Phnomenal: Cambodia’s Capital Has a Heart of Tainted Gold

I hang my head in shame. My Pampering for Prosperity mission has been regretfully neglected for some time, thus it was a relief and a joy to arrive in the long-embattled capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, and to discover that this beautiful and tragic city is studded with establishments turning profit for a good cause, like sparkling jewels in an old tarnished crown.

The two reviews of Friends tapas restaurant and Seeing Hands massage and beauty salon that will be posted in this space in a few days are merely indicative of an overall sense of character and conscience in a city too often stigmatised by cruelties, past and present.

After years of horrifying war and atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime which are hard even to contemplate let alone put in writing, Cambodia is slowly struggling to its feet. Since the death of Pol Pot in 1998, many Cambodians have drawn a line under the pain and anger of the past, and are working hard to re-build a tourist industry decimated by the decades of violence. Cruelly adding salt to their still-open wounds, depraved sex tourists seized upon their desperation and in latter years Phnom Penh became synonymous with female and child trafficking and exploitation. The Cambodian government and people as a whole have reacted vehemently to this abhorrent abuse, however, and a national, local and personal clampdown is in full force. Recent high profile jailings and deportations are intended to send the message that Cambodia may be open for business, but its people are not for sale.

Despite this, I will admit a little circumspection about spending a city break in the infamous Phnom Penh. I need not have worried. The Cambodians are an incredibly warm, welcoming, jovial people, and at every turn, I was amazed by how outgoing and friendly they are, constantly chatting and laughing. You can see the physical scars of their history (amputations, burns) but it’s hard to see the emotional scars – they must be there, behind the veneer, perhaps away from the tourists, but this truly does not seem like a nation who went through a horrific genocidal civil war a mere 25 years ago. How they have managed to achieve this level of emotional healing proved an enigma to me: when a country has gone through horrors the likes of which most Westerners can not even imagine, how can its people be more full of smiles, positivity and energy than us privileged few?

Phnom Penh itself has crumbling colonial splendour, highlighted by an elegant and cosmopolitan Left Bank of the Tonlé Sap river, just before its confluence with the Mekong, lined with lively restaurants, funky shops and elegant bars. Far from the heart of darkness, this area has the charm of any top notch city, with its vast choice of delicious Khmer cuisine and International favourites, vintage clothes stores and leather couches under slow-swirling fans where the cocktails go down easy. Sure, the seedy side is there if you were to look for it, and the poverty appears on occasional corners, but London, Paris, New York are no different, and the ethos of many of the establishments in which I pampered myself, such as the two mentioned above, could teach many a city a lesson in how philanthropy and capitalism can combine to build an inspirational tourism model for the future.

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