City of Contradictions
What can you say about a place where the top two tourist attractions are a torture museum and a genocide memorial?
From early the 1970s through the mid-1990s, the people of Phnom Penh (and all of Cambodia) were brutalized, starved and murdered by their own government while the rest of the world largely looked the other way.
Given the city’s sad recent history, we did not know what to expect – especially since we had to spend five days in Phnom Penh while we waited for our Chinese visas to be processed.
In the 1950s and 60s Phnom Penh was one of Indochina’s most cosmopolitan cities. Some influences from its days as a French colony remain: Wide boulevards, lively restaurants and buzzing nightlife. If you look closely, you can imagine the city it once must have been.
Today the most striking thing about Phnom Penh is the incredible resilience and optimism of its people. During our stay, we met two ordinary people who taught us something about the extraordinary spirit of the Khmer people.
The first we met by chance.
On the night we arrived we emerged from our hotel after dark, searching for a place to eat. We had not yet oriented ourselves to the city and had only a vague idea where we were going.
A tuk-tuk driver approached and offered to drive us wherever we wanted to go, wait for us, and drive us back. When I asked him how much, he said: “You decide.”
He had a nice smile, a gentle manner and spoke pretty good English. We accepted and asked him to take us to Sisowath Quay, the epicenter of tourist nightlife in Phnom Penh.
“My name Lau,” he said.
When he dropped us off at our hotel after dinner he asked: “You need transport tomorrow?” There was something I liked about Lau, so I said yes. We made a plan to meet – and he became our driver for the week.
Lau took us on our errands to the U.S. Embassy and the Chinese Embassy. He took us to the sites in Phnom Penh – the National Museum, the Royal Palace, the Killing Fields, and Tuol Sleng Prison.
And each night, he drove us to dinner and home again. He was a careful driver in a city of insane traffic – always on time, always smiling, always with a kind word.
After our third day together, Lau said: “I want you to meet my family. Will you come?” Dani said: “That is so nice” – which Lau took as yes. “Good,” he said. “Tomorrow then? Two o’clock?”
We nodded, not exactly sure what we had just agreed to.
The next day Lau picked us from our hotel. We drove for about 35 minutes, further and further from the center of the city. Soon we were driving on a narrow dirt lane through a shantytown. People looked at us with curiosity.
I doubt many western tourists had visited their neighborhood.
Eventually Lau stopped the tuk-tuk in front of an opening in a corrugated metal fence. “This my house,” he said. “Come in.”
We walked through the opening in the fence to see a brick and wood shack with a dirt floor. We were greeted by Lau’s wife, son, mother-in-law and a few curious neighbors.
For the next hour and half, Lau interpreted for his family, as we answered and asked questions about our families and our lives. Lau’s wife served us a simple, delicious Khmer meal.
This Cambodian family, living near the edge of poverty, shared what they had with us. It was an experience I’ll never forget.
During our stay in Phnom Penh we also had the opportunity to meet a man named Phannak, owner of the Fancy Guest House, where we stayed.
One evening, sitting in the guest house lobby, Phannak told me his story.
He was born in a small village in northeastern Cambodia, near the Vietnam border. When he was about 8 years old, Pol Pot came to power and began his reign of terror and genocide. Phannak’s aunt and uncle were tortured to death.
In 1979 Pol Pot was driven from power when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia. The Vietnamese captured Phannak’s village, but fortunately he and his remaining family escaped. Ten years later the Vietnamese withdrew, and Phannak made his way to Phnom Penh to find work.
He got a job in a European-owned hotel. He told me: “I did every job in that hotel, from bell boy to night manager. I worked day and night, sometimes 24 hours straight. I saved my money and learned everything about what guests want.”
“When I got married, my wife’s family helped me buy this building and start this hotel. Now I am top-rated on TripAdvisor.”
Phannak said: “I used to be afraid, but I am afraid no more. I have faced my fear. I will take care of my family because I know I will work harder than any man.”
More pictures from Phnom Penh are here.