Phnom Penh: My First Visit in 1999

Posted on by Dermot Sheehan


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I first heard about Cambodia when I was very young, it was in crisis and I learned about it through various films we were shown in school and also via the kids’ show Blue Peter money-drives on the TV. Although I first had an opportunity to visit in 1996, I balked at it and went on a tour of South Asia instead and it wasn’t until three years later that I finally arrived, after a few months touring the region.

It was everything I’d expected, but looked even worse! I turned up with a busted-head on a late flight. I looked like shit, and even the fake Oakley wraparounds that I’d bought to hide my injury didn’t help that much. I was on medication, and in the airport I kept walking into mirrored walls in elevators and stuff. I had already decided on staying in the Indochine, I liked the name and a Corsican I had hung out with in Korat recommended it. The trouble was, when I got there it was full, so I went to the hotel next door. The room was ok, if a bit musty, and the TV wasn’t working but I didn’t care as I hadn’t planned on staying in much. However the staff insisted on spending ages fixing it. When I finally got to watch it I wasn’t too impressed, locked-off shots of musicians performing and slide- style advertisements were still in vogue. It was like looking at a time- warp into the distant past.

I went out and had a shockingly- priced pizza nearby, and noticed that just beyond where I was on the riverfront got really dark within a block. As I was reading in the local paper about how the guy I was due to try and hook up with had been railroaded into T3 prison, a topless psycho came out of the shadows. He didn’t threaten me in any way, but he was in a rage and storming around like he’d go right through anyone who annoyed him. No big deal, I’d been away from Europe for ages and I was loving it, but felt a slight unease. I headed back to the hotel for a sleep.

While I’d been away I’d had some nightmares about accidentally getting on a plane drunk and ending up in Hackney or South Bronx or wherever I’d been recently that was freezing and horrible. The dream I had then was different, quite unlike anything I had ever experienced. I got this strange feeling that there were ghosts trapped in that room, spirits of people who had either died there or lived there during the war and had been murdered.

I woke up in strange fits a couple of times, I was dreaming about crazed elephants running amok through villages and chasing me and causing mayhem, along with all the ghosts who kept spooking me. If you have ever tried to fight off some phantom or scream while you are paralyzed by sleep, and are still somehow aware of it, the experience is genuinely terrifying.

The next morning I booked out of that place, and moved to a much cheaper and out-of-the-way guesthouse and I’ve never had another dream like that again, here or anywhere else. The strange thing is that, a few years later when I came to Cambodia to live, I asked the airport taxi-driver to take me to a particular guesthouse, and after a long drive talking filth he pulled up right in front of the same “haunted” hotel. I refused to stay there, and since then the place has been demolished and re-developed.

Back in the late 90s the city didn’t look anything like it does now. There didn’t seem to have been a lot of obvious development in a long time, most side-streets were rutted and unpaved, and most of the small businesses operating out of the dingy shop-fronts and shacks around the city seemed to shut around sun-down; after that it was a dead city.

There were tarpaulin and corrugated metal slums all over town, stuck in between better blocks or spread out all around the edges and corners, desolate smoky places with families surviving in them. It was dusty, decaying and strange, even spooky at times. At the same time things were obviously on the up. Peace had finally come, optimism abounded and there was a great atmosphere.

Phnom Penh now is a completely different place; much of what I described no longer exists. The dark, dusty parks with shacks in the bushes have been turned into pristine floodlit spaces which are very popular with local residents. Many of the little roadside restaurants have disappeared under verges or developed into more permanent establishments.

Some of the scruffy little roadside barbecues I ate in just a few years ago are now fancy-looking restaurants, while others are just distant memories. The sprawling slums got shifted gradually out to the sticks. Everything was, and is, slowly getting more and more normal.

I wonder how much people ever fit into the equation though. Much of the city looks far better than it did previously, and it’s a lovely place if you have good circumstances, but otherwise it’s like a nasty fortress, with nothing but garbage thrown out beyond the razor-wired perimeter. Exiled to the outskirts of an increasingly unaffordable city, the poor barely scrape by.

Many other people have thrived though, and most have far more disposable income than they had five years or a decade ago. There is far more money being spent all around, and some, at least, trickles down to the vast number of new small businesses around town. It’s certainly unrecognizable when I compare it with the grim documentaries I watched in my youth, and what I remember when I first saw arrived.

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10 Responses to Phnom Penh: My First Visit in 1999

  1. Soi Dog says:

    Good stuff, Dermot. Good photos too. Qutie a few of the smaller streets were still unpaved when I first arrived in late 2005. And few street lights reached 100 meters off Sisowath even then.

    Please post more of your earliest Cambodia pictures. Look at the lack of vehicles! Only one or two motorbikes to be seen. I would have been bored out of my mind back then. Still a fascinatingly bizarre place, though.

  2. Khmerhit says:

    nice article. no tukt-tuks back then iether, but the traffic was heavier than the photos show. used to be a scrap paper vendor – i found a run of ppp which i still have

  3. Dermot Sheehan says:

    The first time we were shown a documentary on Cambodia in primary school must have been early 1980, we had this horrible northern Unionist replacement teacher because our normal teacher was on maternity leave. The footage showed desperate, starving people straggling over the Thai border into the camps. The teacher kept ranting about communists, and not really having an idea what the word meant, I naively asked “Miss, what’s wrong with communists anyway?” She went bananas on me, screaming about how the communists would kill my mother and father if I were in Kampuchea. I was quite taken aback with the reaction.

  4. ken svay says:

    Great photos and it looks very quiet but perhaps it was a holiday or something.
    Even since 2005 the place has changed a lot with the parks being beautified and most squatters run off.
    Remember when the bricks was on st 130 in that ramshackle building and around there was filthy with rubbish and the cyclos would park by the building overnight.

  5. ray christlTHC says:

    I went to Koh Kong in 1997 to smoke ‘legal’ cannabis for the day…many went on a car smuggler ship to Snooky while I was sent back to Thailand by the police…wasn’t until 2001 that I came to Phnom Penh-still here on my 10th anniversary. Bought an apartment and the dust from unpaved streets would coat the floor each day-now it’s the fumes from vehicles that I’m worried about.

  6. Peter Hogan says:

    My first visit was in 1997 and my overriding memory is of just how dark and empty the city was at night, even on the riverside. In fact, the riverside only had a handful of places open in the evening then with everything else was locked and bolted by nightfall. And then there was the dust, piles of trash and potholes everywhere and so few cars on the roads.

    Just about the only places you’d see a white face were the obvious tourist attractions such as the Palace, National Museum, S21, the FCC etc. Otherwise, you could go a whole day without seeing another Caucasian.

    In the evening the nightlife consisted of the recently opened Sharky Bar and a couple of places on the 51st strip, these being the Heart, then a friendly, small hole in the wall bar and a similar place next door. Walking one block away in any direction at night was not advised. In fact, a couple of Israeli backpackers had been shot(injured thankfully, not killed) for venturing a block away from the Capital guest house at night.

  7. Twocam says:

    Funny article – I lived in PP from ’94 to ’97 so you arrived as I was leaving and I’d already seen tremendous change in those 3.5 years. In 94 you really had to be a bit mad if you ventured out after dark, whereas by 97 there was only a fifty percent chance of being carjacked or held up. The pictures really bring it all back. Thanks for the ride down memory lane :)

  8. Dermot Sheehan says:

    From talking to longer term residents it seems that by 1999 the city had become quite safe compared to the earlier part of the decade. It’s still incredible to think about how it looked in those days and what it looks like now, it’s difficult to imagine anything more different.

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  10. Ian says:

    I was in PP 1994 – 2000.
    By 1999 the place was all cleaned up!

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