Perplexed in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is kind of a funny place. Roman and I spent over a week there, and the whole time we were trying to get our heads around what made it feel so different from other capital cities we have visited on our trip so far. Of course a week isn’t long enough to figure things out. I want to strongly caveat this post – I know there is so much more to this city that we can’t possibly know; but I can only write from my own experiences (and if you have a different impression of the city, I’d love to hear about it!).

We were struck by the proliferation of Western influence – the large number of high quality international restaurants, the cute and trendy cafes and bars, the feel-good NGO-run boutiques that seemed to be on every block selling purses and hair clips made from recycled material by disadvantaged women…

Of course there is a mixing of Western and local food, businesses, etc. every where we have been; between tourism and general globalization it’s inevetable. But in places like Vientiane or Delhi, it’s felt more organic to us. Bangkok is massively metropolitan and feels like a true international city – one that can encompass residents, visitors and influences from all over the world while still keeping its Thai heart.

In Phnom Penh, however, it felt to me like the pockets of Western-style business and values were somehow superimposed on the city. Although you see Westerners all over the place and most of the staff we encountered was Cambodian, whether at restaurants, monuments or shops, there was little feeling of integration in the neighbor hoods and businesses we saw. We did the city on foot and rarely encountered non-Cambodians on the street – inevitably the Westerners we saw were either at tourist spots or being shuttled somewhere in a tuk tuk.

The massive number of NGOs that are everywhere in the city are no doubt doing a lot of good for the people they are involved with, but their overwhelming presence, too, feels a bit weird. We’ve seen NGOs everywhere we’ve been, but never to this extreme extent. Roman helped to encapsulate why it felt somehow weird to us when he talked about how the West seems to be imposing its values here, and how different it might be if it was Cambodians who were choosing and directing their own protection, values, change and growth.

We wondered too, what it might be like if there was a larger middle class in Cambodia. As it is now, the divide between western-standard, westerner-friendly Phnom Penh and the city that is accessible to the most of its residents seems unnaturally large, even by South-East Asian standards.

Over all, we got a lot out of our time in Phnom Pehn and enjoyed many of the comforts the city offers to people like us who can afford it, but our visit left us with lots of questions we are still trying to find the answers to.

2 thoughts on “Perplexed in Phnom Penh

    • Indeed! Good intentions don’t always work out in application and I’ve never seen a better example of this than in Cambodia. It’s not all bad and there are many worthy organizations that are doing good, but there are plenty that are questionable as well!

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