Phnom Penh

Well, it’s been quite the week. I’m trying to get back in running shape from my week-long driving and flying trip, been living in Okay Guesthouse which was in the middle of a huge construction project, remembering all of the Khmer I’ve forgotten, training at my job, etc. I mistakenly paid my favorite moto driver $12 ahead of time to take me to-and-from work for four days. On the third day, the guy completely disappeared. The money is not a problem, but I’m disappointed in him. I’ve known him for a long time, met his family, etc. Anyway, I had to find a new driver who got lost for an entire hour while taking me to work.

The good thing about getting lost was that I got to see a lot of the city that I’ve never seen before. Phnom Penh is a messy, crazy montage. Barbershops line up chairs along the street with mirrors hung along the fence. People walk, bike, moto, tuk tuk, or drive with no rules. The typical street vendors exist, but there are also expensive Western, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Chinese restaurants. Guesthouse after guesthouse. Men welding motos back together, spraying passengers with the hot byproducts. Fancy salons with pictures of Victoria Beckham in the window. Strong smells of fish, jasmine, curry, mango, sewage. And I could go on.

I’ve lived in Cambodia before, but only in the countryside. Phnom Penh is a lot different. The huge number of tourists and NGO workers have pushed the city to become more and more Western. I am shocked by the number of new bars and restaurants with ten dollar meals and four dollar beers (a Khmer restaurant is closer to two dollar meals and fifty cent beers). Some areas of the city are practically indistinguishable from America or Europe. But traces of classic Cambodia are still everywhere. Phnom Penh is still full of the heart of Cambodia, Khmer people, and no matter how many Westerners you throw at the city, Asia will still be here.

It’s true, it’s a mix, but Phnom Penh is also extremely divided. My point can best be demonstrated by a conversation I had with a woman named Channery who did my nails yesterday. She was delighted that I would talk to her in her own language. She lives and works directly next to five popular guesthouses, but she says that no one has ever tried to talk with her. She felt very ignored. She was frustrated with the amount of Westerners flowing into the city, apparently trying to help Cambodian people and yet ignoring them completely. I have certainly noticed a difference in the amount of interaction between foreigners and Khmer people in the provinces and the lack thereof in the city. I can’t fully explain why it exists here, but I hope to gain a better understanding.

At work, I am working on an interesting yet complicated anti-corruption project. I can’t say much about it now, but immediately after I found out about the project I drove past a government building while a Lexus simultaneously drove into the complex. I commented on it and my moto driver agreed that government workers tend to have overly expensive vehicles. As we continued to drive past the building, I read the sign at the head of the driveway, “Cambodia Royal Government, Anti-Corruption Unit.” This is just a small example of many I could give, but basically, I have my work cut out for me.

I had a successful weekend before heading back to work tomorrow: two of my friends from William & Mary and I found an amazing house that we’ll rent for three months, and I just bought a moto, a 2007 Yamaha Nouvo!