Phnom Penh, where Porsches and poverty exist side by side

Rubbish piles up at a lakeside community in Phnom Penh. (Photo: Deb Muir)

For a first-time visitor to Cambodia’s capital city, it’s hard not to notice the stark contrast between extreme poverty and flashy displays of wealth, writes Sylvia Varnham O’Regan.

Driving down a busy Phnom Penh road, I notice a motorbike coming up behind us with a huge cage on its back. It’s so big I can barely see the driver.

As it whizzes past I notice the cage is squashed full of chickens, their flattened heads and claws poking out the sides.

There are no rules on Cambodia’s roads and you never know who’ll pull in front next. Or when.

The next car to pass is a black Porsche, its shiny body close to the ground as it hums past and weaves around the squashed chickens before evaporating into the distance.

Sights like this are common in Phnom Penh, where symbols of wealth and prosperity sit alongside extreme poverty and desperation.

It’s my first visit to Cambodia and I’m hoping to learn as much as I can about how the country has rebuilt itself in the aftermath of the violent Khmer Rouge regime and whether it’s capable of supporting refugees from Nauru, as planned by the Australian government.

The Khmer Rouge was a brutal regime that controlled Cambodia in the late 1970s, responsible for killing more than one million people.

In the aftermath of the regime a lot of children were left without parents and today more than half of Cambodia's population is under 35. You don't see very many elderly people around.

In the capital, tourists can go and visit the Killing Fields - where mass killings took place during the regime and graves were filled with bodies - to learn more about what went on.

When I visit the site, I notice a tree that has been fitted with a sign that says babies were killed during the regime by being smashed against it and tossed into graves. Another sign in front of a large tree says that speakers had been hung from its branches and music blasted to drown out victims’ screams.

Staring at the ground, I notice a human bone poking out from the dirt. When it rains apparently more can be seen, and teeth too. A sign warns visitors not to step on the bones.

I am later told that many young Cambodians grew up knowing little about the regime, and that a law had been passed in 2009 meaning the history of the Khmer Rouge had to be taught in high schools. 

A friend I’m travelling with tells me that she can’t believe how much Cambodia has developed since she was last there in 2007 and according to the Cambodian National Institute of Statistics (NIS) the poverty rate has dropped significantly since 2007. Despite this impressive score card, the gap between the rich and poor is still vast and many people still have limited access to basic necessities like food, electricity and working rubbish systems. And you don’t have to look far to see it

We visit a small lakeside village on the outskirts of Phnom Penh where there are small houses sitting on stilts above the ground. Underneath the houses lies a large, soupy lake: a mixture of sewage, rubbish and water. A flattened cigarette packet on the ground reads “Fine”.

Across town is a huge government building called the Council of Ministers’ Headquarters. Its modern exterior shines brightly in the mid-afternoon sun, exuding prosperity and wealth.

Just next to it is another government building with a huge pyramid-like structure at its centre. I am told this building was paid for by China.

The buildings looks out over a wide valley called the Boeung Kak lake. There is no water in the lake because it was filled with sand five years ago to make way for development. Today it looks dusty and depressing.

A Cambodian man named Phearak who is travelling with us tells me that he used to go to the lake with his parents as a little boy.

He now lives in Australia so it’s the first time he’s seen it since the lake’s been filled.

“To come here now, it’s very sad,” he says.

The Cambodian government is big on development and has grand plans be a middle-income country by 2030. Cambodia’s burgeoning middle class has also brought with it a new attraction to owning shiny objects and an obsession with social status.

“People are very materialistic here,” Phearak says. “You can see lots of people have fancy mobile phones. It’s about status, about fitting in.”

We travel out of Phnom Penh for a few days and on the way we stop at a temple with more than 300 steps to the top.

There are a whole lot of Cambodian children hanging around the bottom of the steps holding fans. They follow us as we walk up, fanning us until we tell them to stop.

At the top, sweaty tourists sit mopping their brows and gazing happily out over majestic views that seem to stretch into infinity.

Weaving among them are the loyal fanners who seem undeterred by the tourists’ reluctance to cough up any money.

Through an interpreter I ask one of them what she is doing up there. She tells me she has school in the morning but comes to the temple in the afternoon to make money. She asks us what we’re doing and we tell her we’re on our way to another town.

She tells us to be careful and says that it could be risky. There is a chance that we could have our stomachs cut open and our kidneys stolen. I wonder where she got that idea from.

Back on the road, I can’t stop thinking about that little girl and what kind of life she’ll lead. We’ll be heading back in Phnom Penh in a few days. It seems like a place where poverty is common and people can easily fall through the cracks. But it’s also the most prosperous city in Cambodia and has a large number of schools and universities.

Will she get there too?

Sylvia Varnham O’Regan was in Cambodia on a journalism fellowship with the Asia Pacific Journalism Centre.

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