Our arrival in Phnom Penh this time was practically the antithesis of our experience the first time that I came here. Then, we arrived in a shared taxi from Kampot which dropped us off directly into the maelstrom of Dang Kor market, in the midst of a mob of moto drivers who had followed the taxi in for the last two or three hundred metres, hammering on the windows as they tried to get the attention of the passengers inside.
This time, we came by air. We were processed swiftly through immigration by a small battalion of blue-jacketed customs officers (and a visa here cost exactly the stated price, with no additional gratuities to be paid to the issuing officer), and stepped out of the arrival hall to find Kday waiting for us with the Landcruiser, ready to drive us into town in air-conditioned comfort.
The first couple of kilometres of the airport road reinforced the initial impression, but thereafter Phnom Penh began to reassert itself the way that I remembered it. The nocturnal life of the city – a swarm of motos weaving and buzzing about the car, the throngs of people squatting on the sidewalks or clustered around roadside food stalls, the general buzz of South-East Asia after dark – reasserted itself. As we entered the city, we slowed for a police checkpoint, where a truckload of uniformed cops were diligently checking cars and motos for firearms. The white Landcruiser was waved on without a second glance, but a black car ahead of us was pulled over for a more thorough search.
“Gangsters drive black cars?” inquired M. brightly.
“No,” said Kday.
Given the degree of overlap between the two groups, I thought this was a nice distinction, but evidently Cambodians are attuned to finer differences than we are.
When we reached R.’s house in Prek Leap, the lights were all out. Phnom Penh has been experiencing rolling powercuts which are never announced or explained, but which threaten to grow worse as the temperature rises and those who have air-conditioners turn them on. We picked our way around cautiously in the darkness, fearful that any patch of shadow might turn out to be R.’s psychotic dog, who responds poorly to being trodden on.
I say ‘psychotic’, but in fairness to Giggy, although she has a bad reputation for biting chunks out of people, she is revered by R.’s neighbors for her snake-killing prowess and her immense intelligence. The latter is proven by the fact that understands English, no small feat for a Cambodian dog.
By day, Phnom Penh was as I remembered it. The buildings seemed a little dustier, the strata of garbage a little thicker, but as Phnom Penh is not a city that picks up its trash very often, the new may simply have piled up on top of the old. Certainly, some of it looked strangely familiar, making me wonder if it had been there when I last visited a year and a half before.
Phnom Penh is a difficult city to love. To say that it is squalid, noisy and dirty is no more than the truth. Excepting the improbable fluted fairytale spires of the Royal Palace and the occasional wat, there is little that stands out from the general tangle of haphazard architecture. There are no quiet, sheltered streets or serene, majestic avenues – the big boulevards like Monivong or Confederation de la Russie are too permanently choked with snarling motos to qualify. Even the riverside esplanade along the lower reaches of Preah Sisowath seems to have largely given up its ambitions of elegance. Only sometimes at dusk the swarms of motos buzzing past the waterfront cafes hint at a species of vibrancy and dynamism that by day looks like mere chaos.
That said, it remains a fascinating city, but one that is almost impossible to capture in images or words. The visitor’s eye or camera is led to the landmarks, to the swirling motorized chaos of the streets or to grotesque images of poverty – ragged families camped out by the river, crippled children lunging through the murderous traffic in tiny wheelchairs in pursuit of tourists, the dilapidated shacks perched on stilts over pools of stagnant water. But these things are only half the story. A complete picture would have to include the elegant Thai-style mansions that the nouveau-riche are building for themselves, the roadside telephone stands with their strings of calling cards and single mobile telephone waiting on its charger for the next customer, the well-appointed private schools with their signs promising – in the words of one –
“the hope of education”. It would have to include the sight of a schoolboy washing and drinking from the hose that waters the coarse lawn in the centre of a traffic circle down by the Japanese Friendship Bridge, a group of novice monks with yellow parasols marching in line ahead and pausing for alms at each shop in turn, an elderly American woman perched side-saddle on a moto with her handbag clutched daintily in front of her, four roasted and lacquered pigs as brown and polished as fine wood hung head down from a spit, their open mouths grinning crookedly in death. And no matter how many images you throw in, the picture remains incomplete.