Phnom Penh: Capital Punishment

The view across the city.
The view across the city.

All I wanted from the city was a chicken sandwich.


I had spotted them before, our first time through here—a juicy bit of bird, well-marinated and sizzling off the grill, stuffed into a fresh baguette (thank you French colonists of bygone years), and topped with exotic salsas and herbs. It’s Cambodia’s answer to Vietnam’s famed Banh Mi.


I could almost taste that crispy-turned-juicy burst of goodness spilling across my palate and washing my taste buds in a rainbow of flavor. And the street vendors in their tiny carts were thick with the treat.


“But let’s find the hotel, first,” Andy suggested. “It’s getting dark.”


Dark, yes—and we were back in Phnom Penh.


Ah, Phnom Penh, Phnom Penh—what can I possibly write about you?


When your chief attraction is a genocide, what satisfaction do you expect me to find from visiting?


A good chicken sandwich?


Or macabre and melancholy.

Friendly smiles from the local families.
Friendly smiles from the local families.

Welcome back to Phnom Penh, city of night lights and wet markets and not-too-distant massacres. But more importantly to me, site of an even more recent bus-ticket scamming that left us short a few bucks.


But at least we lived to tell about it.


Lonely Planet seems to think of Phnom Penh in glowing terms, highlighting the one-off international flavors of cafes, and glossing over motorbike-bound bandits. The beer flows cold, and the neons gleam bright: come to Phnom Penh, they say.


Despite the suspiciously glowing review, Andy and I hadn’t wanted to visit here—not really, at least. But our two days here were the unfortunate reality of a much-cheaper plane ticket, a gnawing curiosity about the Killing Fields, and those radiant sentences in Southeast Asia’s leading guidebook brought us to think that maybe, just maybe, Phnom Penh wasn’t that bad after all.

Artistic tiles -- cool for more than just the feet.
Artistic tiles — cool for more than just the feet.

At least there were those chicken sandwiches.


And to be fair, it technically didn’t host a genocide—Pol Pot’s infamous rise to power and his inglorious Khmer Rouge weren’t bent on decimating a distinct culture or ethnicity, which is the technical definition of genocide. No, these guys were out to get their own—their same people, their same culture, their same blood, just ones with more privilege and wealth and connections. The masses screamed for the blood of those a bit too bourgeoisies. And then, well, then the purge ran rampant, went viral, spiraled into a witch hunt on a scale the world has seldom witnessed. At the end of less than four years, the dream of communism had succeeded in slaying one-fourth of its own population and pounding the nation decades into the past.


And that’s what we came to see.


Pol Pot, the flower of Cambodia intellect, corrupted by Marxist French professors in their thin cigarettes and bankrupt polemics, returned from the West to wrest influence in ever-increasing weight over the party, and eventually rolled into Phnom Penh on a tide of popular triumph and a motorcade of party anthems.


The crowds that cheered him into the streets would leave the city a ghost town in a month’s time. They’d be dead before the year was out.


Either that or wishing they were.

The palace with its pigeons
The palace with its pigeons

Given the unimpressive litany of reasons I’d prefer not to return to Phnom Penh, the first-hand information available on the tragedy of Pot’s regime is the single biggest reason I’m glad we went. Before, I had heard the name; I had a notion that it was bad, real bad, and I’d listened to a few NPR features on refugees and survivors from the massacre. But I hadn’t known. Not really.


In Phnom Penh, you can tread the blood-stained floors and touch the rusted shackles, listen in on lectures spoken by those who sat prisoner in those cells, visit the fields pushing up fresh bones each season, stare at the tree bark still housing splinters of babies’ skulls, peruse the collection of craniums with placards indicating precisely which farm implement was used to bash that poor soul into the afterlife.


It’s haunting, to say the least.


And no matter how much I might try to paint the trendy side of this city, the past keeps bleeding through.


Today, Phnom Penh features plenty of riverfront, and it tries to make the most of it. A multi-horned and gold-painted temple watches over the sweep of river. Rich gardens of juicy flowers and gregarious birds interspace the columns and sweeps of open-air corridors.

A riverfront city -- and not a bad bit of scenery.
A riverfront city — and not a bad bit of scenery.

But you can’t get in.


Well, I couldn’t. I was reduced to staring wistfully at classical Khmer grandeur through the fence. But that’s my fault really. That’s what I get for trying to visit on a weekend morning after brunch. That’s a terrible time to try to get in, I know. Those timetable-makers are geniuses.


I shook my head and ambled away.


Maybe a pagoda would offer better luck. A quick stroll to a nearby hill-topping temple seemed to hold the answer. But the quick stroll was more than enough to work up a good sweat. Visiting temples, of course, means covering shoulders and wearing long pants. “Why,” Andy complained, “with all the carvings of topless women dancing across the premises, can’t I just wear some shorts?” Sorry babe, just dress “decent” while the Buddhists worship their exotic dancers entrancing poor mortals toward an existence without desire or pleasure.

Appropriate attire for the temples?
Appropriate attire for the temples?

Despite that little irony, the pagoda was kind of fun: the stupas and the lotus, the frescoes and the murals, the gardens and the Tropical Tang orange of the monks all make for a refreshing little photo excursion. We found ourselves snooping around the worshippers for a glimpse at Buddhist art and worship—cloud-covered scenes of glorious Nirvana, and harrowing underworld torture painted into the sacred walls. In the midst of it all, a gold-colored Buddha with his trademark smirk soaked in the lotus and the cash wafted his way from the worshippers.


The little excursion proved interesting, enlightening (little “e”), and encouraging after the morning’s refusal at the temple. But sadly, it also proved empty of chicken sandwiches. I was starting to get antsy – last night had come and gone without that famed sandwich, and now our day was already rushing toward noon. Still no sandwich.

Stopping in for a glimpse of the temple
Stopping in for a glimpse of the temple

Andy and I found ourselves strolling down the tranquil hilltop and wading back into the weekend bustle of the streets. But if I could get my hands of a flux capacitor and re-visit my clueless self earlier on that fateful day, I’d pop in for an ominous warning: “Enjoy the hilltop serenity and the morning innocence, because when you walk back down that hill, it ain’t the same. Not by a long shot.”


And then I’d blast off down the road—assuming I could find a long enough stretch free of motorbikes and tuk-tuks—in a trail of flames back to my future.

Ouch. The Buddhist underworld.
Ouch. The Buddhist underworld.

Phnom Penh, you see, is a city that can’t let you walk a block without proffering a taxi, a nickel bag, or a hooker. The lunchtime crowd was already looking a bit seedy, but after dark the creepies begin—enough to make Las Vegas look like a kindergarten for Puritans. “Taxi, Mister?” the sweaty man calls from the shadow of a corner bar. I shake my head and stroll on. Then, as we pass, he leans in and breathes through the cigarette smoke, “Marijuana?”




Teenage girls in mini-skirts and towering heels and too much make-up strut into doorways with grandparent-aged Europeans clinging to their arms. Nods from greasy heads and gold-toothed smiles confirm what you suspect—and offer you the same. Stares follow you throughout the alleys, and Hindu deities grasping phallus and yoni dot the doorframes and peer through incense clouds.


Yes, Phnom Penh is a growing hotspot of sorts, full of opportunistic foreigners swooping in to sell and buy and market trendy cafes and nightclubs in a sort of pseudo-Thai style of hedonism. Beer flows for fifty cents a glass, I already told about the drugs, and backpackers thrive in the muck. If not so much from reveling in the sin, at least in the tough-guy tourist rite of passage. Have you ever strolled through Phnom Penh after ten? It’s the question that separates the men from the boys, so to speak, in the proving grounds of exotic-slum tourism.

It's not all fun and games
It’s not all fun and games

How much can you handle?


How tragic can you seem as you discuss this over lattes back in the “real world”?


The Turkish man in his café shakes his head. “I want to leave,” he tells us.


Andy and I are sipping his tea and snacking on kebabs. The light is dim outside and worse within. But the food is top-notch: roasted peppers and mashed chickpeas and tangy yogurt splashed across soft-yet-crispy folds of flatbread. I invite him to go on: “Yeah, the city is rough,” I offer.

Phnom Penh -- where else woud you stop for some Turkish tea?
Phnom Penh — where else woud you stop for some Turkish tea?

“Maybe I can go to Siem Reap.” He shrugs. “They say that it’s different there.”


I nod, swallowing a mouthful of peppery lamb, and start to expound on my observations of the two Cambodia poles, but he cuts me off. “No, no. That’s not what I mean. It’s the backpackers here. They want a meal for a dollar or two, and they don’t care about the quality. They go and eat junk in the streets. They don’t care if I import my peppers from Turkey.”


We pause a moment to peruse the roasted red pimiento.


“But in Siem Reap, you get the other travelers. The ones who can afford a sit-down meal. There, I think, they will pay six or seven dollars.”


And that’s the bottom line: he wasn’t wanting away from the bottom-feeding creeps; he merely needed clientele with more cash, one who wants a nicer time – not just to survive on a small budget and swap horror stories.

Buddies having a snack in the park.
Buddies having a snack in the park.

I nod and lean back against the crimson vinyl of the booth. It feels sticky, and I too want to get out. The owner smiles, “Shall I bring you another piece of baklava?”


Yet for all my snap judgments and stereotyping, Phnom Penh does have its bright spots. The biggest, bubbliest, tastiest of these is the night market, rollicking right at Phnom Penh’s heart.


Here, you find knock-off brands by the barrelful and wood-carved handcrafts by the wheelbarrow and a swirling galaxy of plastic trinkets and cell-phone covers. Sweet. But the real reason to show up isn’t the Hello Kitty iPhone case. Nope, it’s the food.

Hungry next
Hungry yet?

Street food vendors gather en masse to toss all manners of meats and veggies into flavor-bursting broths and strew them across charcoal-sweet grills. Noodle piles reach toward tent roofs, and curries glisten their fiery sheen. The result is a frenetic mess of aromas and colors assaulting your senses, wheeling like some drunken clockwork round a central plaza. And in the midst of that spiral, spread across a wide girth of plaza floor, lie rattan mats crowded full of university-crowd Westerners mingling with innocent-faced locals cramming themselves together in conglomerations of sweet-and-salty hodgepodges of MSG-laden treats.


It’s a pretty rocking time.


You might even find yourself a fabled chicken sandwich.

Night markets have mass appeal--plenty of tasty food
Night markets have mass appeal–plenty of tasty food

The eats are cheap and well worth lingering over, the variety dizzying, the overall sensory overload something akin to the kebabs and curries sliding down your gullet. We couldn’t help ourselves—soon we were smiling and chatting up a native Phnom Penh couple out for snacks with their frisky toddler. Watching a 2-year-old rock out to “Gangnam Style” is a terrific ice breaker, by the way.


He—I’m talking about the dad now—is a freelance exterminator; she’s a bank-office typist; and they both offer, aside from a half-dozen recommendations of local flavors to sample, a list of dead and missing relatives from the Khmer Rouge years.

Making friends
Making friends

But they don’t know much, actually. “No… our parents never really talk about it,” they tell us. “We don’t really know.” We turn and watch their son bebop to another pop hit.


Back to business: Aside from hearing of this young family’s hopes to save enough to buy a home and raise another kid or two—harbingers of Cambodia’s swelling middle class—Phnom Penh’s night market held the entrepreneurial spirit that flourishes in the cash-flush gatherings of a plastic-less market. Watch the vendors and see the range of humanity—welcoming smiles and stern determination, dirty fistfuls of dollars and steaming portions of culinary expertise, the trickery and the drudgery, and the lonely despair of the seller without a customer. It was a free-market microcosm of a world order based simply on human ambition and the forever itch for some moment of pet luxury. It was a tiny story of their lives, of my life, and of all life we know wrapped up in veil of smoking seafood on an age-old grill and washed down with a plastic cup of sticky sugarcane juice.

The whole family now
The whole family now

Yes, more than any sort of philosophical meanderings, the night-market offered an abundance of sugarcane juice. Every fourth stall of food housed a miniature jungle of reeds waiting their turn to be skinned and crushed and strained and served with a twist of lemon over a cup of eager ice. It’s cool and fresh and sweet, and we came back again and again, each time waiting in line after line of glycose-surfeiting customers intent on another blast of refreshing sugar-juice. It was almost enough to tip my Phnom Penh opinion back to positive.


Almost, I said, but not quite enough—I somehow still missed out on my chicken sandwich, and the late-night stroll back to the hotel was topped off with children stretching out beds of newspaper on the pavement, with stares from the hard-nosed crowd following our pockets, with the usual offers of illicit drugs and guilty sex, and constant reminders from Andy to grip that camera bag tighter, to watch more often over our shoulders, to startle at the sound of each passing motorcycle, and to scurry a bit faster through the shadows until we reached the haven of the next streetlamp’s radius of light.

Skinning the cane
Skinning the cane
Juicing the cane
Juicing the cane

This also is Phnom Penh. Pickpockets abound. Motorbike thieves are said to be rampant. Drug abuse is unabashed. Roaches meaty as your fingers scurry through the alleys. Beggars stop you every other block and are sure to interrupt every meal you decide to have outside in the slightly-cooler night.


Another bright spot of the city is exactly the river-front real estate I mentioned earlier. Half-decent tour boats ply the wharves, offering half-decent prices to cruise the pinkening river at sunset. We pulled up a little late, pushed for a reduced price, and soon enough the portly captain was running across the street to fetch us some snacks and drinks.

Lonely Vendor

Faces of the markets
Faces of the markets

A moment more and we were shoving off from the wharf and spinning out into the current. It was just us – the captain at the wheel and Andy and I upstairs, and the lights of the city sliding by. Its noise muffled by the distance, its hectic streets a suspended memory, Phnom Penh didn’t seem quite so onerous.


Andy smiled at me and took my hand in hers. “I like it here,” she told me.


“Here as in?”

Private sunset cruise -- good times
Private sunset cruise — good times

“The boat. With you. And this—” she swung her hand across the backdrop of a sunset. We need more moments like this.


But those moments are all too fleeting. Soon we were rushing to set up the tripod and snap some pictures. Soon the light was gone entirely. Soon we landed back on the wharf and handed the smiling captain his twenty dollars.


“Not bad for a private cruise,” we agreed, and stepped back into the bustle of Phnom Penh.

hello from the Phnom Penh boat
hello from the Phnom Penh boat


Even given such moments, Phnom Penh is a hard city to love—its reputation is a haven for youths to come and try their luck at surviving—a bit of social risk-taking, a self-congratulating pat on the back for stepping through the fetid streets and facing the grim realities of others and being able to walk away from it with a story—best told over a comfortable coffee many class-strata away, flipping through pictures on a phone worth more than a six months’ labor to one of the photo’s subjects.

A local monastery -- good for a quick pic
A local monastery — good for a quick pic

It is the guilty paradox of travel in regions such as these. I am also, as you have certainly noticed, part of that mix.


Some speak of Phnom Penh’s charms in terms of its cafes and lounges and cocktail bars—places where talk turns to all the exotic places traveled, where “So where are you from?” can never be answered in a single word, often not even in a single sentence. They’re the types of places to sound hip and urbane and experienced, as the sweat rolls down your spine and you sip over live music sung in a language no one at the table understands. A place where the talk turns to the killing fields and the torture and how often the world has turned its back on genocides and what works of dystopian literature Pol Pot’s saga somehow reminds you of.


Lonely Planet seems to be into that kind of thing.


After two nights, I sighed over the breakfast table and admitted I’d had enough. Phnom Penh, I said, is a little too seedy with a little too little in the way of peace. It’s a place that leaves you wanting a deep, hot shower—and not just in the I’ve-been-sweating-like-crazy-all-day kind of way. I was tired of turning down touts, tired of fidgeting over my shoulder as I walked home, tired of Linga-wielding demons staring at me from the thousands of carvings lining the breakfast nook.

Woodcarving at the hotel breakfast
Woodcarving at the hotel breakfast

We packed the bags, we grabbed the elevators, we held hands and sighed. Let’s go back to Jakarta.


Our tuk-tuk driver to the airport was smiling like crazy; he brought us dust-masks for the trip, but couldn’t understand one word in ten of what we wanted to tell him. He smiled and nodded and smiled to everything we said, and then he drove on. He was sunny and pleasant and grateful for a chance to drive and “chat.”


I wanted to stop for a chicken sandwich. I craved it, but still hadn’t tasted. It was my last chance.


Streets sweated in the Sunday morning. Traffic was already picking up. Our bags rocked precariously through the starts and stops and weaves across the lanes.

The faithful driver, and some monument in the back
The faithful driver, and some monument in the back

We witnessed a motorbike-borne bandit attempt a robbery. Here’s how it went down: the bike swerved alongside an unsuspecting tuk-tuk. The wiry thief snatched a quick left hand toward the target purse. A scream split the morning air. The motor gunned.


More screams erupted from the tuk-tuk.


And the next thing we saw was a tiny Japanese lady lying on the pavement clinging to her purse, a motorcycle toppled on its side, back wheel spinning fruitlessly in the air, and an empty-handed failure of a crook high-tailing it away from the oncoming swarms of vigilante bystanders. We watched him zig back, then zag forth along the river-front plaza. The crowds of chasers were closing in.

Flowers make bright spot for any tropical city.
Flowers make bright spot for any tropical city.

So the crook jumped in the river. He swam for it.


“Humph. Crazy,” I muttered. “But at least he didn’t—”


“Hold that camera bag tighter,” Andy whispered. “And let’s go.”


Let’s go back to Jakarta.


In praise of Phnom Penh, I was impressed how many men came pouring out of the shops and streets to punish the attempted injustice. Despite the city’s problems, plenty people defended that hapless visitor. Yes, plenty of well-meaning hearts people the city.


But I never got my chicken sandwich.

Smiles for the city, despite its rough spots
Smiles for the city, despite its rough spots

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