Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Time Travel…

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Shades of Angkor Wat–Temple City–in modern Phnom Penh

I was first in this town in 1997 and it was pretty bad, little more than a decade after the killing fields, and then Vietnam installed strongman Hun Sen, and you could still see it on people’s faces—fear, abject fear, as if they weren’t really sure if the nightmare was yet really over. With all the current hubbub over Islamic fundamentalists ISIL, Boko Haram, and al-Shabab, we sometimes forget that Maoists and Stalinists were guilty of many similar crimes in the decades immediately preceding, whether China, Peru, Nepal, or Cambodia…

But Phnom Penh was down at the heels and had been down for more than twenty years by this time. The only tourists were here for sex, cheap and/or kinky and/or under-age Khmer and/or Vietnamese, out at the notorious KM 11 on Hwy. 5, or more civilized pub and disco fare at the famous Martini’s Bar on the outskirts of town, taxis at the waiting, and willing to help avoid cops, who always seemed to need cigarettes and spare change…

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Historical Art Deco ‘New Market’

In the center of town itself, the streets were mostly dark, anywhere off Monivong Bl. and its new $25 Chinese-businessman-style hotels, with local people erecting screened platforms on the street to serve as beds and makeshift shelters, movable in daytime, and commercial activity mostly limited to Monivong and the New Market area. Not far away, Sharky’s Bar was the bright spot for foreigners, now one of many, except for the journalists at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club down on the river, zzzzzzzzzzzzz…..

Fast forward to 2007 and my second visit to this burg, and the skyline is hopping, and the tourists are stopping, and shopping, making this a destination in its own right, in addition to the powerhouse ruins of Angkor Wat up near Siem Reap. And the ground zero for tourism creeps ever closer to the riverfront, far from the business center up on Monivong Boulvard, now heavily occupying what had for the past three decades been a fairly derelict strip…

Bars for Westerners are popping up, both pub-friendly and speak-easy, Pidgin English the lingua franca for international relations, and local people out on the riverside lawn, both day and night, the fear now gone from the old folks’ eyes, and the younger generation growing up without nightmares. Tourism passed 1M per year in 2004, and the country has never looked back…

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Sharky’s Bar hasn’t changed much

Fast forward again to 2017 and the fix is in, Kampuchea now on the Thai path to development, tourism up over 5M per annum, and spread far and wide over the country, PP itself becoming something between Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Pattaya, c. 1997, with go-go bars heavily invested and infested within the riverside area, no holes barred, but at least it’s all voluntary and consensual, not the cross-country traffic of previous decades, just good clean fun for fun-loving males, from all over the world…

There’s even a back-packer ghetto now, just like the ones elsewhere, Khao Sarn or Vang Vieng or Sihanoukville or God-knows-where, price of a room not much more than the price of a meal, and even cheaper if you’re sharing. Pizza is the staple food and beer is currency, just remember to wash up after, and don’t let the bed-bugs bite. The sanitation problem can also be a hygiene problem, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the place is dirty…

Kampuchea is trashy—there’s a difference. India—northern India—is dirty; that’s what holy cows get you. This is a trash culture, too much plastic and too few cans to hold it. But still, that can mean problems for hygiene, and I’ve been nursing a gut the whole time I’ve been here, more than a week now. Fortunately there are now supermarkets, so that offers some respite from the vicissitudes of street food, and thinly-inspected restos. A Western menu does not guarantee Western-oriented hygiene…

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Meditation at Wat Langka

The only problem for me now is that it’s too darn hot, and I suspect that’s pretty much the same year-round, accounting for the vagaries of rain and shine, so I’m on the tropical skedgool (Br: shedgool): around town before noon and after dark. In between I’m here on the machine, punching keys and swatting fleas, and showering fourteen times a day, approximately. The rooms suck, though, everywhere I’ve been so far, stagnant and sweltering, so that gets old. Ten dollars goes farther for a room in Thailand, in general…

Oh yeah, they’ve got temples here, too, Wat Langka near Independence Monument offering sporadic meditation sessions, but nothing intensive. For that, the head priest says you have to go to Battambang. Me, I’m going to the hills; stay tuned, Saen Monorom or bust. In general there are no more buses, and the van drivers are maniacs, so I’ll get there in no time, if I get there at all…

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