Welcome to Phnom Penh

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Travel  |  House: Booksie Classic
I visited Phnom Penh, Cambodia a few months ago. It was a trip that was the result of a growing interest in its history and ended up being a very profound experience. This is a short reflective article which will serve as a general primer. It is not a detailed travellogue.

Submitted: December 23, 2013

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Submitted: December 23, 2013

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What can I write about Cambodia that has not been written already? What can, I, a layman who has been to Phnom Penh just once, for all of three days, write that has not already, pardon the pun, been done to death?

It has been six months since I visited Phnom Penh, the capital of a country settled within my soul. I visited Cambodia only because of what I had read and the way Haing Ngor's book affected me, a book I picked up simply because of the stunning reviews it had garnered on various websites. As a casual tourist, its wounded soul, resting under the surface but one that needs to be prised open gently, would have escaped me. 

The three months that preceded that trip were among the most intense of my life, a period in which I discovered how much I was unaware of and the depths of emotion one can be capable of, especially to events one has no plausible connection with. I came face to face with the limitless extent of man’s capacity for harming another in ways I could not have dreamed of and with the power play of international politics. In the middle of stories of terror, soul scarring pain and unrelenting tragedy, stories of deep emotion and collective and individual loss, I also found stirring examples of forgiveness and reconciliation, love and friendship, resilience and strength, stories that inspire even in their despair.

At the time I picked up Haing Ngor's book, I had no idea who he was or what the Khmer Rouge did, and apart from AngkorWat, what Cambodia was even all about. I had little idea of the story of The Killing Fields-a movie that took on a whole new range of dimensions after I had read some of the background behind it, and the only Cambodian I had ever heard of, in a context I can’t even recall, was a mythical "evil madman" called Pol Pot. 

This inconsequential little country, the tragic victim of events that spiraled out of control, was once like a beautiful peaceful girl, an elegance wrapped in a sarong gently buffeted by a warm breeze and teased by its friends, but which was then brutalized and raped, taken full advantage of, its heart and soul eventually ripped out. The tragedy of Cambodia lies not just in this violation and near death of on otherwise staunchly neutral country but in the hows and whos of the circumstances that led to it and more importantly, in the ignorance and complicity of the very countries it once considered its allies in the years that followed. Eventually, the sarong lay in tattered pieces for many years, the body ravaged and bloody and then, eventually, the healing began, in phases, with periods of further damage and scars and with help from a world that had forgotten it in its darkest times. The pieces are coming back, the beauty is clearly visible but with scars one needs to know to find and with wounds that threaten to fester, if briefly. Sadly, like a jigsaw that has lost its core, some intangible pieces of its past will always remain missing.  

Phnom Penh was magic. There is no other word for it. For three days, time stood still. Six months later, every detail is still in sharp focus. My trip was defined as much by the city itself as it was by the people I met and the stories they told. I have never experienced such peace before. For three days, my usual chattering mind stopped talking.

The city itself is a curious mix of the old and the new, of heritage and progress, with areas of chaotic yet organized traffic where old buildings lining the side roads open onto wide parks and boulevards and where glass and concrete eyesores mix with old world colonial heritage buildings that are fast being replaced. It is a city filled with Buddhist temples that exude a peace and calm that seem so at odds with the violence of Phnom Penh's recent history. It is a city that once was called "The Paris of The East". It is a city I long to return to, if just to sit quietly by the river and feel the breeze and the warmth of the Sun as it sets over the Mekong, bow to the monks making their way back to the monastery, watch from afar as young families spread their picnic sheets or just pass by lovers walking with hands clasped tight, in that special silence that signals close comfort. 

It is a city where the sight of an old bookseller, selling books on the Khmer Rouge arranged neatly on his mobile cart, will compel you to stop because you know that the bookseller was himself a victim of the people whose photographs are on the books he is forced to sell for a living. And you will catch your breath and hold back a tear as you look into eyes that light up for a moment before deadening again, a mouth that flashes the smile as it was 40 years earlier but that now fades sadly and a hand that shakes as he carefully pockets your precious dollar but is then steady as he extends it again to meet and then clasp your own shaking hand, a part of your increasingly fragile countenance. A hand that you have offered as a sign of the greatest respect to someone you will never see again, to someone who has seen more in four years than you hope you will never see in all of your many lives.

It is a city filled with people who have lost everything, a city where every stone, every street corner, every branch of every tree and every old building is a witness to a history that still haunts it, literally, 35 years after Cambodia was practically obliterated. A few miles from the city stands the UN backed Khmer Rouge Tribunal Court where, even as I walked by the waterfront, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, two of the main architects of the Cambodian Genocide, are on trial for crimes against humanity. The Chief Torturer of the Khmer Rouge and sole Commandant of Tuol Sleng, Duch, a brilliant mathematician turned idealistic, brutal revolutionary was convicted of similar crimes and is serving a life sentence not far from where I stood staring at his face on the cover of a book the old bookseller was showing me. Pol Pot, the only Cambodian name most of us know died peacefully in 1998, surrounded by family in the comfort of his jungle home, never having being charged with the crime of murdering 3 million Cambodians, a third of the population. 

And yet, walking through this city filled with ghosts of the past, I could feel Phnom Penh moving on, trying to leave behind a history that percolates through its very fibre. The intangible beauty of this city is hard to describe, for it is felt rather than seen, defined as much as by its tourist sites as it is by the warmth, smiles and sheer normality of the people which inhabit it. For three days, Phnom Penh turned into a living, pulsating, alive city, a city that I embraced and which embraced me in turn, a city and a country from which there is much to be learnt. Phnom Penh is representative of Cambodia itself-a beauty that defies description and that is far more than what you see on a typical trip. The magic of Cambodia too, I believe, is felt, not seen. To experience Cambodia is probably to experience life itself. 

Six months later after Cambodia sent me on a mental roller-coater, I have learnt to live with it, to let it be, to admire the resilience of a shattered country, to marvel at the beauty of a country and a people who were, by any measure, all but extinct, but who now march on, forging a future that only they can bring to life from the murky depths of its tragic past. I can only admire from a distance, delve into its magic every now and then, try to extricate my soul from the soul of Cambodia while still holding on to it. How does one even do that? Should one even try? 

Three days is not nearly enough to even begin to start. I don’t know when I will go next but I do know that when I do, I will be careful to let Cambodia open itself to me, as slowly as it wants to and I will savour it gently, gradually, tenderly. I may be a tourist anywhere else, but never in Cambodia. 


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