Phnom Penh is much like other burgeoning cities in former French South-East Asia, full of crumbling colonial buildings, modernist experiments and Sino-soviet era concrete monstrosities. A lake in the northern section of town harbors a low-budget tourist ghetto, full of shabby waterfront guesthouses, Internet cafés, bars and restaurants. Our hotel was built out over the lake on wooden pylons. We could see the water through the cracks in the floor. The whole thing shook whenever someone walked on the wooden planks connecting the rooms. Traffic in Phnom Penh is something to be experienced. Despite the apparent absence of rules, everything rolls smoothly. Everybody watches out for one another - the ultimate in defensive driving. At intersections traffic slows, and the oncoming waves of vehicles merge and pass through each other. Once we got the hang of it, nothing could bother us, neither the rickshaws running against traffic on the right-hand-side of the road, nor the crazy motorcycle taxis weaving around with five passengers and baggage. There is surprisingly little honking and fuss. Since Phnom Penh has no public transport system, anyone who wants to get around town has to deal with the “motodop” mafia. Kids with patched-up motorbikes hang around on street corners and other popular gathering places, constantly harassing the pedestrians. They drive a hard bargain! Impossible to pay even close to the local price if you are a tourist. They prefer to refuse a low fare to play with their phones and smoke cigarettes. Not surprisingly, they all seemed to have the latest glitzy mobiles!
The best part of Phnom Penh is the culture. We wanted to skip the depressing monuments to the Khmer Rouge days - Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields, in favor of seeing some revived traditional Cambodian culture. The Sovanna Phum arts association was started by a French dancer and combines traditional Cambodian arts with modern choreography and storytelling. They put on a wonderful play combining circus gymnastics, shadow puppets and mime set to live music. As the mood became somber and sad, evoking the dark period in Cambodia's recent period, the actors entered behind the screen carrying candles, their burning flames casting distorted shadows onto the white backdrop.