Over the past ten days I have had highs and lows and things have not gone to plan (do they ever?). Alas, it is my second-to-last day in scorching Phnom Penh before heading to Bali where at least I have some friends. Cue violins. I have spent countless hours scurrying around the streets of central PP, with my mind in a near-constant state of comparison – the city I came to know and love a few years ago and the city as it is now.
The changes are obvious and predictable. They are more or less from my own subjective point of view. Slightly rundown yet charming traditional structures have been bulldozed and replaced with towering apartment buildings and office blocks. The unique Khmer and colonial-inspired architecture is being replaced with slabs of glass, steel and stacco. Cranes line the horizon and everyday at 7am I am woken up incessant banging, crashing, and hammering in the name of progress.
I type this from a brand new Scandinavian-inspired Starbucks, one of only three in the city (all new). It is huge and probably a little neighborhood of family-owned and operated businesses were demolished. I hope, at least, this gentrification of an entire city has some trickle down effect and offers opportunities to those less fortunate.
Unfortunately, there are still the “couples” of old, overweight, unattractive western men and extremely young Cambodian girls seen in bars, restaurants, hotels and just walking around the downtown area and along Riverside. There are beggars and street urchins and I’m ashamed to say I walked right on by one young screaming child that had been abandoned on the street.
As a traveling introvert, it’s hard to meet people, but luckily I did encounter some interesting expats through yoga and capoeira: a Ukrainian architect, a Brazilian NGO consultant, an Australian NGO worker, a yoga teacher who is the daughter of Cambodia’s most revered architect. All seem to be happy enough. And the French. There are so many Frenchies here, not surprising given the colonial connection.
The locals are still kind, sweet, friendly and curious. The groups of men who sit outside cafes compulsively smoking and yelling are not so endearing, however. Neither are the tuk-tuk drivers who are constantly on the lookout for their next passenger. There’s still some kind of racial hierarchy: the lighter, whiter-skinned Cambodians don’t do the dirty work. The darker-skinned Cambodians from the provinces seem to be the ones banging away shirtless at the Chinese-owned construction companies day and night.
This time, I haven’t been out to the slums, where the roads are strewn with trash and people live under tarpaulin tents. I can only hope that some of the development the country is experiencing is being channelled into the areas and people that need it most.