Friday, December 13, 2013

The Hill of Madame Penh

Just before I left on vacation, a well-meaning colleague asked: “Cambodia? I mean, is that a place where people go?” Good question. Here’s my list of properties for a desirable tourist destination:

(i) culturally interesting and also beautiful – so one has a reason to go in the first place,
(ii) not on the map of mass tourism, like Phuket or Majorca – because then it's crowded with foreigners and doesn't feel authentic,
(iii) not totally devoid of tourists either, like Pyongyang or  Bishkek – because then you are lonely and feel you've ended up in the wrong place.

So yes, it has to be a place “where people go” but not too many, and I can testify that on these counts Cambodia qualifies perfectly. But don’t count on (ii) remaining true forever, as Phnom Penh, Battambang and Sihanoukville are destined to become huge tourist destinations  and Siem Reap is pretty much there already. In short, the best time to go to Cambodia is right now. Then again, if you do go in large numbers it will no longer remain as nice...

There are many similarities between Thailand and Cambodia – the predominantly Buddhist culture of self-discipline, the lemongrass and fish-paste-scented food, the script of their languages and the appearance of temples and palaces. The kings of both countries are highly educated, liberal, artistically inclined figures. Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej is an accomplished saxophonist and composer, nicknamed “The King of Jazz” (below you can see his picture on the side of a Bangkok building). Meanwhile, Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni is a ballet dancer by training. (As an aside, Wikipedia tells us: Sihamoni remains a bachelor. His father Norodom Sihanouk has stated that Sihamoni "loves women as his sisters". Although Wikipedia does not develop the subject further, it's fairly clear what we are expected to conclude.)

 Both kings seem to be extremely popular, while the governments are much less so – Thai PM Yingluck Shinawatra is heartily disliked by the urban populace, some of whom are currently trying to topple her government. And in Cambodia, a tour operator startled us by narrating over the PA system his frank opinions of controversial Prime Minister Hun Sen and his “2000 uneducated bodyguards” who he said were “responsible for the death of many of my fellow Khmer people”.

The similarities pretty much end here. Cambodia is far poorer than Thailand and is still recovering from the depredations of the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1970’s when a couple of million people (a quarter of the population!) were tortured, maimed and killed. The Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh presents this history in the place where much of it happened (the building was first a school and then a Khmer Rouge prison). It's a chilling and depressing reminder of how barbarous human beings can be. (As a technical point, I don't think "genocide" is the correct word to describe the killings by the Khmer Rouge, but this hardly seems worth arguing over.)

Today Cambodians are averagely dressed and noticeably slimmer than the Thais, who – at least in Bangkok – have started manifesting very un-Asian signs of plumpness in consequence of their prosperity. Still, Phnom Penh is a charming and generally cheerful city. The endless green fields and occasional farmhouses that I saw from the plane when coming in to land made a perfect antidote to Bangkok, a city of office blocks, shopping malls, hotels, restaurants and brothels - sometimes all in the same building. Phnom Penh is predominantly low-rise, though an ugly mega-hotel is coming up right across the river from the Royal Palace. On the 6-hour drive from there to Siem Reap I observed that villages were very clean, and villagers though modest were far from dirt poor. The houses were all very neat and propped up on stilts, some with beautiful exteriors of painted wood inlaid with blue windows and decorative curtains, and set among paddy fields or wetlands. Very picturesque indeed.

Cambodian food is wonderful. Phnom Penh has been steadily acquiring a reputation for trendy bars and restaurants. For me the high point there was Malis, an elegant establishment with open-air seating around an ornamental pool. Here I got to sample the national dish, Amok, consisting of fresh fish steamed in a coconut sauce perfumed with lemongrass and other spices. It was divine. The staff would smile at us in a genuine, friendly way each time they passed our table. This kind of charm used to be present in Thailand but is fading rapidly there.

Phnom Penh literally means "The Hill of Penh". According to legend, Madame Penh discovered  five Buddha statues inside a tree floating on the river. She had a small hill ("phnom") made from piles of earth and built a temple on it to house the statues. While she immodestly named the temple after herself, today the whole city is named after her. But that's only the informal name. The formal name of the city is Krong Chaktomuk Mongkol Sakal Kampuchea Thipadei Sereythor Inthabot Borei Roth Reach Seima Maha Nokor. Hindi speakers will be amused to realise that the last two words are really महानगर , and I'm also guessing that "Chaktomuk" is चतुर्मुख (four-faced, referring to four rivers) and "Mongkol" is मंगल or bliss. I can confirm that the name is appropriate.

1 comment:

vbalki said...

Thank you for the brief but delightful travelogue. One felt transported to the place. The Khmer Rouge massacre is indeed one of the biggest and most horrifying ones in history. (I once saw a photograph of a huge mound of skulls of victims of the Khmer Rouge and thinking about it still sends a chill down my back.) As for the full name of Phnom Penh, it looks like Tamil Nadu and Cambodia have much in common: presumably the latter also have
municipal corporations trying to paint something like "Pasumponmuthuramalingathevar Street" on a 2 by 3 slab already defaced with posters, leaving very little free space:-) How about Mongolia the next time!