Things I Wish You Knew

Rainy Season Phnom Penh

My year in Cambodia continues to be a study in the beauty, complexity and contradictions of Phnom Penh and the inherent difficulties and ongoing surprises of researching, documenting and describing a rapidly developing city.

Recently, I have had some discouraging conversations with well intended but poorly informed researchers visiting Cambodia. I believe in the agency of academic work and think that when thoughtfully constructed it provides a powerful platform and counterpoint to the NGO community and the private sector.

I love the opportunity to talk about Phnom Penh, to share with others what I have learned, to describe my experience here, and to discuss the creative potential and challenges of the city.

However, before you come here and before we meet for coffee to talk about architecture and urbanization (or anything else) in Phnom Penh, here are the things I wish that you already knew:

1/ This is a dictatorship. Hun Sen has been in power for more than 10,000 days. Never forget this and the reality that entails.

2/ The Khmer Rouge killed almost an entire generation of people, including a large number of educated professionals. Don’t ask why Cambodia is ‘behind’ Thailand and Vietnam (seriously). At least read the Wikipedia article before you come here. Better yet read Elizabeth Becker’s book.

3/ The 20th century in Cambodia was marked by ongoing war and conflict – including a long American bombing campaign. Here is a timeline of population vs conflicts vs governments in Phnom Penh since 1866 (the beginning of the French Protectorate). The traces of that history inform the present day city.

4/ There is no agreed upon Master Plan for Phnom Penh. The French proposed one for 2020 (Le Livre Blanc). It is still under consideration. Here is an article about the ramifications of a rapidly developing unplanned city. For example, there is no formal sewage treatment which works as long as the lakes remain.

5/ Phnom Penh is located in the Mekong Flood Plain at the confluence of three rivers (Bassac, Tonle Sap and Mekong). There are both rain and river flood events here. Rain flood events occur most days during the wet season. There are open sewage canals in the city which sometimes overflow from stormwater.

6/ Urban issues are important but Cambodia is still mostly rural. Even though the pace of development in Phnom Penh is astonishing – that wealth and progress is not being spread equally to the rest of the country. Average income in Phnom Penh is three times higher than in the countryside. Much of the country still survives on less than $1 a day. Most rural Cambodians do not have access to a toilet.

7/ Land rights are an extremely controversial topic here, land titling is an ongoing issue and there is a great deal of money and power at stake. Peaceful protest is not a protected right. Boeug Kak Lake was infilled, 4,000 residents evicted, their homes destroyed, 15 arrested for protesting their eviction, jailed for 2 1/2 years without adequate trial, and only released under enormous outside pressure.

8/ Environmental activism cost Chut Wutty his life. He was working to prevent illegal logging. He was murdered because of the economic value of tropical hard wood. Understand an issue before acting, what is at stake, and why.

9/ All of the digital maps and physical maps I have of Phnom Penh are on this blog. I do not have a secret stash that I am keeping from you.

10/ Here is a a list of NGOs and groups working on urban issues in Cambodia. Here is a list of related print publications. There are 3,000 NGOs in Cambodia.

11/ There are amazing and talented Cambodian architects and artists already working here. The Future of Phnom Penh lies in their tenacity in addressing the challenges facing the city. We are just visitors. You and your ideas are guests.

5 thoughts on “Things I Wish You Knew

  1. Liam Fee says:

    This is a very interesting and necessary piece. However, I want to pick up on one point. You mention that “Urban issues are important but Cambodia is still mostly rural (80%+).” I firmly believe this is a myth. The official government figure is now 27% living across 26 urban centres throughout the country (the report isn’t online, so I can’t link to it), this definition was revised because, at last, female employment has been included in the definition of an urban area. If the OECD definition of an urban area is applied, then almost 70% of the population lives in urban or peri-urban areas. Urban areas are growing at over 4% per year in population terms – one of the fastest rates in the world and urban areas generate 50% of the country’s GDP – forecast to be 70% by 2020. While Cambodia is certainly all the things you describe it to be, and more, in the 21st century it is definitely urbanised too.

  2. john says:

    well written.
    the point about the tenacity of young folks to improve their place, community, and life is incredible, definitely the thing that sticks with me the most.

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