The city in Cambodia that Invades the Soul


543It has been six months since I visited Phnom Penh, the capital of a country settled within my soul, the trip being the direct result of me uncovering its horrific recent history. As I read about Cambodia, I discovered how much I was unaware of and the depths of emotion one can be capable of, especially to events one has no plausible connection with. In the middle of stories of terror, soul scarring pain and unrelenting tragedy, I also found stirring examples of forgiveness and reconciliation, love and friendship, resilience and strength, stories that inspire even in their despair.
As a casual tourist, its wounded soul, resting under the surface but one that needs to be pried open gently, would have escaped me.

I was in Phnom Penh for only three days but there was a palpable sense of the spiritual within me. For three days, time stood still. My trip was defined as much by the city itself as it was by the people I met and the stories they told. I have never experienced such peace before. For three days, my usual chattering mind stopped talking.

The city itself is a curious mix of the old and the new, of heritage and progress, with areas of chaotic yet organized traffic and where old buildings lining the side roads open onto wide parks and boulevards and where glass and concrete eyesores mix with old world colonial heritage buildings that are fast being replaced. It is a city filled with Buddhist temples that exude a peace and calm that seem so at odds with the violence of Phnom Penh’s recent history. It is a city that once was called “The Paris of The East”. It is a city I long to return to, if just to sit quietly by the river and feel the breeze and the warmth of the Sun as it sets over the Mekong, bow to the monks making their way back to the monastery, watch from afar as young families spread their picnic sheets or just pass by lovers walking with hands clasped tight, in that special silence that signals close comfort.

It is a city where the sight of an old bookseller, selling books on the Khmer Rouge arranged neatly on his mobile cart, will compel you to stop because you know that the bookseller was himself a victim of the people whose photographs are on the books he is forced to sell for a living. And you will catch your breath and hold back a tear as you look into eyes that light up for a moment before deadening again, a mouth that flashes the smile as it was 40 years earlier but that now fades sadly and a hand that shakes as he carefully pockets your precious dollar but is then steady as he extends it again to meet and then clasp your own shaking hand, a part of your increasingly fragile countenance. A hand that you have offered as a sign of the greatest respect to someone you will never see again, to someone who has seen more in four years than you hope you will never see in all of your many lives.

It is a city filled with people who have lost everything, a city where every stone, every street corner, every branch of every tree and every old building is a witness to a history that still haunts it, literally, 35 years after Cambodia was practically obliterated. A few miles from the city stands the UN backed Khmer Rouge Tribunal Court where, even as I walked by the waterfront, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, two of the main architects of the Cambodian Genocide, are on trial for crimes against humanity.

And yet, walking through this city filled with ghosts of the past, I could feel Phnom Penh moving on, trying to leave behind a history that percolates through its very fibre. The intangible beauty of this city is hard to describe, for it is felt rather than seen, defined as much as by its tourist sites as it is by the warmth, smiles and sheer normality of the people which inhabit it. For three days, Phnom Penh turned into a living, pulsating, alive city, a city that I embraced and which embraced me in turn, a city and a country from which there is much to be learnt. Phnom Penh is representative of Cambodia itself-a beauty that defies description and that is far more than what you see on a typical trip. The magic of Cambodia too, I believe, is felt, not seen. To experience Cambodia is probably to experience life itself.

I could spend a lifetime here. If you have not been to Cambodia yet, open your heart and come on in. Cambodia’s heart will always be open.

About the Author: Nishikanta Verma.
I am a practicing doctor with an often unfulfilled passion for travel. I have too many interests, none of which really amount to much.

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One response to “The city in Cambodia that Invades the Soul

  1. The fact that the first thing it said was a city that invades Souls. That brought my attention to this article quickly and I enjoyed reading it!

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