The essence of a city is not its monuments, or even its history. What really marks a city in your mind is its people; their mood and spirit leaves an impression far more profound than the most beautiful and majestic monument ever can.
This fact was driven home for me during a recent visit to Phnom Penh, Cambodia to participate in celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Cambodia and the United States.
I was, of course, struck by the sheer beauty of this sleepy capitol sitting at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Rivers, with its tree-lined streets and Buddhist temples and shrines here and there, and the mixture of Hindu and Buddhist cultural icons that Cambodians take for granted. I was also impressed with the progress made in revitalizing the city in the five years since I left. New high-rise buildings had gone up, or were going up, in every quarter of the city. The number of automobiles on the streets had geometrically increased. The streets were relatively clean when I worked there from 2002 to 2005, but this time there seemed to be a change even there – small side streets that I remember as being strewn with the trash from shops were now cleanly swept.
While all of this was impressive, it was as it has always been, the people who made the city come alive for me.
Southeast Asians are basically friendly, welcoming people. Thailand is known as the ‘Land of Smiles,’ and Vietnam, despite having a Communist government, welcomes visitors. Cambodians, known mostly in the West for the Khmer Rouge and the temples of Angkor Wat, are probably among the friendliest of Southeast Asians. The warmth with which visitors are welcomed, whether it’s in the cities or in the countryside, is unmatched anywhere else. The hostility toward outsiders that was characteristic of the Khmer Rouge period was an anomaly; an aberration that grew out of a combination of the violence of the Vietnamese War and the Maoist indoctrination of Pol Pot and his henchmen.
One incident during my visit to join U.S. Ambassador Carol Rodley in celebrating 60 years of diplomatic relations will, I think, serve to illustrate what I mean.
The rapid economic development of Cambodia in the past five years, especially the construction in Phnom Penh, meant that a lot of landmarks that were familiar to me were either gone, or obscured by new buildings. I didn’t realize this until I decided to go out walking through the markets alone on my second day in the city. It didn’t take me long to get completely lost. A young man who happened to be walking toward me noticed the puzzled look on my face, deduced correctly that I was lost, and came up and asked me where I was going. When I told him I was trying to figure the way back to Hotel Le Royale, he turned around and directed me to follow him. This lad walked nearly ten blocks back the way he’d come to make sure I got to my hotel. When I offered to pay him for his assistance, he merely smiled and said it wasn’t necessary; he appreciated the chance to practice his English for a few minutes.
It was only several hours later that I remembered that I’d never asked his name. This nameless young man, though, will be forever in my memory, and for me will represent the heart and soul of Phnom Penh.