Heartbeat of Cambodia

Phnom Penh. The capital city of Cambodia. It is without a doubt one of the most interesting cities we have been to yet. It is a city full of life, culture, history as well as intrigue and mystery. A lot has gone down in Phnom Penh but from the looks of it, the city has a bright future. Signs of investment and development are everywhere. The streets, cafes and bars are nearly full with a mix of locals, expats, NGO workers, and international travelers -and it is off season here.

There is a good vibe in Phnom Penh. However, sitting on the rooftop of the Foreign Correspondent’s Club, drinking a beer while watching the sun set over the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers, you can’t help but wonder if the vibe is genuine. In my own lifetime, a westerner not unlike myself was probably sitting on a similar rooftop patio only to be caught up in and witness to one of the worst genocides the region and world has ever seen. I won’t go into much detail about what happened under the reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, but if you ever visit Phnom Penh, make sure to stop by Tuol Sleng Museum. It is disturbing, but something everyone should see. If you fancy learning about what happened here in less intense fashion, try picking up a copy of Cambodia: Year Zero or Brother Number One: A Political Biography.

Things have changed a lot since those days and the country has made some giant leaps, but the gap between the rich and the poor is very apparent and political conversation is still extremely taboo. There is some sense of political and thus overall stability under the current government led by the Cambodian People’s Party which captured 98 percent of the vote in the last election. Rumor has it that some of the CPP’s success may be due in part though to the current prime minister hinting at the possibility of another civil war if his party were to ever loose. Given what Cambodians have gone through in their history, war of any kind is the last thing people want.

Nonetheless, the people of Phnom Penh, and Cambodia in general, are amazing, and the city is buzzing with life. A modern international airport welcomes those traveling by plane. Lexus SUV’s share the road with cyclos, motorbikes and pushcarts. The riverfront park along Sisowath Quay is filled everyday with people either out for a stroll, enjoying a picnic or relaxing in the cooler evening air with their families. Hip Italian and Spanish wine bars share small alleyways with French restaurants and Khmer street vendors. The markets are a treasure seeker’s dream and there is a plethora of other activities to occupy your time… everything from floating down the Mekong to rooting for your favorite Cambodian kickboxer at the local stadium. Most people seem to be having a great time and enjoying life and for their sake and the sake of the country, I hope it lasts well into the future.