Flying into Phnom Penh on Jetstar airways from Singapore we passed over a dry, flat, barren farmland, before hitting the low-rise, dusty looking outskirts of the city; houses bunched together around the occasional monstrous seemingly out-of-place skyscraper , the grid of roads, the winding, mighty Mekong….a smooth landing. Would it be a smooth trip? The first time I came in Christmas 2004 with Alex. A dark trip, dark tourism highlighting the Khmer Rouge atrocities, S-21, the Killing Fields, the Russian Market, the man with no face, the poverty, the street kids threatening you with rocks if you didn’t buy something from their mobile kiosks….and of course the tsunami that boxing day. It didn’t exactly leave a pleasant taste in the mouth. I’ve been twice since then….and the city has been progressing, little by little, and – dare I say it – the riverside is in a period of gentrification. The roads behind the riverside? Well, that’s another story.
Cambodia seems to attract the worse kind of tourist
I had an E-visa which I’d bought for $40, so avoided the lengthy queues for Visa on Arrival. Veronica and I eased through immigration. The characters coming into the country were many. Africans, all gold chains, big and brash, ageing Englishmen looking shifty and seedy and dressed in clothes too young and trendy for their wrinkled old booze-wracked bodies; pumped up Europeans showing off too much muscle, full of tattoos; hippies trying to look as deliberately dishevelled as possible and disguise posh upper-class accents; dirty old men on a pleasure trip….the ‘white-hairs’ as I called them seem to have taken over the insalubrious side-streets of the city. Cambodia, with its lax visa restrictions, open-door policy, and lawless reputation, seems to attract the worst kind of tourist – the parasites, the scum-bags, the ne’er do wells, the kind of trash that has long fallen out of favour in their home country….and here in Cambodia they could find a place with welcoming smiles, a gentle people easy taken advantage of, a place to be treated with courtesy and respect, to ride motorbikes without helmets, wear shorts and shirts and flip-flops everyday, take young and beautiful ladies the likes of which are normally a distant fantasy for a pittance…yes, Cambodia is the place to go to escape into whatever drug, drink, or whoring fairytale you wish. And plenty seem to be doing it.
...at first glance you think no kind of social order exists…
We got a taxi to ‘Street 184’ (It’s very important to know street numbers here – street names aren’t understood) through chaotic, life-on-the-streets, messy third-world scenes, places where at first glance you think surely no kind of social order exists, but a closer look will reveal a sense of order, a tapestry of social conventions – family dinners at roadside food shacks, laundry drying in alleys, the rule of ‘keep moving’ in the traffic.
Secret Villa Boutique Hotel
We arrived at our hotel – Secret Villa (http://www.secret-villa.com/)- an oasis of calm in the middle of the mess, the chaotic streets outside not visible and seldom heard. The place boasts rich green foliage, a nice little swimming pool (more fit for the tethered swimming of a dog than for people but never mind), a lobby full of art hangings and comfy sofas, and beautiful large rooms, minimalist and trendy. The staff were lovely, and, like the young chap at reception, seemingly born into servitude – for they are the type that only seem happy as submissives, only joy can be gained from bowing to the demands of the dominant and greedy Western tourists. Or maybe they were just trying to get a nice review on Trip Advisor.
We quickly booked a sunset buffet dinner cruise and then had 45 minutes to wander around before the pick up, so we headed down 184 street the 3 blocks to Royal Palace, which was closed. But, outside in the flowery square, hundreds of people were playing, laying down having a picnic, buying ice-cream from the retro ice-cream van. The backdrop was the mighty Mekong river. It was a gay, very cheerful scene, sunny and bright, and a perfect start to help rid the dark energy I associated with Phnom Penh,
The Cambo Cruise
We would enjoy this scene the next day at a more leisurely pace, but now we needed to head back to the hotel for the pick-up to the boat launches. We caught the Cambo cruise (http://www.cambocruise.com/en/) , one of many companies that operate boats here. From afar it looked like a dilapidated old wooden shed, but it was nice enough when we were on it – not luxury by any means, but that didn’t matter as long as it floated. We pulled away down the river and supped our welcome drink, a colourful and rather strong drink imaginatively called the ‘Sunset Cocktail.’ It was peaceful, and, though Phnom Penh is hardly the world’s most exciting skyline, it was still quite beautiful as we cruised slowly down the river with a traditional music performance providing the soft soundtrack. Just a few hours ago I was in Singapore, now here I was supping a drink watching the sun go down over the Mekong river in Cambodia.
The other people on the boat were a mix of characters….
We had a simple buffet meal of fresh spicy spring rolls with fish sauce, BBQ pork, rice and vegetables. The other people on the boat were a mix of characters. There was a young American couple who said “thank you so much” to everybody at any opportunity, as though this was their way of dealing with persistent hawking and begging on a 6-month tour of Asia. A small group of older men supping beer. Behind us was a South African guy, an expat here, and his Cambodian (boy?) friend, who didn’t say a word as the South African spent the whole trip moaning about the medical costs his sick mother was incurring. Finally, a family from Australia, husband and wife, and their three blonde-haired daughters, between 8 and 14 years old I imagine. The girls were dancing to the traditional music in that hopelessly out of synch dance only English and Australians can achieve, and they were clearly having a lot of fun. They’d borrowed Dad’s camera, and were busy twirling around and snapping photos. When they gave it back to Dad, and he checked the photos, all hell broke loose. “You fucking little shit – you’re never having anything of mine ever again as long as you live. I’m going to fucking throw this camera into the water for all it’s worth now you fucking little shit” spat Dad, rather unreasonably, at his 8-year old daughter. All were quiet, including the wife. No doubt Dad’s sharp tongue was something they’d had to endure before. It transpired that the daughter had accidentally deleted all the photos from the camera. “Even the photos we took in Japan….you horrible little fuck.” Dad said it at least 10 times, childishly threatening them with: “even when you’re 55 you’re never getting anything of mine you little shit!” He was almost imploding he was trying so hard to contain his venom. He was keeping some control of his temper though, seeing as though he was on a boat in public. Behind closed doors, fists would surely fly. And so the cheerful memories of a merry dance, pleasant reflections of a boat trip on the Mekong, for this family at least, would forever be ruined.
Even the colonial relic that is the FCC was looking bright, cheerful, optimistic…
We got back after witnessing a glorious sunset – with a sun so huge it looked as though another planet was about to land on Phnom Penh. We caught a tuk-tuk back to the hotel for $2.50, where we freshened up before heading back out and to the riverside and the FCC (http://fcccambodia.com/) for a drink. Ah! The FCC! This place brought back memories. I first came in 2004. Then, Phnom Penh was a dark and very uninviting place, which only a Happy Herb pizza could brighten up. Now, things have changed. Even the colonical relic that is the FCC was looking bright, cheerful, optimistic. For the FCC “has been the meeting place for intrepid adventurers, locals and visitors, from around the world. FCC brings together spirited people where, in colonial settings perfect for conversation, good food and drink have always been the order of the day. And, where sharing information and telling of stories both big and small, myths have been born.” The FCC was packed tonight. Vero and I had a drink on the roof terrace, overlooking the three-storey bar / restaurant / guesthouse opposite. After enjoying a pricey (by Cambodia standards at least) drink, we wandered the length of the riverside, popping into various cafes along the way. The most interesting of these was Riverside Bistro – a bar with a 7-piece saxophone band from Europe, who were really a large group of backpackers who played professionally but dressed like….backpackers on a budget who needed money. Their appearance was a shame. They were really good, but, dressed like that, you couldn’t take them seriously.
More orderly. More pleasant. More visitable.
In every bar we sat outside looking not over the road at the river, but at the line of tuk-tuk drivers waiting for a fare. It seemed ridiculous. We were paying up to 5 dollars each a drink, and people coming out of the bars were bargaining tuk-tuk drivers down to $1 to take them home. Still, it was all a lot orderly than I remembered. The last time I was here you couldn’t get out of a bar without first battling through 30 desperate tuk-tuk drivers fighting over your fare. At least now there was an orderly queue. And that’s how Phnom Penh all seemed down here at the Riverside. More orderly. More pleasant. More visitable. After a pizza and a couple of Angkor beers (not a great beer it must be said), we left, exhausted. It had been quite a day. I gave the tuk-tuk $3.