Thursday, 18 September 2014

Loving and leaving Phnom Penh

It seems appropriate to start our last blog talking about the birth place of Phnom Penh, our home for the last two and a half years.

Wat Phnom is a pagoda standing on a mound that is meant to be the founding spot of Phnom Penh. It stands 27 metres tall and its lit-up pristine whiteness ensures it stands out as a landmark at night. A decade ago, no building in Phnom Penh was allowed to be higher than the top of Wat Phnom. A friend described how you could look out across the skyline of Phnom Penh and see a canopy of trees only punctuated by the spires of pagoda. Phnom Penh was a pearl of South East Asia.

Wat Phnom. The stark white stone against the night sky is quite majestic. You don't have to be tall to stand out from the crowd.
From our rooftop (our building has ground to second floor) I can see 18 tall buildings being constructed. These are easy to spot because of the green mesh netting they have around them to stop debris falling into other properties. I would probably be able to see more if it were not for two already constructed apartment towers on the other side of the street blocking part of my view.

If you're living next to it, the noise of construction can continue seven days a week, starting early in the morning. The doors and windows, open to let cool air into the house, also let in the noise of grinders and machines. Foreigners, particularly, are irked by this but as a Cambodian friend replied, Cambodia is a developing country so what else would you expect but for development to be happening. Development appears as concrete, lifts and air-conditioned apartments.

The planning laws were changed and apartment towers have replaced the pagodas as the highest thing in the sky. These buildings replace old wooden houses on stilts, and rather than shade being provided by trees in the garden, it is provided by even taller buildings close by. The wooden houses seem romantic and more in tune with nature’s environment, but the reality for one friend living in a wooden house was termites, creaking wood and a dodgy roof (not to mention rats in the floorboards and mice in the cupboards!) She has recently moved into a modern apartment and is wondering why it took her three years to do so.

Trees and golden spires. How Phnom Penh used to look?
Cambodians are also moving en masse as suburbs and gated communities spread into Phnom Penh. I visited one recently which is called “New World” and saw rows of buildings ignoring the cooling virtues of wooden houses or even of ceiling fans, preferring concrete and air conditioning units instead. However, it was also a more open community with fewer gates barricading houses in and children were out roaming the streets.

Phnom Penh is a noticeably different city now to the one we arrived in on 13th February 2012. If we come back in the future, it will have changed again. The streets will have changed, and the street sellers changed with them, and maybe some of the attractive French colonial buildings will have vanished too. Our hearts may fall, but why would Cambodians care about preserving the memories of a foreign, colonial rule?

As a sentimentalist, there is a part of me that hopes Phnom Penh will remain the same as I know it. But this is a selfish and harmful wish.


This is the view from the back of my roof, which may not last very long. The one in the distance is the unfinished tower and the one to the left has just been finished. The one away in the distance in the back right is the tallest of the lot. 
When counting the towers being built from my rooftop, I can actually see a 19th building that has green mesh and the look of being constructed about it. However, if you look again tomorrow or the day after, or even if you had looked at it on 13th February 2012, you will notice that nothing has changed in years. This unfinished, giant concrete tower of 34 storeys stands in the middle of Phnom Penh at the junction of two of the main roads. It is an unchanging scar on the city.

A city that is not changing is a city that is not living or breathing. Phnom Penh is an exhilarating city because it is living and breathing, and changing. The Phnom Penh that we have known, and will leave today, will exist tomorrow only in our hearts and memories. For tomorrow it will have changed again and other people will be falling in love with it.


Last sunrise over the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers in Phnom Penh this morning.
Goodbye, from your Phnom Penh Pals

Claire and Gordon

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