Phnom Penh is a city of contrasts. Luxurious mansions blocks away from begging amputees. Fois gras on offer at the riverfront, baked spiders at the market.
The difference between "safe" neighborhoods and the no-go areas is stark, as is the contrast between rich and poor. Average annual income is about $200. The Cambodian population is incredibly stratified, with a number of very rich people, millions of extremely poor, and not much of a middle class.
Phnom Penh has a large population of foreign aid workers, and is visited by a fair number of tourists. The average Cambodian makes so little that foreign aid workers and tourists are incredibly wealthy by comparison.
This is graphically illustrated when you walk by a luxurious housewares shop right out of Soho, then see a mother living on the street, with her baby laying in the middle of the sidewalk. Or realize your $2.50 latte might cost more than what an average Cambodian would pay for a day’s food. We’ve seen more abject poverty in this city than on the rest of our trip so far.
That said, Phnom Penh can be surprisingly charming. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it boasts a wonderful mix of French colonial, art deco, and modernist architecture. I’m unsure whether many buildings were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, but there are currently many great specimens in town. A standout is the Central Market, a spectacular yellow, ziggurat-like dome.
French Colonial buildings are seen throughout the city.
The riverfront is quite beautiful, and has some nautical-looking streamlined deco buildings. This is the view from the Foreign Correspondent’s Club, which is housed in a lovely old building.
And there are some really unusual, whimsical modernist buildings as well, in bright colors.
And the National Museum, built in the ’20s in a modernized Khmer design, is a gorgeous building, with an impressive collection of ancient Khmer art.
Phnom Penh also has a great strip of bars at the riverside, and fashionable restaurants with really good European and Khmer food. Again, the collision of fashionable high street with poverty-stricken street life.
We spent about four days in Phnom Penh, and had mixed feelings about the experience.
On our last evening in town, we enjoyed drinks and dinner with Felicia, an Australian I’d met on the Bokor Mountain trip. She’s currently working at the U.N. in Phnom Penh, and it was interesting to hear her perspectives on Cambodia.