MY PHNOM PENH: John Vink: Photojournalist

Belgian photojournalist John Vink, a member at Magnum Photos for nearly two decades, recently moved back to Brussels after 16 years in Phnom Penh.
Belgian photojournalist John Vink, a member at Magnum Photos for nearly two decades, recently moved back to Brussels after 16 years in Phnom Penh.

MY PHNOM PENH: John Vink: Photojournalist

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

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

Street 19

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

The Shop

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

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.

Koh Pich and Veng Sreng Street

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.

MOST VIEWED

  • Hun Sen’s China visit ‘a good opportunity’

    Prime Minister Hun Sen’s visit to Beijing on Sunday to discuss economic and trade issues presents a good opportunity for the Kingdom to strengthen Chinese ties and counter punitive measures by the West, an analyst says. The prime minister’s four-day official visit to

  • Close to the edge: Hair raising pictures from Kulen Mountain

    A new hair raising attraction on Kulen Mountain has finally opened to the public, with people flocking to the protruding cliff edge overlooking green mountainous forests to take photographs. The giant overhanging rock is situated in an area known as Mahendraparvata – an ancient city of

  • ‘Action needed to stop road deaths doubling by next year’

    Minister of Interior Sar Kheng has expressed concern over the rate of traffic accidents, saying the death toll will double by 2020 if no effective preventive measures were put in place. At least five people on average are killed on Cambodian roads every day. The interior

  • Cambodian rice to lose EU duty-free status

    The Cambodian rice sector is set to lose its duty-free export status to the EU today – its major rice market – after the European bloc decided to impose tariffs on rice from Cambodia and Myanmar to curb a surge in such imports. The decision will be