After more than three weeks in Vietnam, crossing the border into Cambodia is a completely new adventure. Upon entering the ancient Khmer Empire, the effects of the political and economic decisions of the last few decades are quickly apparent. There are fewer motorbikes, more bicycles and the contrast between the “have” and “have nots” runs deeper than in Vietnam.
In the southeast corner of Cambodia, where the Mekong, Tonle Sap, and Bassac rivers intersect, lies the country’s capital, Phnom Penh. With just over two million residents, it’s Cambodia’s largest city and economic and political hub. It’s also the country’s wealthiest city, the evidence of foreign investment and Western expats everywhere. The people here are gracious, kind, and dignified, reflecting a wisdom only those who have endured great hardship can know. The persistent “tuk tuk?!” offers are almost always followed by “thank you’s,” and nearly every smile given is easily returned.
Head into the city center and a different story is being written. Resting in the shade of treelined streets and sleek new apartment buildings are fancy restaurants, coffee shops, and boutiques. Costa Coffee and even a brand spanking new Domino’s Pizza can be found here. The tuk tuks, motorbikes, and bicycles weave around Land Rovers and Lexus SUV’s.
It’s a country still recovering from the horrors of the all too recent past. Phnom Penh, a striking example of the impact of modernization with pockets of prosperity floating like islands in a sea of third world reality.
But what stands out the most about Phnom Penh, is the disparity created by the double digit growth rates of the past two decades. On the outskirts of town, small children hoist bags of recycling twice their size as they stumble along dusty roads. Large flatbed trucks carry dozens of women to work, packed shoulder to shoulder with barely any room to breathe. Massive piles of trash line each dirt road and the rubble of brick and stone mark where buildings once stood.