Belgian photojournalist John Vink, a member at Magnum Photos for nearly two decades, recently moved back to Brussels after 16 years in Phnom Penh. In a post on his departure on Magnum’s website, Vink wrote: “If Belgium gave me life, Cambodia made me understand it better because of its incredible generosity to this photographer.” This week, Vink told Post Weekend about the places in the capital that resonate for him.
Preah Ang Dornkeu Pagoda
A place I’ve regularly kept going back to over the past 16 years is the Preah Ang Dornkeu riverside pagoda on prayer days. It bundles a strong Cambodian experience into a small area: the trance-inducing music, the worshippers enjoying an intense but casual, almost relaxed, exercise of religion, the appalling poverty of the beggars and street children, the arrogance of the municipal guards who are vested with power by the sheer possession of a uniform, the smell of burning incense mixed with the aroma of rotting lotus flowers in the dustbin next to the pagoda, and the view over the Tonle Sap mingling with the Mekong, which would be soothing to the mind if if weren’t for the wart/hotel on the Chroy Changvar peninsula.
Street 19 – the stretch starting at the Fine Arts School all the way up to Street 108. It is narrow and always crowded. It is so narrow that it is easy to forget about the Phnom Penh building craze: the two-storey houses hide the construction sites of the condos popping up all over. That street looks like it hasn’t fundamentally changed for the last 50 years, except for a few convenience stores and the like. Given the traffic, it is a nice challenge to ride its length on the motorbike without ever having to set foot on the ground.
The Shop on Street 240. Ah, what would my mornings be without an espresso or a lychee-mint, the Cambodia Daily and the Phnom Penh Post fresh off the presses and a chat with a few other addicts to the place? The staff there are so thoughtful – I never have to ask for my small portion of palm sugar: it is always there, neatly placed next to the small cup. For sure that is one place I will miss.
Koh Pich and Veng Sreng Street
The final two places are two extremes: Koh Pich and Veng Sreng Street, all the way to Chaom Chao. It is not that I like them as such. But they somehow epitomise a whole array of dreams people here seem to have. The megalomaniac grandeur of foreign and Khmer investors building 30- or 40-storey high condos on Koh Pich – about which everybody, except the investors, seems to wonder who will occupy all that space – responds to a dream of organised modernity for the growing number of Phnom Penh-ites who benefit from the developing economy.
On the other extreme there is the incredible mess of the suburbs, an organic and seemingly anarchic iteration of a city in the making, with worker’s “condos” (eight metres square per room for two or three workers) conveniently built next to the factories that drain the energy of the young. This is the first step for so many youngsters into city life. It is a dream come true: escaping the countryside, escaping poverty.