Stuck in room in Phenom Penh, Choeng Ek, an opera singer and a man dressed like a lady dances on a bar

Exiting the Capitol guesthouse is usually a problem. The tuk tuk drivers actually run at you. Sometimes they’ll spot you coming down the open staircase and they’ll run to be the first to get to you. They did this each time the bus stopped on the way from Siem Reap. The driver would pull in somewhere to let someone off and the tuk tuk men are running alongside, three or four of them in a tuk tuk driver sprint race to the door. Whoever gets off is presented with a choice of drivers, or they may choose to just walk like we told one of them we were going to do down to the Mekong.
Wow, he said. Wow, in wonder that we’d walk for a mile or so. I told him we wanted to see his city. Wow he said.
You really do run the gauntlet when you leave the guesthouse. There is usually at least two men. Tuk tuk sir! Tuk tuk sir! No thankyou and a big smile usually works but then there will be drivers every two minutes or so. Tuk tuk sir!
I’ve got a face for it now. Head down and try to look like you know where you’re going, but not head down too much, I mean you have to stay alert because otherwise you will fall down a broken drain cover, or fall over a moto on the footpath, or a seller at a noodle shop, or in fact any manner of obstacles. Or you might pierce your skull on the tubular metal frame of any of the overhead canopies, which are all at about head height for me.
Crossing the road is something we hadn’t done when we first got here last week and waited for the bus to Siem Reap. It will be necessary if you’re going to stay in Phenom Penh for a few days though and you will need some tuition.
Back home there seems to be some kind of order to the traffic. There are traffic lights and a sense of self preservation. Here there is none. Nope, none at all. The traffic drives on the right, generally, this being an old French colony, although there are exceptions that you should be aware of. I say be aware of but actually you need to be prepared for any vehicle to be coming at you from anywhere and at any time, because they will.
The technique is to step out into the road and rely on the motos to not hit you, but look both ways because although they drive on the right, there will be motos coming the wrong way in the kerb. There’s no point standing waiting for the traffic to ease, because by then you will have missed breakfast and probably dinner too. It’s relentless, a none stop stream of motos with inches between them. No sensible stopping distance, no room for error, no thinking distance, there’s literally inches tire to tire and bikes weaving through like a cloud of gnats. We saw a man with his wife on the back, riding with one hand and holding a baby with the other in all this chaos. It’s terrifying. We’ve also seen a family of six on one scooter. 
If a rider wishes to join the flow, there’s no thought of indicating, no looking over the shoulder and waiting for a gap, they just go and it’s the responsibility of the other road users to avoid hitting him. You must do the same thing in order to cross the traffic, step off the kerb and trust that the bikes will avoid you. All this is happening in a massive riot of bike horns and car horns and little squeaky horns tooted by people pushing handcarts through this madness. The noise of the city comes to an almost abrupt stop at about eleven o’clock at night when the constant background of roar and horns just seems to come to a halt, although last night this left us with some loud music from somewhere nearby.
Tonight on the way back from eating we were avoided by a young girl on a bike, but only by about six inches maybe. So close that we felt the breeze from her bike as she sped past.


An old lady in Jimjams chinwags with a policeman in the cafe below the guesthouse

We’ve been in Phenom Penh for six nights now, for the last two we’ve been stuck in the room because Nel has some kind of bladder infection. We had intended to be here until our Vietnam visa was sorted, which takes three days. Our Cambodia visa runs out in two days so we have to leave but at the moment we’re confined to our room with as much medicine and self prescribed antibiotics that I could find. There are many travel agents who you can give your passport to, pay the dollars, and then get your passport returned to you with the visa in it. It’s a bit unnerving, giving your passport to a travel agent but we’d heard that going to the consulate can be a real hassle and frustration of hanging about and it’s actually cheaper to pay someone else to do it for you. They plobly don’t have to hang about. Asia is weird like that.


More traffic, there’s nothing else to take pictures of

Phenom Penh is almost impossible to not get lost in. It’s easy enough to go straight down to the river and then navigate your way back by going straight back up, but try a side street and you are lost immediately in a flow of motos and pyjamas, street stalls and densely parked cars on the pavements. It is, more often than not, impossible to walk on the pavement, and I don’t mean it’s a bit difficult, it is often impossible. Often there are cars and 4X4’s leaving far less room that you need to pass, or literally two hundred bikes with literally inches between them.
We have a city map, but there’s generally not enough light to read it.
There is an area of western bars but we’re nowhere near it and every side street and every corner looks the same. I’ve had to go to fetch a takeout the last couple of nights.
The first time I got lost a man on a moto offered me a ride so I told him where I wanted to go and agreed two dollars. As it happened he didn’t have a clue and headed to where the tuk tuks park up to ask someone. I don’t even think he was a taxi driver. It took a while but we got somewhere near and I asked to stop, gave him two dollars, laughed and asked him if he was really a driver. He just laughed back, I think he knew what I was saying.
Yesterday I got myself hopelessly lost. I got to where the pizza place was meant to be but it must have closed down a while ago. It was on the way back I took a wrong turn, and then another one, and a couple more until I was back where I’d started. Brilliant. I don’t have a great sense of direction anyway but Nel’s usually pretty good and she’s got lost just as often, before our confinement to the room.
By the time I got back to the guesthouse my t shirt was soaked through, my hair was wet and I still hadn’t got any food. Not a fun night, had to find another pizza takeout which was a good distance away, and get a tuk tuk down there. After changing my shirt.

The other day, before Nel got ill, we went to the killing fields. The Killing Fields.
That doesn’t sound right to me, I’d rather call it by its official title, the Choeung Ek Genocide Centre and Museum. Killing fields sounds too Hollywood and to my mind detracts from the solemnity of the place. We even saw it listed as one of Phenom Penh’s major tourist attractions. Attraction? I had huge misgivings about going to see the place, after having done some reading about the Khmer Rouge. Can you really call a place where perhaps twenty thousand people were murdered an attraction? No, I went there out of a sense that I should go to see the place where it happened in a very sober frame of mind, remembering that this was only one of hundreds of such sites throughout Cambodia where people were worked to death or murdered for having soft hands, or wearing glasses, or speaking a foreign language, or not being a peasant, not that peasants were spared. Not even for having an opposing political philosophy in Pol Pot and the other Brothers utterly deranged regime.
There’s a glass monument full of skulls and clothes and teeth and there are bits of bone in the soil where you walk. There are signposts telling you what happened there, where the trucks came in, where loudspeakers were hung in trees playing revolution songs loud enough to drown out the sound of people being beaten to death with farm implements. Where 166 beheaded soldiers were found.
And all around villagers going about their business.
A new building going up, a kid rowing a little fishing boat in the pond, a little street vendors shack by the road on the way in, it’s weird.
All of the white people there were deeply affected, listening to the headsets you are given that takes you around.
I’m still not sure that I’m glad I went, it felt like a duty to go, something you ought to see to go and bow your head and pay respect and think about things. About how many members of the former Khmer Rouge are now in government and very very wealthy while most Cambodians are very very poor. The same Khmer Rouge that closed schools and evacuated hospitals and banned money and turned back the clock literally to year zero.
You can sit in the cafe downstairs here where old toothless women beg you for a few Riel and count the number of 4X4 Lexus that drive by.

The city itself is set out in a grid, which you might think would make navigation quite easy, but the street numbers are not always consecutive and there’s never enough light to see the bloody map when you’re out at night. I think I may have already said that.
The buildings are French colonial and tall, about four or five storeys. Christ knows how many people live in each of them but looking out of our room window, you’ll often see some old man sat on the rail around a balcony seventy or eighty feet up, swinging his legs about like tippy, unbalancing counter weights. They really seem to have no sensitivity to peril and no sense of self preservation. It’s hard to believe they’re all mad. It makes you  wonder if recklessness might be a cultural trait, perhaps they’re just not scared of anything.

Happily Nel is feeling better today and hopefully we’ll be ready to leave for Saigon tomorrow morning. Phenom Penh has its charms, and, apart from the areas that are taken over by tourism is like I’d imagined an oriental city might be. But then there’s a Russian market and a Latin quarter so I spose the western part isn’t so incongruous, specially considering that it was a French dependency for so long.
Friday night we went exploring and came across the Opera Cafe, owned by an Italian man. There was a sign outside that said there was live jazz later so we hung about.
Turned out the Italian was a pretty good pianist and he accompanied a Japanese opera singer.
So there we were, listening to an opera singer in full histrionic, quivering mouth mode. Her bosom would have been heaving had she not been so skinny.
She was very good though and, unlikely as it seems on a sweaty evening in Phenom Penh, she was very much appreciated.
I looked across the road and there was a drag artist dancing on a bar to some music we couldn’t hear. More Asian incongruity.


2 thoughts on “Stuck in room in Phenom Penh, Choeng Ek, an opera singer and a man dressed like a lady dances on a bar

  1. I like your writing, Andy. Really brings memories of Cambodia back clearly.

    By the way, it’s really easy to get your visa from the Vietnamese consulate, in my experience anyway. I walked in, filled out a simple form, 5 mins later done and they said come back tomorrow, no worries, everything sorted. These travel agents who do it for you are dodgy, I reckon, and just there to make a commission (of course).

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