Least developed country, what does that mean? To me, Cambodia is full of extremes and social discrepancy. Starting from scratch to rebuild the country, the country strives to reinvent itself. The generation born after the Khmer Rouge reign is full of hope and optimism, change is visible, but not everywhere and certainly not for everyone. Cambodia brings in a lot more foreigners than one would suspect, businesspeople and a ton of NGO workers dwell in Phnom Penh.
Foreigners mean foreign investment and locations to cater to this kind of clientele. Streets lined with bars by the riverside, a wide array of restaurants serving every kind of international cuisine for prices above average, but under the international market price. Don’t forget the sheer uncountable number of luxury hotels and budget hostels. With the growth of the economy, some locals have gotten a taste of consumerism as well and more and more young Cambodians are seen enjoying a fancy meal or their daily milk tea. It’s not uncommon to see a luxury car now and then cruising the streets of the city.
The Meta-House is a favorite place amongst expats for its large and well-organized cultural events and film screenings. They also have an art gallery and a cozy café.
The aspiration for economic growth and urban development don’t always lead to wise decisions. Back in the days, the area around the Al-Serkal Mosque was a thriving backpackers’ area with bars and hostels around a great lake. To gain more land, the government decided to fill up the lake to have more developable plot. Turns out that with the lake gone, investors turned their backs and found new areas in town like BKK1 (today’s backpacker area) while leaving the former lakeside abandoned.
Over time, the lakeside (as it is still called today) became a shady place left to its own, but in recent years, artists and alternative scenes have taken over to build a creative hub and revive the area.
Ask a tuk-tuk driver to take you to the lakeside (they know where it is), Street 93 is full of graffiti and remnants from times long gone. A few hostels survived and still proudly carry names along the lines of “Great View Hostel” and “Lakeside Bar”.
Although there is change for the better seen in the country, it is important to remind ourselves that this change is only tangible for a fraction of society. Most foreigners stay in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap where a lot of nice areas for tourists exist. Rural areas or even areas on the edge of the city are not at all like this. But even in Phnom Penh, the juxtaposition of poverty and wealth makes an impressive statement about the road this country still has to go and the pile of problems still existing today.
Scenes of people living in extreme poverty unfold themselves in front of any traveller who cares to take a deeper dive into the streets neighboring the tourist attractions. Old buildings that have seen better days and people on the streets trying to make a small living. Just behind the famous temple of Wat Pho I stumble across a family – mother and two daughters – taking a nap in a cage (for lack of better term).
Phnom Penh is a place that most travellers only stay one or two nights in, but I would strongly encourage anyone to spend bit more time to get a better perspective of the city and its inhabitans. The experience is eye-opening and humbling at the same time.
April 1st – May 6th 2017