Friday, April 16, 2010

Wake up

Looking out across the Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh at sunrise
Helen Ibbitson Jessup is a renowned scholar and author on the art and architecture of Southeast Asia and as President of the Friends of Khmer Culture, is a regular visitor to Phnom Penh. One of the essays she submitted for my To Cambodia With Love book talks about one of the many pleasures to be found in the city. It didn't make the final draft. Find out more about the author here.

Early morning in Phnom Penh - by Helen Ibbitson Jessup

Before the dawn light strengthens, a stroll along the riverbank in Phnom Penh is a time warp. The water is pewter, and ripples from the wake of fishing boats flash silver. Silhouetted against the paling sky you can see curving prows suggesting the profiles of the ships carved in the reliefs of the Bayon temple. Naga figureheads rise commandingly, invoking the serpent who rules the waters and the underworld, recalling the ancient Khmers’ fleets repelling the invading Chams on the waters of the Tonle Sap in the days of Jayavarman VII. No intruding engines sputter as nets are cast, these modern fishermen for a while embodying the reincarnation of their ancestors.

Sunrise, like sunset, is a hurried affair in the tropics, and the warming light quickly dispels the illusion. Soon the vendors gather along the road by the bank. Some hack open a coconut to tempt the buyer, some offer juicy pink pomelo segments. There are fresh baguettes, a relic of the French presence. The flags of many nations flap in the strengthening breeze on the brave show of poles lined up along the river near the Royal Palace, motos roar in a thickening stream, and shopkeepers remove the night shutters. You are back in modern Cambodia, in a real city, going about its business without a thought of the tourist.

The riverside park in front of the National Museum and Royal Palace, the park at Wat Botum and the National Olympic Stadium have become magnets for Phnom Penh citizens who want to exercise at the start of the day, and as dusk falls over the city. The exercise bug has firmly struck the citizens of Phnom Penh.

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