As lovely as life has been in Phnom Penh, there are days when I stare, wide-eyed in utter disbelief, into the staggering gulf between the different realities of life in this country.
Last Saturday, I attended a party in the riverside district. It was a warm evening, and I searched for a breeze on the rooftop, drinking in the scenery with a few glasses of red wine. I stared at the guests wading in the rooftop pool and at the seedy riverfront strip a few floors below, its streets teeming with locals who would push their wares into all hours of the night to the drunken foreigners and expats. The French hip hop dance troupe, whose show we attended at the French Cultural Center earlier that evening, was mingling hesitantly with the crowd, but not dancing because the music left much to be desired. The crowd, largely a mix of German and French expats, had quite a few lawyers and ECCC employees. The whole scene was dripping with Western affluence, very comfortable for me, yet somehow estranged, surreal.
A little more than a day later, I stood on the Boeung Kak Lake development, once home to 20,000+ people, and the site of one of the largest and most contentious “forced evictions” in present day Cambodia (if development plans are implemented successfully, this will be the largest aggregate forced exodus in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia). I accompanied my Khmer colleagues to learn about the affected families in this ongoing case. With no direct ingress to the lake, we carved a path through the wooden shanty homes, at times finding ourselves jumping through adjacent windows. We walked barefoot through families’ homes, very basic homes: dark wooden floors occasionally graced with sunlight, with one, maybe two, rooms, a square shack on stilts, jammed next to other squares, all blurring into one, against a backdrop of debris and derelict railway tracks. Eventually, we made it to the "lake," filled with sand and waiting for development to commence, the sound of water snail shells being crushed under our weight reminding us of what once was.
Later that day (and still dizzy from the morning's activities), I enjoyed a wonderful dinner with a colleague. While taking a post-dinner stroll through the park to meet a friend, we ran smack into a post-eviction community, 60+ villagers, whose homes were burned down due to some land concession/development altercation, the details of which I don't profess to know. From what my Khmer-speaking colleague gathered, the villagers journeyed to the city to appeal their possession rights to the land, though unsuccessfully. When we found them, they were crouched together, wearily, on the grass, enveloped in silence and in darkness, their remaining belongings in small black plastic bags. They had nothing and nowhere to go, as they were denied shelter in the nearby wat. (Usually, monks living in wats take in displaced people for the night.) And soon, a crowd of armed police and military swarmed around them, telling them to leave the park. They did.
Fortunately, one colleague was able to find the villagers temporary housing . . .
I understood these realities intellectually before I came to Cambodia. And yet, it is quite a different thing to grasp the contrast with your own eyes, to be confronted with yet another layer or two of life here, in such a short period of time.
This is just the beginning. I really need to toughen up.