The young lady was rushing back to the cashier after seeing me sitting there at the bar. With a bag of dinner in a plastic box she held in her hand.
Later she passed me the drink menu, with fewer than 10 options, I still ordered the usual one. Conservation wasn’t even needed for this regular customer.
If I am not in a rush to finish the drink, it is possible to sit and think of the contradiction of Phnom Penh within the length to finish the glass of coconut mojito.
There is no need to go far to see what Phnom Penh is like.
Go from one side of Norodom, take a small alley and walk from the middle of that block back toward Aeon mall. From embassies, high-end offices, to Khmer traditional villas, then further you will see many small houses along the side of the street that are so close to each other that there is no personal space for any individual. Then you walk further, you get out of that small bloc, and go on Sothearos and see the five star hotel and Aeon mall right next to each other. And then walk further, it’s the Elite Town of Koh Pich you see, and a good overview of all the sky buildings in the city right now. Just walk as one straight line, passing these three areas, that is modern Phnom Penh in one glance.
If the atmosphere is too suffocated, walk to another corner of the same bloc just one street away of Norodom, where I am sitting right now, there is the new rising western bars of decorated shop houses turned into personalized spaces, like the little corner of Angel town in London.
The jazz music that plays from the speakers, tea-coloured street lights like Christmas, the little small town of Basac Lane offers varieties of crusines and drinks, from Korean to Japanese, Indian, Middle Eastern and Cambodian, to the happy-hour drinks that are probably worth someone’s entire day’s salary.
This area is unreal. Especially the foreigners, mostly western foreigners that walk past every hour, really question the possibility of this little western town inside Phnom Penh’s most contradictory space.
And the classification of consumers here are varied too. Don’t think this is only for the young, even couple with families can just come for food. With the little babies at the back of their carriage or the back of the father, walking past lesbian couples sipping their mojito, speaking all the foreign languages that might not even be understood by other guests.
In London, it’s easy to complain about space. The space and distance between people there are so scary. What about here? How does the atmosphere make you feel? All the spaces are getting smaller, like still a little earth in one town, but even smaller earth. A more constrained version of the earth.
That all doesn’t seem so new, but still seems so strange. To the strangest of it all, is me, who has a mixture of cultural identities as well as the mixture of education background sitting here most of the off working hours just watching people.
Every time I have friends come to visit from Europe, I have to bear with their amazement of the inequalities of the city. And this would be one of the examples.
I can’t blame the expats making this business hub possible, instead I can’t thank them enough to at least create enough demand to make such supply possible. So at least after a long chaotic day, I can come here to feel a little bit of a western city’s vibe and the atmosphere of peace that I might not be able to feel anywhere else. Not too loud and not too quiet.
One filmmaker whom I met one day in a bar with his Cambodian wife criticized Basac Lane as a western expats’ bubble, emphasizing his attachment to the city as the “authentic one”. A young expat living there rebutted: “We come here exactly because we don’t want to remember we are in Phnom Penh.”
I no longer can tell if I am happy or feel disgrace toward the urban development of Phnom Penh. I also can no longer tell if it is better to just eat Khmer sour soup or also include hamburgers.
But it has appeared to me as the days pass by, when I think of food, I can no longer easily find healthy options without having to look specifically to one of the expat shops. I cannot just randomly stop at a food stand and expect to eat healthy food, and even just boiled vegetables or steamed dumplings – it’s no longer an option.