In 1997, I fell deeply in love with Cambodia's capital. Twelve years later, I came, I saw, I couldn't wait to leave, and am now haunted by what I didn't find, longing to go back and see where it might be.
Phnom Penh is nicely defined by the maps it hands out to tourists--less than one quarter of the map is filled in with things to do and to see. The rest of it is blank streets for the remaining three-fourths of the page, except for the Old Russian Market and Tuol Sleng, which is a horrifying juxtaposition. (Do you view atrocities and then shop or carry bags filled with silk and silver as you gaze at the photo gallery of dead faces?)
I was given a mission by my publisher, and a place to stay by my friend and colleague who was my traveling companion. Neither were ones I would have chosen, left to my own devices. Both were surprisingly pleasant but so far off my usual travel track that these two things alone would have guaranteed my extreme culture shock.
I'm not a backpacker and never was. Growing up in the land of outhouses and packboards of rural Alaska more than cured me of any longing for the simple life. However the contrast between palatial luxury and extreme poverty is more than I can stand, and my hotel choices are decidedly midlevel rather than high-end. I choose neighborhoods that I would want to live in should I choose to stay in a city, and then I spend a few days living in them. My hotel in Phnom Penh, with its David Hockney pool and its profusion of luxuriant potted palms obscuring the Cambodian-style chaise longues, with its poolside cafe peopled by bikini-clad pale and meaty European bodies, was not a place I have ever yearned to live in.
I am also not a shopper, although I do spend money in a casual, inadvertant, "sneaky shopper" fashion. Charged by my publisher to gather business cards from affluent and trendy expat boutiques in the fashionable 240 Street neighborhood, I spent hours looking at silk and organza embroidered confections, at wearable art made of imported beads and Cambodian hardware, at quilts that could have been created by the ladies of Gee's Bend although they were the handiwork of women in SE Asian hamlets, of furniture that could easily grace the pages of next month's Architectural Digest. All was breathtaking, right down to the price tags.
The two things in this area that I remembered from my previous trip and yearned to see were the National Museum and the convergence of the Mekong and the Tonle Sap rivers under the open sweep of Cambodian sky. The Museum was even better than I had remembered, with lighting and galleries that put its Bangkok equivalent to shame--and statues that are among the most beautiful things I have ever seen anywhere. The river is gone--behind high billboarded walls that obscure a project that will put a stop to floods. Where there are no walls, there are large restaurants that block the view as effectively as the barricade of advertising does. A small park adorns the far end of the bank but after walking along the length of the forest of signs where there was once a heart-stopping view, I had no wish to look at the tiny portion that was still allotted to pedestrians.
The mapped part of Phnom Penh is a part I never want to see again. The unmapped part might contain what I saw twelve years ago--energy, hope, pride...The tiny portion that I had the energy to explore held hints of that, and streets that were clear of garbage and the cries of "Hello TukTuk" and families homesteading pieces of the sidewalk.
Next time that I go to this city, that is where I will be, searching for Phnom Penh.