Listening to my partner prattle on about the history of Cambodia, I realise how little I know of the country. Beyond my flimsy recollections of The Killing Fields and Apocalypse Now, I’m only familiar with the Mekong Delta. That fluid venous system reaches across a large part of South East Asia. A vivid reflective backdrop against which Phnom Penh unfolds. At sunset it dissolves it’s ancient torpor into an endlessly vast luminescence of water and sky.
Under bundles of wildly looping telekom wire the city is a criss crossed parade of motos, bicycles, tuk tuks, pedestrians, motorised food stalls and the odd stray dog jostling each other onwards. The Ochre dust of the East hovers over us as it does skyscrapers, boutique hotels, cafes, and ateliers. Save for oversized political billboards bleached to unearthly hues, and the odd booklet purveying tours to the Killing Fields and Choeung Ek Genocidal Center there is little to remind one of Cambodia’s dark history.
One doesn’t immediately associate the inscrutable smiles of the Khmer with the Khmer Rouge or the immense mis-trust of the likes of Pol Pot. The killing fields are 15 kilometers away from the capital, that dark chapter in Cambodias history remains sinister and silent. The Khmer Rouge were still in the game just 17 years ago. Throngs of people rushing in both directions live in conditions that testify to the complexities of rebuilding a nation scarred by violence and hampered by limited resources and corruption.
Balconitel, our hotel for two night is something of a find. The foyer of our tranquil sanctuary soon gives way to minimally designed rooms with uncomplicated trendy interiors. Construction taking place just across the road is easy to ignore, we slip into a distant calm and remove ourselves from the bustling enterprising of Phnom Penh.
Leaving the hotel for dinner I get a feel for the city as a pedestrian. Though darkness has dispelled a significant number of vehicles and motos there remains an sense of restless movement. Travellers wander the streets on their way to or from cafes or bars. Restaurants hum with conversations and excited voices of young explorers in Asia for the first time. Phnom Penh is is wide awake tonight.
Dinner is an uninvolved affair. Over Betel leaves, vermicelli spring rolls fish, and a lotus shoot salad the one thing we do not discuss is our plans for the next day. It’s been a long day that included the loss of my wallet and the subsequent theft of its contents. Fortunately my credit card and ATM card were returned unharmed, but nevertheless I would rather forget about details and further planning for the evening.