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Posted by Tim on Feb 10, 2006
Snapshots of the City

Klaus, Jessica and I spent a few days in Kampot after our adventure up at Bokor Hill, and became entirely bewitched by the slow pace of provincial life there. That, however, is a story we'll return to another time.

The three of us were on the road again. Next stop: Phnom Penh.

It's a fascinating city, one that's only just now beginning to rise from its own ashes. Forcibly emptied of its one million inhabitants (plus two million refugees) by the Khmer Rouge in 1975, it spent the next 45 months as a veritable ghost town. By the late 1980s you were still more likely to encounter cattle than cars on its streets.

But now things have really started moving. No other place we've seen looks so destined for radical change in the years ahead. Phnom Penh is finally getting to its feet. ATMs arrived here just a couple of months ago: skyscrapers can't be far behind.

An Avalanche of Metal

So many of the stereotypes we had about this city have proven to be 100% wrong: in particular, our fear that it would be a dangerous city. Not in the slightest.

Well, except for the traffic. The traffic here really does need to be seen to be believed.

It's not that there's more of it than in, for instance, Bangkok (nowhere close, in fact). It's just that there aren't any rules here. Bangkok traffic might not at first glance appear to be the most orderly traffic in the world, but compared to Phnom Penh it's downright boring.

There are a handful of traffic lights in town, but they're treated mostly as a sort of playful suggestion by the public at large. Putting too much trust in them, and in the people around you paying any attention to them, is at best hopelessly naive and at worst suicidal.

Traffic here is about 60% motorcycles, 20% bicycles, 15% cyclos (a bicycle "taxi" with a covered seat mounted in front of the bike), and 5% enourmous SUVs. It is also 100% homicidal. Look both ways (hell, looking up isn't a bad idea) at all times and in all places: don't trust that cars and motorcycles won't unexpectedly come from the wrong direction, or suddenly mount the sidewalk for no apparent reason whatsoever.

In my experience, if you just behave as if you're convinced that they're all actively trying to kill you, you'll be fine.

Escalators and Elevators

Phnom Penh is the heart of the New Cambodia, a place where change is rolling in at a rate that can be a touch dizzying to the some of its residents. This is best illustrated by two rather adorable examples.

The Sorya Shopping Center, built a year or two ago, is the pinnacle of modern shopping in Phnom Penh. A world removed from the cramped stalls at the Russian market with their dirt-cheap DVDs and t-shirts, the Sorya is a modern mall in every sense. The most endearing thing about it to us, though, is the escalators. The shopping center is five stories tall, massive for this low-rise city, and it comes with the first escalators in the country. A number of Camodians have never before seen stairs that move on their own (we saw two middle-aged men that seemed absolutely terrified riding them), and so the Sorya offers "escalator trainers". These mall employees wait at the base of each escalator, ready to help anyone who appears stymied at the sight of them.

All of this brings to mind a story we were told by our friend Joe, proprieter of the "Red Sun Falling" restaurant in Kratie. He told us about a time a few years ago when he traveled to Phnom Penh with a friend of his, a Cambodian who had never been to the city before. They checked in to a fairly nice hotel, and Joe led his friend to the elevator and pushed the number for their floor.

When the doors closed, his friend looked around at the elevator worriedly. He cleared his throat.

"Joe," he asked hesitantly, "is this our room?"

He'd never been in an elevator before, never even heard of one. Chuckling, Joe explained to him that it wasn't their room, that they were just riding it up to another floor. When the doors opened on the sixth floor, his friend was atonished to see they were on a different floor.

According to Joe, he spent the next hour riding the elevator.

I Get By With a Little Help From my Friends

We ate a large percentage of our meals in Phnom Penh at Seng Sokhom, a lovely little local restaurant just down the street from our hotel. When we wanted to treat ourselves a little, though, we wandered over to the neighborhood beside the National Museum, to eat at an amazing little outfit there called Friends.

Friends is run by a Cambodian NGO of the same name (Mith Samlanh in Khmer), one dedicated to saving the nation's children. Over 1,800 children a day throughout Cambodia participate in one or another of its programs: everything from HIV awareness and drug-prevention workshops to primary education and vocational training. 250 children, who would otherwise be homeless, live full-time at their community residential center.

Their flagship program is the Friends restaurant. The entire staff here is composed of "students" (reformed street children), overseen by a few "teachers" (often graduates of the Friends program themselves). They are the waiters, the cooks, the dishwashers. They painted the art hanging on the walls and sewed the cushions on the seats. From next door, the sounds of dozens of children playing at the attached community center floats through the window. Everything is soaked in an atmosphere of hope and determination I can't begin to describe.

It is hands-down the best service we've ever had. I've never seen a group of people so emotionally invested in doing a fantastic job. The food, too, is nothing less than spectacular: we'd constantly be wondering if we should order what we'd had before (because it was so good) or whether we should order something new (because everything was that good). And as for those raspberry shakes, in the suffocating heat of a Cambodian midday... there are no words.

And the thing is, none of that is the reason you go there. You don't go there because the food and the service are the best in the city. You go there because it makes you feel so good. You go there because every penny made is going to help more kids like these. You go there because of the way your waiter lights up when you tell him how good the food was. You go there because you don't want to imagine what his life would be like without this wonderful place.*

*The meals we had at Friends were made possible by the generous support of Diana McGregor, a woman who has spent much of her life helping the young people in need around her. Thank you, Swany, for everything.

Warts and All

A lot of people don't like Phnom Penh. Half the roads are dirt and gravel, the traffic is chaotic, the riverside is unappealing, and the open sewers can be absolutely nauseating in the baking heat.

Most travelers tend to pop in just long enough to see the major sights, get the bejeesus scared out of them by the traffic, and move on. Not us. Ever the lazy, slow-moving hedgehogs, we spent 13 days there.

We quickly fell in love with this quirky place. Sure, it can be tiring and a little overwhelming at times. But it's also fun, and energized, and safe, and just incredibly happy. In the face of all the tragedy that unfolded there not so long ago, it really is a remarkably happy place. And that's nothing short of a miracle.

And then something else happened. Just as with so many other stops on our trip, Phnom Penh came in time to feel like home. And it's a home I look forward to returning to someday.

February 10, 2006 at 8:32am
Awwwww… I am totally checking out the "Friends" thing – what a fantastic organization.

Love the photo here with the monk (?) and umbrella. '-)

Miss you guys…!

February 10, 2006 at 9:37am
the restaurant sounds amazing, such an important and affirming thing. and the elevator and escalator stories are indeed adorable. beautiful pictures. :)
February 10, 2006 at 9:54am
Something tells me that I too would be terrified of the escalators since I seem to have some electronic form of climacaphobia (or however ya spell it). The traffic also sounds terrifying, but I think crashing your car into a ravine can prepare you for this kind of terror.

The resturant sounds absolutely delightful and I'm so happy that you are experiencing such wonderful things! May your adventures never end and may you always be happy wherever you go. :)

If I don't hear from you two before V-Day then have an awesome V-Day for me. TTFN! --– Magz

February 10, 2006 at 10:44am
Wow, sounds like Phnom Penh has changed dramatically since I was there in 2002, which is great news! I'll have to go back again some day. Can't wait to hear about how much you enjoy Siem Reap & Angkor Wat. :) Say hi to Saron for me, if you see him.
Oh, and just wait for the traffic in Saigon…haha
February 10, 2006 at 6:45pm
All I can remember is the faces of war in black and white, and stories from old friends who did nasties there. It is so heartening to reafirm the fact that people are able to overcome even the most devastating obstacles.
February 10, 2006 at 8:55pm
Such a great trip you guys are on, love the photos and stories! Be safe.
other jess
February 11, 2006 at 4:21pm
Thought you guys might be amused: it is snowing like all heck here and we're due to get about a foot of accumulation by the end of tomorrow. Like being in a snow globe. I just walked into work catching flakes on my tongue.

Escalators were a huge treat for me as a kid – I understand the initial mix of terror and delight.

Phnom Penh traffic sounds like a video game.

February 15, 2006 at 7:05am
I knew that road sign would make a cool banner for this page :) Looking forward to meeting up with you guys in Laos
Klaus, from Manado/Indonesia
February 15, 2006 at 1:37pm
huk wang doo…thats what a said before..

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