Phnom Penh is attracting more and more visitors keen to spend time in this laidback country and explore both the dark and the delightful sides of the Cambodian capital
At a pavement café dedicated to training street children to cook and wait tables, I soon became surrounded by a group of over-excited little people. A girl of around nine years old, face grubby with grime, sits down next to me and gives me a hug. She points at my cold, clear bottle of mineral water and smiles cheekily: ‘Drink?' It’s one of a collection of English words she has learned to say, along with 'hello', 'thank you' and, bizarrely, 'cheap as chips'.
Heng is six and is pushing his 10-year-old brother in a wheelchair; he loves the little gingerbread-man biscuit I have just bought for him from a passing vendor. This angry little boy, who, rather alarmingly, had earlier chased me with a stick whilst shoving his more passive brother’s wheelchair into my ankles, suddenly reverts back to being a child, hastily unwrapping the biscuit and then passing it around so others could take a bite. Several children have limbs missing.
The restaurant is run in conjunction with the local orphanage, where most of these children live. The owners tell you not to give them any money on the streets, as it encourages them to beg and rely on handouts. Instead, they suggest you go to the orphanage for the day or come to the restaurant for a meal or a fresh fruit juice. That’s easier said than done when a small brown face is staring wistfully upwards, hand-outstretched and tugging at your clothing. I started off by heeding this advice (hence being chased by Heng and his brother outside the Royal Palace earlier today) but soon crumpled, no doubt ‘ruining the economy’ as my guidebook had duly warned me.
To say that Phnom Penh is a city of contrasts is something of an understatement. It’s dirty, traffic-choked and crumbling. However, after the initial shock, this city has begun to get a hold on me. The fading colonial grandeur of the old mansion houses, the buzzing of the tuk-tuks and cyclos, and the sights and smells of the street stalls are intoxicating. Since I arrived, I have been reading about the mass exodus of the city’s entire population, enforced by the Khmer Rouge in the 70s, and imagining the now-bustling streets emptied of their shouting traders, beeping bikes and barefoot children.
Visiting the Tuol Sleng prison, S-21 as it was renamed, is probably the most harrowing travel experience I have ever had. It’s hard to believe that in this city-centre former school over 20,000 people were imprisoned and eventually slaughtered. Likewise with the Killing Fields, just out of town. I took a tuk-tuk there through the paddy fields and the dust and was surprised to find myself offered the chance to go and shoot an AK-47 immediately after finishing a tour of the mass graves. Needless to say, I declined.
I don’t mean to bring you down but you really can’t go to Phomn Penh without seeing the dark side of the city’s relatively recent history. It goes some way to explain the pleasures of its present - the wide smiles of people happy to be living free; the simple enjoyment of a bowl of rice or pho eaten from a makeshift stove on the back of a motorbike; the sleeping salesman content to string up his hammock between roadside palm trees and have a nap for an hour or two in the shade.
But there’s yet another side to this enthralling capital, the one that came before the death and destruction and is now just beginning to return - it’s the opulent, colonial glamour. You can step up to the Foreign Correspondents Club for riverside views and a cocktail underneath the lazily rotating fans or sit in the gardens of the Raffles Le Royal hotel and sample life at one of Asia’s grand old palaces with a gin and tonic in hand. Let yourself be awed by the sheer magnificence of the Silver Pagoda, with its ceiling-to-floor precious metal, or just chow down with the locals in the crowded alleys of the Russian Market, eyeing local specialities such as cured snake and half-formed duck egg from a distance. After a day or so of adjusting, and an appropriate amount of time respecting local history, go out and enjoy everything this fascinating city has to offer. You’ll soon fall in love with Phnom Penh.