Phnom Penh: A Desperate City

Phnom Penh. You might never have heard of this city. It’s the capital of Cambodia, home to over 1.5 million. I spent part of my evening catching up on some work. My hotel is in a run down part of town, but filled with hotels, even a Marriott. It’s like much of the tourist triangle in this city. To a tourist things look to be improving here, but most locals would disagree. It’s 10:40 PM. I realized I need some air and a snack. I’m just a kilometre from the main strip. As I meander my way towards the main strip alongside the northern quadrant next to the Grand Palace I see food stands up serving late night eats. Some look as though they just setup. My stomach can’t handle this type of street food though, so I keep walking. The smell of raw sewage and burning garbage overwhelm my nose. Around me looks overrun with trash and people battling the evening heat. I see a women and her baby sleeping on a blanket on the corner. I sense a deep urge to give her the 20 dollar bill I have in in my wallet for dinner and head back to the hotel. But I pass her by. The thought of her continues to linger in my mind. As I near the main strip along the river, I check my phone to see where I am. The area around the palace seems empty, desolate, with a few souls wandering.

Phnom Penh Night Life
The streets of Phnom Penh come alive at night, but not necessarily in a healthy way

Cambodia has had a dark history. Many would argue the worst of the Southeast Asian countries, in the ranks of Rwandan and Polish genocides. The Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), better known as the Khmer Rouge seized power on April 17, 1975 with promises to . The CPK created the state of Democratic Kampuchea in 1976 and ruled the country until January 1979. In a brief 4 years the party, under their leader Pol Pot murdered over a quarter of their population through executions, disease, starvation, and forced labor. Some modest estimates suggest 1.3 million, where highest estimates are upwards of 3 million. The Khmer Rouge were a ruthless bunch. As bullets were expensive, and other less messy means weren’t available, they executed their victims with axes, shovels, hammers, rods and anything they could get their hands on. It was gruesome. In contrast to the Nazis that used mostly Zyklon B gas to exterminate their victims, the Khmer Rouge methods looked like something from a horror film.

Watchf AP I Kampuchea Cambodia APHS124 CAMBODIA KHMER ROUGE
The Khmer Rouge were a ruthless bunch of thugs that set Cambodia back several centuries

The average salary in Cambodia is $2000 a year. That’s less than $6 a day. I’ve met plenty of Cambodians, ambitious, intelligent and with big dreams. But when I ask about their hopes of achieving those dreams they tell me the government is corrupt, and there is little hope of a better future. Most Cambodians believe future prosperity is a pipe dream, and Cambodians will continue to be prisoners in their own country. As a Canadian, and having lived the last 3 years in Australia I have a hard time imagining this scenario. Living in slums, toxic waterways, open sewage and only enough money to get from day to day. This situation makes me angry and breaks my heart. During my visit I saw plenty of child poverty, more than I would have liked to see. Babies sitting alone on the streets, children as young as 5 working next to their parents in sugar cane juice stands while other kids play in a school ground next to them. It felt so wrong.

Poverty in Cambodia
Child poverty in Cambodia is a growing issue and a human rights violation

My decision to pull out my phone on that street in Phnom Penh is a decision that will linger in my mind for some time to come. Doing that type of thing at 11 at night in Phnom Penh is like putting your bloody leg into the rivers of the Amazon. As I’m glancing at Google Maps on my phone to check the turn to take next, I hear the sound of a scooter come closely behind me. I glance to the right. As I do I feel a strong tug on my phone. My heart rate races. I realize I have just been robbed. I scream at the top of my lungs, “give me back my phone!!” Having something so essential ripped from hands, I immediacy pickup a sprint in hopes of getting it back. I watch as 3 guys on a scooter start to pickup speed just ahead of me. The one that grabbed my phone appears to look back in shock that I am pursuing them. As their momentum picks up they slowly make the space between us to great. At this point I realize it’s useless to pursue them. I slow to a walk. Panic begins sets in. My phone was unlocked. With my mind racing into what damage they can do I turn around and begin running in the other direction towards my hotel. Time is of the essence. I need to lock my phone and change my passwords. But without my phone which way was it?

After running around the city streets for 20 minutes trying to find my way back I realize I must get a tuk-tuk. They’ll know the way. After a long night of changing passwords and blocking accounts, and consoling with my family and work I rest my head for a few hours. I wake a few hours later. The power to the hotel is out once again. Did last night happen? Reason begins to settle in, and the panic slowly subsides. I realize the thieves were more than likely after the hardware, and not my personal information. They likely can’t read English so any info on my phone should be safe as long as I update anything sensitive. A few days later I leave Phnom Penh. On the bus I meet an old rocker from the US in his mid 60’s. He’s looks young for his age, but weathered and tired. I find out he’s lived in Cambodia for the past 8 years, and having loathed his home country this is his home now. I shared what happened over the last few days. I’ll never forget his response as he chuckled, “It’s the price of admission.”

This city taught me that it’s wise to be careful with your belongings, but more than that we must be aware of the history, culture and current state of the places we visit. Not everyone is the same. People see the world very differently. Most will never have it as good as you and I, and they likely never will.

The streets of Phnom Penh buzz at night with sounds of scooters and tuk-tuks.
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