Thor's Travel Notes


Cambodian Snippet


Thor in Cambodia 1996 : video snaps
(direct link for this video)

The taxi ride from the airport has been my first experience of Cambodia. The taxi driver was... well, no taxi driver. He was obviously a very intelligent man who spoke excellent English. He was driving a white, very late model car which MIGHT have been a taxi, but I suppose that in a town like this on the very frontier of "civilization", if you wanted to know what was coming into your territory, then the best place to plant your intelligence officers would be on an erstwhile flight greeting service. I am only supposing of course. The driver was extremely helpful for me. He gave me a kind of running commentary on landmarks and events as we traveled.

We saw the French Technical Institute, and my guide expressed some misgivings about the French agenda. Later I noticed that the only foreign language radio service was French language, and since there were only three FM stations in the city, it probably got attention at least from an older generation. My driver was dismissive: "who wants to learn French? Where can you use it?"

On the ground there were "no security problems in Cambodia" except for "a little bit of trouble up at the border". Well, that was optimism. I mentioned my old friend and flatmate, Chau Ngan, from way back in 1967-68 New Zealand student days. Poor Chau Ngan almost certainly died at the hands of the Kmer Rouge (see Heart of the Revolution). Of course, that was long before the driver's time, although he also came from Takeoville. He told me that Pnom Penh now has a population of around about one million people, which should be a nice size for a well-planned city.

The street layout of Pnom Penh is fairly orderly. There is a network of boulevards designed by the French colonialists. I have read the odd newspaper article discussing Pnom Penh as one of the few remaining French tropical cities. Well whatever charm it might have had seems to have evaporated some time ago. At the moment, it is a very dry, dusty place. Even where the roads are paved, sand is into everything. The pavements seem in a lot of places to have begun life as some kind of tiled affair, but nowadays the shards are broken, cracked, tipped any which way.

The inner city is a warren of rotten concrete structures of several stories, crawling with humanity. The shops are mostly the universal Asian shop-house style with open garage fronts. Similar traders cluster, so that six of these garage shops together might be selling electric fans, or whatever. There will be no differentiation of products or presentation. A few shops have made the effort to sweep or wash the bit of pavement in front of their establishments. A few have glass fronts, mostly Chinese merchants I think.

I traipsed around wearily for two days, another crazy foreigner, no doubt white trash since I had none of the throwaway cash, nor a flashy Landcruiser as per the United Nations circus which had comprised the invasion most recent in popular memory. In the whole of the town I found one place which would pass for a Seven-Eleven mini-supermarket, and that is obviously THE shopping center for the rich and famous here. It is down near the legation quarter. Up the top end of town, where the plebs live, there is one other air-conditioned corner which would roughly amount to the kind of "handi-mart" you find in the petrol stations of the West or Japan. There were few customers. The scene must have been too expensive for them.

The currency in circulation is a bastardized mix of American dollars for everything over $1, and below that, rials, the local funny-money which nobody really wants. This situation is probably a legacy of the United Nations bandwagon. I bought something in the Lucky Supermarket (the Seven-Eleven takeoff) which came to $4.30, paid $4, then began to fish around for the difference in rials. The checkout girl didn't even wait. In disgust, she had gone onto the next customer.

There are about four English language newspapers, of a kind, with material in them of varying quality. Two of them come out every day. It is intriguing to wonder who the customers are. One of the rags comes in both French and English versions. Inside the English version is a couple of pages of Japanese, and a couple of pages of Khmer or Thai (I'm not sure which).

When it comes to commercial law here, or any kind of law, I think that people are more or less making things up as they go along. In a very real way this place is being rebuilt from the ground up. Pol Pot's crew not only wiped out the artifacts of any kind of modernity, they destroyed the "memes", the ideas, of modernity by murdering any individual of intelligence who had enjoyed the least exposure to such contamination. Wearing spectacles was enough to get you murdered. The view of the world from inside an average Cambodian's head must be severely traumatized to say the least. Of course, a casual visitor such as myself has no direct access at all to this other world. Our observations have to be superficial.

The only real establishments you see around town with an ambiance of sophistication are the mobile phone shops. This is interesting because, fierce as their competition is, they are surely selling a service that only a very small part of this population can purchase. My impression from several newspaper articles is that you can't even get a legal mobile phone service in Cambodia at this time. The whole industry has been created on the fly by several fast moving entrepreneurs, and has the singular advantage of not needing the kind of infrastructure found in land-line telecommunications.

What do the regular locals do to establish their place in the social pecking order? Well there are vast numbers of 50cc Honda motor cycles, which go around and around and around all day, then into the evening. Most of these riders, as far as I could see, are not going anywhere in particular. After all, Pnom Penh is only a two bit town. There IS nowhere to go. How they buy the petrol is a mystery. The visible sources of urban productive wealth are virtually non-existent. You will look in vain for manufacturing industries for example. One saving grace of this armada of motor cycles is there is a speed limit of 25 km/h, which is mostly adhered to. Police enforcement of this limit is not obvious, but it seems to work, and the whole parade moves at the sedate pace of a Cambodian opera. There would be carnage if there didn't (and in not so far away Saigon, Vietnam, there IS carnage ....). Although it often looks impossible to get across the relentless tide of vehicles to the other side of the road, when things are moving at 25 kWh you can generally dodge through on foot with the kind of skills you need on a hometown soccer field.

My taxi driver acquaintance was disparaging about the Lonely Planet address I had to stay at. It is always hard to find taxi drivers who are not disparaging about LP addresses since their pimping commissions usually come from other addresses. He argued that the nominated place was too far out of town and too quiet. There was probably a certain substance to his argument in this case since the whole commercial scene has been shrinking since the United Nations packed up and went away after overseeing "democratic" elections.

There are lots of hotels in search of customers at the moment. I eventually accepted his deal, which was lodgment at a place called the Bodfar Tourist Hotel. This is opposite a vast wedding cake architectural indulgence with iron gates around it, which is almost certainly the center for most high life and low money in this city. He assured me the guests across the road paid US$200 a night. I don't know who they are, except for the usual gem smugglers, money launderers, drug lords and feuding politicians. Nor do I know why anyone with a private helicopter would drop down to the helipad, because there is a pile driver next to it, going day and night.

The big hotel, not mine, is on the river bank, for this is a river city. It sits at the confluence of the Mekong and a couple of other rivers. The Mekong is a mighty river, and here in Pnom Penh it has ocean going freighters parked alongside a couple of quays. At the city's edge a promenade runs alongside the river for two or three kilometers. Underdevelopment has kept it reasonably pleasant, almost rural, but it could be greatly improved by some big shade trees. Apart from a museum of horrors, the river must be one of Pnom Penh's few "tourist attractions", but I can think of a dozen country towns in say, NSW, Australia, with a similar river-front atmosphere.

My own hotel is adjoining an outfit that claims to have "doep" dancing every night. From the sound level, something has certainly been going on in there. Even as a tostesterone-driven twenty-something, I was never enthused about night club scenes. I've made no effort to penetrate this one.

Pol Pot's Cambodia was not exactly a tourist mecca, so maybe it is not surprising that my lodging claims to be a "new" place.New places become old places maintenance-wise pretty quickly throughout much of Asia, especially the ones that start life and end life half-finished. This example has loose bunches of exposed electrical wire hanging everywhere. Switches are parked at crazy angles on the walls. House painting was a novel activity for whoever splashed white paint across the walls, sills, windows, door jams, picture rails and floor. The wardrobe is an ersatz construction of laminex and fibre board, with the nice gesture of locks on the wardrobe doors, doors which will unfortunately not come close to closing. The brand new TV set looks promising, but someone forgot the minor matter of an aerial, so it can only manage fuzz. On the upside, both the airconditioner and fridge work, and it's passably clean. For US$15 a night I can't complain too loudly.

I had meant to get down to the museum of killing-fields horrors, an obligatory visit, but the prosaic needs of independent survival have interfered. Most of yesterday afternoon was wasted hunting through local banks, about six of them, who all politely directed me to the next bank. Evidently traveler's cheques aren't loved in a land where the rule of law is tenuous to say the least. One bank finally gambled that I wasn't a forger on the run from the FBI, and cashed in some US dollar traveler's cheques at an outrageous rate; (they looked over the Australian stuff as if it were monopoly play money ... maybe it is..). Sigh. It was already time to get out to the airport, to make the hop to Cambodia's ancient and forever enemy, Vietnam.

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* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.

"Cambodian Snippet"... copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved
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