people in Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh Travel Blog› entry 41 of 66 › view all entries
Phnom Penh is dusty and muddy with not much colonial charm and a lot of cheaply made buildings. It looks much like a city in the Chinese interior the buildings with tiled walls, ceramic shingles, and welded steel bars. The principal means of getting about is by motor scooter taxi. I took one with Izzy to the central market in town. This was a large brown building that resembled a beehive. Inside were hundreds of stalls selling the popular items for locals of any developing nation: stainless steel pots, knives, pirated DVDs, binoculars, fake Rolexes and Ray-ban and for the tourists: T-shirts, kramers (checkered Cambodian scarf), fake brand jeans
We went to a stall that sold hundreds of pirated CDs. The salesgirl was a friend of Izzy and spoke English well. “I go to college in the night and work here in the day.” She was quite pretty with delicate features and dark skin. “Do you go out sometimes on the weekend?” I asked with a smile. “I used to, but now I have no time. Besides my boyfriend doesn’t like that” I was sorry to hear that. I got a T-shirt and a kramer, the red and white ones are something, and examined the large collection of pipes. The sliver opium pipes and punched brass water bongs especially caught my eye.
After bag of iced sugar cane juice, squeezed in before us in a bicycle mounted hand press, we stepped into a small boutique to met another friend of Izzy. Mai came from the back with all the charm of a hotel receptionist she invited us to sit in her lounge. “So what type of clothes do you sell?” I asked, I had just walked past shelves of trendy skater and hiphop jeans, caps, and basketball jerseys in the back we sat next to rows of silk Khymer dresses. “Oh.. anything I like. This is my place.” She seemed pretty young to own a store “You must have nice parents.” I suggested. “This is only something I do for myself I have other jobs you know? Do you want to see my portfolio?” she showed me professional pictures of herself in gorgeous traditional array, a model of Khymer beauty, in the pictures she was two shades lighter. “Wow you look so beautiful!” I couldn’t help but say. The other pictures were of fashionable up and coming local celebrities she worked as a radio DJ and occasionally appeared on local TV. “I find it curious that the whole Afro-American culture is so present in your fledgling entertainment industry.” In a country where most of the population wears hand-me-down Chinese garments the “stars” are blinged out. “I don’t care. It’s all about doing what you like!” she responded blissfully “I’m not black but if I want to put my hair in corn rows why not?” I smiled at this, as she was nary a shade lighter than a full African. “So what do you think about modern Cambodian society?” I wanted a fresh opinion. “Some people think they know how a Cambodian girl should be, I say it’s my life so fuck that!” I smiled patronizingly as I thought to myself, so this is the new generation of Cambodia. Mia had no experience of the gruesome civil war or of the grinding poverty that still grips her country. She has the luxury to travel and study abroad her mind has access to all the decadent thought that would have meant certain death to the older generation. She has all the potential and limitless possibilities and yet she (as many other over-privileged youth around the world) chooses to join in the glamorization of criminalistic, unproductive, anti-social, over-represented western pop culture. “Well, I’m just glad you have such a free mind” I said sarcastically. “Thanks!” she winked back.
In the evening we were down by the river. The lazy Mekong drifts slowly through the city. On the banks of this brown river are the royal palace and most of the hotels and cafes. In Phnom Penh they have what the call “brown out” which means only a few streets are lit so as to conserve electricity. The main boulevard looks like a shining snake in the night, the light is swallowed up by the Mekong River on one side and the crowded townships on the other. All around is the blackest darkness, to me in the heart of this country is a deep darkness. The people have been the victims of disastrous social experiments the Maoist one (their homemade cultural revolution) resulted in the bloodcurdling killing fields. That nightmare is over but devastation remains and exploitation continues. I was thronged by street kids in the cafes and saw child prostitution in the slums. American media and hardcore pornography have replaced Communist propaganda for an innocent, youthful (the old folks didn’t seem to survive the communists), and woefully vulnerable nation. It leaves me wondering if the social experiment has truly ended.