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Delightful Phnom Penh - Meet The People

by Hans Meier

July 16, 2006


Riverside Encounters (1)

I sit on the riverside promenade in Phnom Penh, the capital's premier/only place for a leisurely stroll in the cooler hours. "Som muy roy, som muy roy", the beggars moan with a most self-pitying tone. This translates into "sorry, one hundred riels", about 0,025 US Dollars. A fair price: If you pay, they refrain from shoving all their open wounds and rotten limbs right into your face, and they will not touch you.

But upon encountering a westerner, the more polyglot beggars switch to another playback and a price hike. They utter a very bossy "Mister! You give one thousand!"

Riverside Encounters (2)

I sit on the riverside promenade in Phnom Penh and try to finish a can of coke. Around me stand four very dirty, skinny and poorly dressed dark skinned street kids. They watch my every sip eagerly. Each of them separately wants to grab the empty can later; for three empty cans they get 0,025 USD from the recycling shop.

So I sit there with my can half full and four dirty streets kids guarding my every sip.

Riverside Encounters (3)

I sit on the riverside promenade in Phnom Penh and try to finish a can of coke.

Boy 1 stops one meter short of me and and points softly at the can, he wants to put it into his rotten rice sack and take it to the recycling shop. But I haven't finished yet, so I tell him "dawp nyathee tee-et", ten minutes later. Boy 1 is my default coke can remover here, actually, because he is polite - or better say he is still a bit shy.

Boy 1 off.

Boy 2 shows up and points at my now empty can. I say "Adh ban" (cannot), because I had already promised the can to Boy 1.

Boy 2 tries to grab the can in a sudden move. "Chop hoai", I shout (stop already) and take the can myself.

Now Boy 2 slaps me two times on the leg with his dirty, slimy hands. "Chop hoai", I scream again and pretend to hit him back. Boy 2 goes in a Kung-Fu-position and puts on an arrogant, stupid face. Khmer strollers watch interestedly. Boy 2 knows he is stronger than me. Obviously I cannot hit him back, nor can I ask for his parents or for the police. Boy 2, on his side, can easily spit at me or throw road dirt at me without any punishment - what could I do with a little boy and all those Khmer onlookers? I try to handle the confrontation Khmer style and put on a bored, empty face.

Boy 2 off. (Surprise.)

Boy 1 never reappears. No trashbin anywhere. I walk away with a useless empty coke can in my hand.

Riverside Encounters (4)

I sit on the riverside promenade in Phnom Penh. A student approaches and sermons: "Oh, hello mister, I am so happy-happy to meet you because now I can practice English with you!" I have already ignored a few attempts today and ran away from a few others who wanted to grab a free conversation lesson. But when this very smart young man in blue shirt, well-ironed trousers and solid shoes sits down beside me, I finally give in and accept small talk.

Ok, he is a student in Phnom Penh and sleeps in the pagoda. Ok, his family is from Kompong Chhnang, he has three brothers, two sisters and a motorbike. Ok, he will see his family next weekend, and this will be a happy time. How nice indeed!

After 20 tiring minutes, he suddenly lowers his voice. "Mister! You want lady?" -- "No need lady?" -- "So you like man? Ok, can have, too!"

Driving with Lights on

With a rented Honda Dream, I am doing pothole research on Phnom Penh's rocky main roads. A policeman stops me. My offence: The lights are turned on at daytime. Yep, this offence is enforced in some Khmer towns (calm down, you are are always welcome to drive without lights at nighttime, drunk-handphoning-speeding on the relative wrong side of the street).

It is 2 p.m. afternoon on an unbearably hot April day. Between sun and asphalt, I am baked like a human pizza, and a dwarf in khaki stopped me for using lights at daytime.

I know: The fine will only be 0,50 US Dollars. But for this, I have to negotiate and to demand a receipt from greedy ridiculous officers. I can't do this now, I am not stable enough for their childish game. I switch into cynical, open the wallet and fish for a 5-dollar-bill getting me outta here without humiliating talk.

The heat is killing me, and the policeman is surprised that I grab money without any talking. I only find a 20 dollar note and give it to him with a sarcastic smile. He takes it and walks away without further demands. My eyes follow him. A second policeman gives me a shy smile like "Thank you mister for your kindness". The khakied molesters don't look as if they see any problems with their behaviour.

Obtaining a Moto

Obtaining a motorcycle used to be so easy in Phnom Penh. Interested parties would stop down a moto driver, show their gun and kindly ask for the key.

Hard times for motorcycle afficionados began, when moto shops in the capital equipped flashy new machines with remote controls. As the robbers happily roared away on their new found transport, they were suddenly remote-stopped by the previous owners. A few screams of "Jao plong moto!!! Jao plong moto!!!" would then gather an angry crowd taking good care of the thieves.

These days, those in need of a new Honda, Suzuki or even a cheap Korean Daelim don't just show their gun. They use it.

Happy Khmer New Year (1)

Obtaining smaller assets free of charge is another popular option in Phnom Penh. As Chowl Chnam Thmei (Khmer New Year) approaches in mid-April, city dwellers desire some brand new clothes. A few shiny new things around the house are welcome, too. However, the required stack of cash is not always at hand.

On April 11th, Srei Tuj calls me while I browse Psah Tuol Tom Pong (Russian Market) for cheap jeans: "Be careful when you go out in Phnom Penh now. Bag snatchers just drove off with Srei Dah's handbag, and when Srei Tee walked to Psah Thmei two hours later, somebody tore her gold chain off, worth 450 USD." I suppress a reflex to hide my cellphone in my slip. "So now, did they report to police", I ask back? Mobitel transmits a very sarcastic laugh.

Happy Khmer New Year (2)

One local friend says he got sick from a New Year water attack:

"I had to stay at home for some days!"

"What", I ask, "you staid at home because of a water attack?"

"Yes, the water came down on me from a second-floor-balcony."

"And that's so bad you have to stay at home?"


"I mean, did they put ice into the water like somewhere in Thailand?"

"No, no ice."

"But then, why did it make you sick?"

"They had small stones in the water."

Power To The People

Electricity is expensive enough in Cambodia. Phnom Penhois pay around 22 to 24 US cents per kwh. We are also charged just this price in our expensive, touristy temporary non-serviced apartment.

A poor Cambodian friend from Stung Treng province moves with his family to Phnom Penh to have better schooling for his sons. They barely make ends meet. They find a 1-room-rathole for 45 dollars per month.

To switch schools, he has to pay 30 USD administrative fees, the usual scam. Then the teacher asks "Would you like to pay the photocopy fees daily or at the beginning of the month?" This scam is unknown in the provinces.

And then he learns: For electricity, his landlord charges 32 US cents per kwh.

Khmer Charme

A decently dressed western man and a decently, even conservatively dressed Cambodian lady walk side by side along the river. The couple's age difference is marginal, and they keep 20 or 40 centimeters airspace between them. They may be life partners, collegues, whatever - they are boring actually.

There are many groups of Khmer males on the riverside: clusters of motorcycle taxis, clusters of tuktuk drivers, clusters of rikshaw pilots, clusters of security guys, and there are the young men who come to play skull-football, kick-badminton or just to hang out and race their motorcycles on the packed pedestrian's strip.

When the boring Khmer-western couple approaches, all talk in those male groups stops abruptly. Five seconds on Pause. Then the shouting, laughter and howling begins.

The Khmer lady translates some of their remarks:

"Do they have a bigger one?"

"How much you get per night?"

There are many more phrases, but the Khmer lady refuses to translate.

Khmer Charme By Night

By nightfall, the males' remarks seem to get ruder and more rancid. Motorcycle taxi drivers approach with 30 km/h; when their offer of a ride is declined, they disappear, shouting obscenities. Worse are the rikshaw drivers, who seem to bark even more insultingly and disappear much slower - barking on of course. All the shoppers and snackers on the pavement watch eagerly for the couple's reaction.

Some motorcyclists drive full-speed towards the boring Khmer-western couple as if in kamikaze-mode. The couple hectily jumps onto a slimy neighbourhood wastedump, and the moto zooms off. Other motorcycle taxi drivers stand on the corner, laughing happily. Good clean fun.

Even More Khmer Charme By Night

An elderly tuktuk driver brings Khmer lady and western partner to the Apsara Arts Association on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The Khmer dance performance there is so grotty that they step back to the street after 30 minutes. There is the elderly tuktuk driver again - he waited for them. They take him to go back home.

The tuktuk arrives at their apartment building. The Khmer lady says to her man: "I go shopping for a minute, see you upstairs soon." She disappears around the corner.

The western man pays the driver, and the driver grins at the westerner: "Tonight meet beautiful lady? Massageboomboom?"

Getting A Cab

For a Sunday daytrip to the popular picnic area of Ki'en Svay, 20 kilometers out of Phnom Penh, we call Dara Taxi. They say all their cars are busy. So we call Taxi Bailey's. They say all their cars are busy.

I remember an article in the "Cambodia Daily". A taxi entrepreneur said he'd need more cars - but there was no economical safe parking anywhere in Phnom Penh.

Finally Vantha Taxi has a car for us - if we wait half an hour. Arriving at our apartment window is the ubiquitous nondescreipt Toyota Camry, five or 25 years old. Of course our taxi is not at all marked as a taxi. From the article about the taxi situation I remember that taxis get stopped and fleeced by Phnom Penh police all the time.

Lucky enough, this car has the steering wheel on the correct, left side. Many other taxis are cheap Thai imports, steering wheel on the wrong side, made to drive Thai style on the other side of the road.

Marine Life

Finally out in the local recreation area of Ki'en Svay, we lounge on a "roong" - a rented, shady bamboo platform built on stilts over a quiet arm of Mekong river. Food, drinks, bags, handphones, sunglasses, books, magazines and MP3 players lie all over our picnic sala - when suddenly a wet dark arm slurps out of the muddy-brown water and blindly grabs for our equipment! The arm is followed by the apalling face of a blind man. Then another water ghost surfaces - the blind man's caretaker. Marine beggars.

The water around our picnic sala may be 2,50 meters deep. Each guy clings with one arm to the construction, the other arm demands small change from us and fishes for our things. And while we are occupied with fending them off, one more diver appears at the other side of the picnic pavilion - again trying to grab our things. We manage to send the riverine ghosts off with some sharp words.

Later a little boy swims along, holding a plastic bag with his mouth. He collects empty cans and plastic bottles just like his collegues on land. With rude words he demands our soda cans, which we haven't even opened yet.

The river side of Ki'en Svay that requires a short boat trip was once stressfree (beggarfree). Now it has waterborne beggars and thieves - it's a hassle just like any Phnom Penh area without a fence or steel-bars.

Beggars and Thieves, barang (1)

In the popular disco "Heart of Darkness" a huge drunk westerner talks and talks into me something about "ganja". As polite and clear and nonverbal as possible I try to end his monologue. He doesn't stop at all, but keeps yakking away, bellowing right into my crumbling ear with delightful nicotine and beer breath.

This guy is double as tall and wide as me; I will have to buy the stuff from him, should I wish to maintain my current impersonation.

Suddenly he turns away and molests another punter.

Beggars and Thieves, barang (2)

Later that night I wander through a dark corner of the Phnom Penh riverside. It's where dozens of rikshaw drivers sleep right in their microscopic vehicles. Unfortunately they don't build orderly aisles, so it is quite a bushwalk to get through this cluster of cyclos. One driver has even fixed a hammock between his rikshaw and a lamp pole and blocks a big part of the pavement.

In this environment I meet a dirty, drunk, moustached westerner in his 30s with nervous or maybe drugged eyes. - Am I English or American, he demands to know? - I have to decline. - He makes an accusing face and regretting sighs. He then blames me that he has been robbed and no place to sleep. Because of this, I have to pay him. - "Adh mee'an ey", I say, just what Khmers say to Khmer beggars (no have, ey). Hastily I slalom away, around three more rikshaws into the pitch black Phnom Penh night. Fortunately there is so little streetlight there.

Beggars and Thieves, barang (3)

Westerners molesting westerners is a new social phenomenon of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. But now some longnoses even go out of their way to pester decent local Cambodians: Westerners in cute business attire have been known to walk into Khmer middle-class quarters, knock on the door and suggest a reading from the bible to Khmer residents.

Once established, the missionaries would not easily leave the scene, instead they offer free books and free assistance in swapping Buddha for Jesus. When politely reminded that the Khmer inhabitants now had urgent things to do, the western christian intruders would still not get lost, but cling to their chairs and start to talk unfavorably about Buddha. According to my reliable Cambodian sources, a highly uncomfortable degree of impoliteness is required to get rid of the christian missionaries.

Slime Surfing

It's not only the insane traffic that makes walking Phnom Penh so difficult. It's also the municipal refuse collecting style.

It works like that: Put your trash in plastic bags and drop those on the next sidewalk - anytime. If you have no plastic bag, just drop your loose rubbish somewhere anyway.

In the night, big cars will collect those plastic bags that are still *intact*. That's a minority. Of course our neighbours, the homeless, open all plastic bags just when they appear. What they choose not to use gets a thorough check by our other neighbours - the rats (no street dogs or cats here, guess why). The rest of the trash is left sweltering under the unforgiving, 40 degrees hot Phnom Penh sun. No municipal rubbish car will remove the open mess, it stays on the sidewalk.

That's what I mean when I say that strolling in Phnom Penh is not only made difficult by insane cars, motorbikes, trucks, tuktuks and rikshaws and not only by all the beggars, shoeshiners, newspaper sellers, flower sellers, restaurant hawkers, impaired and street sleepers getting in your way.

Strolling is also made awkward by the multitude of rotting neighbourhood trash dumps. It's worst around some markets, especially Psah Chas, the Old Market. Several time I had the nasty feeling of stepping into something soft, very undesirable - thank God I'd only hit a rotting durian.

Cruising the Capital

Of course they ride one-way streets in the wrong direction. And while driving with light in daytime is actively fined by Cambodian police, driving drunk without light in the night is absolutely ok. Actually, after 5 pm there is little street police, except for those khakied guys who fine you to fill their own coffers. Just refuse to pay after 5 pm.

For a nice chat en route to the private English school, locals happily drive with two or three motorcycles or bicycles parallel to each other - slowly of course. Honk at them from your car, and they will not even look.

Park your motorcycle anywhere in the middle of the road. If then cars can no longer pass, solve the situation Khmer style - look away.

Cruising Faster

Young, testosterone-loaden Khmer men race their motorcycles through Phnom Penh with breathtaking speed. They ignore the traffic lights on Monivong Boulevard and the one-way signs in the smaller roads; they honk and belt through at about 80 or 100 km/h. This requires intense slaloming - regularly you hear heavy "CLACK"s, as their back wheel hits other vehicles they passed. Before you can even start to curse, they zoom on across three red traffic lights.

In Cambodia, whole generations grow up without the very slightest idea of consideration, order or common sense. Police looks on, occasionally squeaks into a megaphone and is basically ignored:

When you park your moto right on the riverside's pedestrians' strip, you will have a policemen standing next to you, bellowing orders into a megaphone, and looking somewhere else. Just ignore the barking dwarf in khaki. He will walk away. If he gets all too noisy and obnoxious, slip him a buck so that your moto can stay with you on the pedestrians' strip - that’s safer than parking the vehicle somewhere out of sight.

On the Phnom Penh riverside, young men speed their moto through the pedestrians' strip, honking permanently; they have no chance to stop, should anybody not jump out of their way.

Cruising Around the Corner

In Phnom Penh there seems to be a certain consent to drive your vehicle on the righthand side of the street (as in America or mainland Europe). But at road junctions, they will not turn left western style. Long before the left turn-off, Khmers move over ​to the opposite lane and drive against the flow there. Then they turn left, into the new road and there still on the wrong side of the road. They drive against the flow until they find a gap to make it to the other side. If they find no gap, they keep driving on the wrong side. At 80 km/h, honking heavily. This is not just typical behavior of bicycles and motorcycles. I've also seen cars and trucks proceeding against the flow, around the corner and on against the flow.

While there seems to be a consent to drive mostly on the righthand side of the street, many taxis and other private cars are cheap Thai imports. They have the steering wheel on the wrong, right side, made to drive Thai style on the left roadside. In a country where drivers passionately pass each other at high speed in blind curves full of cows, buffaloes and school children, this common use of this wrong-built vehicles causes a lot of additional accidents. Prime minister Hun Sen just made the import of Thai-style left-side cars easier. In local TV, Hun Sen explained that if more Thai-style cars caused more accidents on already blood-drenched Cambodian roads, then this was a problem of the individual drivers. Good news for those schoolkids who will get killed by speeding Khmer drivers with cheap Thai-built cars.

Welcome to Cambodia

Your encounter with Phnom Penh and its citizens kicks off delightfully right at Phnom Penh International Airport. Did you also receive this yellow pamphlet with the important information: You might get sick here; you might want to see a doctor.

You can study this paper over and over while waiting extensively for the passport control at Phnom Penh International Airport. Your mood may rise when you see this sign which is one of my alltime favorites in Cambodia. You encounter the sign when you get the visa stamp, and you read it again if you leave the kingdom by air. In September 2003 it had been a quick laser-printout. Since about April 2004 it comes as a professionally printed sign with yellow letters on glossy blue cardboard. The words remain the immortal same: "We apologize for any delays that are caused by the use of our new computer system."


My e-mail: hans at phomania.com

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