When trying to describe Phnom Penh, I toy with words, as they choke my throat like dust as it swirls in the city streets. I stammer, never knowing exactly what I want to say. How do I describe a place which has endured the kind of anguish we only read about in Holocaust accounts, yet is so gentle? How do I choose sincere words that candidly portray a place which is healing so slowly, yet has so much hope? Beneath a constant layer of brown grime, lies a city of people who make me ashamed I’m privileged enough to use words at all.
Getting to live and work in one of the world’s poorest countries is humbling, and is the kind of experience I will carry with me for the rest of my life. It has opened my eyes to what much of the world beyond Canada’s doorstep is like. Poverty-stricken Cambodia lives in the shadows of Angkor Wat’s proud spires, clinging to it as their only hope of seeing such prosperity again.
In the capital city, a blur of patterns and colours fill the streets and incoherent shapes only suggest the existence of structures. This maze of shambles is interrupted at frequent intervals by dazzling pagodas and elegant French architecture. Long expanses of beautifully tiled sidewalk are covered in vermin, vehicles and vendors, leaving pedestrians to navigate the chaos of traffic. A lack of high-rise buildings gives the huge city a neighbourhood-like feeling. Above street level, flats and apartments are stacked on top of one another like a precarious game of Jenga. Incense tingles my nostrils in pleasure as the city bustles around me. Sound and smell hit my senses with such force they become individually unrecognizable.
As Phnom Penh reluctantly crawls towards it’s hot season, the temperature trembles above 33 degrees, and I look for less excuses to wade through the heat. Sweat sizzles on my skin, becoming steam. My head levitates in a dehydrated swoon as I fill an unquenchable desire for water. The bottled kind is a cheap commodity for me, but the less fortunate are left consuming what comes out of the rusted city pipes.
The elderly stand in dark alleyways, and stare through time with gaunt, glazed eyes. The wrinkles on their age-leathered faces tell a story of hardship. A generational gap sits like an unsurpassable rift between those who saw it, and those who are too young to know. Children run around the streets practically naked as they wait for clean clothes. With tendrils of hair escaping tied scarves, women sit by the side of the road, hunched over buckets, wringing the water from soapy clothing with work-weary hands. Hung laundry will have acquired a layer of continuous dust before it dries.
Beautiful Buddhist monks walk the streets barefoot, bringing a sense of tranquility in flashes of bright orange. People here cling fiercely to their gentle faith, leaning on it for support, needing answers to their tumultuous past and uncertain future.
Cambodia is broken, and though the people live despite a leader who takes everything from them, they fear change. These people have back-breaking jobs that scrape in a measly income. And they’re disadvantaged further by a corrupt government that doesn’t put money into welfare, education or health care. They’ve been taught to be happy with what they have, and as a result, don’t strive to achieve more.
The current leader of Cambodia is a former Khmer Rouge soldier, and he uses public funds to pad his own pockets, shamelessly crippling an entire country in the process. The divide between rich and poor is a vast abyss, and those who live well above the poverty line, also live above the law. High-ranking political figures own brothels on the side. And police officers are forced to request bribes so they can earn enough money to survive. They do this by pulling over motorists who’ve done nothing wrong, taking their license, and demanding a few dollars for it’s return.
I tread softly on bruised Phnom Penh, not wanting to play the role of intrusive tourist. I watch grey-haired white men place exploiting hands on their young Khmer escorts as idle grins crease their red, sweaty faces. With cheap fantasies satisfied, they will fly away from this forgotten place to their shiny homelands, leaving broken girls behind. Young children are left wondering why their skin is different, and who their fathers are. Unspeakable things happen on the outskirts of town, strategically placed away from other tourists, out of eyesight, so it stays out of mind. In small, dank rooms, young children learn more about adulthood than they should ever know.
Phnom Penh does not want sympathy. It’s a hard city with a soft heart. The beauty here, is in the people. Locals return my friendly gaze with dazzling smiles, their white teeth flashing from beneath sun-dried lips. They shout out salutes as I walk past them, hoping to get some business, and practice a few words of English. ”Hey lady, where you from?” Their attractive faces are a blend of exotic Asian, with high cheekbones, petite noses and big, shiny eyes.
Like a sharp object, Cambodia has wedged itself deep into my heart, gripping me, pleading with me never to forget. One day I will upheave the shallow roots I’ve planted here, and head home. But this experience will live with me forever.