My two-month Thai visa was expiring, so I needed to go to another country to get a new one. I chose Cambodia.
My first four or so days in the country were spent in Phnom Penh, the capital. I’d talked to several people about Cambodia before I went there, and they all described the country with the same adjective: dirty. That, apparently, was the biggest difference between Thailand and Cambodia. The people I’d talked to had all lived in Thailand, and Thailand isn’t exactly the cleanest place in the world. If the standout feature of Cambodia is that it’s dirty, it must really be dirty.
But I loved Cambodia. I especially loved Phnom Penh. It’s a great city. I’ve visited a lot of cities over the past year and a half of traveling, and it’s taken me this long to figure out what exactly it is that makes me like a city. It’s certainly not cleanliness. Munich was spotless and beautiful, sure, but I thought that made it sterile and boring. It’s not number of attractions. There’s not a whole lot to see in Bangkok, but I’ve decided to make it my home for the foreseeable future.
So what it is, then? When I look at the cities I love—Mexico City, Sarajevo, Istanbul, Yerevan, Kathmandu, and now Phnom Penh—I realize that they’re all imperfect. Mexico City has its crime and pollution. Sarajevo has its bullet holes and recent war history. Istanbul has its crowds. Yerevan has its ugly Soviet architecture. Kathmandu has its filthiness. This all brings to mind the first line from Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” As far as I’m concerned, all nice cities are alike; each not-so-nice city is not-so-nice in its own way. Crappy cities are uniquely different, and my unfamiliarity with those differences is what I love to see most of all when I travel.
If someone tells me that I won’t like City X because it’s not very nice, I now know that that means I’ll really enjoy it. That was the case with Mexico City. That was the case with Bangkok. And that was certainly the case with Phnom Penh. Dust and haze choke the air, making it difficult to breathe. There is trash everywhere. It is a dirty city, though not offensively so.
But yes, I loved Phnom Penh. The city is vibrant. That’s another word I’d use to describe all of my favorite cities. They’re vibrant. They’re happening. They’re chaotic. It’s very different from (and preferable to, in my opinion) the more relaxed, laid back places like Munich or Portland or Brasov. When I walk out of my apartment, I want to feel like I’m going to get run over or that I’m going to step in something foul. I want my senses to be on high alert so that I can take it all in, so that I’m forced to actively live in the moment instead of passively float through it. Though every inhalation of polluted air probably shaves a few more minutes off of my life, the blessed absence of anything mundane makes it worth all that and more.
That’s what Phnom Penh was like. Unfortunately, it’s hard to capture that kind of thing in photos (and it doesn’t exist in several of the photos below, like the ones of the Royal Palace). And even if I could convey it, chaos isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But it is mine, and I did think very seriously about just getting an apartment there instead of going back to Bangkok. I still might do that in the future. We’ll see.
In a future post on the blog here, I’ll publish photos of and talk more about the war- and genocide-related things I saw in and around the city. Until then, enjoy these photos of Phnom Penh.