The brutal and the beautiful in Phnomh Penh

Cambodia’s capital is gritty, dusty and noisy, but there’s no doubt that it’s alive and thrumming, having defiantly shaken itself from a bitter and broken past. It’s a city with two sides, the brutal and the beautiful, and to get under the skin of Phnomh Penh, we needed to quickly recover from our long bus ride across the border from Saigon and get out into its streets to get to grips with its yin yang qualities.

The brutal….

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It’s an ordinary building in an ordinary neighbourhood and today, it is staffed by ordinary people. But the horrors that went on in this high school turned secret prison during the Khmer Rouge reign in the 1970s is enough to make your heart sink, blood boil and stomach curdle all at once. 

The audio guide, narrated by a real life Khmer Rouge survivor, gently but matter of factly takes you through the old high school classrooms that were converted into torture chambers and calmly explains the atrocities that occurred. He even reminds you to go outside and take a breather if it gets too much. Sure enough, you see plenty of visitors doing this. You can see the tears stinging people’s eyes and hearts growing heavier by the second. 

Why come? Because you have to see it to believe it to truly understand what Cambodia had to fight back from. 

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Boeung Kak Lake

How they are fighting back from it though, can be considered questionable as financial gain is often considered the main priority. If you can find a Lonely Planet from 10 years ago it describes this lakeside ghetto as backpackers paradise, full of cheap, rickety guesthouses over looking the lake with cold beers aplenty at sunset. 

Now $US80 million dollars later, the lake has been pumped out and concreted over in the name of commercial development. In Cambodia’s quest for growth, nothing is currently off limits. Now there’s barely a tourist in sight and the only buzz is from the cheeky children creating mischief in the litter-filled streets. There is some interesting street art you can find down broken side alleys that make it worth the short tuk-tuk ride here, and the kids can’t wait to pose for a photo.

You can read more about the lake situation here, here and here, or simply Google it.

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The beautiful…

On the plus side, social enterprise seems to be booming as loudly as its corporate counterpart. 

Daughters of Cambodia 

The cafe and store’s light atmosphere is in stark contrast to the dark world of sex work that Daughters gives Cambodian women a way out of through support, training and work. It feels completely trivial to order a fish sandwich from a woman who maybe a year ago might have been under the lock and key of her pimp. But this reality is a dream compared with what she might have been living previously, and there’s nothing trivial about that. Below are portraits the women have painted where they have imagined themselves as Khmer princesses.

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Romdeng

Housed in a restored old French villa, the courtyard setting is a sublime place for a relaxing dinner. The signature dishes of fried tarantula and beef with red ant dip are great for your first taste of Cambodian bush tucker too. But there’s a difference – Romdeng takes in and trains street kids to turn them into hospitality professionals. Both the food and service are first rate, so they are clearly doing an excellent job. You can also peruse the artwork and meet the tarantulas in between courses. (Despite the temptation to get some cool Instagram material, we didn’t order the tarantulas, but we heard they taste like crab).

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