The hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh is enough to make your head spin. The streets are lined with restaurants, bars, and stores. Sidewalks are jam-packed with parked scooters, street venders, tuk tuk drivers, and trash.
The locals turn the simple two lane roads into complex, eight lane, highways. Where the direction of travel isn’t necessarily determined by a particular side of the street (left or right). Instead vehicles utilize any portion of the street they feel will expedite their travel. Creating a daunting ballet of interweaving oncoming traffic. Most intersections are not regulated by traffic lights or stop signs, but rather the momentum of pure numbers. Once there is enough build up of vehicles going the same direction a move is made to disrupt the crossing traffic. The majority of the counter moving traffic yields as the contesting directional change creates its own dominating flow. While a few anxious scooters try to squeeze through the moving wall of steel, creating a chorus of blaring horns and looks of displeasure. The only clear traffic rule I noticed is the universal acceptance that there are in fact no traffic rules. This leaves little room for the unaware tourist to become complacent when attempting to cross the street. Causing a fast paced head swivel that leaves you looking like a member of a tennis crowd watching a match at 8 times regular speed.
As with any major South East Asian city, the tuk tuk drivers are out in full force. This occasionally convenient mode of transportation is stained with the poor reputation created by its often scandalous drivers. Anyone who has had the ‘luxury’ of climbing into the back of one of these three-wheeled taxis at least once, more than likely has been ripped off, at least once. We have had several frustrating interactions with tuk tuk drivers and now try to avoid them at all costs. However, occasionally we find ourselves knee-deep in the verbal bullshit that spews out of the mouth of a tuk tuk driver (Case in point).
Our time in Battambong had us thirsting for some of the big city amenities that Phnom Penh could provide. During one of our many walks to the various malls and markets (Central Market/Russian Market/ City Mall / Soraya Mall / Supermarket Mall / etc) we managed to stumble across a liquar store that was slangging Jack Daniels at ridiculously low prices. A litre for $18 and 1.75 for only $28! A few hugs later, an address exchange (for Christmas card purposes), and we were off to (pre)drink away our failed attempt to find Sally a single piece of new wardrobe. (We finally found Sally ONE new shirt after more then 8 hours of shopping and 5+ different malls/markets.)
Being the budget conscious travelers that we are, we ensured our level of intoxication was at an acceptable level prior to venturing out to the plethora of bars along the river front. We visited the highly recommended FCC Bar (Foreign Correspondence Club) and found the crowd and the view of the water front quite pleasing. Unfortunately they had a price tag to match the quality of atmosphere they were providing and a simple addition on the fingers (and a couple of toes) had us realizing we wouldn’t be able to sustain our desired level of ‘entertainment’ for much longer if we decided to stay.
An online guide to the city recommended the bar across the street for the more ‘budget travelers’. However, the fifty cent difference to FCC still had us paying about a dollar more than the favored price of the dive bar establishments that have become our wheelhouse while traveling.
A few hours of drinking and a happy pizza later and we were in search of something a little more lively than the river front bar scene. We managed to find a club a few blocks from our guesthouse and noted there wasn’t a single foreigner in sight. This is usually a good sign if in search of a lower price point on drinks (Also, as we found out later, a bad sign if in search of good music). We were waved through security without being searched. Which made me feel a bit silly for thrusting my hands into the sky and spreading my legs. But it gave Sally and I a good laugh as we made our way through the front doors of the club. Our suspicions were confirmed as we did a slow scan of the dark club. Not a single tourist in sight. This was something that we were not alone in noticing. The entire crew from the bar came rushing toward us, pulling our chairs out, quickly grabbing us drinks, and complementary peanuts. The whole event happened with the speed of a NASCAR pit stop (Non Athletic Sport Centered Around Rednecks). We awkwardly looked around to see that no one else was getting this kind of attention. A simple shrug and smile to one another silently confirmed that would definitely being staying for more than one drink.
As our eyes started to adjust to the darkly lit club, we began better observing our surroundings. To our surprise this club seemed to be a family affair. Several different families had posted up at the large booth tables that surrounded the dance floor. They had everyone from little tiny Tim playing with his truck on the floor to Mrs. Daisy throwing bones on the dance floor. A few songs later the realization was reached that if we were waiting for a song we knew or felt we could dance to, we would still be in our seats when the closing lights came on.
We finally built up the ‘courage’, said fuck it, and made our way out to the dance floor. In less than 45 seconds grandma gangsta had practically danced her way right between Sally and I. With a huge smile and a quick twist of the hips she edged Sally out of the equation. Not to worry, Sally didn’t have to wait long before one of the thirty something aunts made her way over and kept her on the dance floor. I was pretty sure the awkwardness had reached its apex, but I was unfortunately mistaken. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a twenty year old dude quickly dancing toward our direction. I can’t be sure but I believe I saw him do the ‘reeling in the fish’ dance. I am comfortable with my marriage and as long as he minded his manners I wouldn’t object to him dancing with Sally. As I glanced back toward my geriatric dance partner, Ricky Martin used the same patent ‘Cambodia Dip and Steal’ move that Mrs. Daisy had used to etch Sally out of the picture, putting me face to face with the flamboyant Cambodian member of Menudo. It took me only 3 startled seconds to moon walk my way out of the uncomfortable dance off, but it was three seconds too long. Sally and I decided that dancing was finished for the night and quickly made our way back to our seats, shortly later calling it a night.
Believe it or not it isn’t just the mass amount of bars and the promise of pizza that makes you happy that drive tourists to Phnom Penh. This river city capital of Cambodia harbors the wounds of the tragic and recent history of the Khmer Rouge. There are some things that happen in this world that do more than touch the part of your brain that sympathizes with tragedy. They actually pull at the very humanity that is a part of every human soul, leaving you speechless and bewildered that an atrocity of this magnitude is even possible by mankind. The most widely known of these events being the systematic destruction of the Jewish population by the Nazis. Even as a young child I was confused as to how that many people could participate in such a horrific act. But I also considered it a barbaric attribute of the past. Surely something that horrific, of that magnitude, could never happen again.
It wasn’t until we actually crossed the border into Cambodia from Laos that I heard the story of the Khmer Rouge. This of course sparked the interest to visit the Genocide Museum downtown, what used to be a prison/interrogation/and torture structure for the Khmer Rouge. The museum itself is extremely underfunded and tosses the visitor right into the grim realities of what took place at the building. Very little information is shared about the Khmer Rouge itself and is mostly pictures of the tortured and the stories of the seven survivors (out of the 20,000+ that were taken to this particular prison).
Unfortunately, we didn’t time our visit correctly and missed the video that is played at the museum. We understand that it is a good source of information and should not be missed. But without the video I was disappointed in the little information I was able to extract from the exhibit, but found it moving enough to inspire some self investigational work. After a few hours clicking away on the internet I came to one conclusion – What the fuck world?
I wont bombard you with information that is better organized and presented with just a few clicks of your mouse. But I will express a few parts of the history that really blew my mind.
After the travesty that happened to the Jewish population during WWII, the U.N. held the Genocide Convention in 1948 (putting it into effect in 1951). Making it clear that acts of this nature are unacceptable and will never be allowed to happen again. However, from 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge came into power in Cambodia. They conducted social re-engineering that killed millions. Targeting intellects, past government supports/officials, suspected spies, and anyone that stood against their rule. Going as far as killing individuals for simply wearing glasses (perceived intelligence). They wanted to be a completely self-sufficient country (including medicine, causing thousands to die from simple and treatable diseases such as malaria) and pushed the population out of the cities to become forced labor on farms.
Where was the rest of the world during this rule of terror? Not only did the U.N. not get involved, they actually allowed members of the Khmer Rouge to participate in U.N. gatherings. America just finished the war in Vietnam and surely didn’t want to get involved in a similar conflict in Cambodia (even if this conflict would actually be justified). It wasn’t until Vietnam found its self exhausted with the pressure building up on their boarder that they opportunistically “aided” in the removal of the Khmer Rouge. The only problem was they became that uncle that comes home from prison and chases off the abusing boyfriend. Only to kick their feet up on the couch and treat the place like their paying the bills. This finally got the attention of the U.N. (most likely U.S. backed, as we had a sour taste in our mouth toward Vietnam) to talk Vietnam out of the country. I guess if Cambodia had been sitting on some oil fields they could have counted on better help from western cultures.
A twenty to forty minute tuk tuk ride away, you can reach the killing fields. A mass 9 mile grave site, one of an estimated 20,000. A glass shrine with eight thousand human skulls brings the reality of the fields into perspective. Sally and I chose not to visit the killing fields, feeling that the magnitude of the tragedy had set in enough for both of us and also having read that the fields can be a source of exploitation.
Begging and hawking in Cambodia is something that is unfortunately widespread. The use of children is common place and the locals stress that you should not encourage (buy from) these kids, who should be in school. You can clearly observe their enthusiasm for patrolling the streets in search of money becomes worn as the day progresses. The monotone pitch for your money runs together as they look around the restaurant with disinterest.
Kid: “You buy bracelet?”
Tourist: “No thank you.”
Kid: “Two for one”
Tourist: “No thank you”
Kid: “Three for one”
Tourist: “No thank you”
Kid: “You buy scarf”
Tourist: “No thank you”
Kid: “Good deal for you”
Tourist: “No thank you”
Kid: “You buy book about Cambodia”
Tourist: “No thank you”
Kid: “Why not, you don’t like Cambodia?”
Tourist: “Uh……….No thank you”
This will usually cause them to stare and linger for anywhere from 2 to 10 minutes. The boredom draped all over their face, as they shift from foot to foot and continue to shuffle their merchandise. Occasionally they will reach a point of frustration and or the need for entertainment and will begin to use you as their outlet.
Kid: “You are lying”
Kid: “You’re a ladyboy”
Kid “Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?”
Your sympathy is abruptly interrupted by frustration for the fact that you can’t enjoy your adult beverage in peace. Even if you can lose the interest of the little shit, you see four more making their way down the street from bar to bar.
When walking down the street yourself, it is easy enough to shake the kids peddling their bracelets and books. However, you have to step around the parents utilizing their kids as a point of pity. Each set up becoming more extreme than the one before. I felt like Pee Wee Herman driving his car down the road and watching as each of the corner street signs increase in complexity. The first having their child laid out in front of her with a cup. The next using two of her toddlers laid out on the street. Then the kids seemed to lose their cloths. Then two without cloths. The last person we passed had a girl who must have been ten years old laid across her lap completely naked. If I wouldn’t have felt like a pervert for not picking up the pace to a light jog to get passed the site, I would have stopped and tried to explain to the ‘mom’ that I think the gig is up.
Once you develop the impulsive ‘no thank you’ (maintaining your quick stride) to the kids and the tuk tuk drivers, trying not to involve yourself emotionally, life in Phnom Penh seems to get a lot easier. There are endless places to enjoy both local and western food, the bars continue to try to bring in business by dropping their prices, and the riverfront is a great place to sit and watch the world go by. At night, both tourists and locals alike make their way to the well presented sanctuary from the madness of the city. Dance crews composed of local kids compete for your attention against the over forty club who is line dancing to some local Khmer music, games of soccer, couples strolling, and the cool of the night seems to remind everyone that Phnom Penh scores pretty high when matched up against other large South East Asian cities.