Phnom Penh, Cambodia
[ រាជធានីភ្នំពេញ កម្ពុជា ]
Pronunciation: [p'nom - pen] | Language: Khmer | Population: 14.8 million
The reports I had heard about Phnom Penh prior to my arrival were overwhelmingly negative. People talked about the drugs, theft and the prostitution before they mentioned anything else. So I arrived prepared for the worst.
By day Phnom Penh was a lot like Vietnam. The French architecture style, the telephone poles that looked like tall, extended cinderblocks, the storefronts—it was a slightly grungier version of Ho Chi Minh City. The composition of the traffic flowing down each street favored cars and tuk-tuks more than it did motorbikes. That is one difference from Vietnam that was a nice change of pace.
By night Phnom Penh got pretty weird. Every young Cambodian male with whom I accidentally made eye contact solicited me drugs pretty aggressively. I told them all “maybe later.” In every restaurant we visited or peered into there were old, fat, white men with beautiful young Cambodian girls. In every case, it was pretty clear what was going on. We tried to make light of the situation by playing a slightly altered version of ‘Zitch Dog’ from How I Met Your Mother.
It was fun for a while… but it wasn’t long before the novelty of it all wore off and it all just got sad. Our first night out we distracted ourselves by playing Connect Four with the bartender at a bar called Howie’s. The bartender challenged us to a game pretty randomly when we were sitting at the bar, to which we responded “uhh… okay?” She whipped out a Connect Four set and put it on the bar between us. The stakes of the game was paying for a round of shots of Tequila. We lost. And we would later find out that this bartender is apparently known to be some kind of Connect Four savant by locals. So we got hustled for 3 shots of Tequila.
Later on, we were sitting at a local bar, drinking a couple of beers at a table on the sidewalk. Poor Cambodian children were running up and down the street trying to sell woven bracelets that they were carrying on clothes hangers. We politely said ‘no’ to them and they continued on their way. One boy, after trying and failing to sell bracelets to everyone in sight, came back over to our table and plopped himself down in the seat across from us, exhausted.
We asked him what his name was. He replied that his name was (or translated to) Snake. That’s an unusual name so I asked about the significance of it. He shrugged, saying that his ‘mama’ must have just liked the name. He asked where we were from. We told him America and reciprocated the question. “I came from my mama” he said with a grin. I asked if he had sold any bracelets this evening and he shook his head, sadly.
We had been talking to him for a while at this point (his English was very good for a 10-year-old) so I decided to buy a bracelet from him. I asked him if he had made all the bracelets and he told us that his ‘mama’ had made them while he was at school. But of the tangled mess of bracelets on his clothes hanger, there was one in particular that was of his own making. He knew exactly which one it was too. He sorted through his inventory and quickly found his creation.
I was a bit fuzzy on the exchange rate between the U.S. Dollar and the Cambodian Riel so I took a selection of small bills out of my wallet and offered them to him in exchange for the bracelet. He looked frustrated.
“I can’t buy anything with that! I can’t even buy food!”
That’s a pretty real complaint. I laughed and quickly re-did the math of the currency conversion in my head. I'm not good at doing math in my head. It was true; this was a pretty pitiful amount of money. So I upped my offer. He begrudgingly agreed and then unwound his clothes hanger with a smile. I gave him the money, he gave me his bracelet, and then he ran off to find his friends.
A few minutes later another boy, a friend of Snake, came back to our table with a frown.
“It’s not fair. I talk to you first. You buy from him. It’s not fair.”
I had to laugh. I told him that Snake had upped his game and worked hard to make the sale. I told him he'd need to up his game too if he wanted to make the sale. My business lesson was clearly going over this kid’s head though. Oh well.
My second night out I met up with a friend of a friend, who is teaching English in Phnom Penh, for drinks. I met him at a small bar called Showbox. It was off the beaten path a little bit but I was the only ‘out-of-towner’ there. All the expats there were pretty taken aback when I suggested that Phnom Penh had a reputation of being dangerous. Paradoxically, they were flabbergasted when somebody mentioned in passing that they had recently walked home alone at night. So take from that what you will.
The National Museum of Cambodia
Although it was a beautiful building, it was pretty freaking boring (in my opinion). It had some cool, old things in it, but almost none of them had much explanation attached to them. Without any kind of explanation or context, this is really just a big pretty building full of old rocks. So I spent most of my time here sitting on a bench taking pictures of the birds perched up on the traditional Cambodian roof.
Phnom Penh has 3 big markets: the Central Market, the Russian Market, and the Night Market. I only visited the Central Market. It was huge. It looked like an old train station. Surrounding it is a maze of plastic tarps held up by poles and shoots of bamboo giving shop owners shelter from the hot sun. Like every Asian market, I think the most interesting part is the seafood. Walking through this section of any market in Asia you will pass by all manner of exotic sea life, rarely seen packed in ice in the West.
It would have been cool, but unfortunately some of us weren't dressed appropriately and we were denied entry. FYI - even though it will almost certainly be hotter than hell outside, shorts and tank tops are banned for all entrants. It is irreverent in local culture to enter holy places dressed so lewdly. If we had gotten past the bouncer though, we supposedly would have seen a giant Buddha with 9,000 diamonds. But as fate would have it, he was the Buddha that got away.
Phnom Penh is definitely an interesting place but after 9 months in Southeast Asia, I didn't find the city itself to be particularly enriching. (The history of the city is another story.) I could certainly see how living there as a teacher would be similar to my current situation in Hanoi, but I think Hanoi is much more interesting. It's worth a visit, but I don't plan on going back.
Up next: The Killing Fields