Phnom Penh is a city seriously misunderstood.
When visiting Southeast Asia, tourists expect two things from Cambodia: The ruins of Angkor Wat, and the Killing Fields. After booking their flight to Siem Reap and their bus to the beach, they plan to pop into the dusty and chaotic city of Phnom Penh for a few nights—no more—to tour the Killing Fields and have a beer overlooking the Mekong River.
I have news. Phnom Penh is so much more than the Killing Fields. It is a city in renaissance. A city overflowing with a culture unlike any other in the world.
Sure, the roads are a bit busy and the air a bit humid. Phnom Penh is a city of 2 million people.
When you visit Phnom Penh, you walk the pebbled streets of smiling women scrubbing pots and brushing the hair of baby girls.
You wave at the moto drivers playing chess on the street corner and they wave back. When you visit Phnom Penh, you giggle with the girls in the market as you try on clothes that obviously don’t fit.You are invited to play games in the street. You taste countless different types of sour soups and steaming curries. You never knew a noodle could be cooked so many ways. You never thought flowers could smell so sweet or fruit could be so fresh. You take a selfie with your lover in the moonlight, and look behind your shoulder to see a young Cambodian couple doing the exact same thing. You hear men singing as they pedal their bicycles past you as you walk home from the market. Teenagers sip bubble tea as they get a manicure for a weekend wedding. You try to photograph the architecture of the wooden Cambodian houses peeking out alongside the French colonial facades, but you realize that your camera can never capture the creeping vines, the butterflies, the shadows, the tiles, the apsara dancers carved in wood, the smell of the incense. And when you fall asleep, you dream of the people who were so patient with you in a place where you are so clearly a foreigner.
Phnom Penh is not a place to be “done”. It is not a place to ask, “Is it worth it?” When you go to Phnom Penh, you need to slow down, take a deep breath, and look around you. I have lived here for two years and I am surprised every day.
When my family came to visit, I wanted to show them a part of the city neither of us had experienced before. I had seen the cyclos looping around Wat Phnom on Saturday afternoons, and knew there was a pretty popular cyclo tour. After a quick visit to the Khmer Architecture Tours website, I knew it would be the perfect way to spend the morning.
There were seven of us: Sean and I, my dad and sister, my aunt and her two friends. We arrived at eight in the morning to a group of men in lime green t-shirts and white hats. They didn’t speak English, and my Khmer small-talk is brutal. We had a tour guide who was a recent graduate of Phnom Penh University with a major in architecture. Our sunscreen on, and our introductions complete, we set off to learn more about the architecture of Phnom Penh.
Our first stop was at a Chinese temple, one of the few in the city.
The temple had a few people praying or making offerings. There is a large Chinese-Cambodian presence, and many Cambodians identify as both Chinese and Cambodian to a certain extent.
The streets weren’t crowded as we cruised along, seven cyclos in a row. I can’t imagine what someone sitting in a barbershop must have thought when they saw us filter past!
We stopped at an old Jesuit church that has now been converted into housing. Before this tour, I had no idea how complicated housing is here in Phnom Penh. During the Khmer Rouge, people were marched out of the city and the houses became abandoned. After the Khmer Rouge, people returned to an empty city to try and rebuild their lives. The government passed a new law which said that if you inhabited a place for one year, then it legally became your property, and you were the rightful owner to sell it as you pleased. This presented a real problem. Imagine that you were forced to leave your home during the Khmer Rouge, crossed the border into Thailand, and were finally able to return three years later. You are dropped off on your street. Not only does everything look different, but you walk up to your door, and a stranger opens the door. Your house does not belong to you. However, the new owner is “so kindly willing” to sell your house back to you, if you can agree on a price.
The whole system is terribly flawed, and shattered the lives of thousands. They not only lost their loved ones, but their houses were now “owned” by strangers.This church had room after room that had been cobbled together and built on top of each other. The church can’t be taken over by one dominant person as each room is independently owned by the people who resettled there after the Khmer Rouge.
The tour was fantastic not only because of the history and the architecture, but I had never seen Phnom Penh from the viewpoint of sitting inside a cyclo.
Each bike was a testament to the life of the man who drove it. You could tell they were meticulously crafted and continued to be cared for. These cyclos are the cadillacs of the city, man. Not to mention one of the drivers who really enjoyed saying, “Ooh la la” to make us laugh. At the end of the day, we said goodbye to our guide and our drivers, our minds full of awe at this city and it’s hidden alleys, temples, and histories that we never knew existed.
If you have the chance, come to Phnom Penh. And stay a while. I’ll take you to my favorite neighborhood. You’ll meet some really great people. It’s a hard place not to love.