Phnom Penh Part 1: Paint the Town Rouge

Cambodia is like the teen starlet who has just been discovered by an adoring public: everyone wants something from her, but not everyone wants what is best for her. — Lonely Planet Travel Guide


Evidently, this teen starlet has a laid-back, pot-smoking grandmother, and her name is Phnom Penh.

It was a spur of the moment thing, my going to Cambodia’s capital — which, by the way, is named after Grandmother Penh, a wealthy lady who built a Buddhist temple — to visit Justin, now a reporter for an English-language newspaper there.

Happy Pizza, the main ganja-spiced delicacy.  (Anthony Bourdain says it cures glaucoma.)

I went with just US$38 in my pocket, all in small denominations.  I somehow survived those four days thanks to Justin, who lent me a room at his palatial third-floor apartment and spotted me for meals and many moto drives.

Cambodians accept the dollar and give riel in change. You can pay in both currencies. This seemed so strange to me throughout my trip and learned later that they use American currency because it had been more stable than the riel in the early days, as the country was just re-establishing itself after 20 years of genocide, and UN peacekeepers washed the capital with dollars as they monitored the nation’s first general elections and the drafting of a new charter.

A counterfeit bill we found on the street. Someone had seemingly burned it to see if it was real. Benjamins burn orange.

I was shuttled from the airport by Mr. B, Justin’s personal moto driver, who spoke impeccable English and joked that he had a Ph.D. in driving. Justin says he can also be counted on to act as a real-estate agent, sniffing out good deals on apartments, and as a personal grocery shopper.

Moto rides typically cost US$1 for short distances and US$3 for long ones. It helps to ask how much they will charge you before you get on the bike, because they might hike up the price after the fact. Many of them also come from villages and slum it out for a few days in unfamiliar territory to earn some money, and are thus prone to getting lost on the way. The house or lot numbers are a puzzle enough, not appearing in order on any given street.

Drivers are required by law to wear a helmet, but passengers are not.
I get welcomed to his joint.

Traffic rules here are only suggestions, with virtually no traffic lights, pedestrian crossings or road signs to guide the wayward driver. Jaywalking is common, and cars usually veer away from you anyway if you’re standing in the middle of the street. Still, there are very few cars or motorcycles around the city, which probably lessens the chance of accidents. The only road mishap we encountered while there was when some guy in camouflage was distracted by my bare legs, as I straddled Mr. B’s bike, and promptly crashed into an overpass wall.

That’s me, smack in the middle of a four-way intersection, and no one gave a rat’s ass.

For lunch, we first hit a beer garden near Justin’s apartment for some soup and black pepper chicken. While I’d read that Cambodians aren’t big on dining out — indeed, save for a few party strips, you rarely see too many people out and about — beer gardens seem to be the most happening spots among locals. I believe they come here to drink and have after-work or lunchtime office powwows.

Angkor, the watery national brew. You get used to it after a while.
Sweet and Sour soup
Chicken and mushrooms

Then we took a tuktuk (motorized rickshaw) to Riverside, a district comprising a strip of bars and shops right across the Mekong River, the spiritual heart of the city. This is where the Cambodian Foreign Correspondents’ Club is located (seemingly devoid of journos and definitely less uptight than its Hong Kong counterpart) as well a row of Happy Pizza places.

As we lounged at one of the Riverside bars, watching papery old expats suspiciously cart around Cambodian children in frilly dresses, Justin drafted a plan of action for my birthday the next day, most of which we accomplished.

Mekong River promenade, where families spend Saturdays and beggars ask for spare change.
The tuktuk (US$2 for three people, they’ll charge you extra if you’re hefty). Tour guide tuktuks can bring you to the Killing Fields, S-21 torture chambers and Royal Palace for around US$10.
Egg Rolls

We hit the markets that evening, which are all like any old wet market you can find in the Philippines. If you’re living on the cheap, this is probably your best bet for extremely cheap seafood, usually grilled or fried (US$2 or less).

We also met up with Justin’s friend Olga (who was once in the US Navy!) from LanguageCorps, an English-teaching training program for expatriates. Every other person I met during my trip was either an English teacher or an engineer. Despite pre-gaming on tequilas and much, much later, downing successive shots at a popular dive called The Drunken Sponge, our English skills would remain perfect — if a bit slurry.

I kept lunging over the counter to hug Martin, the British bartender at Sponge and the friendliest barman I have ever met so far. He even gave me free Jagerbombs for my birthday. After chugging this down, my next memory was waking up the next day in Justin’s apartment.

That’s me, harassing good-natured Martin.

Apparently I had blacked out in the wee hours of the morning and wasn’t fully conscious when: I tore up the dance floor at a bar called Heart of Darkness (yes, the Joseph Conrad reference is intentional), smashed a glass of whiskey Coke as part of my repertoire, left my bag at the bar such that my friends had to come back for it and moseyed back to the Drunken Sponge for more alcohol. I also made out with the toilet. So I turned 25 pretty much the way I always wanted — shielded from the harsh reality of aging alone in a foreign land but grateful to be exploring a new part of Asia.

Next: Keeping It Riel

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