a party in phnom penh

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Except to intrepid travellers, Phnom Penh and having a good time don’t come readily together. This medium-sized capital of a small South East Asian nation, which claim to fame is a magnificent cluster of ruins and faces of Buddha peering out of jungles and rice fields embedded with unexploded landmines and human skulls, is in reality Asia’s most free and openly tolerant city.

Amazing, because no country in Asia has endured so much physical and psychological abuse as Cambodia.

According to recently released data, the US Forces during the American Indochina war dropped 2,756,941 tons of bombs on Cambodia- almost a third more than the entire Allied bombs used in World War II making Cambodia the most heavily-bombed country in history.

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between songs in the downtown casino
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breakfast of beer, bread and fruit
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The National Museum of Cambodia built by the French in 1920 houses possibly the world’s largest collection of Khmer art
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mobile vendor of unnamed vegetable
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stylo on a cyclo – waiting for shoppers on a Saturday
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Not Paris – late evening view of the Royal Palace from the Mekong River promenade. Historians say that of all the cities the French built in Indochina Phnom Penh was the prettiest.
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dancing for the boss – modern live version of the celestial nymphs, Apsara
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education in horror – children on a visit to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum a former high school turn prison known as “S-21” where as many as 20,000 men, women and children were photographed, chained, beaten and gruesomely murdered

Then, exactly forty years and a fortnight ago, Communist troops drove out the US-backed government of Prime Minister Lon Nol forcing him to flee into exile in Hawaii. The band of ragtag peasant soldiers led by an ex-teacher from a local French school named Saloth Sar, known to the world after 1976 as Pol Pot, took over Phnom Penh and within hours emptied it of people by ordering everyone out to the countryside where they were to face exploitation, cruel beatings and death.

In less than four years of rule by Pol Pot and his followers called Khmer Rouge, the regime overworked, starved, tortured and executed to death a quarter of Cambodia’s population. The Khmer Rouge wanted to create a socialist Utopia. In their mad experiments of horror and paranoia they laid waste to the entire country and literally set Cambodia back to ‘Year Zero’ by abolishing money, markets, schooling, religion and private ownership.

Things did not exactly turn rosy when the Vietnamese Army invaded in 1979 getting rid of Pol Pot. Fighting continued between the Vietnamese installed government of People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK  later rebranded in 1989 as State of Cambodia to attract a wider international appeal) and the China-backed Khmer Rouge who retreated to territories along the Thai border.

Other groups such as the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF) and FUNCIPEC under Prince Sihanouk soon joined in the fray creating a four-corner fight.

By the time Peace Agreements were signed in Paris on 23 October 1991 hundreds of thousand of Cambodians had been displaced in refugee camps in Thailand and tens of thousands killed by the civil war.

The Paris Agreements created the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) to temporarily run Cambodia. UNTAC with a 22,000 strong multinational civilian and military peacekeeping force drawn from 45 countries was given the mandate to disarm and de-mobilize the four Cambodian armed factions and to prepare the country for elections which eventually took place in May 1993.

Today Phnom Penh has come a long way from its previous incarnations as a French colonial gem in 1920s, independence-era model city in the 1950’s, Khmer Rouge Ghost city in the 1970’s and UN-NGO cowboy town of the 1990s.

In its freewheeling and anything goes spirit, Phnom Penh is now peerless in this part of the world, perhaps reminiscent of Macau or Hong Kong in its mid colonial heyday or Malaya during the tin rush. With its high number of entrepreneurs and emigres from Asia and beyond, a magnificent river frontage, excellent Chinese restaurants and budding coffee culture, Phnom Penh is ready to take on its larger, richer but socially and politically shackled regional rivals.

As proof, Cambodia is already growing faster than China, India,Indonesia and Malaysia.

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young entrepreneurs at a company inaugural event
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Cambodian food may not be world renowned as Thai or even Vietnamese but in its street version it is varied and uses lots of fresh seafood and organic ingredients
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chopping up trokuon / kangkung an aquatic vegetable cultivated and eaten throughout tropical south east Asia
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quintessentially phnom penh
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Vietnamese newcomers make up a huge percentage of migrants in Phnom Penh. Like successful immigrants and ethnic groups elsewhere Vietnamese are often targets of discrimination in part because of historic enmity between the two. Cambodians have been taught that large parts of southern Vietnam and the Mekong Delta including where Ho Chi Minh City now stands were once Khmer Lands.
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Modern Cambodian cooking style shows a strong Chinese influence
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disappearing view – older buildings have been torn down or refurbished at a quick rate to make way for glass, steel and concrete as Phnom Penh zooms ahead
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tuk tuk driver reading a map – many young Cambodians are gaining fluency in English as more foreigners come to visit, work and stay in their country. Their mother tongue Khmer is mainland South East Asia’s only non-tonal language and is a cousin of the indigenous Orang Asli languages of the Malay Peninsula.
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Beautiful but shy – waitress at Sam Doo, a downtown restaurant open until the early hours of the morning that serve I think the best wonton noodle in the world
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a typical view of a youthful tropical Asia at nightfall
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flower shop at the Phnom Penh’s famous art deco Central Market

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family day out
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door boys at the city’s hotel and casino
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friends at breakfast
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Lotus seller at Wat Phnom
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waiters at an annual dinner
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hostess at the Cat House one of the city’s oldest pubs
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A reminder that despite breakneck progress Phnom Penh is still a poor city. Here residents of an inner city slum on Street 99 prepare their food stalls for the day’s business
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woman crushing cane juice for sale on a hot day
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boom town phnom penh
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applause
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and peace signs at a party in Phnom Penh

All words and images Copyright Kerk Boon Leng April 2015

7 thoughts on “a party in phnom penh

    • You are right Alex. Vattanac Capital Tower is just the beginning of Phnom Penh’s visual transformation. We should have a drink at the sky bar at night to contemplate the city’s future skyline

  1. Dear Kerk, your lens shines again. To curate your work, I will take a leaf off your book and look at Gender, Theme, Composition and your Aperture. I’m frozen at Gender. Those girls are from heaven. Tell the descendants of Pol Pot that.

    A quote from Dr. John Coleman:- “To bring about depopulation of large cities a trial run was carried out by the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. It is interesting to note that Pol Pot’s genocidal plans were drawn up in the US by one of the Club of Rome’s research foundations and overseen by Thomas Enders, a high-ranking State Department official. It is also interesting that the committee is currently seeking to reinstate the Pol Pot butchers in Cambodia”

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