When I landed in Phnom Penh after 30+ hours of traveling the last thing I was expecting to see in the departures area was a Dairy Queen. I was so disoriented and sleep deprived that when I thought about what I had seen the next day I questioned if I had imagined it. But subsequent trips to the airport confirmed that there is indeed a Dairy Queen in the departures gate at Phnom Penh International.
I was expecting to have to go without the usual fast food places I had become accustomed to back home. After all I was flying halfway around the world to a country with thousands of years of cultural history. However, Phnom Penh has grown at such a rapid pace over the last 30 odd years that western chains started to move into the city. Now they are primarily concentrated around expat areas, but there is clearly enough demand for these outlets to exist.
After the Khmer Rouge ended, Cambodia basically had to build itself up from fragments of what it once was. The country received aid from giants like China, Japan and the USA. The presence of foreign aid and foreign aid workers has made Cambodia, and Phnom Penh in particular, a unique agglomeration of cultures. On one street you may find mom & pop restaurants selling Chinese noodle dishes, Khmer street food, and a corner store selling Japanese candies. In a supermarket products come in all sorts of languages and often have stickers with the Khmer translations slapped on so locals people can discern what they are buying. Even the traditional local markets sell all sorts of foreign label products, showing just how deep foreign influences have impacted the city.
Phnom Penh developed so quickly that guide books from only five years ago are now obsolete. I found one that listed instructions on how to get the main train station which went ‘go to the corner of this street and that street then turn right at the tall building’. Well if you go to that exact spot now, there are three skyscrapers being built on three separate corners so I wouldn’t know where to turn right for the life of me. It also turns out that the train station in question had been relocated entirely making those instructions even more obsolete.
On the topic of transport, Phnom Penh, and the rest of the country, has been developing at such a rapid pace, but a reliable form of public transport has not developed at this same speed. There is a train that runs across the country, but it can be cancelled what can seem at random and often runs an hour ahead or a few hours behind the scheduled times. There are busses that run throughout Phnom Penh and I, after much research, figured out how to use them, but it’s taking the local people a while to warm up to them. There are various types of busses donated from Japanese and Chinese aid programs. They are wonderfully air conditioned and quiet affordable at 1500 riel (0.50 CAD) a ride.
Another fun fact about Cambodia is its currency. It uses two currencies – the Cambodian Riel and the US Dollar. And with these two currencies, only paper bills are accepted. This dual currency system came from an attempt to reinstate the Riel as the primary currency after the Khmer Rouge and mass inflation after UN aid in the 90’s. The system does take a bit to figure out, but once you remember that 4000 Riel is worth approximately 1 US dollar then paying with both currencies becomes less challenging.
Walking around Phnom Penh one thing that stands out is the astounding amount of plants people have in front of their homes and on balconies. I first noticed this at Prek Leap National College of Agriculture (PNCA) when I first arrived, but didn’t really think it was excessive given it was an Agriculture College.
Turns out Cambodians tend to adore plants; and when you have many Cambodians working at an agriculture college there can be plants in every nook and cranny.
The quirk here is that the city’s public spaces are primarily concrete with low lying, small, highly manicured gardens. This is not at all a reflective of the people’s love of greenery. With the 40-degree heat Phnom Penh experiences regularly one would benefit from public spaces incorporating more greenery, if not to provide more shade. Even with the lack of shade and greenery, people still flock to the parks when the sun is weak. People often walk laps at dawn and at dusk, and gather to eat dinner and play Jianzi, or foot badminton in large groups.
Phnom Penh certainly does have its quirks, but I have gained a better understanding of the city and its history through these unique characteristics.
Roxanne Van Velzen