From Singapore’s Changi airport it is only a short 2 hour flight across the Gulf of Thailand and into the Kingdom of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh – dubbed ‘The Pearl of Asia’.
Looking out the window on the descent one would expect a larger network of lights for a city that’s population is now nearing almost 1.5 million.
Located on the banks of the Mekong River and boasting textbook examples of French Imperialist architecture. Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s epicentre for economic and industrial activities, as well as security, politics, cultural heritage and diplomacy.
Travelling from the airport however, still hasn’t lost its original charm, with a large line of motorised rickshaws called ‘tuk tuks’ ferrying passengers to and from.
Whilst riding down the cities main thoroughfare, the sight and sound of construction is almost overwhelming. It appears half the city is literally under construction with a ‘pardon our progress’ sign for carrying on with business as usual.
From the outside looking in one would assume that the city is going from strength to strength under both communism and capitalism ideology. However, when discussing Cambodian politics more broadly it is clear there are many issues simmering beneath the surface.
Prime minister Hun Sen of the Cambodians People Party has been in office since 1985, in what is best described as dictatorship. The former Khmer Rouge commander’s leadership has been held through the use of a described ‘web of patronage and brute military strength’.
With any form of anti-government protest being met with severe military forces and harsh jail sentences for those who organise them.
When exploring the city during the day the first stop is the Central Market, where the exotic and varied is an understatement. The scenes of hanging meats with no refrigeration and dozens of flies fill the overly sanitised mind of a westerner with equal measures of love and fear. There are also hundreds of stalls where you can buy anything from a wedding ring to toothpaste.
Back at my hostel, the world renowed ‘Mad Monkey’ I start the night with a few $1 draft beers and start chatting with a few fellow backpackers who take me under their wing for a ‘night out’.
A ‘night out’ in Phnom Penh soon becomes an advertisement in the requirement for travel insurance. Embarking on a typical pub-crawl, the casual sipping of beers turns quickly to one of serious degenerative behaviour.
Random bodies are seen sprawled across the floor after too many homemade alcohol shots, and those who haven’t succumbed are blowing in and out of balloons hooked up to the in-house nitrous oxide take.
The city is a major supplier of illicit drugs to the eastern parts of the world and hence they are easily accessible. The ‘golden triangle’ is considered one of Asia’s main illicit opium producing areas, with the Mekong Delta being the favoured transport channel out of the zone.
With drugs and alcohol, as always come the obligatory ‘working girls’ who prey on the mostly older, wealthier and heavily inebriated man at the bar. With prices as low as $5 a ‘session’, the trade has become a steadfast of the local scene and to a larger and more entrenched level the country’s economy.
The biggest concern for the government with the booming sex trade is the genuine health crisis it has caused. Reports estimate 80% of sex workers have some form of sexually transmitted disease and more alarmingly, the general population being 1.6% HIV positive.
A visit to Phnom Penh cannot be done without a trip to visit the infamous Killing Fields and S-21 Prison. Where in the late 1970’s histories third largest genocide occurred, killing more than 2 million people, which then accounted for one-quarter of the Cambodian population.
Personally, it was the individual stories of S-21 Prison where there are incredibly detailed archives of prisoner pictures, interrogations and torture manuals that had the most effect. The sheer number of deaths at the Killing Fields felt hard to put into context, however sights of ‘killing’ trees and ‘death’ pits are very confronting.
The group I visited with didn’t feel like much more than a few quiet beers after our day’s tour.
Next Stop: Sihanoukville