My original plan, for traveling down to Phnom Penh, was to take a six-hour cruise down the Tonle-Sap. Within a few hours of being in Siem Reap I learned this option wasn’t possible; apparently there were no ferries running due to the low water levels for that time of year. My next option was to use a taxi but, after getting some helpful info from a fellow traveler, I canned that idea as well. Apparently there was a stretch of road works just north of the capital causing lengthy delays in negotiating this final thirty kilometer stretch into the nation’s largest city. In the end I opted for the short, but relatively expensive, flight with Cambodian Airlines. The timing of my arrival in Pnomh Penh couldn’t have been worse; 5.30 pm on a Friday afternoon. I had a room booked at a hotel – The Lux – along the riverfront; needless to say it was a one hour patience test as the taxi weaved its way through the peak hour traffic jam.
The Lux Hotel sits just off the river front road on what is, effectively, the most economically developed swathe of tourist infrastructure in Cambodia. There is a wide, paved, tree lined walk way/concourse which hugs the river’s edge for approximately one kilometer; end to end. This is tourist central for Phnom Penh with a hodge-podge of hotels, eateries and bars crammed in along the roadside. The river front road, in many ways, is like a facade with air-conditioned restaurants, and bars, masking the grime, and poverty, a few blocks inland. No doubt with the continuing influx of tourist dollars and foreign investment things are improving rapidly but, as one wends your way through the melee of tuk-tuks, noodle stands and street crowds, behind the facade, the combination of heat, dust and refuse stench is a bit overpowering sometimes.
Day time temperatures in Phnom Penh weren’t much different to what I encountered in Siem Reap; the only saving grace being the rains had begun to cloud in the sky’s. The humidity was still thick in the atmosphere during the day and it was hardly surprising there were significantly more people out on the riverfront once the sun had set. In fact the first part of the day – up until midday at least – seemed completely uncrowded compared to the latter hours. The river front is also the location of some ornately decorated Khmer styled buildings with the National Palace, and it’s associated buildings/wats being the stand out towards the Eastern end of the concourse. As already mentioned, when the sun dips below the horizon that’s when the locals can be seen out in force along the river front. On my second night in Phnom Penh I took a leisurely stroll down towards the National Palace and came upon a frenzy of activity taking place in, and around, two small shrines/temples almost directly across the road from the grounds of the National Palace. There were what seemed like hundreds of locals – mainly woman – all trying to get there turn, at being blessed, inside one of these small buildings. It was a cacophony of noise as a bunch of traditional musicians, on a raised platform directly in front of one of the shrines, banged drums and tapped away, uninterrupted, on those wooden xylophones as dozens burned incense and joined the line into the shrine/temple. There was no indication the festivities had anything to do with Buddhism. A closer look into the building revealed no images of Buddha; just three strange looking male effigies with Zapata style mustaches as the couples worked their way inside with handfuls of lotus flowers. I found out later that these two small temples were dedicated to fertility rites; one was for woman and the other for men.
It would be easy to dismiss these festivities as an example of paganism, or the older folk religions of the region, but the fact is, when one does a small amount of research, you can see that celebrations such as these fertility rites are part of the original Brahmanical belief system of the Khmer/Angkorian civilization. This was a belief system/religion which predates the influence of Buddhism in the region and can still be seen in many of the ceremonies conducted not only in Cambodia but also in Thailand. In ceremonies performed to ensure a good harvest, to restore health, or to celebrate rites of passage (puberty, marriage, death) non-Buddhist formulae are used and beliefs are expressed that stem from the popular forms of Brahmanical religion known to have been practiced in Angkorian days. This was made abundantly clear to me during my trip up to the remote temple sites outside Siem Reap. I was fortunate enough to have a driver, Phan, who spoke good English and, during the two hour journey to the first site, we discussed a number of subjects regarding Cambodia’s troubled history; including the Preah Vihear situation.
“Well, everyone knows that Preah Vihear is a Khmer temple. You can see that if you visit there. It is Khmer design and part of our Angkorian Civilization,” said Phan assuredly.
“Yes, but it’s now on Thai territory,” I said as a counter.
“It was Cambodian land before. It’s a difficult situation but I think the Thai have too much pride. They know deep down in their heart who was the first civilization, the mother culture, but they don’t want to admit it. If you look at Thai language it has many letters the same as Cambodian language. In fact, we can read Thai but they cannot read Cambodian. Also, about Thai dancing; that is just a copy of Apsara dancing from Khmer. One thousand years ago the Angkorian Empire included all of what is now Siam or Thailand. The Khmer culture has influenced the region very much about religion, art and local beliefs.”
From what I’d seen, during my relatively short stay in Cambodia, I think Phan had a point. Like most other parts of the world the story of historical evolvement of newer civilizations is simply about borrowing portions, from older neighboring ones, and then adapting them to conform to one’s own requirements. A quick check on Wikipedia revealed that, as Phan had stated, the Angkorian Civilization of the tenth century completely encompassed the land area which would later be known as Siam/Thailand: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khmer_Empire This, of course, tends to make a mockery of Thai claims that they’ve never been colonized; they were colonized well before they became an official entity. There’s no doubt the influence of being vassalized, and subjugated, for three to four centuries had an effect in terms of cultural development; most of what is Thai was originally Khmer/Angkorian.
Over the years of living in Thailand one hears a lot of stories regarding what Cambodia was, is, or might be. A recurring theme is it’s a bit of lawless place; that it’s still the Wild West and very importantly, for many, it’s still cheap compared with Thailand. Within a few hours of being in Pnomh Penh it’s very noticeable that poverty abounds and, after a couple of days of the constant stream of limbless beggars, grimy looking mothers with infants, young book sellers, and tuk-tuk drivers, it becomes wearisome. So much so that relief is found by taking a coffee, or a meal, in one of the air-conditioned eateries along the river front; in effect, cutting yourself off from the miserable situation of some of the poor souls scrambling for an existence out on the curbside.
No doubt some foreigners revel in this situation due to the increased leverage to be found by things being cheaper. But, what is so often the case, cheap doesn’t necessarily translate into quality; most of the time it’s the reverse scenario. There is a bar scene, in two main areas in Phnom Penh. Street 136 has a strip of beer bars near to the river front road (opposite the LUX hotel). There’s also a night entertainment area along street 51 with beer bars and night clubs populated with freelance prostitutes. I’ve never really been a fan of beer bars, probably because I’m not much of a drinker but also I can’t stomach the way in which the ladies working in the bars constantly pester for drinks. The Walkabout is one of the more popular bars in Phnom Penh so I dropped by to check it out. One word would describe this bar and the ladies on offer in the premises; rough. Think of a down-market version of the Beer-Garden, in Bangkok, and you’ll get the general idea. It may be cheap but, as I’ve already stated, that doesn’t necessarily translate into good. No doubt there will be a few who think otherwise about the Walkabout. To each their own I say and if this “last Chance Saloon” environment floats your boat then fair enough; perhaps it’s not so much about the ladies but more the fact the bar is open twenty four hours a day that many find appealing. Needless to say I had one beer and departed quickly into the night.
I dropped into another bar further up the road; a bar which was quieter and being ran by an American lady in her late thirties. The place was in a state of disrepair and as she poured my beer I could only wonder what a single, western female would be doing in a place such as this. A Brit entered the bar and started talking with the American and they both did their best to make me understand I was in a travelers/backpackers bar; the inference being this bar was a better standard than the trashy, girly bars down the road. Most of what was being said between them was the same type of conversation I’d overheard, many times over, between foreigners scrambling to eke out an existence in tourist areas of this part of the world. I’d heard the same lines of dialogue in Phuket, Pattaya and Bangkok and there was a boring repetitiveness to it all; new ideas to generate more cash flow, what the competition was up to, the latest scams by the local constabulary, and the next visa run, etc.., etc.. It’s seems, for expats, Cambodia is no different to Thailand in this regard; it’s just there’s less money about.
My final full day in Cambodia’s capital was going to a busy one with a trip to the killing fields in the morning followed by a drive, thirty seven kilometers to the west of the city, to the well regarded temple complex of Oudong. I woke early and by nine am I was getting an up close look at the outer suburbs of Phnom Penh from the tuk-tuk I’d hired for the round trip. As I’ve already mentioned, the river front tourist area is a facade. A couple of hundred meters back into the chaotic streets and one can easily see the place is very much third world. As the driver weaved his way through the traffic mayhem the thought crossed my mind that a tuk-tuk may not have been the best option health wise. At times the exhaust fumes, and dust, was choking. The number of new SUV’s on the road indicated there is wealth in Cambodia but, as a number of people pointed out to me, most of it ends up with the small minority at the top of the pyramid. Apparently Cambodia (along with Burma) is the country with the greatest economic disparity in the Asean region. While a very small fraction of the population become ultra-rich, the majority are doing it tough. Which, in a way, is history just repeating itself all over again? The horrors of the Khmer Rouge rule have been well documented and no justification could ever be found for their reign of terror and murder. However, as with all “peoples” revolutions there are initiating, or motivating, factors which allow despots such as Pol Pot, and their associated Politik, to rise to prominence and, dare we say it, popularity. As it was in Russia, and China, one of the prime motivating factors of these “people’s parties” was the idea that the ruling elite, or the wealthy classes, were living a life of decadence completely out of touch with the hungry masses. Simply put; one extreme begets another.
In some ways this is an example of a life principle that many Asian folks hold dear to their hearts; Karma. The KR wiped out the ruling elite of the country but the vacuum is quickly being filled by a rush of mainland Chinese keen to profit where opportunity exists. But the fact is that the average Cambodian doesn’t seem to mind that much or, if they do, they just don’t show it. They seem like a very patient lot. Patience, perhaps, resulting from the horrors of their recent tragic past; as if they’ve seen the worst of mankind and nothing else really surprises them. They have an ability to cope like no population I’ve encountered before. Some of the poorest street beggars look pitiful but they still seem upbeat; even though their situation maybe dire and they’re treated like cattle by their masters.
The night life scene in Phnom Penh:
NOTE: I’ve never been much of a bar hopper but from time to time its nice to be able to enjoy a cold beer after a full day of sightseeing or travel. For those who are interested, the following is a short summary of some of the favoured tourist bars around Phnom Penh.
Cambodia has an odd financial system in place which, when one considers the benefits of currency stability, is quite clever. All financial transactions in the country are done in USD. The prices of everything is quoted in USD. The local currency is only used for transactions of less than one USD. Phnom Penh seems to be on a continued development uptrend. New buildings, and buildings under construction dot the city central landscape. The riverfront area is the main tourist area and as such is more expensive than the hotels, restaurants and bars further back. An indication of a move into a more upscale offering along the riverfront road is the recent establishment of a branch of Oskars Wine Bar and Bistro. The same organisation as the successful one on Sukhumvit Soi 11, Bangkok.
Further in from the riverfront area, and set along streets 172 & 174 is a bar/restaurant/nightlife area which caters predominantly to longer term expats and those who are looking for cheaper offerings. There seems to be a bit of an eclectic mix of bars available to nightly imbibers. From the upscale Ming’s Bar and Bistro, which caters to moneyed up expats and business people, to the street side bars along Soi 51 with its gathering of down and out foreigners. The focal point for this expat area seems to be the area around the intersection of Street 172 and Street 51. It’s a busy crossroads with a host of tuk-tuk boys always in attendance to harass you for a fare and a conglomeration of beer bars and “hole in the wall” type bars to choose from. A hundred meters or so along from this frenetic crossroad, on Street 51, is the hangout for the down and out expats in Phnom Penh; Soriya Mall. According to a friend who’s spent a bit of time in Phnom Penh, the M.O. for the farang (foreigner) crowd that hangout here is to spend all day and night knocking back cheap beer and if they feel the urge there are USD 10 a pop, HIV infected hookers, hanging around to avail themselves of.
There’s also number of girlie/hostess bars in the area, which includes a swathe of bars along street 136. The Pick of the bars for expat crowd appear to be the Shanghai Bar (on the corner of Street 172 and Street 51), the Phnom Penh Hilton (on Street 136), and the Pontoon Night Club (on Street 172). The drink prices compared with the riverfront are quite a bit lower with local draught – Cambodia, Anchor, and Angkor – going for USD 1 – 2 a half pint. For hard core drinkers, it’s a paradise.
After doing a bar crawl with a resident expat I was pleasantly surprised at the friendly and less mercenary manner of the ladies. It seemed to be a throwback to an earlier time in Thailand (perhaps 15 years ago) where the girls would give you a back massage and a cuddle prior to hitting you up for a drink. Out along the street things are still a bit third worldish, with poverty and grime very much in evidence. While drinking at a street side bar one evening I encountered a number of foreigners who had slipped into such dire situations, I didn’t even want to consider how they ended up that way. A couple of blokes sitting a few meters away were puffing constantly on local weed and looked so far out of it, one could only think there was no way back from the black hole they were dropping into. Another, a likable French chap, was busted flat broke and regaling me of his efforts to get paid for doing a USD 15 a day job. He had no money and was looking at sleeping on the street for the night. For the life of me I couldn’t comprehend how he’d allowed himself to slide into this kind of situation. Before things get so dire, why not just go back to his home country?
On Street 172, and not far from the intersection of Street 51, is the ALL SPORTS BAR; the newest and arguably the best sports bar in Phnom Penh. The bar has been created in a large warehouse building. It is large and spacious and with 22 TV screens spread throughout two levels and it provides plenty of options for punters to watch their preferred sport. Whether it’s the EPL, NRL, AFL, NFL, F1, or the rugby, Dusty the manager will have a screen available even when things get a bit crowded. The food is great and the English breakfasts are currently the best in town.
Apparently, the FOREIGN CORRESPONDENTS CLUB was the chosen watering hole for journalists covering the Vietnam War and the activities of the Khmer Rouge in the lead up to the 1975 communist takeover. The only evidence of this these days is the historical black and white photos on the walls. The foreign correspondents are nowhere to be scene. Still, not a bad spot for a sun-downer or two over the Tonle Sap. The open walled area giving a view of the waterway creates a nice feel, sort of like half outdoors. Worth a look for a cold pint and a pizza.
The SHANGHAI BAR IS One of the bigger air-conditioned bars in Phnom Penh and is situated on the intersection of Street 172 and 51. It serves local beer for USD 1.50 a half pint during happy hour and seems to be one of the popular spots for the expat crowd to gather for early evening warm-up drinks. The bar has a lot of local girls working in the bar as hostesses. The Shanghai Bar serves pub food of a reasonable standard and play background music at a volume which is low enough to be able to have a conversation.