The capital of Cambodia has a mixed reputation for travelers. On the one hand, the city astride the confluence of three rivers — including the mighty Mekong — was once known as the Pearl of Southeast Asia. On the other hand, and more recently, the city was depopulated by the Khmer Rouge, neglected by the Vietnamese occupiers that followed, and devolved into an Asian Wild West town during the last decade of the last century. Only recently has the sheen began to shine through the tarnish of this pearl. New buildings are popping up, the predominant sounds are boomboxes and traffic rather than gunfire, and the people are friendly and smiling and perhaps even hopeful. But there are still gritty sections of Phnom Penh and as part of a photo tour I took with Nathan Horton I got a streets-eye view of two such sections.
A few blocks south of the Independence Monument along the east side of Norodom Boulevard, you will see a number of brightly painted spirit houses framing a small street. This is the entrance to the warren of narrow allies called the Wat Prayuvong neighborhood. Walk a few meters down this street and you can spot many wood and concrete religious objects, most of the extra-large variety. Golden Buddhas, 7-headed nagas, half-naked sages, and the aforementioned spirit houses all await purchase … by whom? Apparently there is a market for these for even 35 years after the Khmer Rouge were driven from power, temples are still replacing their icons that were looted or destroyed by the anti-clerical fanatics.
Hang around long enough and you will be able to witness artisans working on the pieces: casting, sanding, or painting as needed. For a moment or two, this might hold the interest of the very view tourists that would accidentally stumble upon this minor find. They would be forgiven for not proceeding any further for certainly the dingy alley holds little of tourist ‘bucket-list’ scenery. But, it IS interesting. Little demi-shops pop into view selling doodads and essentials and to-go snacks. Wend your way a little further and we come upon a family — or maybe a couple of families — chopping up pig bits to go into…soup? stew? stir-fry? Who knows? The family is friendly and smiles and gestures at the ears and snouts and jabbers on about…who knows? Little kids run around, mug for the camera and exclaim “HELLO!” Granny sits above with two toddlers and offers them up as photo opportunities. It is all gritty and smelly and very full-of-life.
A few steps away is the small Wat or temple that the area is named after: Prayuvong. Apparently when the Vietnamese drove the Khmer Rouge from Phnom Penh the soldiers lived in this warren and the gutted temple. Newly restored with sumptuously colored wall paintings depicting the life of Buddha and a large golden reclining Buddha, the Wat is a bit of calm beauty in the rollicking world of the quarter.
Not in any guidebook, this then is a small Vietnamese enclave set amidst the greater Cambodian background … and worth taking a chance, wandering down some strange alley.