Phnom Penh Cambodia: A Tale of Two Cities

Phnom Penh Cambodia: A Tale of Two Cities

The fragile beauty of a recovering nation

Monks in Phnom Penh Cambodia

When I arrived into Phnom Penh Cambodia I was like a little child; I was so excited. The capital city has always held a fascination for me, as I have read so much about it and I was keen to discover a South-East Asian city that I have heard so many wonderful things about. I also have a morbid fascination with Cambodia because of its incredibly dark past that is almost too recent to be filed away in the history books. I was curious to experience the dynamic of a city that had gone through such horrendous tragedies in fairly recent times.

The streets of Phnom Penh Cambodia

Photo credit: ND Strupler

My first impression was of the sheer colour and noise of it all. Phnom Penh Cambodia was like a less polluted, less modernised and (slightly) less populated version of Bangkok. We stayed in a small hotel near the river and our first activity was to jump on a tuk-tuk and take a journey through the streets to get to know the city. It turned out that my first impression was not entirely accurate, as this was actually a city of great contrasts. Huge, wide, peaceful and squeaky clean avenues lined with impressive political-looking buildings gave a nod to the French influence with their distinct colonial style. We would then turn a corner and find narrow streets lined with traditional houses and crammed full of people, dogs, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars, everything you can think of and a lot of noise, too.

I just could not shake the feeling of how odd it was that anyone over a certain age walking down the street would inevitably have experienced the horrors of the Khmer Rouge period, either as a victim or a perpetrator. That you may go into a shop and buy your fruit and veg from somebody who may have been one of the oppressors just seems chilling.

Local Cambodians in Phnom Penh Cambodia

Photo credits: Romyda Keth | Ellen Munro

But in Phnom Penh Cambodia there is no time for reflection. This is a city and a country that is focused on the here and now, and on building a positive and bright future. That is not to say there are no problems. One of the most pressing issues is the high incidence of depression and suicide due to the ripple effect of the past atrocities travelling down through the generations. I read about this in a local magazine article which then went on to explain how they are taking steps to get young people back into a positive frame of mind and rehabilitate them. Yet again that determination and hope shines through, with a constant focus on rebuilding and looking towards the future. In discovering the city, we saw no memorials, no signs of the horrors that had taken place in the streets where we walked. There is strength among the people that is admirable and the Cambodians were some of the most genuine, kindhearted people I have ever come across in my travels. I suppose the plain fact is that people don’t live in the past.

I found that there was an extremely ambitious and often wealthy dimension to this re-emergence and rebuilding. I had met a woman in Thailand who told me about an incredible clothes shop in Phnom Penh Cambodia where she bought all her dresses, so I went to check it out. Located on 37th Street in the centre of the city, Ambre is run by Cambodian fashion designer Romyda Keth. It contains a maze of rooms, each of which have been painted to match the colours of the collections. The dresses were like something out of a Disney film with acres of colour and lavish materials. This is not the image of the poor, struggling city that so many people seem to imagine when you mention Phnom Penh. This is a city where some of the most exciting new fashion, food and cultural movements are taking place.

Local community improvement initiatives in Phnom Penh Cambodia

Photo credits: Tree Alliance | Rob Young

Another example of this forward-thinking outlook and determination is Friends, a popular local restaurant. The philanthropy scene is big in the city and Friends is one of the most iconic locations in this landscape. It’s a restaurant with a fantastic concept behind it; the staff are made up of former street children who have been taken away from (self-)destructive lives of drugs, violence and sex crime. They are trained on the job in hospitality and food management in order to gain a second chance. Former staff members have left the restaurant and gone onto fantastic work opportunities in the wider world. Once they are fully trained, they leave the restaurant to work out in the wider world. It’s an incredible stepping stone and an example of how the city’s inhabitants are constantly working towards a brighter, stronger future.

I can honestly say that Phnom Penh Cambodia is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited. It is colourful and vibrant with brightly coloured buildings, a diverse and fascinating food scene and innovative cultural offerings. And the colour also comes from the people – kind, funny and always smiling, the Cambodian people really make their capital city a beautiful place.

When in Phnom Penh Cambodia, Chic Collection recommends staying at the beautiful Raffles Hotel Le Royal in the heart of the city.