Phnom Penh – Been There

Cambodia’s wealth is in its young people

Dressed in crisp wedding white, newlyweds and their attendants wind their way along Sihanouk Boulevard in the Cambodian capital city of Phnom Penh. Crossing the city from east to west, the vast thoroughfare was named after the abdicated Cambodian king, Norodom Sihanouk. Phnom Penh’s north-south street reflects a similar reverence for the king – it is called Norodom Boulevard.

Photo by Jochem Wijnands

Phnom Penh – Been There

Cambodia’s wealth is in its young people

From the banks of the Tonlé Sap River (a branch of the Mekong), Phnom Penh looks like a city of opulence.

Willem Dercksen
Willem Dercksen Journalist

The view is largely dominated by the shimmering, golden rooftops of the Royal Palace, whose walled compound houses the Chan Chaya Pavilion, the Throne Room and the Silver Pagoda – a beautiful temple with floors of pure silver. Among the many treasures it contains, the most famous and exquisite is a golden Buddha studded with 10,000 diamonds.

I find a place to sit on Sisowath Quay, the riverside promenade outside the Royal Palace, where I meet a young woman who wants to practice her English with me. Her name is Lov Chankakada, which means “born on a Monday in July”. She is an accounting graduate who now works in a restaurant to pay for her English studies. Cambodia’s population is extremely young – more than 60 percent of its 15 million inhabitants are under 24 – and also highly ambitious, as I am experiencing every day. Practising English seems to be the favorite pastime of its youth.

Lov has high hopes of one day working for a large company. I ask if she finds it at all strange that such a poor country would have such a luxurious palace. “We Khmer love the King,” she says. “He helps many people.” I try to read her face, as I am not sure whether she means it. King Sihanouk, known for his high-pitched voice, abdicated the throne in 2004. His son and now king is Norodom Sihamoni, a former ballet dancer who was educated in Czechoslovakia and North Korea. Succeeding his charismatic father wasn’t easy, but King Sihamoni now seems to be respected, if not loved.

“You know,” Lov says, smiling, “the palace is not really his – it belongs to the people. He just lives there.”

Real friendship – share your travel tips and your commission!