There’s a quote by Aldous Huxley that reads: “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” Well, I have to disagree with him on this and say that actually, everyone I’ve ever spoken to about Cambodia has hit the nail on the head – everything I’ve heard has turned out to be true.
Before I arrived here, I spoke to others who had spent time in this traumatized nation and absorbed their deluge of stories, advice, opinions and impressions. And for once, other people were right: the HUGE contrast between rich and poor, visible at every turn; the gated, barbed-wired pastel-coloured French colonial mansions towering over ramshackle huts; the gaggles of tuk-tuk drivers loitering on every corner; barefooted street urchins straggle along the busiest areas begging; deep-fried tarantulas and frogs can be bought for lunch at the food stalls that dot the boulevards; Australian biker meth-heads congregate in the seedier bars, accompanied by petite yet hagged woman in black singlets and cut-off denim shorts – the country’s unofficial prostitute uniform.
Like tanks, the SUVs of the world’s largest aid agencies (USAID, UN, WHO) patrol the streets, and with some 3,000 NGOs based in the country, Phnom Penh is home to all manner of idealist, adrenalin cowboy, martyr and saint, all busy tapping away on their silver MacBook Pros in the city’s coolest (in every sense of the word) cafes.
Orange-robbed monks roam the streets, stopping here and there to ask for money and in return, bless the workers as they knell and bow their heads in a show of reverence. They swarm around many of the city’s sprawling temple complexes, almost camouflaged against the glimmering golden spires.
Life happens on the street. Navigating any busy street is like participating in an obstacle course – walking over, around, through and sometimes even under objects as pajama-clad locals go about their daily business of cutting hair, washing their clothes, playing cards, tinkering with their motorcycles, cleaning their babies, slurping noodles, hacking open coconuts with rusty knives and pissing against walls.
Main transportation arteries are congested with herds of tuk-tuks and motorbikes – they come in relentless waves and each attempt to cross the road is an act of pure faith. It is organized chaos where traffic lights and road lines are far and few between.
On the fringes of the relatively wealthy and developed central areas, shoe-less children, sometimes completely naked, armed with only their bruises and scars, rummage through piles of rubbish, searching for something that can be sold. Not too far away will be a few rickety tables and umbrellas, masquerading as a market, with shreds of meat hanging from hooks, providing a veritable feast for the local fly population.
In amongst the dust, dirt, begging children and persistent tuk-tuk drivers are impossible pockets of beauty – large, lush, jungle-worthy trees and plants, boasting blossoming flowers that are so perfect they seem to be manmade – the violet, fuchsia, indigo and lemon colored florets imbue even the bleakest locale and are a good reminder that beauty can thrive anywhere. Even in places where land mine victims, missing a limb or part of their face, besiege and frighten those more fortunate.