In June of this year I went back to one of my favourite cities in South East Asia, Phnom Penh. This is a city (and indeed a country) which has gone as close to Hell as any place on earth and the difference from even two years ago when I was first there was huge. More streets are paved, the first modest skyscrapers are emerging, and the shaky beginnings of an actual middle class seems to be taking place. That said, you still don’t have far to go in Cambodia to find poverty and the tourist jewel of Siem Reap is the prime example with dirt poor floating villages just five minutes out of town, but I am hopeful this tragic, beautiful place is is moving in the right direction.
I love Phnom Penh for the two rivers that meet right next to the city centre, the charming (but controversially disappearing) lake with its ramshackle backpacker accommodation all on stilts above what is essentially a sewage pond, the French colonial architecture and the very real feeling that this was once a quite beautiful city and that it will be again. As a journalist and history buff, there is something very romantic in a misplaced-nostalgia kind of way about sipping on a beer on the top floor of the Foreign Correspondents Club while imagining what it would have been like covering the Vietnam War from the relative safety of this city.
Of all the must-see sites in Phnom Penh, from the ghastly to the glorious, you wouldn’t pick going to a shopping mall as one of them. In fact, I even got pooh-poohed from a couple of tragically-hip backpackers who dismissed my wish to check out one of these new baby-skyscrapers as partaking in an “inauthentic Cambodian experience.” They couldn’t have been more wrong.
The Sorya Shopping Centre wouldn’t rate a mention in any other country in mammoth-mall obsessed South East Asia (other than Laos), but it is still a new phenomenon in a country like Cambodia. Most of the mall is within a fairly unremarkable six storey chunk, though there is a nice cylinder-shaped tower that adjoins which is full of restaurants and a viewing platform that reaches up a further couple of storeys. But what made this one of the most rewarding parts of 2010 in Cambodia was the mini fun-park on the top floor complete with a roller-skating rink. Soon realising I was the only foreigner, I also realised that it was only boys skating around the rink and doing all the jumps. Looking through the glass were the teenage girls admiring their crushes, and watching them watch the boys, it occurred to me that this may be the first time in the last 40 years that something like this could happen in Cambodia.
It has often bothered me an occasional western attitude that involves thinking that authentic in Asia can only mean poor. Authentic can be any number of things if a place is diverse and Cambodia is getting that way. Seeing kids whose primary concern at that very moment was not if they were going to eat that day, but showing off or flirting was about the most encouraging thing you could see in country where as many as a third of population died just 30 years ago.
Cambodia is still racked by poverty, corruption, dodgy foreign investors and a heartbreaking sex industry. But going back this year made me think that Phnom Penh in particular is a two steps forward, one step back kind of a place. Considering what they’ve been through, that’s pretty incredible.