Sunday, March 18, 2012

Pondering Phnom Penh

 Outside the phnom penh railway satation, built in 1932

Executive summary by darmansjah

Down a side street near the art deco arches and mustard-yellow dome of the Central Market, Phnom Pehn’s budding creatives class gathered in February to celebrate the homecoming of one its own. Cambodian artist Leang Seckon, back from a successful show at the Rossi & Rossi gallery in London and the subject of a recent glowing profile in the New York Time, glided around the white interior of the French Cultural Center, which was hung which his latest show, “Shadow of the Heavy Skirt.”

monks on sisowath quay, the city's popular riverfront promenade

As he greeted friends and admires with his trademark soft spoken warmth, several hundred people-diplomats in gray linen suits, art students in drainpipe jeans, expat scenesters in thick framed glasses-lingered in front of the artist’s canvases. With their reverential depictions of 1960s Cambodian rock-and-roll icons like Pan Ron, their freighted references to Khmer Rouge relics like the Mao cap, and their whimsical renderings of contemporary objects like mobile phones and KFC outlets, the collage-like oil paintings captured the mood of a city in transition, but one that is rediscovering its vitality and confidence after years of conflict and stasis.

“The entire city is developing before us. Roads are being paved and skyscrapers are being built,” Seckon told me several days later in his spartan storefront gallery near the Royal Palace. “People are excited about all of these changes/ but they are also overwhelmed with modern life, so they are looking to the past and reconnecting with their roots.”

It is conventional wisdom to say that Cambodia is captive to its past. What this usually refers to is the Khmer Rouge, the communist regime that ruled the country from 1975 to 1979. During those terrible years, an estimated 1.7 million people-more than 20% of the population-were killed, many of them city dwellers who were marched off to work camps from which they would never return.

The reign of the Khmer Rouge and the occupation by Vietnam that followed left a catastrophic imprint on Cambodian society that is impossible to understate. But in recent years, as distance has dulled the pain of those traumas, Phnom Penh’s residents have begun to look to the years that predate the country’s turmoil, finding inspiration in the elegance of the French-colonial era or the golden years of the 1960s, when the city was a center of architecture, art, and film making.

Galvanized by this, Cambodian and foreign entrepreneurs are helping to remake Phonm Penh into one of Asia’s most underrated and dynamic-but still easygoing-capitals. Stylish boutique hotels and shops are popping up in once dilapidated colonial and Modernist buildings, and pockets of art and culture are taking hold in neighborhoods that previously offered little of either. Dozens of restaurants and bars open every month, creating a nightlife scene that is startlingly cosmopolitan and fast-changing for a city with an official population of two million. Not bad, then, for a place that decade ago was desperately short of electricity and paved roads.

But for all this modernization, Phnom Penh, my home for the last hree years, manages to retain an essentially Cambodian-which is to say, rural-character. Unlike densely urban Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh city, Phom Penh feels like an extension of the Cambodian countryside. This is partly because it is small-you can travel almost anywhere in 10 minutes-but it is also a matter of demographics. Most of the city’s pre-Khmer Rouge residents died or fled the country; today, the city is populated by migrants from the countryside.

Days in Phnom Penh ebb and flow to the cadence of rural life. The city is in full swing by sunrise, the traditional start to the morning for farmers, when it’s possible tohear rooster crowing in the central districts. In the narrow alleys and lanes hidden from view behind concrete shop houses, workers and moto-taxi drivers tuck into bowls of kuey tiew-rice vermicelli with thinly sliced beef served in sweet broth-while middle-aged women pound out curry paste with wooden mortars adn pestles, creating a symphony of rhythmic plonking. Buddhist Monks dressed in bright orange robes visit the city’s shops and businesses, offering blessings in exchange for alms or a bite to eat. Families and neighbors chitchat on raised wooden platforms, perpetuating a ritual that has been playing out in the country side for generations.

As Yam Sokly, an architect and local historian, put it to me, “Phnom Penh has the feel of a small town, even though it is becoming a big city. I think it surprises visitors, because it still hs this sense of community.’ Sokly was born to a family of migrants from the provinces and gres up in the Phnom Penh of the 1980s, when cows and pigs wandered the streets and giant banana and coconut trees formed the closest thing the city had to a skyline. The neighborhood around the Olympic Market in the southwest part of the city, where he grew up and still lives, is as tight-knit as it was when he was a boy. “At five o’clock, all of the old people come out of their houses to share food and gossip. They have their own parliamentary meetings out there on the sidewalks,” he said.

But as Solky and his generation-those under 30, who make up 75% of Cambodia’s population-have grown up, they’ve come to see Phnom Penh as much more than a place for fostering traditional bond. “You can feel the vibrancy of the city now. My favorite thing to do on the weekends is to wander the streets and look at the diversity of the architecture, the new and the old, and to explore hidden areas that I didn’t know existed,” he said. “But we’re finding that progress is not always good. I wory sometimes that the city will soon become like Ho Chi Minh city, where all of the old building have been knocked down and replaced by high-rises.” Such change has hit Phnom Penh’s poor particularly hard, with the country’s newspapers carrying headlines nearly every day about large-scale evictions living farmers and laborers homeless and landless, often overnight.

Solky is not alone in his concerns about indiscriminant development. But the overriding consensus among residents is that Phnom Penh is growing into itself and finally fulfilling some of the promise that was so cruelly snatched away by three decades of violence and turmoil. To understand what that means, one must look back to a more optimistic era

On Saturday night about a year half ago, in a desolate riverfront neighborhood near the container port on the Tonle Sap River, a renovated trader’s mansion called the Chinese House hosted a party that captured an undercurrent in the city that has since bloomed into a full-fledged cultural moment. The evening was a celebration of Cambodia’s Vibrant film industry in the 1960s-Phnom Penh then was home to dozens of cinemas and prolific filmmakers, including Prince Norodom Shihanouk, who made over 30 movies-and the artistic and political atmosphere that murtured it.

That night, Cambodians in their twnties, manay of them university students, arrived on motobikes dressed in the clothing of another generation. The boys wore white tuxedos, black bow ties, and pomade sculpted side parts, channelinglegendary rock crooner Sinn sisamouth, the Cambodian Elvis. The girls, meanwhile, wore colorful miniskirts and eleborately constructed beehives, much like the actresses depicted on the vintage movie posters adorning the walls of the ground-floor gallery and performance space. Mixed in with this young crowd were actors, directors, and producers who had survived the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields.

Soon, a French DJ with angular Nic bangs began spinning LPs by artists such as Ros Sereysothea, whose Khmer-language, Janis Joplin-like howls sounded otherworldly through the thick static of the old vinyl. Giddy students flooded the floor and dance for hours to this music, which Cambodian artists had crated after hearing American rock played on armed forces radio during the Vietnam War. Here were Cambodians experiencing the past with joy-not sadness-in an evening that captured their collective longing for a time when Phnom Penh was ascendant and the envy of much of Southeast Asia (while touring Phnom Penh in 1967, Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister of the then-fledgling Republic of Singapore, reportedly remarked; “ I hope, one day, my city will looks like this”).

Actress Dy Saveth, who starred in more than 100 films during the 1960s and early’70s, remembers a Phnom Penh of imaginative architecture, lavish parties, and a thriving creative community. “We would meet every day to talk about our work and to laugh and joke. We felt that anything was possible then, because the country was stable and we trusted the government,” she told me. Saveth, a striking woman with palm sugar-colored skin and bewitching black eyes, fled Cambodian in 1975, catching a helicopter flight out of Phnom Penh as mortar shells exploded around her. Nearly 40 years late, sitting in her modest, middle-class apartment decorated with stills from her many films, she said how pleased-and surprised-she is that people are rediscovering the city’s golden age.

In the weeks and month following that party at the Chines House, there were similar events throughout the city, each clebrating a different aspect of 1960s Phnom Penh that had nearly disappeared from collective memory. One was a etrospective of Vann Molyvann, Cambodia’s most gifted architect, whose daring, Le Corbusier-inspired building references Cambodian and Buddhist symbols. Although some of his structure have been torn down to make way for new malls and office complexes, many of his masterpiece, including the National Sports Complex, stand as reminders of the decade’s go-getting ethos. Khmer Architecture Tours, which offers guided tours of these structures led by Cambodian students, is a must-do for visitors hoping to learn more about this legacy.

Meanwhile, Dengue Fever, a Los Angeles-based band heavily in spired by Cambodia’s 1960s rock scene, has visited Phnom Penh twice in recent years and has almost single-handedly revived interest in this near-forgotten music, in the process putting Phnom Penh on the map for histers from New York to Berlin. A local promoter sought to capitalize on this buzz by bringing in counterculture icon Leonard Cohen for a performance last year. Although  the concert was canceled due to logistical reasons, the fact that it was Cohen’s only scheduled Southeast Asian date-and was expected to attract attendees from as far as South Korea and Singapore-perhaps says something about Phnom Penh’s ambitions to once again be a cultural touchstone.

Helping to drive this resurgence is a small group for Westerners who covet the openness of the city-and the invitation it offers to try things they never could in their home countries. “Cambodia is a new nation, so there’s lots of space for creativity. It’s a paradise for enterpreneurship,” said Alexis de Suremain, who owns or co-owns some of the city’s most innovative properties, including the Chinese House. De Suremain’s hotel, bars, and restaurants have widely varying identities that cater to seekers of an imagined-or, in some cases, real-Cambodia.

If you want the romance of the French colonial era, there’s his Pavilion Hotel, which inhabits a restored 1924 vila built for the mother of former king Norodom Shinaouk. If it’s modernism you seek, there’s perhaps de Suremain’s most ambitious project, a 1940s mansion in the heart of the city that will open as a hotel in November called The Plantation.

“People come to Cambodia to experience some kind of authenticity, so we try to preserve the original structures as much as we can. Our goal is to give you the feeling of a unique plac in a world of globalization,” de Suremain said. He’s also experimenting with solar-powered floating bungalows that he hopes will form the basis of a future eco-hotel.

This spirit of adventure can be seen throughout the city, especially in the procession of restaurants and bars that are constantly opening. One of the best is Yumi, an open-air take on the Japanese izakaya established in late 2008 by chef Caspar von Hofmannsthal, formerly of London’s ship Quo-Vadis. While an Englishman serving Western-accented Japanese bar food wouldn’t necessarily make sense in Tokyo or London, it’s a perfect fit in wide open Phnom Penh, where a cosmopolitan crowd of aid workers and diplomats craves experimentation. With its small plates of addictive Japanese-style ribs and dilectabley crunchy lotus-root-and-green-bean salad, Yumi has quickly become one of the city’s most popular places to eat.

Yumi is located in Boeung Keng Kang, the leafy, villa-strewn expat district that is one of two nexuses of the city’s growing cultural and nightlife scenes. The other is Sisowath Quay, on the Tonle Sap River, not far from the elegantly spired halls and pavikions of the Royal Palace (built by the newly ensconced French in 1866). This chaotic waterfront promenade captures the pulse of Phnom Penh better than any other area of the city.

On a recent night, as the setting sun left pink and orange streaks in the tilt sky, the area hummed with teenagers on motorbikes crusiing the riverside in search of friends. Straw-hatted street vendors did brisk business as backpackers adn European families sipped Angkor drafts in open-air cafes and bars. Set in a handsome colonial building, the Foreign Corespondents’ Club, which catered to Western journalist in the turbulent early 1990s. Was packed with tourist adn aid workers soaking up the cool river breeze over drinks and dinner.

On the opposite, less-developed side of the water, a commotion of a different sort was taking place. Construction workers wre busy laying the foundation and beams of the planned Sokha Hotel and Convention Center, a 798 room behemoth that will occupy a prime piece of real estate at the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers. The US$100 million complex, which will open in 2012, is a symbol of what Phnom Penh is becoming-a major tourist destination with five-star facilities to match. But it also speaks to what the city is in danger of losing.

As developers pour millions of dollars into the area, dozens of poor families and small businesses have been forced out due to rising rents. The artist Leang Seckon has seen his own neighborhood on the banks of Boeung Kak Lake nearly disappear due to large-scale development. While he is happy to see signs of progress, he is cautious. “I want there to be other types of architecture, too. I hope we can find a way to keep some of the old things in the city,” he said.

As the sun sank from view, the cranes at the Sokha site continued to whir and twirl. Across the river on Sisowath Quay, the sounds were audible, but they seemed far away for now.

Getting There
Phnom Penh is well connected with most major regional cities.

Where to Stay
 Raffles Hotel Le Royal The city’s grande dame . 92 Rukhak Vithel Daun Penh, Sangkat Wat Phnom: 855-23-981-888;; doubles from US$235
The Pavilion 227 St.19, Khan Daun Penh; 855-23-222-280;; doubles from US$40
Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra, the first new five-star hotel to open in the capital in more than a decade. 26 Old August Site, Sothearos Blvd; 855-23-999-200;; doubles from US$145

Where to eat Yumi
29a St 288; 855-92-163-903
The Kampot-pepper steak falmbeed in brandy is a highlight of this this cozy French bistro, 33 St. 108.855-15-548-956
A South American inspired restaurant and lounge at he Chinese House 45 Sisowath Quay; 855-23-991-514
The icty’s most elegant option for Cambodian cuisine. 136 Norodom Blvd; 855-23-221-022

Where to Shop
Artisansd’ Angkor
A fine selection of Khmer handicrafts, from lacuquerwork to stone carvings. 12A. St.13; 855-23-992-409;
Fashion and accesories by Paris trained designer Romyda Keth. 37 ST. 178; 855-23-217-935;
Water Lily
Chirstine Gauthier’s tresure trove of eccentric jewelry. 37 St.240; 855-12-9812-469;

What to See

Central Market, Corner of Sts. 67 and 136

Chines House 45 Sisowath Quay; 855-23-991-514;

Royal Palace, Samdech Sothearos Blvd. Between Sts. 240 and 184

National Museum of Cambodia. Corner of STs. 178 and 13;

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