Phnom Penh: First Impressions, And An Open Letter

I want to tell you that there’s life here.

There are wide roads filled with motorbikes and tuk-tuks and more cars that I’d expected. There are smaller roads, lined with trees with soft pink flowers; there is laundry on the balconies. There are the umbrellas of the markets, the umbrellas of the monks—yellow above orange robes, a prayer in and of the themselves. There’s tourists and business men and beggars and children. There are a lot of children.

There wasn’t any of this when you left. There was smoke and emptiness; there was a camp of people on the medians. The buildings were shells, the lives were shells—bulleted carcases, metaphors of each other. A city punctured and bled.

But I want to tell you that there’s life here again. What you left devastated and destroyed; what you never came back to. It feels like a city, a normal city, and not as poor as I’d expected. There are billboards on the banks across the river, and construction cranes behind fences of corrugated metal. A smooth breeze comes off the river and the nights feel delicious on my skin.

This is the city that kept living—the way it grew in your dreams, I imagine, without you. This is the city you carried in you—its streets the same, some of the buildings too—but what fills them is all different, all changed, the architecture of absence. This is the city that kept living, when you did not.

After Vietnamese cities, Phnom Penh feels leisurely, luxurious, and it’s easy to feel enamored, to imagine none of it happened. But there are images, glimpses—dark things that I don’t understand, have nowhere to put, can only see.

Two boys standing beside the body of a man, limbs in an opiate sprawl along the sidewalk, next to a metal fence that ripples and warps. They frame him like boney columns—something vaguely Roman in the pose—and they each clutch a plastic bag. They raise it to their mouths and breathe, breathe.

Red-faced man with a bushy white beard, fat and eczematous, a Bad Santa—drinking a beer along the river, his arm around a thin, firm, dark body. A Bad Santa, bearing dark gifts and a cloud of soot.

Young girls, beautiful girls, white-skinned girls, legs and heels and tiny waists. Painted and primped and walking, neon-light shadow in the night, a click-click teeter. They’ve learned to balance, to walk on this, three and a half inches high.

Thin man, wiry man, sun-spotted and heat-blasted, something of a shell. He opens his mouth—a mess of rotted teeth, melted into one another. He speaks with an Australian accent. I don’t listen, or half-listen, instead watching his eyes, which shift ever so slightly—this way and that—like someone at the very beginning of sleep, when they still think the dream is real.

His story is practiced and performed: a stolen bag and a closed Embassy. Do I have money? Can I help him out?—-him, him, in this foreign land.

Children begging. In other countries they’d be gypsies, and some of them look like gypsies—but there’s something different to their posture. They don’t tug at your clothes, but approach with their palms up. Their whine is less pronounced, their words barely audible. There’s a restlessness, a shiftlessness, that they don’t have. Instead, there’s a permanence, an element of Here, to their movement that is, in a way, more lonesome.

A teenager walks the steep slope to the river, all black eyes and sharp bones—angular elbows and a collar bone shadow. He carries a long stick, and walks slowly along the cement embankment, where small black birds flit into nooks.

He walks up to a bird and swiftly stabs his stick at it—a flurry of wings. But he’s got it. He raises it to his face, slowly plucks the bird from its spear. He presses his thumb against its throat and pushes in slow, hard strokes. I can’t tell if it’s dead; I think I still see it moving.

He places the small black body in his pocket—a ragged strip of cloth—and continues walking, repeating, repeating. Is he killing them? Gathering them to sell? Are they food? Are they dead?

It isn’t so much the action of it that disturbs me—it’s the slowness with which he does it. It’s the calm of it all.

He continues off, along the steep slope, stabbing and gathering.

I don’t understand any of it. It’s life written in another language, a calligraphy dripping in mystery. It is beautiful and terrifying, and I don’t think for one minute that I’ll be able to understand.

4 Responses to “Phnom Penh: First Impressions, And An Open Letter”

  1. 1 tam March 2, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    Beautiful writing.

  2. 2 Hal Amen March 2, 2011 at 6:41 pm

    Lots of powerful images here, but the kid with the birds, plus this: “I don’t understand any of it.”, is on another level. Haunting.

  3. 4 mickey March 2, 2011 at 8:12 pm

    you’ve gone to a new level – I don’t know if I have ever read a more entrancing picture of place

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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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