corrupt government here that unabashedly steals from its people in full view of the world while issuing lie-pocked statements to government-controlled media: at least you know where they stand, and there’s little pretense of fairness or, as my friend Sarath refers to it, “Demo-crazy.” I can banter with tuk tuk drivers, haggle with vendors in the markets and frighten children in the provinces by speaking to them in their own tongue, concluding most conversations with smiles and well wishes as strangers part company. It’s 6 a.m., and Phnom Penh is awakening. A woman is wildly flapping her arms on the side of Street 222, her morning exercise regimen, and a man is sweeping leaves from the walk outside his home with a broom made out of reeds. In the distance, the tinkle tinkle of Khmer music from a nearby temple as Buddhism calls its people to worship. This place feels like home, and it’s calling us back.