The Cambodian capital’s name is one of those things from the school geography class that either sticks to your mind permanently or evades you wholly. My case was that of the latter, until a few years after school, in the early 1970s, when I heard “Phnom Penh” mentioned in a talk on the US war against Vietnam. The name triggered a yearning to see the land of Angkor Wat. That was till I began reading about the horror—the Pol Pot regime and the Khmer Rouge. Between 1975 and 1979, 1.8 million—or nearly 24 per cent of Cambodia’s then population—was exterminated from political executions, starvation, disease, torture and forced labour. To add to the chills, I saw Roland Joffé’s riveting film, Killing Fields in the mid-1980s. It affected me deeply and I made peace with the fact that I’d never get to see the architectural marvel that is Angkor.
But as fate would have it, more than 30 years later, my wife took up a position in Siem Reap, gateway to Angkor, where Khmer kings flourished from the 9th to the 15th century. For a year, I put off going there. But, I had to bite the bullet. And Phnom Penh is but a short step from Siem Reap—a five-hour drive.
Phnom Penh, meaning hill of the lady Penh, turned out to be very close to what the name had conjured up in my mind. Sitting on the banks of the mighty Mekong where it meets the river Tonlé Sap, its skyline, in stark contrast to Siem Reap, is marked by glass-and-concrete high rises. It is hard to miss the striking spires of the palace. They enhance the city’s heritage attraction as do the beautiful French colonial buildings and the impressive boulevards named after trees and flowers. The skyscrapers add to the glamour and glitter of the city’s facade, especially at night. The neon lights of the restaurants, bars and casinos, the illuminated Royal Palace, the attractively lit riverside promenade and the large public garden make one want to remain outdoors at all times. The good thing about the place is that it’s possible to keep busy in Phnom Pen round the clock without doing anything “productive” in the crude workaday sense.
Crisscrossing Phnom Penh’s roads are the ubiquitous Indian autos (Bajaj, TVS) in black, white and black-and-yellow. The Chinese auto gives them stiff competition. Indian enterprises—mainly restaurants—abound in Phnom Penh and are popular among locals and non-Indian tourists. The other Indians one comes across are those in business and industry. I saw Indian pharmaceutical salesmen, students and research scholars.
My attempts at keeping the holiday simple limited me thus: a choice of food and drinks, massage sessions, a good book, a bit of gambling, engaging company and lively conversations. Phnom Penh boasts of Nagaworld, Cambodia’s largest casino, which is heaving all night, and day. There is never a dull moment or an empty chair at the rows of gaming tables spread across two floors. Casinos are big business in Cambodia. There are 60 to 65 of them. But the five-star Nagaworld is the most profitable. Here flock the rich; and the ‘poor’, i.e. the middle and lower middle classes, in the hope of winning some before the night ends. Most gamblers seem to be Chinese. They are said to have moved from Macau to try their fortunes at Nagaworld. There are Chinese tourist groups, which come solely to play card games and slot machines. For non-gamers, there are shows in the hotel lobby and fine dining bars and restaurants to while away the night.
Glanced at some eye-catching meat on offer: “Creepy Crawly Tarantulas with Black Pepper Lime Sauce”, “Crunchy Crickets and Froglets”. These delicacies find mention in a Khmer restaurant menu. Some relief for the more conservative palates, the drinks menu reads like a dream: over a dozen varieties of rum from the Caribbean, South America and Europe. An array of exotic wines (palm, honey); liqueurs (ingested with nuts, fruits, chilli, tamarind, ginger), schnapps (mango, apple, cashew) and spirits like white whisky made from rice.
There was no dearth of lively company and conversation in Phnom Penh. My most pleasant outing was dinner with India’s Ambassador Manicka Jain in a typical Khmer restaurant. With grace, wit and charm, she had three of us hanging on to her every word over a delectable selection of Khmer food I’ve never tasted before during my weeks in Cambodia. In my opinion, that makes her an excellent diplomat for all seasons. And, vindicates my belief that the MEA is India’s best ministry.(The writer is a journalist)