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A City of Extremes

CAMBODIA | Monday, 21 May 2007 | Views [1120]

Dinner is served! Phnom Penh

Dinner is served! Phnom Penh

Every country that we have visited so far has celebrated a public holiday while we have been there. Cambodia was no different. This time it was the King's Birthday. The King was only crowned three years ago, but judging by the huge crowds that collected in front of the royal palace for the three day celebration, he is a pretty popular monarch. Reminiscent of the Wild Foods Festival, side stalls offered up surprisingly popular snacks including deep-fried spiders, crickets, maggots and huge water beetles. Naked-bottomed toddlers played beside piles of rubbish while their mums sold pomelo and jackfruit, and groups of men sat clustered in tense card games.

It's good to be the King. In addition to your own immense palace, you boast a hall decrorated with 5000 solid silver floor tiles each weighing a kilogram, a 90Kg solid gold statue of Buddha complete with over 2500 diamonds - four of which are over 20 Carats, and plenty more bling to keep the tourists transfixed.

Next door the national museum holds some of the choicest bits of the Angkor temples, and the rest of Cambodian culture that escaped Pol Pot's insane regime. Just down Sisowath Quay you can find many a decadent restaurant and cafe, including the most un-Kiwi 'Kiwi Cafe' we've ever seen. The first department store selling exclusively Prada, Chanel, Versace and Co. has just opened up, as the middle class (families earning over US$380 per week) has over doubled in the past eight years to 13% of the population.

Yet 45% of the country's population still lives on less than US$7.50 per week. Wander a block or two back off the tourist drag and you'll find plenty of locals trying to eak out a living selling pretty average goods and services in conditions that are decidedly below average. If that was hard enough to walk through, try walking past just a few of the landmine victims. Sporting vicious burns, and missing limbs, their sight, their dignity, they make your heart sink as they beg to survive.

With some inside information we visited a local orphanage, located in the middle of a razor-wire strewn slum that would foot it with the worst that India has to offer. It was a harrowing experience - worthy of a blog entry in its own right.

Equally harrowing was our trip to the Killing Fields and Toul Sleung S21 prison. After seeing row upon row of skulls, mass graves and victims faces, we came away with more questions than answers. Hilter we can understand, but what ideal was Pol Pot trying to acheive when he conceived and enforced this insane regime that tolled so heavily on his country? We need more information.

However, in this apparent dichotomy of Cambodian society we found places that were bridging the gap. We visited an organisation called Friends was taking street kids with a less than rosy future and training them to work in the hospitality industry and produce handicrafts. The result was a thriving restaurant business which served up great food and service, next door to a shop which sold surprisingly contemporary handicrafts.

Despite the apparent parallels with India, without the shackles of an archaic cast system or religion, the future looks much more optimistic for Cambodia.

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