Phnom Penh: It’s All About The RiverJanuary 6, 2013
Phnom Penh is no gigantic metropolis, no sprawling mega-city, no endless urban expanse. Yet still it manages to be an incomprehensible orderly riot of humanity: ugly surprises, elegant demises, fitting fates for all sizes. No easy answers, no succinct demography, just a weird collage – slowly creeping out from the city center, to the edges of all sanity.
Phnom Penh is (is it?) the Midwest to the West Coast called Thailand to the East Coast called Vietnam, but then Phnom Penh is not fucking Chicago. Not metaphorically, topographically, or symbolically. Chicago is just an ugly new fact; barely two centuries old and squatting on the Mississippi; getting sick from drinking the blood of cattle and spitting up Jameson every March.
The River runs green for that parade but in 2012 over two-thirds of the town hails black or hispanic, the former denied a history and the latter granted the solitary date of May the 5th. All the Polacks and Bohunks can dress like Leprechauns and order a Guinness, but even a bastard son of the Emerald Isle four or more generations pissed down can tell you and tell you true, Carl Sandburg’s city pukes itself to sleep, laid to rest amongst muddy waters, the River that gave life to it all – all colors, no colors, but not Kelly Green. Never ever. Phnom Penh is ancient and old, fossils and bones and pottery shards; been here since before we knew about there, pretty much. Right?
Small town? Sort of. River town? Definitely. I was raised along the Mississippi, where the steep banks are abutted by railroad tracks and empty lots that, in decades past, stood crowded and fed the stockyards. The slaughterhouses. My Grandfather, knee-deep in blood. He loved being a mail carrier. A postman, after World War II. You would too, you’d love the fresh air and the freedom of walking, if you’d spent a decade frostbitten and hungry and rattling from riding the rails, homeless, doing odd jobs, selling fucking apples, ARMY translating to OPPORTUNITY, and actually mostly enjoying it … because he’d just spent a few years, prior to all that wandering, gainfully employed: down along the River, doing endless overtime on the killing floor, wearing waders to slog through the gore, every step accompanied by the POP of the bolt gun and dark red splashes.
Putting more food on more tables. Near enough unique amongst my relations, he never asked me why I was a vegetarian.
Phnom Penh is a River Town, very definitely. Mark Twain would sniff the air and offer wise utterances. Perhaps a novel about a young barang and his motodop companion, something suitably sermonesque, spelling out the controversy for the ages; still banned in the more puritan libraries and still boring on its own merits.
We orient ourselves by it, the River, the flowing waters, Our Tonle Sap. We lay a mental grid that reaches out from where it meets the Mekong, and thus reality, at an angle. Riverside itself is incidental; tourist central, plenty to eat and hordes of marching feet; the pretty gems and notorious turds.
All of it, for me, is relative to the River. I spent New Year’s Eve out on the River, with a dozen or two dozen friends, or known people (at least?), who I insisted on attempting to make miserable just because I was not in a good mood when we disembarked… But once out and away from shore, the most I could muster to protest the night was a piss poor whimper, because the waters we were rolling up and over and on and along were deep and dark and primal past petty reckoning, past my pathetic upsets or the POP of the firecrackers echoing wide, bank to bank. Bright red sparks.
Go look at the River. It is the reason the city sits here. The ancient fact of fresh water is why you’re drinking Anchor in that spot at 4am or arguing with a tuk-tuk at 3pm or anything.
If you love your life here, thank the River. If you love the River, get nervous when they talk about their plans, for Southeast Asian Hoover Dams, just upstream. It won’t stop any of it or change their machinations, your trembling nerves, your worries, your fretting. Still, at least somebody, somewhere, for the record, even briefly, gave a damn.
About the River.
Ned can also be found on Twitter.
Top image courtesy of Darren Wilch. More of Darren’s work can be seen at Cambodia Images.