Settling Dust in the Sunset: First Impressions of Phnom Penh

Cambodia. A country that’s difficult to talk about without mentioning either the ongoing state of poverty in which so many of its citizens live, or without mentioning the horrors of the genocide of the Khmer Rouge only a few decades past. It would be a shame to reduce such a beautiful country to its darkest recesses. There’s a lot of beauty here. 

Phnom Penh greets me with in a cloud of dust. The roads in Cambodia are in a state of half-completion and while major thoroughfares have been paved in recent years, construction is ongoing and slow. With little or no rainfall in January, theres a lot of dust in the air from the perpetual traffic jam that seems to clog the major arteries into the city.


It’s late in the day, the sky a hue of orange, sun fading slowly on the visible horizon. The city doesn’t reach far into the sky; three or four stories at most, so it’s not hard to catch glimpses into the distance, vast fields of rice, dirt, the occasional lone palm tree sprouting out of the flatness of the fields.


This is my first glimpse of Cambodia. Being choked by dust and car exhaust, swarmed by motorcycles, tuk tuks,  and makeshift vehicles that have no proper name. Sporadic markets along the road, corrugated metal shacks, pedestrians jaywalking slowly through the mess of traffic, trucks trapped in the gridlock. I love it here already.


The dust settles deeper into the city, and along the Mekong River on Sisowath Quay, things have calmed down. Endless rows of French colonial buildings, built until the 1950s and totally abandoned during forced, city-wide exodus imposed by the genocidal Khmer Rouge. The history of this city is laid plain and bear to be seen, it places it seems untouched by the years in between. Building still bare their painted names from a prosperous time, and while the waterfront has been restored and updated, most of the city feels frozen in time.

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