I think you’ll find it can. I’ve got the receipt to prove it!
I’ve nearly been run over twice today (at least) and that has to be proof positive that you can and I did. If I hadn’t just splashed out $5 on a year’s worth of good fortune my body parts would be comprehensively splattered over the streets of Phnom Penh right now I’m sure. This city is truly an amazing place. A kingdom of wonders indeed.
Today, thanks to the exemplary and shared initiative of one of the CWF volunteers, we headed off on an architecture tour of Phnom Penh. Now, it has to be said, in theory, you could do this on your own, download a map of the website and away you go. However, by booking with the company direct you get a very articulate tour guide – who is way more than that. Most are either architecture graduates or students of architecture, and our guide at least had an insane level of knowledge, enthusiasm and contacts. He took us places there is no way on earth we’d have found on our own. Even if we had, we wouldn’t have gained access. He also had impeccable English, and a grand sense of humour. So all good. I learned loads. It cost $13 a head, but there were ten of us in our own minibus. In fact it was $14 because I added in a tip, but then we found out it should have been $13.50 so the tip ended up being in payment. All very confusing, but worth every last cent. I’d been prepared for an educational but potentially dull excursion, but it was unconditionally brilliant. Just go. I’d go as far to say it should be a ‘must do’ thing in Phnom Penh. It transformed my understanding of the city, provided a mass of local interactions and placed a lot of things in a context that had previously been lacking.
A friend and fellow volunteer, showing great personal sacrifice; generosity and forethought, brought along an old mobile phone of hers so I could have a camera for the day. This was brilliant. We did so much, it’s great to be able to recall it a bit more vividly than just in my inaccurate and leaky mind’s eye. Consequently, much of what follows is really just a picture gallery. Skip the text, browse the shots, you’ll get the general idea!
The assembly point was the school, and I practised using the camera there, also capturing a fairly typical staff room shot, which I shall therefore include as I don’t know where else it will fit in this blog now. Long-term volunteer sprawled out pre his Saturday teaching marathon. CWF now do weekend classes, but that makes lessons 3 hours long, which would be tough for students and teacher alike, irrespective of how interactive you try to make it. (This volunteer does a 6 hour stint, by choice admittedly, each Saturday).
Our mini fan was one of the ones with a hearse like interior. Always a jolly sight! Also hanging charms from the rear-view mirror. I have no idea how well they work. Seemingly more well than you might think, as you don’t see too many upturned minibuses as we are out and about. Surprising really, all things considered:
Our guide pointed out various buildings along the way. I hadn’t understood how many different people had contributed to the constructions we see. In the 1960’s pre Khmer Rouge there was quite a lot of building, some of it seems monstrous, but it is interesting. Our guide pointed out though that now the city lacks any planning regulation at all. There are building regulations, but they are not especially enforced which is a ‘concern’. (More than that, but I think he was wary about being too critical). He explained that the city was emptied during the time of the Khmer Rouge – I did know this, but hadn’t considered what that might mean for the buildings. What it meant was, the whole city was effectively deserted, buildings that had no immediate use were left derelict. Once this terrible episode in history ended, people returned to the city and lived where they could. They took up occupation in previously abandoned buildings, creating shacks and homes within parts of buildings, or sometimes taking over the whole thing. After ten years occupation, people could claim these homes as their own, without paying anything. The consequences of this are many and varied. Some got very rich, unexpectedly finding themselves to be owners of enormous blocks of land purely because they had opportunistically (or maybe desperately) appropriated it on their return to the city. Thinking about it, this may explain the unlikely ownership of the CWF building. This, and the adjacent buildings on either side are all owned by the elderly, toothless man who smiles at me daily. He dresses just in the Khmer men’s shawl around his waist, and looks of modest origins. Now I think of his age though, maybe he was one who benefited from the hand of fate in the building he returned to some years ago.
Other previously grand buildings are now occupied by seemingly uncountable numbers of different families squeezed into unlikely spaces. It is picturesque – or more accurately photogenic, but may not be especially practical. I asked our guide (who was very well-educated and had fluent English) if he had learned about the Khmer rouge and history at school. ‘absolutely nothing‘ he said, adding ‘but my parents told me.’ I was a bit surprised, as some other guides have said it is never talked about (then again, maybe it depends which side you were on and how you process trauma and even your personality type – if such a thing exists). He went further ‘they talk about it all the time – when I was growing up, if I didn’t like my food, they’d say, ‘you are lucky, during the time of the Khmer Rouge we didn’t eat at all!’ ‘ An unwinnable argument in this context. Strangely amusing too, this argument (albeit with less emotional force) is used the world over ‘think of the starving children in AFrica‘ was the common condemnatory refrain when I was growing up.
There were some interesting asides on the way. For example, the first day I was in Phnom Penh I walked across a bridge that wasn’t. I mean it is like a bridge, but doesn’t go over any water. Turns out it is indeed a bridge, at one point it traversed a canal (built by the french to drain the land I think) but that has long since been filled in. Aah, that makes a lot of sense.
So our first stop was the post office. We piled out of the van near to it so we could view it from over the road, which was handy as it enabled another sneaky ‘person-hammock-sleeping-in-an-unlikely-spot’ shot. This post office is from french colonial times. Blah de blah. The exterior is indeed lovely to behold.
I struggled with much of the finer details. However, I did get that there was a series of maps shown to us over time and it was explosive how the city has developed. Not so very long ago it was a fraction of the size. The grid plan was imposed to aid taxation. Many buildings are designed based on what is considered to ‘look grand’ in other contexts. Our guide lamented the very-obvious when you are told observation that many such designs are wholly unsuited to hot climates. For example the penchant for walls of glass everywhere, that concentrates heat. Wooden shutters are better. Passageways should be outside interior offices, protecting workers from both rain and sun. Obvious when you think about it. I considered my stifling apartment with its unusable balconies that trap heat to such an extent I’ve only ever ventured out on them to witness the occasional torrential rain. Compare this to the basic but cool, well-ventilated stilt houses of the rural areas and it is very evident which are best suited to the local climes. He went further. Some disreputable architects literally google buildings on the internet, fine ones they like the look of and use their drafting skills to recreate them. It would be laughable if it were not true.
Into the post office. We were shown the picture of it in its heyday, and shown how few original features remained. Glass where once cool openings were. I still like this building though. There were post restante boxes and people behind glass panels helping others. I had a brief wave of guilt for my lack of postcard sending, but it isn’t easy to do, a special trip to the post office being required. I’ve sent a few. They will have to suffice.
The more interesting and unexpected next stop was the now no-longer old colonial hotel diagonally opposite. In its day this must have been a place of wonder. Now it looks derelict from the outside, though the original characterful architecture shines through. However, thanks to our guide’s contacts, we were able to go inside. Oh. My. Goodness. It was extraordinary. The architecture is stunning, even if the grandeur is inevitably considerably faded. You can see the wondrous wooden curved stairwells and lovely original floors and doors.
More so, this is now an HMO. The old hotel has been somehow divided up (informally) into separate households. But their living sort of seeps into the old hotel corridors. Cooking pots and washing are in these areas. Our guide was most insistent it was fine to go in and take pictures too. He knows all the occupants. When he researched the tours he came and spoke to them, interviewed them about their lives. It seems genuine, he was extremely personable, I can quite see how he charmed them – whether or not they receive any money for allowing the tours I don’t know. I don’t see how they could, as it’s basically like walking into a block of flats, loads and loads of people living there, no central person or group who could receive a payment. Maybe they like that their stories are told, or maybe there is a novelty in gazing back at us. I felt like I’d been allowed a peep into an entirely other world though, it was really, really extraordinary. From here, we could also get a great view of the post office opposite. This tour is really about offering up different perspectives of the city, literally and metaphorically. Always a winning formula!
We went inside in two separate groups, so there was time for some childish ‘who is the tallest really’ photo ops. Can’t go wrong with them either. The other shot is a road-side miscellaneous meat-cooking stall. No I havent, and not only because I’m vegetarian. I’m sure it’s fine, but it doesn’t look appealing at all.
From here we went to view the back of the old colonial hotel. He showed us photos of what it looked like in its prime, before walking us round to view the sorry sight of what it has become. It is now a KFC. This is why the tour is good though. I’d not have given that new monstrosity a second glance, but knowing its history, it becomes interesting and significant, even if KFC outlets aren’t my usual destination for photo ops.
So from here, we went round the corner, taking in some random building work. I like the scenes of construction. They have an immediacy and Heath-RobinsonesqueHeath-Robinsonesque feel, but intrepid all the same. We ended up at the back of what I think was the now derelict old police station. It has been acquired with a view to development, but that hasn’t yet happened. Some people are still living there, on what basis I have no idea. We didn’t go in, but explored the back courtyard. Now there is some sporting club or other under a metal hanger. There was also a set up for car body work and re-spraying. It is extraordinary how every space in the city is utilised for some sort of entrepreneurial endeavour.
The next stop, was the chinese temple. I admit to having been a bit ho-hum about using this tour to take in religious buildings. Again, I will concede that was a bit ignorant of me, but I was thinking we are in an ostensibly Buddhist environment, why would we look at other religious buildings. How short-sighted. It was especially glorious, that this being Chinese New Year (well these weeks being) we walked in on some sort of extraordinary ceremony. A man in black robes waved a machete over a table of offerings. People were swarming around. Up ladders in the inner temple hanging red bits of paper. Gold everywhere. Excited children banging drums. It was a full on celebration. This was complete chance and luck. Our guide comes regularly and has never seen this before. The celebrations normally take place on the street, but this was not allowed this year for some reason. I don’t know what the reason was, but I’m guessing it wasn’t a worry about disrupting traffic, wedding marquees get thrown up in the most unlikely and impractical of places without so much as a murmur of protest. Something is going on here.
I went inside. It was just amazing. Red lanterns, tables laden with incense, and a great crowd of celebrants/ worshippers. Our guide tried to explain what was around us, but it was all quite overwhelming and distracting, I had no idea where to look. He drew our attention to a tower of chinese names forming a revolving pyramid. He said that in return for a donation to the temple, you could add your name to the tower and it would bring good luck for the year ahead. Minimum donation $5. He had done it last year, and had great good fortune. ‘You don’t have to do it‘, he said ‘but you really can.’ Initially, this offer went completely over my head. In one ear and out the other! Then I had a weirdly definitive ‘and why not?’ moment. Why not indeed? I really liked the idea of having my name up in a Chinese temple in Phnom Penh for a year, irrespective of the good luck or otherwise aspects.
Well, dear reader. I can report this was a totally brilliant thing to do. Because it set in motion a whole chain of brilliant interactions. The smoking men selling the vouchers were really excited, and took great pains to get me to write my own name out, and find a suitable spot for it to be added to the pyramid of names. I was encouraged to have my photo taken with it and to take one of it. It went down a storm.
My only slight regret is that in the process of sorting all of this, I missed the climax of the ceremony outside. The guy in the head-dress apparently took a knife and cut his tongue so that it bled sufficiently for him to apparently lick a number of calendars of the page-to-day-type on the spine so a bit of blood got onto every page! I have no idea why. Maybe its good I missed it, sounds a bit graphic. That and the kick boxing all in one day might have been a bit much!
So after much excitement all round, we had to be dragged away, leaving the bright flags flying and drums beating behind us. Still, yet more pleasures were in store, the day was far from over yet! I don’t even know for sure where this temple was, beyond ‘somewhere near riverside’ Oh well, we are part of each others story now. I like the thought of that.
It was a day of sensory overload indeed. Next we wandered through the streets of Phnom Penh’s China town. This was amazing too. Again he knows the community and people greeted us warmly. Striking up conversations and shouting ‘hello’s. I loved the street scenes. I noticed they use a different model (non-sumo) for their laundry ads, which pleased me. Maybe it is a sumo wrestler only one shrunk in the wash. The picture on the right is the one I’m more used to seeing hanging around promoting washing services all over Cambodia it would seem.
The streets were maze like, and full of interest. I liked the fish drying in a basket hanging alongside freshly laundered clothes. And why not, both require the full sun!
So much to take in, you know what, just check it all out below, it’s worth a minute of your life to watch this parallel universe unfold. At points if you look up, you can see the dwellings have been erected under the frame of an old temple building. The original features have been left untouched – though more out of superstision for ancient spirits than of respect for original architecture we were told.
You had to look everywhere, if you looked back, you could see the outline of a Christian chapel, similarly appropriated as living space. It is indeed extraordinary.
Clambered into the bus, next stop, another temple. Only this one was really old, and, we were told, really unusual. It has some chinese characteristics. I was a bit confused, as once again I was distracted by other exciting things going on. There was a monk lurking. I strongly suspect he was quite up for being photographed, as he seemed to pop up beautifully posed framed in windows and such like, whilst piling up silk covered cushions that glistened in the sunlight. I resisted the temptation to snap him at first, and then asked. He seemed only too pleased to oblige. I wonder if they set themselves competitions about being in as many tourist shots as they can each day for example. I did have one glorious summer of adventures with a friend when we tried to get photographed as often as possible for inclusion in the Leamington Spa Courier. We weren’t all that succesful, though it was fun trying. I still have feature there though, as one of three prize-winners for a set of lingerie from Woodwards department store. Giddy days.
I’m getting bored of this blog post now, so here are photos of the temple, maybe you know better than me what makes it so exceptional. Don’t get me wrong, it was utterly beautiful and mesmerising, I just don’t know why ‘unique’ – though one stupa was from the fifteenth century which is pretty darned old, so maybe it was that. Some of the features were noticeably ‘unusual’ even to my uneducated eyes. I was just too distracted by the two women giggling in conversation with our posing monk – but only after they’d offered a traditional greeting and received a blessing in return.
The next really memorable stop was the ‘white building’ which is not especially white anymore. It is a place of real interest. Not just because of its inherent features, but because of its current status. The building has iconic status – in architects’ eyes, because of it’s for the time innovative design. It had space below the blocks for communal living and according to the tour website this construction, known as The White Building is ‘the celebrated, innovative housing development designed by Lu Ban Hap as part of the Bassac River Front cultural complex – still in use and home for over 2,000 residents, but facing an uncertain future’. It is still referred to as “the white building” after its original colour – it’s pretty grey and blackened now. From memory, there were originally 4 similar buildings. It’s an apartment building that has probably seen no maintenance since it was built in the 60s. The reason for uncertainty, is because the site is to be redeveloped and the apartments (all privately owned) are being compulsorily acquired. When you see how many people are crammed in there it is hard to imagine where they will all go. They are being offered either money, or a promise they can take on one of the new apartments in four years time. However, this is a community that will be gone. It is true it is run-down and ramshackle, but you swallow hard at the thought of these people being forcibly moved. It was the most extraordinary place. It made me think of an old uncle of mine who was fascinated with developments of this type. He’d have loved this tour and this space and been full of insights as to how people and place are intertwined.
I was very glad to have a photographic device, though alas not much in the way of photographic skills. Even so, I think it’s clear what a unique place this is. It is due to vanish any time now. I see no sign of the current residents voluntarily leaving. Where would they go anyway? It’s impossible to imagine.
So that was that really, the only other thing to say, is that inevitably, the vantage point of the minibus also offered up considerable street view ops. Which I could not allow to pass by uncaptured. Here are some. I give you men at work; street scenes; Phnom Penh traffic and (my personal favourite) the great wall of China (Phnom Penh style, but it has a label and everything. Enjoy!
I know. Really splendid. I’m looking forward to a year of good fortune too, that has to be the best $5 ever spent if so. We shall see. Happy Chinese New Year everyone, it looks like fun!