Phnom Penh sits astride the great Mekong River, a city with a long history of greatness, war, famine, poverty, genocide and re-emergence. The city reflects its history in its daily life with broad streets lined with trees from the French colonial era, to modern developments of office blocks and condominiums, to tight narrow old streets lined with small shops and roadside traders selling food and souvenirs, and huge covered markets with stalls selling food clothing and everything imaginable. The roads hum with gridlocked traffic and the driving attitude that is the tradition in Asia, where every small inch of road is occupied, and drivers manoeuvre so close to one another that one wonders how and why the scooter riders survive. It’s a mystery but the driving is a culture that all observe and no one complains of.
The city is busy energised and at times frantic, but it all works with a sense of purpose and style. The restaurants that line the edge of the Mekong thrive at night with every food imaginable with sellers, performers and buskers everywhere. Bright neon lights contrast with dark side streets most simply carrying a number to identify them. An old lady walks down the street leading an old man by a rope around his neck while he plays a Tror a Thai stringed instrument and they collect money. There is always something going on.
In the midst of all this seeming chaos sits the serene peace of the extraordinary Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. Dating back to the 19th century when the capital moved back to Phnom Penh the Palace sits alongside the Mekong and is the residence of the Cambodian Royal family today. They live in a part of the Palace shut off but the rest you can wander in. This includes the throne hall, a magnificent enormous room of gold and white still used today for religious and ceremonial functions. The detail intricacy and the symmetry of the buildings are beautiful and although they have similarities of design they are unique.
The Palace reflects the place of Buddhism in society with the silver Pagoda sitting alongside the palace buildings. The Palace is walled so that the endless noise of traffic and daily life does not intrude and is like entering another world. The Palace reflects how Cambodia has both retained its links with its historic past of the Khmer kingdom down to the present day and Cambodia’s emergence into the 21st century.