I wrote this post about a month ago but held off on posting it because it made it sound like I wasn’t that enamoured of Cambodia whereas the reality is I loved it and want to go back. So this is out of order but is about my first few days in Cambodia.
I highly recommend the night train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. I splurged on a $24 ticket to have an air-conditioned bed for the night. An efficient, and deceptively strong, lady came along around 7pm and transformed my seat into a berth the width of a regular bed, complete with mattress, sheets, pillow, blanket and privacy curtains. My only impediment to sleeping was the difficulty I was having breathing after my vigorous massage the day before, life is tragic eh.
An easy train connection in the morning left me at Don Mueang airport again, followed by a 90 minute flight to Cambodia, and I touched down in Phnom Penh.
The first thing to happen in Phnom Penh, if you haven’t pre-arranged it electronically, is you get your 30 day visa. On the outside the system looks disorganised. You go up to a booth, you hand over your passport and thirty dollars, and then they wave you away. “Away to where? What about my passport?” Well you amble over to the counter where everyone else has ambled over, and are now collectively worrying about their passports which makes you feel better. Every two or three minutes, an official holds up a passport, open at the picture page, and calls out a sometime recognizable name…sometimes not. A ripple runs through the crowd, “Is that me? Did he say…? Is that you? The picture has long dark hair.” Until eventually someone steps forward to claim the passport and their visa. That’s it, a quick stop at passport control and, welcome to Cambodia!
I was on a half empty flight and no other international flights were landing at the same time so our group was relatively small, but a regular visitor to Phnom Penh told me he’s seen the visa hall crammed with hundreds of people before. Apparently though the system works, and I guess no-one would actually leave without their passport, so you’ll get through eventually.
Past security and I look around for the tuk tuk driver who will be holding a sign with my name on it that the hostel sent… who hasn’t turned up.
Not to worry, three strangers I’ve never met before are sharing a taxi into town, would I like to join them? It’ll save me $4 on a tuk-tuk, and the guy with a map on his phone says, “Look, we’re getting out really close to your hotel.” So into the taxi I get, and we spend the journey discussing how dangerous Phnom Penh is. Map man reveals he’s been here before, and knows the place: “Don’t wear a bag at night, it’s really common for the straps to be cut and the bag stolen from your body.” I cast a wary eye at my cross body bag and resign myself to clutching at it on my short walk to the hostel.
Getting out of the car, I ask map man to show me the directions again, he keeps trying to close the phone off after two seconds and telling me “It’s fine, it’s really close.” Especially after I’ve noted out loud, “That looks bloody miles away.” Eventually I diplomatically say to him, “Thanks so much for keeping the map open. I know I’m taking a long time, but I don’t have a map at all, and if I don’t remember the route I’m absolutely fucked.”
He doesn’t try to close the phone again until I feel confident I know where I am going.
Map man’s girlfriend says, “That looks really far, we should have got the taxi to drop you off. Are you sure you’re going to be okay?” A question echoed by the other girl in the taxi.
What are you supposed to say to that? “How the fuck should I know? I’m in a new city, that is supposedly rife with tourist crime, especially at night, and I’m stumbling along in the dark because there aren’t working street lights with all my possessions on display, and there’s not even available pavement to walk on so I am literally walking a couple of km in the road where I am a perfect target for motorbike thieves. Your moron boyfriend here, is trying to convince me I’m a 50 meter dash away, but those of us who know how map scale works can see that’s not the case. No I’m not sure I’m going to be okay. I am sure that I should have forked out the extra four dollars to be taken straight to my door, and that you should take the reins on all your future travel plans, or dump this idiot.”
But when you take advice from an idiot, you’ve only got yourself to blame. So I didn’t say any of that. Instead I declared in a big, firm voice. “I’ll be absolutely fine. Lovely to meet you, have a wonderful holiday. Bye.”
And I am. Maybe it’s dumb luck. Maybe it’s the way I’m gripping onto my bag with an iron claw. Maybe it’s too dark for anyone to see me in order to rob me, but I arrive at the hostel, tired, hot, pissed off, pin needles in my hand, and absolutely fine.
They greet me with, “Your tuk-tuk driver met you at the airport?” and I reply with forced jolliness, “No he wasn’t there. I waited 30 minutes but no-one showed up, the flight was delayed so maybe someone else told him they were me. Ha ha ha ha ha ha. Still I’m here now.”
In fact I am putting on a marvellous act right up until the point when they tell me the credit card machine’s broken, and I need to pay the full amount in cash right there and then, plus a towel deposit which cost twice as much as the room. Still waiting for a new debit card, I was at that point very low on cash and had booked the hostel purely because they took credit cards. Soooo, let’s just say I was not at my most gracious after that, and I had to do a lot of smiling, joking and talking in a positive tone of voice to make things better the next day. The Cambodians take complaining as an insult. If you do have a complaint it is best to phrase it in the form of a polite question, with friendly helpful offers to show them your booking confirmations.
Sleep is a wonderful thing. I explored the city the next morning in a much better mood, changed some cash, and made friends with the hostel manager.
Phnom Penh gets mixed reactions from visitors. Some speak of it with the same exasperated but endearing tones you use on a badly behaved child. They speak of the numerous places to eat, walks by the river, and drinks at the Foreign Correspondents Club. Others talked in hushed, compassionate tones of the genocide, and stay quiet for a few hours after trips to the killing fields and prisons, nursing a stiff drink before they start smiling again. Others say it’s a corrupt hole, and can’t wait to leave.
The way I see it, is Phnom Penh is a city in the middle of recreating itself. There is lots of construction going on, laying down of pavements, new buildings, new business ventures. However the basic infrastructure to support growth is not in place. The streets are strewn with rubbish (apart from around the palace, that’s spotless); there is no public health care system; the smell of rot and decay in the open is only eclipsed by that of frequent scents of raw sewage and excrement. Everywhere you go the gap between rich and poor is vast and obvious. It’s impossible to walk on the pavement because of all the Lexuses and luxury SUVs parked on it, and in between them are living skeletons sleeping rough. On one of my walks I saw a new shopping complex 50 yards away from a crumbling apartment block whose walls were missing. The rooms inside were no bigger than cell blocks; make-shift fences and railings to stop items, or people, falling out.
There is a high crime rate. Every day in the hostel, somebody would walk in, holding back tears because they’d just had all their belongings stolen, trying to figure out how to get to embassies, police stations and immigration offices. But when families are living in squalor alongside those who are living in splendour, what else can we expect? High crime rates don’t come about simply because people are poor, they come about because the person across the road has a fridge full of food, clean water, a massive car, and you don’t even have walls.
But enough soap boxing. Phnom Penh does have plenty to see. There are the harrowing trips to the fields and the museums which give you an insight into how much the country lost in such a short period of time, and is still losing (for example, 65% of people in Cambodia are infected with TB as a result of so many citizens being held in close confinement in the 300 prisons that were set up in the 70s), and then there are also the wide open parks; the golden dome of the central market; the peaceful Wat Phnom on a leafy hill right in the centre of the urban sprawl. Sisowath quay is the walkway along the Tonle Sap river which provides a beautiful breeze and some shade benches for quiet contemplation. Mostly quiet contemplation. There’s a lot of folk trying to sell you stuff. And the people are really friendly. They’re very polite so you have to be the one to get the conversation started, but they love a good chat.
In twenty years time, Phnom Penh will have grown and changed considerably, but at the moment it’s impossible to say whether it will be an improvement, or simply different.