Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Phnom Penh’s White Building [Cambodia]

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“When I heard Phnom Penh wasn’t a walking city, I bought a good pair of shoes. The evidence on my feet at the day’s end—after dodging motorbikes, piles of trash, street meat smoke, tuktuk offers—was par for the course.

The joy of moving at my own pace offset the challenges, but could not have prepared me for the Twilight Zone I stepped into at the corner of Sothearos Boulevard, a main thoroughfare in the city center. There, I stood, head back, jaw dropped, as vehicles swerved and honked around me, in front of the White Building. I soon learned I was not the only one overcome with this awe.

Within days of arriving in Phnom Penh for the first time, Italian photographer Carlotta Zarattini already decided she would return with a camera around her neck. “Still now, I don’t know what it was,” she said to me of her maiden trip in 2005. “Something about it was magic, scary.” Naturally, she was enchanted by the capital itself, having studied the country extensively during her thesis research on the Khmer Rouge. But it was something more specific, more tangible that drew her in. “When we came across it, we were like ‘WHAT THE FUCK’,” recalling her first encounter with the White Building, an iconic New Khmer modernist structure built in 1963. “That’s when I thought: I want to be a photographer, I want to be able to tell this story.””

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