Phnom Penh

Sounds exotic, doesn’t it? And in many ways it is, especially as I’m writing this in the Foreign Correspondents Club, overlooking the Mekong. It’s where all the famous war correspondents gathered to report on the political upheavals and war in South East Asia in the mid 20th century. The building retains a certain aura even now!
Phnom Penh is another city redeveloped by the French in colonial days and retains another totally confusing numbered road system. We have been comprehensively lost twice in 3 days. It’s not a city to walk in – it’s hot, around 35C, humid and although there are pavements they are mostly blocked by street food vendors, parked mopeds and handily planted trees. Plus the westerner walking is constantly accosted by tuctuc drivers sure you are looking for a ride. You might as well take the first one you see because to ride almost anywhere in town costs only 2 or 3 US dollars and the driver will be happy to wait to take you back or on to your next destination without any charge for the waiting time even if it’s a couple of hours!
The national currency of Cambodia is the Rial, 4000 to $1US. All prices are in dollars and the Rial is only used to give change, for example 2000 Rial for 50cents. You can pay in Rial if you want, it’s firmly fixed to the dollar. We dealt with this by Alan being the Rial man whilst I kept charge of the Dollars!
More than elsewhere in Cambodia, we have noticed a more French “feel” to Phnom Penh and it is not unusual to hear French spoken, most frequently by older people who will have been educated before independence in 1953. There are French restaurants (top end), pastries, even croissants for breakfast in our hotel!
We have done the usual round of visits to Royal Palace, temples and museums although we seem to have given up visiting night markets!
We also took a very deep breath and went to see the museum which records the terrible and tragic history of Phnom Penh and Cambodia during the years of genocide under the notorious Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot. In the event we had an excellent guide who was 15 in 1975 when the terror began. He told us about his personal experiences as well as the vicious treatment of prisoners in the high school turned prison which is now the museum. When the Vietnamese liberated Phnom Penh in 1979 they found just a handful of survivors, boys and men plus 14 bodies. The remaining prisoners had all been executed, in the prison or the killing fields a few kilometres outside the town. We met one of the survivors, now 84, and bought a copy of his book. It may make for grim reading.
The Khmer Rouge particularly targeted the educated aiming to establish a population of workers and peasants, despite the leader, Pol Pot, having studied at university in Paris. The regime executed the majority of intellectuals leaving a huge gap in the population to be filled when recovery became possible. As with other cases of genocide the international tribunal is moving very slowly whilst the perpetrators are ageing and dying and there has been little reparation.
However Cambodians are feeling positive and the country achieved a 7% growth rate last year. Lots of development is underway supported by a huge range of aid organisations both national and international.
Through the Servas organisation we were able to contact and meet up with Maurits, from Holland, who has been working here since 2004 for a healthcare NGO (charity) which facilitates local self help networks for diabetes management and is now developing similar programmes for blood pressure monitoring and management. It was a great opportunity to learn from someone who has lived and worked here and also speaks the Khmer language! Maurits explained to us that health professionals, especially doctors, are not always supportive of self help prevention initiatives seeing these as a potential threat to their income! He indicated, which was supported by two local papers (in English), that the growth in the economy is benefitting the wealthy and the trickle effect downwards is hardly happening.
Lots more to be said but that’s enough for now!
Later today we’ll fly back to Bangkok for a final couple of days before returning home next Wednesday, 5 March.
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