Phnom Penh Penumbra

My place in Phnom Penh is just around the corner from the Independence Monument, so a little hike from the bars and clubs uptown at Riverside more normally associated with the city.  I am technically in the Tonle Bassac commune of Chamkar Mon district, but to all intents and purposes spend most time in Boeung Keng Kang 1 commune, or more normally BKK1 or, sometimes disparagingly, “NGO Land”.  It is true there are a lot of NGOs in the area.  There are two on my nearest corner.  A huge rambling place is given over to the local branch of Birdlife International, a complex global organisation with an annual budget of around £11 million.  Next to that there is a French education aid group.  To be fair, there are also a lot of Government offices in the area, like the Department of Higher Education for which I work about a seven minute walk from the house.

Because of this profile the area has a profusion of small hotels, restaurants, cafes and bars, growing all the time: in the past few weeks a new restaurant has opened a couple of doors up in my normally sleepy street, and another has relocated from uptown to go in opposite.  Right across from me two houses are being turned into a boutique hotel (the local tuktuk drivers tell me), and I suspect something else might be coming in next door.  The centre of all this activity in BKK1 is Street 278 otherwise known as Golden Street because all the guesthouses are named Golden something.  The streets nearby all have offerings as well, but 278 is at the heart of it.  Some more intriguing places are found up some of the quieter streets, like the expat lunch hangout just around from the office in Street 306 or the very suave Le Sauvignon wine bar in Street 302.  There is an upmarket feel to all this.

Yet close by sit all the contradictions that are modern Phnom Penh and, for that matter, Cambodia.  Having done the daily hazard run otherwise known as crossing at the traffic lights on Norodom Boulevard, as I walk towards the office I always look across to the shops that sell the marvellous little and not so little Buddhist offering houses that go in every office and home.  Most days I will see a small truck pulled up amidst the traffic snarl, its occupants struggling to manhandle a new offering house or a massive, beatific Buddha head into position.  Behind all this is a small pagoda, and to the right of the shops there is a little laneway.

It is tight, crowded, clean but dusty in the Asian way and, in the wet season, more of a water course than a thoroughfare.  In little workshops on either side stand wonderful Buddhas and other religious icons.  Some are still in the original gray concrete or stone colour, but others are painted in the bright colours that mark Buddhist places.  The craftspeople in these workshops have cramped and basic working conditions, many simply squatting on the ground while tapping away with a chisel or daubing away with a brush.  For many, the workshop is also home, their families crammed into these conditions.  In some a small TV set can be seen carrying the kick boxing bouts, close to the cooking wares placed on gas burners on the floors, many of them earthen.  Kids run about from place to place in this tight little community.

In BKK proper it is easy to forget that the average Cambodian per capita income is now about $US 835 per year and, as in many locations around the world, the temptation is that there are brighter prospects in the brighter lights of a place like Phnom Penh.  This temple community is not one of those incoming groups, but it does demonstrate how the challenges of Cambodia are never far away.  Once through the archway that marks the end of this stretch, for example, a narrow lane to the right very quickly opens up into a broad and leafy avenue lined by very large houses.  Again, some of these belong to NGOs and especially conservation groups as well as better off Cambodians, there is a kindergarten for the locals who can afford that (and many make an effort to do so, seeing education as a key investment in the future), and a café or two is on hand to support these places.  This is in behind another large Buddhist pagoda that also houses a Buddhist university, replete with lovely buildings and a sense of calm.

The contrasts continue walking back up Sothearos Boulevard to head back to the house.  Along the right hand side of this busy road stand several apartment blocks, many of them very up market and at least one brilliantly designed by an Australian architect.  Many of these cost upwards of $2,000 a month, a reminder of the disparities that inevitably exist in a recovering place like Cambodia.  On the other side of the road, near these apartments, there are outdoor barbers and roadside food stalls.  Near these the tuktuk drivers and moto operators will offer their services (and occasionally the services of others, if I can put it that way).  Up from all the apartment buildings, perhaps 300 hundred metres, stand a set of what look like slum tenements that would clearly be condemned in many other places.  Being Cambodia, though, there is inevitably a story here – a friend tells me that this decrepit building (known as “The Building” is an almost rent-free centre for creative artists, its presence stoutly defended by the community.

This is modern Phnom Penh: a colourful if challenged place attempting to come to terms with itself and its future, and where development is a clear if confusing main objective.

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