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October 8th, 2012

Open Doors in Phnom Penh

We’re happy to introduce our newest contributor, Yin Khvat. Yin was born in Manchester in the UK and has lived in Australia for the last six years. She is currently on a short stay in Taiwan and has a particular interest in Cambodia.

Phnom Penh

Photo by Bo Nielsen

A woman is selling green coconuts off the back of her motorbike on the dusty street. With a scythe, she deftly chips the head of the coconut into a point, then guillotines the tip to reveal the sweet juice and tender white flesh inside. Next to her, a barber has set up on the pavement, his shop made up only of bare necessities: a mirror and chair. Young men in makeshift stalls, with car parts hung up on tarpaulin walls, observe you languidly as you watch them, curiosity returned for curiosity. On the corner, policemen in blue on their motorbikes look a little seedy, restricted in their uniforms, smoking cigarettes and surveying the traffic.

This is a typical street scene in Phnom Penh: a living, breathing cross-section of life in the Cambodian capital. Some look at this and see disorder, or a blight on the city’s beauty. Others see freedom, vibrancy, and the right of everyone — including the poor — to make a living. The city council has attempted to “reorganise” these small stalls — sometimes known as “romantic stallss” — believing they are messy or unhygienic. But for the time being, at least, it seems their efforts have not succeeded. Phnom Penh remains a capital city where the poorer sections of society can sell and provide services as the market demands, without the need to lease expensive commercial space.

But the stalls are part of a bigger social fabric, one which appears to define the Cambodian way of life. You see it not only in streets lined with people selling their wares, but also every afternoon and evening along the banks of the Tonle Sap River and Chaktomuk — the “four faces” where the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers meet. On Sisowath Quay, especially, people spend their free time sitting, walking and dancing with friends and family. They enjoy each other’s company under their city’s skies. Take one of the popular boat trips down the river and it is another episode of this same documentary, in which the delineation between viewer and object is blurred. You are watching them as they are watching you. The social interaction is thrilling, an essential element in a society where social integration is the outcome, binding people together and folding lives in on each other.

No doubt the warm weather and dense population contribute to this phenomenon, as does the economic devastation wrought by the Khmer Rouge and the civil wars through the 1970s and 1980s, from which Cambodia is only now recovering. But what of the social legacy? When I asked how people here can be so warm after the horrors they have faced, I have been told that many Cambodians “live and let live.” That many adhere to Buddhist teachings that there is good and bad in all of us, and that forgiveness is part of living. Many Cambodians want to put those years behind them.

And so perhaps what we get is something I can’t help feel is unique to Phnom Penh. This is city that is unafraid, welcoming, generous and open-hearted. Tourists don’t need to be invited into the homes of Cambodians to interact with real people, or to get a good taste of life here, of what Cambodians do and how they live their lives. This society has a transparent, wonderful, communal feel — even after what it suffered just a generation ago.