A few days ago, I took the rare opportunity to go for a walk from my office in Bung Keng Kang I to my apartment on the riverfront, across the many newly created and upgraded public parks and gardens. Despite the scorching sun, heat and humidity, I took immense pleasure in this little stroll; I saw my city of birth and current home from a wonderfully new perspective and lens.
A calming effect from the wide-open spaces, the greenery, the manicured lawns and gardens of flowers seeped through me and eased away the oppressiveness of the tropical heat and grinding poverty that normally follow me when living and traveling across Cambodia.
This brief respite of walking through nature smack in the heart of Phnom Penh uplifted my spirit and gave me a greater sense of place, more than any rhetoric of economic growth, campaign promises of development or empty calls to love nation can ever do.
Mind you, I love to walk. I used to walk all the time when living in Washington, DC through its National Mall and gardens, when visiting Berlin or Paris or London or New York City through its many manicured verdant parks; but here in Phnom Penh, I have been bemoaning how the heat, busy schedule, harrowing traffic and lack of footpaths have deterred and reduced me to an invalid, cocooned many times in a sealed car.
Riding through these public parks in evenings from work makes me beam at the sight of families and friends of all ages—children, parents and grandparents, hundreds if not thousands of them—congregating to relax, stroll or play a light game of badminton. Peals of laughter ring through the air—I see, even if I cannot hear from my sealed car—of boys stealthily maneuvering a soccer ball through the crowd of walkers, onlookers and revelers of open air and space, water fountains and light shows.
On rare occasions, when I am out of the house by 6:30, I witness husband-and-wife teams power-walking and planning for the day, friends gossiping and comparing notes of failures and successes of their children and neighbors, grandparents finishing their last tai chi movements before heading back home to start the day. These are sights to behold, especially against the lazy azure sky, emerging glow of the sun and silky surface of open water of the chaktomuk (or four faces) converging.
Hope springs eternal and I am given strength to start another day in front of my computer with all the myriads of mundane, elating, disturbing emails informing me of the state of the world’s affairs, of the cling-clang of Cambodian electioneering, of the ying-yang of American politics, of the imbecility of despotic grip on power (think Zimbabwe, Burma, North Korea), of the resentment of dignified, vulnerable people made to act stupid and suspend their beliefs of reality (“Corruption? What corruption?”), etc.
What makes these sights so special is that they have only emerged recently since the creation and upgrade of these public spaces. It used to be that women and children stay home glued to the TV after 5 o’clock and the men frequent their favorite karaoke bars and dance clubs during the evenings and nights. Now, these parks offer healthier alternatives—to everyone, particularly to the concept and cohesion of “family”.
Everyone I have talked with has been echoing similar sentiments of therapeutic calm and wholesome recreation resulting from these public parks as very positive for Cambodia and Cambodians. Here are two echoing expressions:
I personally feel that constructing gardens in town is a positive sign. Urban population including big, high building is gradually increasing. We need a place for our recreation and this right to recreation is particularly needed for children. I still see problems, especially the replacement of gardens by buildings. A garden to me is not just a small parcel of land with beautiful flowers but a big enough place where we can not only sit but play (e.g. football for boys). Without such gardens, children – the future of Cambodia – will lose their potential to develop and turn to gambling and drugs. This is what is happening today.
To me, garden construction with beautiful flowers and green pasture is a great idea. It's a wonderful environmental space where the people can unwind, rest, enjoy, exercise after work or during weekends and national holidays… So without such gardens, it makes the people, especially the children lose an opportunity or right to leisure.
It is difficult to think of anyone being against public space such as these parks and gardens, even if we may argue over the motivation of the responsible authority.
What we need now is to creatively use this already existing, popular, well-used, safe public space of wholesome recreational activities to include more and more educational materials and learning, e.g. interactive booths for children to explain the different species of plants and flowers, plaques and signs to enlighten about historical figures and monuments, concert halls for orchestra and seminars on AIDS and other health/social related issues, etc. Think Central Park in New York City, Hyde Park in London, the countless botanical gardens in Japan, the many malls in Paris where painters, musicians and book lovers frequent in droves.
Hence, I’d like to take this opportunity to genuinely praise the Phnom Penh Municipality for the creation of these public gardens and parks. Please don’t stop! I’d like also to offer CSD’s assistance with regards to brainstorming for ideas to make this growing, popular, wholesome public space into greater fora for educational as well as recreational purposes.
Theary C. SENG
Please visit www.csdcambodia.org “VOJ Program” for past columns.