Pnom Penh, back in 1993, and at the turn of 2012.

In March 1993, I was in Bangkok, about half-way through a backpacking tour of South East Asia, when I met some travelers headed for Cambodia. At the time, the mention of Cambodia brought forth thoughts of civil war, mass killings, and land mines ; Pol Pot was still alive, and the Khmer Rouge actively blowing up trains and generally trying to disrupt the fragile peace accord signed in 1991, along with the incoming UN-administered elections. Opinions in the Bangkok guest-house were divided : some thought the situation too volatile to risk going there, while the rest was inclined to override such concern and just go, ’cause, hey! what an adventure!

I was crazy (or wise) enough to belong to the second category, and so, boarded an old Russian plane from Kampuchea Airlines and landed (after being thoroughly shaken, stirred and smothered in thick white fumes) in Pnom Penh’s dust and heat. I have unearthed my journal, and translated some excerpts. On a side note, this was before the digital age, so the number of pictures is limited, as is the quality, I’m afraid. I regret that, and it’s made me realize, more than ever, how much easier and convenient things have become for travelers, nowadays. We can carry hundreds of pictures on a card the size of a thumbnail, as opposed to loading film rolls, having to protect them from rain and dust and sand by storing them in Ziplock pouches, etc. Not to mention the comfort of being able to take a picture, check if it’s any good, and simply delete and start again when it isn’t. But let’s return to Cambodia, in the spring of 1993.

“Pnom Penh is a vast pile of ruins with, here and there, an old, crumbling colonial mansion emerging from the rubbles, a glimpse of splendors past. 

The streets are mostly dirt tracks with some paved avenues and lots of two or three-wheel-vehicles sputtering along as they carry as many passengers and merchandises as possible: strange bicycles fitted with a second saddle lower than the first one, side-cars, cyclo-pousses, and motorcycles. In fact, when we want to go somewhere, we just stand on the side of the street or the road and within seconds, someone stops and offers to take us wherever we want to – for a little money, of course. Moto-taxis. Sometimes, communication is easy, as when our young driver spoke English and explained to us that his parents had been killed by the Pol Pot regime and he’d had to interrupt his studies in Mathematics. Other times, they don’t understand us any more than we understand them, and we have to rely on body language and lots of finger-pointing, as we try to find our destination : no small feat when, like me, the orientation fairy forgot to show up at your cradle. But we always end up where we meant to, if not by the most direct route.

I don’t believe there’s more than two or three traffic lights in the whole of Pnom Penh. People just launch themselves onto the road, and the strongest or fastest wins. To this sputtering chaos, we must add hundreds of ubiquitous white Land Cruisers and trucks with the painted black UN logo on their sides. They’re everywhere. […]

It is brutally hot, dusty, and a rats’ playground. Lots of signs in French, and lots of French restaurants I cannot afford. BUT there is the baguette – without salt, alas! which renders it rather tasteless. With some Vache qui rit (my food staple, here, along with heavenly mangoes, as the food in the streets is rather unpalatable and boring – I love noodle soup, but to a point), it works fine. […]

What is striking is how young people are. You don’t see many old men or women around. Children. Women. And young men. […]

There is a feeling of excitement in the air laced with an undercurrent of fear, as if we’re sitting on a volcano, with no way of knowing whether it is extinct or might erupt at any moment. Hope is strong, almost palpable, and yet shadowed with uncertainty… at the elections, reports of Khmer Rouge bombings here an there, the situation with Vietnam.” […]

“People are extraordinarily nice. They smile constantly. Children run to or after us, laughing and shouting “Hello!”.”

The picture above was taken by the stadium, where families seemed to camp out on mats. And always, always, smiles and laughter.

And a view of the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda, from what was then called Lenin Boulevard.

We were allowed to see the gorgeous murals depicting scenes from the Reamker, which is the Khmer version of the Ramayana, inside the Silver Pagoda’s compound.

But in order to see the Silver Pagoda and the Emerald Buddha, an official authorization from the Ministry of Information and Culture was needed. My fellow travelers were much amused when I devoted the next two days to trying to get said authorization. I ended up having long conversations with government officials, usually in French, and they must have laughed a lot, as they sent me from one office to another, from one ministry to another (Department of conversation of monuments, Ministry of Information and Culture, and a few in between – that only was an adventure, as many of the signs for said ministries were written in Khmer), maybe knowing all the time that I would never get said authorization. I don’t know. I didn’t get to see the Silver Pagoda, but in spite of my disappointment, the quest was fun.

I finally entered the Silver Pagoda, this time around. The Emerald Buddha is gorgeous, but the famed solid silver tiles covering the floor are now entirely hidden under carpets. We lifted a corner and saw a few underneath. Oh well ! I’d waited eighteen years to see them, so the reality couldn’t possibly match what I had imagined all this time, anyway.

And now, a few pictures of Pnom Penh, this time in December 2011.

I loved the energy, in Pnom Penh. The city is very different from what I described in my journal. Except for the people smiling. Things work, the food is great, and I loved walking along the Tonle Sap river, on the Croisette, and seeing Cambodians enjoy the evening as they sit about, watch the world go by, exercise with a boom box or on the machines available to all, or buy offerings for the temples. Our stay there was ridiculously brief – about 36 hours, we spent much more time in Siem Reap – to be able to say much more, but it is the kind of place I could totally see myself settling in.

Next post, we’ll travel to Siem Reap, and again, back in time.