Walking in Phnom Penh, Part One

As a life-long city dweller, my go-to is walking. I get to know a place by walking around it. And I did a little walking while I was in Phnom Penh, which— as anyone who’s spent any time in a Southeast Asian city will tell you—is not an easy thing to do.

1) It’s hot, pretty much all the time.
2) Big cities are even hotter, with their sun-absorbing concrete and tall buildings that block any breeze that might come off the nearest body of water.
3) Smaller cities are not meant for walking—the sidewalks, where they even exist, are often unpassable.
4) Traffic is unaccustomed to pedestrians—tuk-tuks will honk for your custom incessantly and there are few pedestrian crossings.
5) The locals will look at you like you’re absolutely crazy to be walking around, for the reasons listed above.

It’s enough to drive anyone (including yours truly) to take up motorcycle riding.

But, I managed to walk in Phnom Penh.

I walked the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek. Of course, walking the fields is the only way to see them. I walked them in silence while listening to the audio guide. And I managed to keep my composure as I walked by the sites of mass graves and the tree upon which children were bashed to death. And I listened to he history of the Khmer Rouge and to the description of the site as it was 33 years ago when the killing ended. I kept my composure through all of it, until I started to hear the stories of survivors. About a woman who was forced to work all day in the fields of Pol Pot’s great agricultural society and could only nurse her son at night—but since she herself was starving, she couldn’t produce milk. She watched her baby wither away. He would have been my age.

That’s when I stopped walking and took a rest on a bench.

Killing Fields site

The view from my bench at the Killing Fields; undisturbed mass graves sit beneath the water.

Vietnam-Cambodia Friendship Monument in Phnom Penh

Vietnam-Cambodia Friendship Monument in Phnom Penh

Back in the city, I walked south along the Riverside with its French colonial buildings and promenade, and I imagined the light-coloured linen suits, straw hats, silk dresses, and sun parasols of another time. From the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, I continued south through the Wat Bottom children’s park to the Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument. It was Vietnam that got Pol Pot out of Cambodia. Granted, it was thanks to an invasion force of Khmer Rouge defectors and the Vietnamese army, but it was Vietnam that ended the genocide. I saw children using the shiny pavement around the monument as a skating rink—those few with scooters and rollerblades—with other kids chasing behind them. These kids likely don’t think about the significance of the monument they’re playing under. They’re lucky enough to have parents or grandparents who survived the horror of three decades ago, and they’re far too young to dwell on the aunties and uncles they lost back then, or in the struggles that followed.

I walked to the Independence Monument, along Neak Banh Teuk Park and its lovely fountains. Half the city’s older population seemed to be out for their evening exercise walk, doing counter clockwise loops up and down the park. As I walked along these public spaces filled with happy families, I reflected on the youthfulness of this city’s population. I don’t see a lot of Cambodians around my age—everyone I encounter seems to be younger or older than me. And they are all so happy. Yet, when I see the aunties and grandmothers in the park, I can’t help but wonder what horrors they’re remembering as they hold the babies in their arms.

I walked the streets of Phnom Penh for a few days, quietly shaking my head to the tuk-tuk and moto drivers who called out to me. And I crossed the traffic-filled streets, without traffic lights or pedestrian crossings; I flowed through the multiple lanes of traffic like a local. And I managed to do it all without dying of heat exposure. The trick is to wait until the late afternoon, when the sun has lowered in the sky and drops behind the buildings.

I walked the length of Boulevard Preah Norodom, from Wat Phnom south to the Independence Monument. Of course, my walk along this boulevard of French colonial buildings now housing government ministries and other institutions was made easier on the last day of the ASEAN Summit. Each intersection was manned with between 6 and 26 uniformed personnel of various persuasions. They ranged from standing-at-attention SWAT-style officers armed with dark glasses, automatic weapons, and motorcycles at the ready, to what appeared to be boy scouts and girl scouts armed with flags and charged with enforcing the traffic cops’ bidding. With pelotons of motorbikes held behind barriers to allow for motorcades to pass, crossing the street was a breeze. (I never saw Obama’s motorcade, but I saw many a line of black sedans carrying Asian leaders and minibuses full of delegates being wisked up and down the cleared road by police escort.)

Line of cars driving down empty street.

Delegates at the ASEAN Summit travel quickly in the normally crowded streets of Phnom Penh.

I walked by various ministries, training departments, and banks, until I came upon a collection of Gendarmerie Royal. I mistakenly assumed I had come across the military police’s headquarters, but instead it was the offices of the World Bank in Cambodia. I walked by without incident, because unlike a summit in the West, protesting at ASEAN is not de rigeur, even if, or perhaps especially when, President Obama is in attendance.

I like to walk, and walk alone. Partly because I’m a slow walker, but mostly because it gives me time to think about the things I saw and the things I’m seeing as I go. And I draft entire manifestos in my head as I make my way from point A to point B. And given the contrast between a U.S. presidential visit and a visit to the Killing Fields, I had a lot to think about.

For more on my thoughts, read part two of this post.