Phnom Penh

A little more than a year ago, I traveled to Phnom Penh to visit the UN tribunal to learn about international criminal law and how Cambodia and the international community were prosecuting the Khmer Rouge for crimes against humanity. I knew about the genocide and read about the awful crimes committed under Pol Pot’s regime. I didn’t realize the magnitude of the crimes until I visited S-21/Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields memorial. Certain images were forever seared in my mind. Black and white photographs of the dead staring blankly before their imminent deaths. Fantastical looking trees used for sinister purposes. Blood stains forever inked on the floor. It was haunting, and I remember having difficulty sleeping that night. As depressing as the sites were, I came out of my visit with conviction. I promised myself that if I was ever given the opportunity to go back and help out with the Khmer Rouge trials in some way, then I would do so. It was a fleeting thought, and I didn’t think it was likely to occur. Little ole’ me from a little law school given the chance to intern for the UN tribunal to help prosecute the Khmer Rouge? No way!

And yet, here I am, 14 months later, lying in bed writing this entry from the top floor of my apartment in Phnom Penh. God really does work in mysterious ways. I admit, my perception of Phnom Penh was a bit skewed. While I got a chance to see the nightlife, two days is simply not enough time to know a city. Also, a chunk of my two days in PP was devoted to genocide and international law. Thus, the perception I had of Phnom Penh was one marked by war, destruction, and sadness.

So what are my thoughts now of Phnom Penh? Well, I’ve only been here a week, so I can’t say too much. Nevertheless, my views of PP is gradually changing, even though S-21 is located a block away from my apartment (oi!). Phnom Penh reminds me a lot of Saigon, minus the crowds and noise. I see lots of old, run-down French colonial style buildings. There are no high rises here. The motorbike is king and is the main mode of transportation. However, there’s a decent amount of cars, particularly Lexus SUVs (possibly driven by the Khmer Rich?). Cambodia is less developed compared to Vietnam, but I sense it’s a city that’s on the up-and-up. While it’s not frenetically driving headfirst into the future, it’s no longer shackled by its awful past.

I already have a good impression of the people (gentle, quiet, yet helpful) and the food (similar to Vietnamese but more of an emphasis on condiments). I like that I can go across the street from my apartment and have a delicious bowl of fragrant pho. As I’m eating pho, from the outdoor view of the restaurant, I can see the city wake up before my eyes, with the motorbikes coming out of the woodwork. I also like that I can walk two blocks and visit the porridge lady. Around 6:00am, there’s already a crowd of locals surrounding her, eager to pay $1 for her porridge. Her face is dark and weathered, as if she’s seen great hardship. Yet her presence is indomitable. Wearing her traditional Khmer sarong and a bright orange head wrap, she will order strangers and schoolchildren to hold bags of porridge and other ingredients if necessary. Everyone obeys her commands. I grab my to-go porridge and rush home to my place and slurp with eagerness. The mix of lime, red chili peppers, gelatinous pig blood, and fried rolls elevates her porridge from bland to Cambodian-soul food good.

Finding moments like these, even in daily routines, is what makes Phnom Penh beguiling. Over the next four months, I’m excited as to what I’ll uncover on this intriguing city. 🙂

Note: a revised post with pictures will be featured soon. I promise!


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Penelope
    Dec 22, 2012 @ 04:11:24

    Tell Frances that her old professor is hoping to hear from her. PC


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