Sunday, July 8, 2012

Crazy Penomh Penh

Phenom Penh is one of the few cities I've been to which I really have not taking much of a liking to whatsoever.

There are only two other places which I can even begin to relatively compare it to...Asuncion, Paraguay, and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The common factor between the three being that they seem to be on the same scale in terms of overall poverty.

PP is a dirty, dusty city. Only in the very center of the city are there paved sidewalks. That means that everywhere else, dirt, dust, and sand make up the sidewalk, which is also usually lined with small shops, of the makeshift tarp/corrugated roof kind once you have left downtown. With all the motorcyles, which seem to drive anywhere open space exists, I can see why so many people wear face masks. The feeling of being in a tuk-tuk and having a moto zoom by kicking up dust on one side, and a massive truck spew out clouds of black smoke on the other, then having to inhale the resulting mixture, is not something I desire to repeat. It’s like being in a dirt car race track with an open top.

Dusty, dusty place
Whereas in Ethiopia everyone seemed pretty poor, they did not necessarily seem desperate or unhappy. Here, it is obvious there is very little middle class and very little choice. Crossing from Vietnam to Cambodia, the number of motorcyles decreases dramatically and car traffic normalizes. In Phenom Penh, you can see Hummers, nice SUVs, Mercedes, and plenty of other fancy cars. When you are rich enough to own a car, then you are rich enough to pay someone to park it daily, wash it daily, and look over it while parked. However, you also can't walk down the street here without a young child or a mom carrying her baby and asking for money or trying to sell something. You feel guilty because you can't help everyone, but so many seem to actually need it. The corruption in this country must be staggering. I imagine bribery is the norm.

I met my friend Ryan, way back from St. Theresa days, for dinner one night. He's been here for a year or so, working with an NGO. They teach dance, spoken poetry, and classes on drugs and sex education, both of which are desperately needed. He pulled up in a loud and fast motorcycle (hey, the guy likes motorcycles). I asked him if he ever gets worried about having it stolen since it seems so much nicer than all the other bikes. He said that first of all, people would probably not know how to ride such a nice motorcycle. If they actually did know how to ride it, they would also most likely be scared of stealing it because someone that has the money to buy a nice motorcycle like that would also have the ability to hunt them down after. Thus, no worries.

Just to give an idea, the average wage of a factory worker is 30-60 USD/month. That comes with about 3 days off per month, working 10-12 hours/day (the whole apparel factory thing apparently  began in the 90s after a trade deal with the US caused apparel factories to sprout up, go figure). The average wage of a guy sitting on the street watching parked cars or motorcycles is 50 dollars/month.

I was sick and stayed in to sleep after dinner, but Ryan ended taking Mark and Dennis out to see PP at night. They ended up at a street full of bars in the center of the downtown. Here, all of the bars were full of women, 20 or 30 at each. When you sit down, 5 or 6 girls will sit down at your table. They'll do whatever it takes to make 'the sale'. Mark said one girl sat on his lap immediately and another began massaging his shoulders. The stuff the girls said to them was impressive, so I'll leave that to the imagination. But Dennis said one girl asked him for $100 for the evening. After saying they weren't there for the 'services', she made a desperate plea and offered $30. Consider again the fact that a factory worker makes $30-60/night, it all sounds like a lot of money. After a short drink, on the way out, a few of the girls asked them to take them with them and tried to cry (or actually cried, for all I know). As many of the girls are probably sold into this life and are owned by the bar, who knows how much they actually receive. Most of the bars are patronized by tourists from Europe and North America, with Cambodians and Chinese people thrown in the mix as well. I presume that Cambodia must one of the largest sex tourist destinations in the world.

Another strange thing in Cambodia is the currency. There are no coins. The US dollar is used and dispensed at ATMs. Under $1, the old Cambodian currency is used, sort of like change, but in bill form. So, if the cost of the item is 6,000 riel (which is equivalent to $1.50), you can pay $1 plus 2,000 Riel, or you can pay $2 and get 2,000 Riel in change. Sometimes, if you pay with a larger bill, you can get both USD an Riel back....a pretty strange feeling to get change in two separate currencies. Paying with a 20 and sometimes even a 10 can be tricky as it is never assured that the shop owner will have change.

As Cambodia used to be a French colony, you can still see some of influence, but it is pretty well hidden. For example, plenty of French colonial buildings exist. But since the French left, most of these buildings became occupied by wealthy people or the government, and as a result, were enclosed with large gates and walls.

The people also seem quite lackluster in regards to their status. I am sure the socialist government is strong, full of rich bureaucrats, and not going anywhere soon, but the people don't seem to show much motivation. I know there are many dynamic factors that must contribute to this, but I imagine education (or lack thereof, at least in the rural areas) is one of the problems. I was told that many of the average people are still just content with life as it is because they are not being mass murdered. Afterall, 20-30% of Cambodia's population was killed (often times hacked to death with axes and blunt objects with screams muffled by the sound of loud generators and blaring music) between 1975 and 1979 during the Khmer Rouge genocide. This was evident in our visit to one of the 'killing fields', where more than 30 years later rags and bones are still surfacing from mass graves, as rain washes dirt away from the surface.

On the plus, a few of the dishes I ate were incredible. For example, a curry soup bought from a stall at one of the local markets which was exploding with ingredients and flavors: Onions, green onions, bean sprouts, mint, curry, noodles, chicken, squid tentacles, garlic, and who knows what else. And quality grasshoppers! Most dishes were between $1-2 in markets, with a bit higher prices up to $4 in restaurants considered suitable for the average foreigners.

I found this article to be quite an interesting and informative article about this eccentric place:

Here you can shoot a bazooka!

So many street markets in Phenom Penh

A kid carrying a bag the size of her body

Bought some grasshoppers from a seller while sitting at a restaurant. Juicy ones!

You know its not a very fair system when signs for one party are EVERYWHERE in the entire country.


  1. Interesting read Nick. I never went to Cambodia, was recommended not too for the reasons you write about, it's like a crazy version of India or so I've heard.

    I believe the corruption and tyranny kills the motivation of everyone. What's the point in working if someone else take the profit because they have better connections? Better to sit still, do as little as possible and get on with life...

    Happy Travels!

  2. Great summary , Nick - thanks for sharing! I had a bus transfer at the Phnom Penh bus station and was feeling guilty for not staying and exploring the city ( our guide book called it the "Pearl of Southeast Asia"). Thanks to your post though, I now have no regrets! We did have a really nice conversation with the locals at the bus station though, so that will be our only Phnom Penh memory.


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