Phnom Penh, Cambodia (1996) 1/2 


This buiding captures the
marriage of Khmer roof
styles with European
The riverside esplanade is
Phnom Penh's main claim
to elegance
The seller of green coconuts
seems to have gone AWOL
The Mekong River here is
still huge enough to carry
ocean-going ships with ease
A monk's saffron robes are a
familiar sight; ( quite different
from, say, Vietnam)
The centre of Phnom Penh
 in 1996 was still dusty and
chaotic, hardly a national
Backstreets were shadier
and more domestic  
Towards the diplomatic
quarter the streetscapes
became much more
prosperous and cared for 

Photography copyrighted to Thor May 2002; all rights reserved
These fifteen photographs of Phnom Penh were almost an accidental record as I passed through on the way to Vietnam in February 1996. They are in no way a fair or balanced image of the city. The images have been scanned from prints and the quality has suffered,  but they may still be of interest.

Cambodia in 1996 had emerged from a period of United Nations administration, and surface normalcy still seemed fragile. A suave taxi driver from the airport assured me that the country was absolutely safe. I knew this not to be the case. His perfect English and obvious Western education made we wonder who he was really working for... Anyway, the city had a frontier feel about it. No wonder, after being evacuated by the Khmer Rouge two decades earlier, its entire educated population murdered, then worked over and undoubtedly further corrupted by free spending United Nations personnel. This was the morning after, the hangover... In shops you used Cambodian currency up to the value of a dollar, then American bucks for higher sums. Talk about parallel economies. I found two shops in the whole CBD with about the grocery stocks of a Western 7/11 convenience store. That was it, and they were too high-falutin' to care if you had change in Cambodian currency or not. Round dollars would do nicely.

Long before, back in 1968, as a university student in New Zealand, I had shared an old house with a gentle Cambodian headmaster, Chau Ngan, who had a scholarship to study English for a year. He dreaded returning home, having a terrible premonition of what was about to happen, but his wife and child were there. We listened helplessly as Lyndon Johnson lied in the White House rose garden, that Cambodia was not being touched by the Vietnam War. His B52s at that moment were carpet bombing the Cambodian countryside, and creating the ghastly, murderous psychosis that we came to know as the Khmer Rouge. The US, China and some South-East Asian countries helped keep the Khmer Rouge alive even after they were driven from power by an invading Vietnamese army, backed by the Soviet Union.

Chau Ngnan would shake his head and play long, haunting tunes on a bamboo flute. I hope his people find peace at last.

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