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Breakfast in Phnom Penh

by Brandon Follett and Amy Johnson

February 22, 2007

Loud banging in the hallway wakes me, as a man at our guesthouse tries to rouse his friend sleeping in the room next to ours. The gruff, German-accented voice shouts, “Hey! Shooting range in thirty minutes! Wake up!” The banging stops, and heavy footsteps move urgently down the hallway. From the sound of it, he’s amped for a morning of AK-47s and grenade launching. Now that I’m awake, I just want an omelet. It’s 6 A.M. and time to begin another day in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

The refreshing morning rays of sunlight are forgotten as soon as I exit the guesthouse.  Before even reaching the street, I am bombarded by yells, waves, and a crowd of guys jostling for the opportunity to sell me a ride on the back of a scooter or in a carriage pulled by a scooter (also called a tuk-tuk).  In Cambodia, anyone with a scooter can be a moto-taxi driver.  If foreigners were smaller, they would probably be trying to sell piggy-back rides too.

With so many guys looking for the job, you might think finding a driver would be a simple task.  It’s not.  I tell the crowd of drivers my destination and they don’t understand.  I pull out my map of the city and point to where I’d like to go.  They discuss in Khmer, and then nod their heads and say, “Okay, I know. Three dolla.”  Three dollars! None of the taxis use a meter, so now it’s time to negotiate a fare.  When the driver agrees to 75 cents, I hop on back.

En route, the driver proceeds to ask, “I take you to the killing fields?  You want to go to Tuol Sleng?” (genocide museum).  This is the equivalent of going to San Francisco and every driver wanting to take you to Alcatraz.  The driver never once asks if I want to eat an omelet that possesses the beauty of a Cambodian woman, an omelet so delicious that it sends you to a spiritual realm only surpassed by Angkor Wat, an omelet with such soul that it symbolizes the future direction of Cambodia. Instead of discussing genocide and omelets, I ask to be driven to the river where the tourists hang out.

There’s an old omelet proverb:  “You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.” Sacrifices must sometimes be made in order to arrive at a wonderful end product, but this is not the case for Cambodia.  As an American whose country waged a secret war on Cambodia, I see a broken egg and no breakfast served. The great USA did not even bother to turn on the stove or even wash a tomato.

The driver drops me off at the Cambodia Club, a restaurant that boasts an omelet with veggies and mozzarella cheese. The restaurant sits along a paved street and overlooks the river.  There is a fresh breeze coming off the water, and from this distance the trash along the bank is hidden from view.  The tranquility ends as fast as it begins. The constant interruptions to my pleasurable time are like a snooze alarm that invades a fantastic dream.  Children approach the table between sips of coffee, conversation, and bites of omelet. The breakfast dream disappears and reappears between successions of snoozes. The kids are selling books about Cambodian history, the Pol Pot regime, and S-21.

Eventually, the pleasure found in the omelet is killed by death, amputees, whores, and the reality that lurks behind titles such as “Off the Rails in Phnom Penh: Into the Dark Heart of Guns, Girls, and Ganja.”  The snooze alarm wins.  I now see the omelet as nothing more than a way to survive.  I just need some energy to get out of this city.

See the author's travelblog: www.earthwormenvy.wordpress.com


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