Phnom Penh is dusty, polluted and over-populated. According to the locals it’s politically corrupt and oppressive. We’d been told by other travellers not to stay there for more than a few days but we stayed for over two weeks and found the city both charming and confusing. There’s hope for Phnom Penh and we don’t want to leave it now.
Looking around as I stepped off the bus I could see why other travellers might want to leave. Compared to the rest of Cambodia it lacks natural beauty and asthetically it’s plain. I turned around to make a dissaproving face at Gemma but she was smiling, she’s been before and for some reason, she loves it.
As most people know, the recent history of Cambodia is tragic. Quite how tragic however, is hard to explain. Phnom Penh is the place to learn about the Khmer Rouge, a wound so fresh to the country it feels uncomfortable doing so. We visited Tuol Sleng prison (now the Genocide Museum) which was basically a school turned torture centre, and the killing fields, where pieces of bone and cloth still rise to ground level. I highly recommend both these attractions (if you can call them that) as they were deeply emotive and highly educational, but this is Cambodia’s history… what about Phnom Penh today?
We came to volunteer with RiverKids, a local NGO that works with children and families in slum areas. The nature of this volunteer work meant that although we would be visiting the ‘worst’ areas in Phnom Penh, we’d also get to see the many sides to the city… some quite literally covered up.
The slums hide down small alleys, and although vast and many, they’re hard to find. Some are along the riverfront next to tourist guesthouses, and some are hidden behind the glass buildings that make up comercial Phnom Penh. A few slum areas have recently been moved out of the city altogether, making way for the new delux shopping complexes that are popping up all over the place. The people living in these areas were given a small patch of land outside Phnom Penh to build new homes. Away from the pollution, away from the dangers of poor city life and away from employment, money and food… hang on, that’s not good. Out of sight, out of mind eh?!
But it was in these slums that I began to realise that Phnom Penh’s natural beauty lies in its people. Children ran up to us wanting to play, parents offered a wave, a handshake or a cheery hello, and everyone else – nothing less than a smile. These are the people who RiverKids support, and I couldn’t wait to get started.
“Hello class, sit down”
Our class of 8-12 year olds were cute but barely understandable.
“Cha Gemma, cha Gemma” one small boy shouted during break, ‘cha’ meaning teacher…
“Yes?” Gemma answered, using a word which he’ll almost definately understand.
“Cha crazy” the boy responded laughing. And this was the tone set for our week of teaching. The children made jokes and wanted to play during break, but when it came to lesson time they were attentive and eager to learn. These are not stupid children, they just lack education and we were determined to teach them something useful.
And it felt good when they proved they’d understood something. We felt like we were genuinely helping, just a tiny bit.
During lunch the roles reversed and the children taught us Khmer. Then at the end of the day Gemma would start dancing like a penguin and they would join in and laugh…
Cha Gemma definately crazy.
After class they each walked off back to their respective slums – some to abusive parents, some to wait for their mothers to return from a night of sex working, and some to drug gangs. It’s hard to think that these children are at high risk of being trafficked.
We were glad we were able to teach these children something, but in the end they taught us more. The slums were scenes straight from a comic relief show, but there was no sad music and no one had filtered the lense to make it look grey. These children have it hard but everyday they laughed, played and made the most of each moment. This is their life, and they live it well. It’s something you never see on the television, it’s something quite heartwarming and it’s something that I wasn’t expecting.
And this is what Phnom Penh is all about, and why Gemma was so keen to come back – every time we left the guesthouse we saw a city in unity, whether it was tuk tuk drivers playing cards together in the back of a pimped out moto, business owners helping each other with money or simply the children in the slums sharing a joke and laughing, the people in Phnom Penh stick together and welcome a stranger.
It’s hard to get your head around. Phnom Penh has a devestating history and suffers from crippling poverty. This has led to one of the biggest human trafficking problems in the world, a corrupt government and a flakey future. So why is everyone smiling?
In short, I don’t know. But they are.
Phnom Penh lives up to everything that’s said about it. It is dusty, it is polluted and it is over populated. And the locals were right, the mere fact that the more expensive cars can do without number plates is testament to just how corrupt the city is. But stay a little longer and you’ll realise that Phnom Penh is so much more than this, it’s the people. And it’s the people that made Gemma, and now me want to stay.