Stickman's guide to Bangkok
Cambodia - The Wild West Of Asia
By Phil Ross
It goes without saying that there really is no substitute for Thailand but you want to try to reproduce the sanook of Thailand then your best bet is the Philippines. As you have read in other Stickman reader submissions the Philippines is cheap and the plentiful girls are almost as beautiful as their Thai counterparts. The Philippines shortcomings are a lack of culture, a lack of security and a lack of good food (unless you consider Dunkin Donuts & KFC on every corner good food).
However if you are a seasoned veteran traveller and always journey with your wits about you then you could consider an expedition to the Wild West of Asia – Cambodia.
I will state right from the outset that in my experience most travellers to Cambodia either love the place or hate the place. I can’t think of anything on earth that could prepare you for Cambodia. The extreme poverty, the corruption, the appalling history, the crime, the lack of personal safety must all be taken into account. This is mirrored against the genuine cheerfulness and happiness and friendliness of the wonderful Cambodian people who remain blissfully ignorant of their squalid position in today's modern world.
Cambodians are a simple happy-go-lucky people who have not been spoilt or tainted or corrupted by external influences. Cambodians still seem to be somewhat in awe of the Westerners who visit the country and they don’t seem as hell bent on parting you with your money as the Thais are. Certainly scams exist in Cambodia as they do right throughout Asia, but in Cambodia the scam artists are very simple and almost harmless. Besides, they are usually only trying to scam you out of $2 and you usually just have a laugh and go along with it.
Thai people smile at you whilst they think about how they can get their hands on your money. Burmese people are ruff and hardened. Laotian people are very weary of foreigners and generally shy away from direct contact; they will not look you in the eye and smile at a foreigner in the street. Cambodians however are happy to engage a foreigner at any time, they are not suspicious nor are they overly devious and deceitful. It is very easy to connect with Cambodian people and it can be very rewarding and inspiring.
Cambodia is considered to be amongst the 10 poorest economies of the world. The average wage is around a few hundred dollars per year, this equates to about 50 cents a day. The average Cambo goes around with about a dollar in his wallet. The preferred currency is the greenback. You withdraw US dollars from the few ATMs in Phnom Penh and use them to make purchases and you will receive the local Cambodian Riel currency in change. You can also obtain local currency from the multitude of dodgy money changers on the street who offer competitive exchange rates that seem to be constantly floating from hour to hour.
It is hard to spend money in Cambodia because everything is so damn cheap. Anything involving human resources such as mototaxis is ridiculously cheap; anything involving technology such as OS telephone calls can get a little pricey. The internet is available in a few limited places but it is dreadfully slow.
Cambodia has a large very fertile land mass. It is part of French Indochina and was once a colony of France. French influence can be seen everywhere. Cambodia currently has about 13 million people but this is only a guesstimate as they are too poor to conduct a census. Cambodia lost around 2 million people to famine and genocide during the four years of the Khmer Rouge (Red Army) regime in the late 70’s.
You can visit the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and S21 Toul Sleng concentration / interrogation / torture camp when you are in Cambodia but be ready for a shock. It is a real Aucwitz type of experience. True genocide only took place twice last century – during WW2 with the Natzis against the Jews / Gypsies / Homosexuals / Other undesirables and during the late 1970’s in Cambodia with the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot and his cronies were not very nice people. Pol Pot was a highly educated, intelligent ideologist but he was also a sick, warped, deranged human being hell bent on reducing Cambodia (then Kampuchea) to a Maoist inspired agricultural rural peasant society. Worse still, most countries stood around and did nothing even when they suspected what brutality the Khmer Rouge was up to. It was the evil Communist Vietnamese who finally invaded the sovereign country in 1979 to overthrow the Khmer Rouge (the UN at the time strongly condemned this action). Fortunately Pol Pot did not manage to destroy all traces of Khmer culture. I believe that anybody visiting Cambodia should have some understanding of the history of the country and if time permits, should try to visit some of the aforementioned places from the Khmer Rouge regime.
Cambodia is a society with a lot of freedom and no controls. The stability of its political structure is questionable and the corrupt politicians are more interested with bickering amongst themselves and lining their crooked pockets than actually doing any good for the country. If you get into any kind of trouble with the police or with criminals then you just pay them $2 and be on your way. You can do almost anything you want in Cambodia but you can’t go anywhere you want. Due to safety and security reasons you are advised not to leave the Phnom Penh city limits (I suppose you can technically go anywhere you want in the country but you just might not make it back).
If you think you can venture to such a lawless part of the world and be safe from harm in the knowledge that you have taken up a comprehensive travel insurance policy then you had better think again. Countries such as Cambodia and Indonesia appear on most Western governments travel advisory warning list and therefore travel insurance does not cover you in these parts of the world. You are truly on your own and the words “enter at own risk” certainly apply here.
Even the best hotels are dusty, rundown, bare and primitive so don’t step off the plane with particularly high expectations. There is a nice area down near Tonle Sap River on Sisowath Quay which attracts back packer and foreign correspondent type expats. There are many reasonable restaurants, bars and hotels in this vicinity and the locals tend to speak a fair amount of English.
Good food in Cambodia is readily available and there are lots of colorful street stalls serving all sorts of food too but I have to admit that it’s hard to beat Thailand with some of the best food available in South East Asia. And of course there is no shortage of bugs and grubs offered at street stalls and all sorts of other ghastly dishes available in Cambodia too if that is to your liking. I drink the tap water in Thailand and I have never gotten sick from it, but I would never drink the tap water in Cambodia. At 5 cents for bottled water you can’t really complain. If you don’t want the overpriced water from the mini bar then you could go outside the hotel and pay one of the zillions of moto-taxi guys hanging around 10 cents to go and get you five dozen bottles of water and that should last you for the duration of your stay.
The roads in Phnom Penh are appalling. Up until recently very few of them were sealed and driving around town was a bumpy dusty experience on pot hole ridden dirt roads. It is also a rather dangerous experience because 60% of the cars are left hand drive and 40% of the cars are right hand drive and the Cambos themselves still haven’t seemed to work out just exactly which side of the road they should be driving on. I think it that technically they should be driving on the right hand side of the road but even I am not certain of this. Phnom Penh is like one big dusty dodgem car track, but there are never many fatal accidents due to the fact that the cars and motorbikes rarely reach speeds above 40 km/h.
In Cambodia my preferred mode of transport is a Honda 250 cc dirt bike. This costs around $5 per day to hire out. In the evening I often engage the services of a moto-taxi. These are little fellows with “postie” type motor scooters who hang out in front of hotels and night spots waiting for customers. The odds are stacked against these fellows because the ratio of customers to moto taxis is definitely not in their favour. Generally you will look around for a moto taxi bloke who has some command of English and you will engage his services for the evening. You will pay him $5 to chauffeur you around for the entire evening and he will wait patiently out the front of every bar, restaurant, night club, casino whilst you are inside. He will be at your immediate service until whatever time you decide to conclude the night’s activities no matter what that time might be.
Security is your main concern in Cambodia and if you run into any problems then don’t expect justice and the rule of law to apply here. The police regularly carry machine guns but they will not come to your assistance and the rule of thumb is the rules and laws of the jungle. Common sense and precaution is your best ally. In Thailand if a fight breaks out then all the Thai guys jump in and beat up the falang for a bit of fun. In Cambodia they just shoot you. Cambodia boasts the most land mines per capita, more than any other country in the world. In the countryside you will see the skull and crossbones signs on many vacant fields. These are places you really don’t want to go. There are many people begging on street corners with missing limbs.
Unknown to many is the fact that Cambodia also boasts the most guns per capita, more than any other country in the world. In the rural provinces a Chinese made Colt 45 automatic copy can be acquired for around $200. It might be a little rusty and mightn’t shoot too straight but it will make a good souvenir to take home to the kids. Most night clubs and casinos have a metal detector at the front door and have signs posted requiring you to “Check your weapons at the cloakroom prior to entry”. These sorts of policies certainly make me feel a whole lot safer and secure when I am inside these types of establishments. Most nights when I am in my hotel bed I hear a gun shot or two. They say at night you should always get around on a motor bike or car and you should never slow down in the side alleys because everybody carries a gun and when they see your white skin they will pull you over and demand money. I must admit that it has never happened to me but a good friend of mine was pulled over in a very seedy part of the city near K11 by some dodgy Cambos on a motor bike wielding an AK47. My friend was in a taxi car at the time and the driver chose to speed off. Fortunately the Cambos chose not to shoot at the car. It’s all fun and games until somebody gets shot.
When you are not dodging bullets in Cambodia, you are dodging torrential rain. In all my travels throughout every single country of South East Asia I have never experienced rain as heavy as it is in Cambodia. You could step out of your hotel dry and run across a narrow street to the taxi on the other side and by the time you got there you would be as soaked as if you had jumped fully clothed into a swimming pool. This is why there are so many pot holes in the dusty dirt roads of Phnom Penh. Cambodia is a country you need to keep away from in the rainy season. The streets are constantly flooded out and inaccessible. And when the rain subsides for a short period, the city is just one giant mud pit. Now you can see why I always hire a dirt bike.
During the Pol Pot Khmer Rouge regime of the 70’s everybody was forcibly removed from Phnom Penh and exiled to the country side. The city was vacant for about 4 years and a great deal of its culture and heritage was wiped out by the Khmer Rouge. You will not find grand Buddha statues and ancient temples but you will find a distinctly French architectural design flavour to the buildings in Phnom Penh. You really ought to take the time to visit the amazing Angkor Wat, the temple city in the North of Cambodia. It is only accessible by plane from Phnom Penh <actually, you can take a boat trip up from Pnom Penh which is scenic and takes just a few hours - Stick>. You may recall in the early 90’s some Australian back packers were captured, ransomed and later beheaded by the Khmer Rouge. These travellers were actually taking the train from Phnom Penh to Angkor Wat. Don’t make the same mistake. Angkor Wat is one of the most significant and important Buddhist holy sites in Asia. It is what the Old City of Jerusalem is to the Christians / Jews / Muslims. You are no doubt aware of the riots that took place in Phnom Penh a year or so ago where many Thai businesses and the Thai embassy were torched because of a supposed comment by a Thai actress being reported in the Cambodian press regarding the true ownership of Angkor Wat. The new Thai embassy in Cambodia is due to reopen this month, paid for entirely by the Cambodia government. The other Thai business owners in Phnom Penh were not so lucky.
I suppose I should tell you all about the girls and the nightlife. Well prepare yourself for a bit of a shock. It’s not nearly as plentiful or as high quality as Thailand or the Philippines but it has a certain simplistic charm of its own and I think it can really be a lot of fun. The Cambo girls themselves are small and dark and not as physically appealing as the Thais or Philippinos. Cambos look almost malnourished and weak whereas Thais and Philippinos look well feed and healthy. There is also a great deal of Vietnamese girls plying the trade in Cambodia. They have their own unique look and they generally work in different red light districts to the Cambo girls. Personally I don’t go for the Viet look and I generally steer clear of the Viet areas but I have a few good friends who love the Viet girls. Each to his own.
There are no GoGo Bars in Cambodia nor are there any Pattaya style open air bars. There are lots of regular bars and discos in Phnom Penh, the most well known of which is Sharkys and the most notorious of which is Martinis. Sharkys is a bar / restaurant with some pool tables and plenty of pushy freelancers who get in your face. I don’t waste my time here very much and I have always found the supply to be in quantity but not quality (although many people will disagree with me). There are lots of new bars and clubs sprouting up all over Phnom Penh and some of them are quite trendy. I often wonder why I never see any French in Thailand and it is probably because they are all in Cambodia along with many other European nationalities. I have never seen an American in Cambodia but I did meet a crazy Kiwi once who had done a few years in a Cambo jail for drug possession (I could write an entire submission on him alone).
The infamous Martini’s is an amazing and notorious disco. It is really quite simple and basic and somewhat primitive. Beers are a couple of US dollars each and the company of girls is to be had at about US$10-$20. There is an archaic dance floor with terrible sound and lighting in a grungy shed that is in a strange sense somewhat homely and comfortable. There is an outside area with a few food stalls, a picture theatre screening movies, some arcade games in the corner and a bar area with lots of stools. There is also a revolting toilet with bugs and lizards crawling all over the walls. The putrid smell of the toilet actually wafts thru to the inside disco area and when I sit at the bar in the disco I can actually quite clearly make out the smell of urine. Some nights Martinis is really packed with girls and other nights it is really sparse with nothing to offer. I should also mention that it is difficult to get in and out of Martinis because of the multitude of deformed beggars who harass you at the front door. It is wise to carry a lot of very small change to keep them at bay. 5 cents is usually enough to keep them happy. Apart from the smell of the toilets I really love Martinis and I highly recommend it to any traveller to Cambodia.
There are numerous other bar / disco type establishments throughout Phnom Penh, many of which seem to cater to the back packers and expat community rather than the sex tourists. These types of places are trendy and somewhat modern with DJs playing current music and the patronage is both male and female Europeans. But look carefully and you will find lots of Cambo bar girls lurking around in the shadows too. It is a bit like on the Thai islands where European women don’t seem to be too put off buy the local bar girls and will in fact often engage them and have fun with them rather than treat them with disgust and avoid them. I suspect many of these European women would not interact with prostitutes in their home town but when you travel to a foreign country and foreign culture then all the rules you grew up with are out the window and you are on your own with no remorse, no responsibility and answerable to no one. What goes on the holiday stays on the holiday.
Have you ever heard of K11? This is the area with the so called 14 year old prostitutes that international human rights agencies are up in arms about. (Garry Glitter knows all about K11). K11 is a street with dodgy little neon lit shanty brothels all the way down it. It is not for the foreign market, it is generally for the locals, but a dollar is a dollar and sex tourists are welcome here if they so desire. The girls all stand out the front of the brothels under the neon lights so you can see them and the prospective Cambo male clients ride up and down the street on their motor bikes window shopping for the right girl. It really is amusing to sit down at a make shift bar on the side of the street serving beer from an esky (chilly bin to you Kiwis, ice bucket to the rest of you) and watching the bizarre social interaction techniques of the Cambos.
I have been to K11 on numerous occasions and I have witnessed all manner of strange events take place. I have seen quite a number of vicious fights between Cambo people and they have no qualms about outnumbering someone and beating them senseless. I once stood in to prevent a possible death. Life is cheap to these people and they certainly do not value it. I also saw a really violent dog fight where 4 dogs beat up another dog. This is really unusual for dogs and I thought how bizarre even the dogs gang up on each other in this country. The general prices charged by the local women in K11 are obscenely minuscule. There is something wrong with the world when the going rate for sexual services in K11 is $1 - $2. Globalization cannot come quick enough to pull these people out of poverty.
There is also another red light district for the locals named Tol Kook. This is located about 10km out of the city. I have never been there but apparently it is a smaller version of K11 and one is advised to only go there during daylight hours. This is one place you don’t want to get caught after dark with your pants down.
As I stated earlier, Phnom Penh has a large Viet prostitution contingent and they hang out in a few different areas around town. The Viet areas generally involve groups of neon lit parlour / karaoke type shops with the girls loitering around inside and outside. They are not freelancers, they are employed by the business and sexual activity usually takes place on the premises. I believe their services range from $5 to $20 depending on how cut throat your bargaining techniques are. The Viet girls are more aggressive and outgoing than the Cambo girls, they are a little bigger in physical size and their skin is not as dark. They are a more ruthless tougher bunch to deal with so be wary if you choose to engage them.
Stickman readers often comment on the immaturity and childlike nature of Thai girls but I find the Cambodian girls to be even more immature than the Thai girls. It is like 22 year old girls thinking and acting like 15 year olds, but they are playing with the really serious game of sex. It feels almost as if they are too young to be a sexual entity and they are not adult enough to understand what they are doing. Perhaps it is all just part of the illusion that they are trying to create?
It is very refreshing to know that in Cambodia Jiggi Jiggi is actually the genuine word to use when discussing the act of sexual intercourse. Similarly the imaginative word “Smoking” is the adjective which describes the act of oral sex. It is really fun to chat to the girls using these creative and colorful terms. All just part of the wonderful Cambo experience.
I should also mention the Casinos. There are a number of 5 star hotels with exclusive casinos attached to the operation. The majority of customers to these establishments are wealthy Chinese businessmen. The hotels are generally only 3 or 4 storey tall as there is no high rise in Phnom Penh and the casinos are something from an old Humphrey Bogart movie. The tables have ripped old cloth and the cards and chips are well worn. They are quite a strange old sight.
There is also a Casino located in the belly of an old cargo boat out on the Tonle Sap river which runs East of the city. Again the tables and the environment are quite run down but this does not reflect from the expensive prices charged in the establishment. Entry to the Casino is very strict, access is via a gang plank and then thru metal detectors, with heavy security everywhere. There are about 40 tables of assorted games. Baccarat, roulette, a few Black Jack tables and a Keno type of game I never did get the hang of. Minimum bet is US$10 and some tables go up to minimum of US$100. I don’t know about you but this is expensive by my standards and I don’t last very long on my limited budget. There are no professional ladies allowed on the boat if you know what I mean. The casino clientele is mainly made up of Chinese, Koreans and some Japs too but they are a minority. Funny country to go for a holiday if you ask me.
Apparently there is also a casino in Arun Ya Praytet near the border crossing with Thailand. This area is a 4 hour drive from Bangkok and also has a number of bars, brothels and hotels. Don’t think I will ever make it to this part of Asia but you never know.
The aforementioned 5 star hotels in Phnom Penh also have very expensive nightclubs attached to their operation as well and when I say expensive I mean it. You generally have to buy 600 ml cans of beer and they sell for around US$12 a drink. If you are found without a beer in your hand then you are frowned upon and intimidated by numerous staff waiting around you until you order another beer. The professional girls in these places are unbelievable and so is the price for their company and services. In fact stepping into a number of these types of discos is like stepping into a black hole and coming out in another country. I am not sure where these incredibly beautiful girls come from; I suspect many of them are shipped in from mainland China. Not even the Thai superstars in Pat Pong GoGo Bars can compare to the beauty and price of these women. There is always a Mamasan prowling around keeping the girls in check. This kind of lifestyle is for the rich and infamous and is definitely out of my league. The women start at US$100 and upwards. Still I would highly recommend you check out how the wealthy Chinese and Korean men do business and how they spend their money.
There are many other points of interest for the falang tourist. Sihanoukville is the beachside resort 2 hours from Phnom Penh. It is not that big and not particularly attractive, it has some basic hotels and as always there are a few working girls always hanging around if you feel the need for some company. There are a few islands to see off the coast if you are in to that sort of thing but look out for pirates.
Phnom Penh does not have much in the way of high class shopping but it does have a big central market right in the middle of town which is pretty crazy. For the observant shopper in amongst the usual Asian market rubbish you will find some rather unique items that simply cannot be found any where else in the world. Many of which you will have great difficulty getting safely thru customs and immigration on your way back home. But it doesn’t hurt to take a look anyway. I should also add that the dual pricing policy existing in Thailand is also alive and well in Cambodia too.
When you are sick of shopping and drinking and casinos then you could make your way down to one of the numerous gun ranges in Phnom Penh. They are fairly easy to find on the outskirts of town but these are no ordinary gun ranges. These gun ranges would keep Rambo entertained for hours with the wide assortment of lethal weaponry available for use. Last time I turned up the Cambo guys were trying to get me pissed on Angkor Beer and Johnny Black whilst they were proudly displaying M16s, AK47s, M60s a couple of Anti Aircraft guns, hand grenades and their pride and joy was an old Chinese tank. I wanted to drive the tank but it was not working at the time. I was probably over the legal alcohol limit anyway. So I had to make do with the M60 Rambo machine gun and a few hand grenades which you throw into a pond out the back. Later I was calculating that an M16 has a range of about 5 km, but I realized that this open air shooting range was only about 1.5 km from Pochentong International Airport.
I would also like to mention that when I am in Thailand I generally tend to steer clear of the falang community. Occasionally I will get into a conversation and share a beer with a falang, but generally I am in Asia to escape the West. However when I am in Cambodia I like to mingle and interact with fellow Westerners because generally only the craziest of farangs ever makes it to Cambodia and they usually have a good story to tell. I have met some rather eccentric characters in my time at some of the bars and discos in Phnom Penh and I find there is a mutual respect and understanding between farangs which is certainly not present in Thailand.
If this submission has whet your appetite and you want to do a little more homework then I would suggest you get your hands on a copy of “Off the rails in Cambodia” by Amit Gilboa. You can email him directly for a copy at [email protected] This is an extremely colorful book by a rather eccentric author and it really gives some insight to the subculture of the country. The author has a tendency to consume numerous mind altering substances and he makes frequent references as to how and where to obtain such products. He talks about his diet of hash pizzas and marijuana milkshakes and that sort of thing. I always listened to Nancy Regan and I say NO to drugs, so I just skip over his drug references and read about the many other aspects of Cambodia’s subculture he has experienced.
If you choose to venture to my favorite country on the planet – Cambodia – then I wish you the best of luck. I don’t promise that you will love it but I do promise that it is one hell of an experience. And besides – The reach of Thailand’s Social Order Policy does not stretch that far East.
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