The emergence of Phnom Penh

Travel Destinations — By on February 19, 2007 at 10:59 am

Wedged between Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia doesn’t always get a lot of attention as a Southeast Asia hot spot.  And when it does, the coverage tends to center on the spectacular, thousand-year-old temples of Angkor Wat.  However, as the International Herald Tribune recently reported, the capital city of Phnom Penh now seems to be gaining ground as a travel destination.

It’s a late Saturday afternoon in Phnom Penh, and the waterfront along the Tonle Sap River is the place to be. As clusters of elderly women sit on concrete benches overlooking the water, peddlers set up stands from which they sell slices of fresh pineapple while youngsters on motorbikes deftly weave among the crush of pedestrians. Boat captains yell out to passing couples, offering sunset rides on their tiny wooden vessels, as shirtless children swim or fish in the muddy water. Suddenly, a lone elephant, gently guided by its young handler, majestically makes its way through the crowd.

At this moment, Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, seems frozen in time, as the scene in front of you plays out much the way it must have 70 or 80 years ago, when Cambodia was part of French-controlled Indochina and the city was known as the Pearl of Asia. But then you notice the bank of ATMs in the nearby storefronts, the Internet cafes crammed with fashionably dressed teenagers checking their e- mail, the sleek air-conditioned bars with names like Metro and Heart of Darkness. And all around you, you hear the polyglot of languages – English, French, Korean, Spanish, Chinese – that are a testament to this city’s reappearance on the global tourism map.

In fact, after a few days , you notice that Phnom Penh has something of a “next Prague” vibe about it – a place where many young people from around the world, heady with excitement and the thrill of the unknown, are coming to reinvent themselves.

If you want to read more about Cambodia, an interesting travel memoir published just last year about the country and about Buddhism is The Gods Drink Whiskey by Stephen Asma.

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