Cambodian Facelift

Posted on August 25, 2010

Nothing says ‘return to Cambodia’ quite like driving the wrong way up a main street during the height of traffic in a dilapidated Tuk Tuk to the sounds of beeping horns.  I notice the green light at the intersection – a boring solid circle of color in the States – is actually the image of a man walking faster and faster until he is practically running.  A signal that the light is about to change.  I think it would be far most realistic if right before the little cartoon man image turned to red, he was flattened by the image of a Moto.   Right on cue, a Moto gets sideswiped and goes over.  The driver appears unharmed, thank God, considering he was helmetless.  A helmet law was passed over a year ago and my last visit saw police enthusiastically pulling over people without helmets and confiscating their Tuk Tuk and Motos.  Apparently the novelty of this has worn off.

Wanting to keep my attention firmly away from my driver Vantha’s current game of chicken, I turn my focus towards the large amount of construction that has been completed and is underway in the city of Phnom Penh.  There’s no doubt about it –the city is getting a facelift.  The evidence of a middle class fighting to emerge surrounds me.  There are more cars on the road, large apartment complexes are popping up and perhaps the most telling: a swanky new pizza joint on the riverfront, which itself boasts new landscaping and a level of cleanliness I have never seen.   I am thrilled to see an investment being made in the capitol city – something that can only bring more jobs, security and progress to the people of Cambodia.  For many years, the primary focus has been on Siem Reap – a tourism Mecca for the country due to the ancient temples.  In comparison, Phnom Penh has never been much of a battleground when it comes to winning over tourists.  It’s hard to compete with ancient wonders of the world when your claims to fame are left over sites of torture from the genocide and The Killing Fields, bookended nicely with children begging and picking garbage at the city’s dump.

A boy with legs withered by polio catches my eye.  He is expertly maneuvering his crude wheelchair along side a couple of tourists while they studiously attempt not to notice him.  From experience, I figure the boy will win through sheer persistence.  His presence along the riverfront brings into sharp focus the main reason for this trip to Cambodia: The Safe Haven School project I have been working on for the past year.  My business partner John and I are hoping to build a school for multi handicapped children in Siem Reap that will provide both education and access to therapy.  Although the school will be built in Siem Reap, I am in Phnom Penh to try and create partnerships with other organizations working towards similar goals.  Of course, I am also visiting the street and garbage dump kids who because such a huge part of my life five years ago when I started filming my documentary Small Voices.  Although that project is finished and the Safe Haven project is now my primary focus, the Small Voices kids continue to be a huge part of my life.  So in between meetings for Safe Haven I am spending all of my free time with them.  Last night I was treated to an impromptu rock concert by Meng Ly (on drums); Nghan (on lead guitar and vocals) and Leakhena (on vocals).  They proudly strutted their stuff like any normal teens, though I’ll probably never see an American teen take a meat cleaver and use it to hack open the casing on some old electrical wire and then tie the bare wires into a makeshift cord for his guitar.  I kept expecting the amp to explode.

After that invigorating performance, jet lag and I came to a mutual understanding and it was time to call it a night, despite the fact Layseng was trying to cajole me into playing the guitar for them.  I put her off by promising to play for them later.  Something she did not forget the second I arrived to visit the next morning.   While I did not consider it my best performance (and I totally blame to condition of the guitar in question) the kids were all pleased.  And thanks to the video feature in the Iphone that had been lifted out of my pocket without me noticing (those street skills come in handy) I now have a movie clip to remember it by.

Before heading to bed for the night, I spend some time walking the newly beautified riverfront and can’t help but think… for all of the wrinkles this new facelift is erasing – it cannot completely hide what lies beneath.  The division between the poor and the upper class only grows more distinct with progress.  Yes, there are more jobs being created, but for a class of people who have access to education.  The riverfront may be sparkling brighter during the day – but at night, the children who roam and beg the streets are out in force, when it is harder to be rounded up by the police.  To them, progress means more tourists and more tourists means more opportunity.  They may not be eating the pizza in that swanky new joint, but they are hoping for better scraps to fall their way.