Phnom Penh

by Ann Kohler, Mar 23, 2006 | Destinations: Cambodia / Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2004 - Phnom Penh and its inhabitants are in the midst of an identity crisis. If I trusted travel writers, I would be terrified of the corpses I might find lining the streets, or, I might think I'd stumbled into the world's next big thing.

Yet as I rode behind a "motodop" on his scooter, I found that the place is neither tragic nor hip, as those in the know might tell us in the guidebooks. After awhile, you stop gaping at people, wrapped in the ubiquitous, checked "krama" scarves, as if they were the backdrop to your movie, and you try to understand where you live.

I suppose it stopped shocking me that children perched themselves on the lips of dumpsters to search for food, that monks trawled the streets shaved bald and begging for every meal, or that a king's picture graced every public building.

Because beyond those quickly passing visions, there was much for me to learn. In them, I began to understand what underlies a world where thirty years of torment might finally be giving way to peace.

So, the first thing I did was buy a bicycle. It was no looker, but it got me around, let me take things more slowly -- and safely -- than a reckless moto. Traffic was anarchy, and I prefered staking out my claim on the side of the road. I rode it to work, to language school, and to the market to buy my favorite fruits: red, hairy rambutans with the eyeball-white pulp inside, and brown, scruffy longans.

An American on her first assignment abroad, I was a reporter in Phnom Penh. After my arrival, I covered little else than the seemingly endless negotiations between the government and the UN over how to try those responsible for atrocities during the 1970s. Once they agree, the trials could be an unprecedented mix of national and international law, intently monitored in a country that's no stranger to the heavy hand of the world, since in 1993 it hosted the largest yet UN peace-keeping effort to finally shepherd it toward democracy.

So, most of my twelve-hour days revolved around the Khmer Rouge. Will they be tried, will they be spared, will they resume the civil war that ended just a few years ago. Most of my friends said I was obsessed with the Khmer Rouge, that it was my only impression of Cambodia, that I should get out more.

Then there was the fire. You could see the smoke from anywhere in the city, not to mention the sea of people gravitating toward it. Roads to the fire were closed off; to get past authorities, I held up my Chicago Police press pass and in rudimentary Khmer repeated, "I am a journalist."

Approaching the blaze, I quickly understood that here fires are contained, not extinguished. Raging through one of the city's most notorious red-light districts, the flames were carried by the wind for hours, destroying everything in their path.

The residents? Unfazed. It's roughly the tenth time there's been a fire in the brothels -- no more than makeshift wooden shacks -- in one year. "We're just lucky the little sex-slaves weren't locked in their rooms like the last time," an elderly woman told me. In other words, brutality, whether brought on by nature or by humans, thrives. Quietly and without much emotion, the homeowners sifted through the rubble the next day, packing melted metal into bags to re-sell down the road.

Of course all such stories are tame now, if you asked the expatriates. It's never as dangerous, as lawless or as wild "as it used to be," they'd tell you.

Hundreds, even thousands, are just like me -- they came from Western lands to help rebuild the place and to experience a new culture. I'm told Cambodia hosts the largest number of NGOs per capita in the world. And they love the action: In 1997, they witnessed a violent coup that sent the prince packing into exile. They got the dregs of a civil war between the government and the Khmer Rouge that ended in the late '90s. They got Pol Pot's death in 1998.

Me, I got a fire, no injuries. And because of it, I'm forever relegated to the bottom of Phnom Penh's expatriate totem pole.

It's probably the biggest obstacle to a truly true experience: the expat scene. One continually is deciding whether to dine on pasta with Eurotrash or try to crack a culture that's pretty closed to outsiders. Since the UN waltzed in to form a government, monitor elections, and save Cambodia once and for all, thousands of French, Aussies, Brits, and Americans assembled in Cambodia -- complete with their own restaurants, bakeries, bars, and shops. If I wanted to, I could have spent every day in a beauty spa while my maid cleaned the house, then go out for a fabulous French meal and clubbing afterward -- all on a pretty paltry salary.

Or, I could spend an hour a day learning Khmer -- trying for the first time to learn a language phonetically -- and convince the mothers of my unmarried Cambodian girlfriends that it's OK for a virgin to drink a mango shake after dark.

The Khmer reporters I met were inspirational. A picture of the country's colonial history, many of them speak up to four languages -- Khmer, French, Vietnamese (or Russian), and English -- and worked for peanuts.

All men, they're either middle-class family guys who throw house-warming parties, brag about their wives' sonograms, and hope for a better life for their children, or roguish bachelors who go out for duck-blood wine on the weekend -- a Friday night ritual that involves the freshly drawn blood of a duck and cheap rice wine cut with anything from vitamins to antifreeze. Accompanied by duck soup and boisterous conversation, it's a men-only affair (I was allowed in once -- and yes, I drank the stuff). Rumored to boost virility, it typically is drunk before a night out in the brothels, where one can procure a lady of the evening for $2-5.

That, too, was difficult to swallow, although not nearly as many expats "go to the girls" as I first thought. At least not that they'll tell the Western women, for fear of beratement. Sadly, it's a part of the culture that we always will find difficult to understand. Even when I hung out with my male Khmer friends, there was always this moment in the evening when I knew they would be doing something else if I weren't there. Thankfully, we just swept it under the rug and did the tango, which, they swore to me, originated in China.

I've decided that it's these guys, middle class reporters or bureaucrats who aren't connected enough to be corrupt, who were able to explain this city to me. They don't carry AK-47s, and they don't host fab fashion shows at exclusive clubs. They're what we Americans would call regular guys, the ones the experts will tell you don't exist when they write about all the "brain drain" here after a generation of intellectuals was killed by the Khmer Rouge.

Sure, they love karaoke and might even pay a girl to sit with us for an evening. But they're so eager to exchange ideas and to see their country get back on track. If you ask them about Phnom Penh, they'll cautiously tell you it's in the midst of a Renaissance, and they didn't believe me when I said I might stay for a while.

"Cambodia's not going to be a news story anymore after the Khmer Rouge trial," one of my friends told me. "You'll have no reason to stay in Phnom Penh."

Raising a glass of whiskey and toasting his country in poorly pronounced Khmer, I told him we'd have to see about that.

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