by Danny Lee Director for Community Affairs Development
ASEAN Secretariat

Many Asian cultures believe that leaders and important people are stars – as in constellations re-born on earth. Based on that, Phnom Penh – and in particular, the Peace Palace – could well be the Milky Way. For the past week, some of the most important leaders from around the world have gathered in the Cambodian capital, for the 21 ASEAN Summit, and other related Summits.

With the world’s top three economies and ASEAN taking centre stage, economic issues – maintaining free trade, attracting investments, and how to stay ahead of the economic uncertainties – stayed very much in focus. One of the active countermeasures is the launch of the ASEAN Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The RCEP is an ambitious project to tie ASEAN’s Free Trade Agreements with six partners into a huge and robust free trade area. With half the world’s total consumers under its belt, it will be the world’s biggest regional free trade area.

Outside the official meetings, the stars are the Cambodians working in the hotels, the Tutut drivers, the shopkeepers, and of course, the hard-working Liaison Officers attached to the delegations. For many of them, having so many important leaders in the city is certainly something they are proud of.

“I happy so many big people here. I like Obama. He want(s) to make people’s lives better. Like Cambodia. We also want to make people less poor,” said Panha, the bubbly masseur at my hotel. For our Liaison Officer Millie Theary, or just Theary to us, the excitement of seeing world leaders more than compensated for the fatigue. “Saw President Obama real view at Peace Palace and gala dinner last night,” Ms Millie Putheary posted on her facebook, along with a video captured on her mobile. The meetings had lasted much longer than planned, which caused the gala dinner to be delayed.

It was a long, tiring day for Theary, as we know her. She had to start the day earlier than any of us, and wrap up later than everyone, as she had to make sure we return to our hotel before she returned home. But when I saw her at the Peace Palace the following morning, she was her usual sweet, good-spirited self – no sign of fatigue at all. There must be something with the Cambodian diet. Maybe I should consider moving to Phnom Penh… Looking at the other jovial, obliging Liaison Officers around me, I have nothing but respect and affection for these young people.

Just 10 minutes from my hotel is the infamous S-21 Interrogation centre and security prison. Also known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, thousands were held, and tortured here during the Khmer Rouge regime. Many did not survive the ordeal. It was one of the darkest period of Cambodia’s history.

Against daunting odds, the country and its people had bounced back with determination and dignity. Instead of grieve and resentment, the Cambodian people quickly regain their grace and good nature. I am honoured to have made some friends here. They include the cheerful staff from the Intercontinental Hotel, whom we chat regularly on Facebook. I now add two young and promising Liaison Officers to my facebook friends.

My friends and colleagues know I’m totally in love with the Russian Market (Tuol Tom Pong Market), and I am certain to make several trips here whenever I’m in Phnom Penh.

My Secretary rolled her eyes when we mention Cambodian Silk. I already have a dozen shirts tailored in the lovely fabric, but that has not stopped me from buying another piece, simply because “the maroon/purple/blue was a different hue from the last one I bought”.

I have my favourite jewelry shops at Psar Tuol Tom Pong. The shop owners are always fun to chat with, and very good at selling their stuff. My friends have reminded me that I have only ten fingers, but I just could not resist the fun of adding another gem to my collection. There are few places in the world where you can spend modest amount for beautiful jewelry, and Cambodia is one of them.

A trip to the market will not be complete without dropping by my favourite iced coffee stall. Everyone I brought here agree that is unforgettably good. Every time I enjoy that divine coffee, I tell myself that I would get bad Karma if I don’t bring other friends here. The pictures at the stall is proof that Mr. Bounnareth has been doing this for decades.

Head here before or after you start shopping, or make this a pit stop. You won’t regret. When I was there earlier this week, some silly tourists try to bargain for two coffees for US$1. Give the man a break. I’m glad he turned them down. If you can pay many times more at other coffee joints, what is so difficult with a dollar for superb coffee here? These humble folks are making an honest living. Respect that. Anyway, I am not the only one who is in love with this country.

When I sent two pretty, and very hard working journalists back to their hotel after dinner, they told me they would love to be stationed here. Like me, they find the people here to be friendly, and city to be very livable. I suspect the light, healthy, but immensely tasty Cambodian food had weighed in too.

Time flies, and the Summits finally came to an end on Tuesday evening. As we dragged our dead-tired selves from the Peace Palace, we want to say a sincere “Aw Kun” to the city and its lovely people. Many of us will remember the chubby and friendly owner of Mike’s Burgers, who had a stall between the Peace Palace and the media centre. For the past week, diplomats, delegates, journalists, and even the Secret Service have been fed by Mike and his busy team. For the records, his burgers are good, and Mike has many media reports to proof it.

As we head to the airport to catch our flights back, many of us will keep with us the beautiful memories of Phnom Penh. Chum Reap Leah, Cambodia. Till we meet again. We love you.

Danny, 21.11.2012