Explore | Reflections on Cambodia – Part 1: Phnom Penh

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“A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.”

Mahatma Gandhi

I recently returned from a trip to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand and look forward to documenting my experiences in due course (once I’ve gone through my 4000+ photographs).  As I wrote on Instagram…

“I have not fallen for Phnom Penh. I have never seen such poverty; there is rubbish everywhere, people are living in shacks with corrugated iron for walls and roofs, the pollution is so bad that you have to cover your face when walking down the street, in the evening teenager girls sport next-to-nothing and excessive amounts of make-up outside seedy-looking bars, market stall workers prepare and display their wares next to open drainage and toddlers nap, partially-clothed (due to the heat, I presume), on disassembled cardboard boxes whilst their parents work. Yet, unsurprisingly, the affluent are everywhere. Gorgeous, gated mansions and Range Rovers galore dotted around acting as a perfect companion to those living a fabulous life. This disparity between the rich and extreme poor is extremely apparent and, quite frankly, disgusts me.

But the people, oh the people. Their smile is everything. Children shout and giggle “hello” whilst waving rapidly, locals try to speak English and are always curious about who you are and why you chose to visit their city. I will not return to Phnom Penh but I will never forget the kindness of its people.”

I cannot forget that first evening in Phnom Penh when I went in search a cash machine. I strolled through the local market heading towards the river edge. I felt like the only foreigner there, desperately trying to navigate the streets without being knocked over a cyclo or motorcycle and remember the route back to my hotel. I was struck most by the rubbish; mountains of food waste from the market, innumerable potholes filled with water and discarded vegetables, plastic bags galore and yet people worked buying and selling. Men all around me asked “Tuk Tuk, lady?” and market stall workers looked upon me with curiosity. Not fear, distrust or annoyance, just curiosity. As always, I smiled and every single time, they smiled back. An acknowledgment of our mutual existence; inexplicably different yet somehow deeply intertwined.
The very young women, most of whom looked like 12 year old girls, dressed up outside bars (geared towards foreigners) with disco music and opaque glass frontages. I dare not imagine the horrors of the interior. And, I use the word “dressed” very loosely – those poor, young girls sported mini-skirts, bikini tops and more fluorescent make-up than you can imagine. One of them was pressing up against an obese older scumbag whilst her friend sat on his lap. What a desperately sad situation.

The poverty I witnessed did not entice me to visit much of the city. I saw the ostentatious palace, some beautiful temples but it was those warm, curious faces which really made me smile and feel utterly helpless: the paradox of Phnom Penh. Within 24 hours I wanted to leave. To escape the reality of the lives of others. I actually felt quite angry, sad and I still wonder about the little girls I met. They were so sweet and fragile.  I felt shame too. Shame at my privilege, the cost of my trip and the reality that I could escape. I’m fairly engaged in geopolitics, in the disparity between wealthy London and poor Phnom Penh but, as I soon realised, there is a huge difference between reading and even studying about phenomena and physically witnessing it.

One thing which perplexes me even now is how safe I felt. We, in the West, are constantly told how dangerous these developing countries are (as I was by my travel agent, my tour operator and pretty much everybody I told about my trip), how poverty drives people to extreme violence and, whilst statistically this is irrefutable, my own experience offered the reverse experience.  As an independent woman, an introvert and someone who simply enjoys being alone, this notion of having to travel with others to stay safe is seriously frustrating. I think I also come from a place where it’s perfectly normal and acceptable for a woman to be out alone on her own terms. I wouldn’t have gone if I felt the destination conflicted with my personal preferences. I never felt threatened, at risk of mugging or sexual assault. I know the difference a curious glance and a lecherous stare. It surprised me greatly that I felt this very freedom in Cambodia and, indeed, Vietnam. I’ll get to Thailand in another blog post…

I’ve only been to Phnom Penh once so, clearly, I am not an authority on the city. However, my lasting impression was not so positive. If there is only one thing I took from Phnom Penh is the realisation that I have been on holiday to far away lands from Sydney and Tokyo to New York and Bridgetown but I have never travelled. Not really.  I have stayed in to 5* hotels, read the New York Times in a bikini by the pool and sipped cocktails at the bar with a panoramic view for the skyline but, up until this trip, I never saw the countries I visited, never went to poverty-stricken areas or worried too much about the plight of the locals. Absolutely life-changing and for that I remain eternally grateful. My eyes are wide open.

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1 Comment

  1. 13 August 2015 / 07:34

    Oh, how wonderfully written, Milla! (What a coincidence too that I was in Siem Reap weeks before your trip).

    I chose to skip Phnom Penh during my trip after heeding my colleague’s advice. I only had 3 days in Cambodia, so I chose to only remain in Siem Reap.

    Like my past trips to Vietnam and Thailand, Cambodians are always full of smiles. I’ve never really felt like a foreigner there as the locals are so welcoming.

    There were moments when children would beg from money (quite aggressively too), but as advised by my hotel’s staff, I chose not to give anything and continued on my way. It is saddening to see poverty in the streets where a mere $1 could feed a small family.

    My heart would break too if I saw young girls parading themselves like that. Shame on the men who prey on them!

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