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  • Writer's pictureAlain Catzeflis


Updated: Aug 9, 2020

Walk in Phnom Penh with hope in your heart and an unerring belief in the goodwill of your fellow road users.

The Mekong from the Phnom Penh Foreign Correspondent's Club


Phnom Penh after nearly 16 years of absence feels somehow lighter and more at ease.

The desperation that still hung in the air when we were last here in 2002 as life slowly returned not many years after the fighting ended, seems largely absent.

Children sent out then to beg by gang-masters or their parents – if they had any – no longer roam the streets accosting foreigners. Tuk-tuk drivers seem less predatory.

There’s a growing urban coffee culture much like anywhere else in Asia serving a growing and sophisticated middle class. More Cambodians eat out. Far fewer Cambodians beg. Petty crime on the other hand is on the rise, bag-snatching by motorbike riders, passport thefts, muggings.

Cambodia has more than its fair share of left-behind, unmet expectations, entrenched corruption, appalling public services, youngsters who can’t find jobs because the job market is all-too-often rigged in favour of those who can buy them.

The children of war the world over carry the past inside them. Cambodia is no different.


Walk in Phom Penh with hope in your heart and an unerring belief in the goodwill of your fellow road users.

I saw about five traffic lights. Two of them were apparently being respected. The rest were treated as decoration, municipal fairy lights.

The streets of Phnom Penh (once I remind you planted with palm trees by the Khmer Rouge) are a symphony of high-pitched revs of small-engine bikes and the frail growl of decrepit scooters on the verge of decay.

But with increasing wealth comes must-have and bling. The unsuspecting pedestrian now has to contend with sleek, high-powered Ducatis with go-faster stripes and Harleys outpacing humble Hondas of which there are believed to be between 2.5-3 million, all it seems on the road at the same time.

At one light I glimpsed a driver in a blacked-out Bentley Bentyaga 4x4 ( £160,000 - £230,000 depending on trim, more if you want bullet-proof) sail through a red light. No number plate, the ultimate status symbol in the Third World. So you take your life in your hands and with a Buddhist sense of the inevitable you stride across and the traffic, as if guided by an unseen force, parts to let you and your good lady through


As Happy Hours go they don’t get much better than at the FCC, watering hole to many a scribbler and barfly in the last days of the Cambodian drama. The Foreign Correspondent’s Club sits at the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers, its breezy open terrace and curved wooden bar now a tourist attraction.

Turn left on the water below and boats take you to Seam Reap and Angkor Wat across the great Tonle Sap lake, heartbeat of Cambodia. Catch a boat down on Sisowath Quay and turn right, as we did in 2002, and you end up in Vietnam at Can Tho in the Mekong Delta.

We did the trip on Chinese New Year in 2002 and arrived to see hundreds of vessels from junks to freighters garlanded in yellow and orange chrysanthemums.

The billiard table is still there at the FCC but the deep leather armchairs are gone. The cream walls still speak of war correspondents past, boring each other to death with rumours of turmoil, coups and dictators, of breaking stories and deadlines. " There I was..." as my comrade Stewart Dalby would say.

One picture on the walls records the day in April 1975 when the city fell to the Khmer Rouge. In fact the FCC wasn’t founded until 1992/3 - by an enterprising British lawyer.

The FCCs greatest scoop was filed by freelancer Nate Thayer who had tracked down Pol Pot in his jungle stronghold of Anlong Veng and which he then filed from the club for the Far Eastern Economic Review.

It’s greatest cocktail – the Frontline – is made from chilli and Kampot pepper-infused vodka, lime, passion fruit and vanilla syrup.

Rare lady Tuk-Tuk driver


Som nam is in his late 20s. He works as a guide. What, I ask him, does he know about his country’s recent past? If you mean the Khmer Rouge he says, not much. The subject is hardly taught in schools and in some parts of the country where there remains a fierce loyalty to Pol Pot, not at all. "My father died and my mum doesn’t like talking about it. My auntie has told me a few things.”

This month is the 40th anniversary of the Vietnamese invasion that drove the Khmer Rouge out of Phnom Penh by 170,000 battle-hardened veterans fresh from their defeat of the United States at home. Schoolchildren are taught about the country’s change of name to the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea and the briefest references are made to 'massacres'.

Of course teaching the Cambodian genocide in Cambodia to Cambodians is not about reanimating the past. Here, the past is still present.

The Prime Minister Hun Sen was a senior Khmer Rouge cadre until he fled to Vietnam. Pol Pot’s regime lasted for precisely 3 years, 8 months and 20 days. In that time an estimated 21% of Cambodia’s population died. Genocide of course is not an exclusively Cambodian phenomenon: Germany, Rwanda, Bosnia. And how long did it take Germany to begin coming to terms with its past and France with its collaborators?

Judging is easy.

At some point, 30 years from now – or maybe 50 – when there will be only stories and recorded memories and bones and clothes will cease to sprout from the ground, perhaps the genocide will be taught as history and not recent memory.

Alain Catzeflis

Phnom Penh

January 2019

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