Readers' Submissions

Impressions Of Pnom Penh

  • Written by Pedro
  • October 3rd, 2002
  • 13 min read




Overview

I visited Phnom Penn in September 2002 for a 10 day visit. I had worked in Thailand as an English teacher for a seven month period. Previously I spent 6 years in Africa working on development projects. The purpose of my visit was to ascertain whether PP would be a suitable place to live.

What I state here are my own observations. I don’t pretend to be an expert on Khmer culture. The situation there is very fluid. Things can change very easily from week to week. I wrote this because of my own experience. Before traveling I was very anxious to learn more about my destination. This piece may be of use to anyone planning a trip to PP.

I was impressed with the Khmer people. They seemed genuine and just happy at being able to live in peace. Sometimes I would sit at a cafe and dwell on the past. I found it difficult to imagine that such genocide could be perpetrated there.

For those accustomed to Thailand, a visit to PP will definitely be an experience. One enters the third world with pot holed roads, poor infrastructure and run down buildings. I personally found the experience refreshing. Also the people don’t smile as easily as the Thais. I also liked that. The Thai smile to me is always a mask hiding the real intent.

Arrival

After arrival (1 hr flight from BKK) signs direct one to a row of Immigration officers sitting behind a long counter. The costs is $20 for a normal one month tourist visa. If your are thinking of finding a job paying the $25 for a business visa is advised because it can be renewed indefinitely. Your passport is passed down an assembly line of immigration officers after filling out the typical forms. Remember to bring one passport photo. This process was quite efficient and took less than 20 minutes from beginning to end.

When exiting the terminal building taxis are not immediately visible. One turns left and walks toward a rectangular taxi stand. Fares into town are a predetermined $7.

Mottos and Motto Drivers

Next or across from most guesthouses are a regular group of mottos drivers looking for business. They virtually all speak English quite well and are an invaluable source of local information and history. Whenever leaving one's accommodation the question will be asked, “where are you going”? I understand this inquiry is a normal part of small talk in Khmer culture. Typically a vague response is expected if you don’t need a motto like “I am going for a walk”.

These drivers can become quite aggressive and sometimes will follow one down the street. In fact one actually sat next to me one morning at breakfast asking about my itinerary for the day. I made it clear to him that I knew where his bike was stationed and I didn’t want to be bothered again. After this incident they would still try to entice me but kept clear of my personal space.

Most destinations within the city cost around 2,000R ($.50) which is slightly increased at night. I found it better to work out a deal with a single driver to act as a chauffeur for the evening (5 hours). It was very nice to come out of a restaurant / bar and have one's driver waiting. This cost about $3. I have used mottos off the street at random but on a few occasions they had difficulty finding my guest house even when presented with a business card in Khmer.

Brothels

I had read some accounts and spoken to several people about brothels before arriving in PP. The days of young nubile girls standing in front of brothels trying to attract customers are over. The police have cracked down on these establishments deterring normal operations. This sudden moral awakening is simply an effort by the government to skim more donor money.

K11 (Suay Pak)- as the name would indicate it is a brothel village about 11 kilometers outside of PP. A motto driver will take you there and wait for about $3 round trip. I understand a bus can be taken from town for $1.

The brothels are now all padlocked. Normally a boy will meet your bike trying to coerce you in the direction of the brothel he is touting for. On my first trip I followed a boy to a back area of bamboo type huts near a stagnant pond. I was a little sceptical because the ladies passed were rather used looking and not appealing. We came to one simple hut with foam mattress inside and was told to wait.

To my amazement I saw two beautiful teenage Viet girls in silk pyjamas being escorted by the boy to the hut. They wanted $20 each for short time. I chose one. I knew at the time I was paying too much but I never had such a beautiful girl like this in Thailand. So I paid the money and had quite a good time. There was no shower.

On my second trip I refused any detour and found myself on a dirt road which was Main Street. There was at least one bar open. Again all the brothels (storefronts) were padlocked. It didn’t take long before a boy opened a padlocked gate and moto, moto driver and myself entered. It was quickly locked and shut behind us.

There were about ten girls inside sitting around watching television, sleeping or eating. I was ushered into an inner area with couches. There were no other clients. The girls were all quite attractive. The mamasan had them all line up. They all looked in their teens to early twenties. There was one who looked suspiciously very young. They wanted $10 for short time. I decided to take two. I was shown a fairly primitive shower area. Muddy cold rain water was in holding tanks with plastic scoop inside. This part of the experience was the least appealing. I was then taken into one of the girls rooms. It was decorated with pictures of Viet film stars, singers and idols. The girls clothes were hung on hangers attached to the wall. The room seemed fairly clean but spartan with no window. There was hardly more room than for the bed which had a good size mattress and bedding. These girls seemed to take pride in their work. Again I never had anything like this in Thailand. I gave them each a $1 tip.

On my third visit I took my time. I went to two brothels just looking. I took one girl for $8 short time. Same type of setup as previously described. It is possible to take a lady LT for around $25 from all brothels. One can do this starting in the afternoon. It is also possible to negotiate prices down. I have little doubt on a slow day it might be possible to get two ST for $5 each. I didn’t go crazy over negotiations.

Brothels 152nd and 63rd

This is a row of brothels within the city. It also was padlocked. At night they open for business but in most cases a tout waits outside to usher customers in then the doors are locked again. I went to a few of these brothels at various times during some evenings. I don’t know if I was spoiled by K11 or buzzed or both but these girls didn’t impress me. There didn’t seem to be many on duty also. I never had a girl from one of these.

Tool Kook

This is a notorious brothel street in Northern PP. I visited one afternoon and there was absolutely no action visible. Again the days of girls lining the street enticing clients are over. I have no idea whether this opens at night. I was told this isn't the safest area at night anyway.

Barber Shops/Massage Parlors

Near the Central Market there are a series of Barber shops with attached Massage facilities. For those accustomed to Thai style establishments these will be a great disappointment. I visited one and there were some fairly attractive massage girls in back of the shop. It cost $5 per hour. One is ushered upstairs to a large room with small dingy cubicles with roughly finished wooden beds. Very primitive nothing like the tastefully dimly lit cubicles used for Thai traditional massages. My girl didn’t know much about massages but was willing to give a blow job for $5. I overpaid. I visited only one of these so others could be of a better quality.

Massage Parlors

Throughout the city there are several massage parlors sometimes attached to hotels. I visited two solely for curiosities sake. One was on the second floor of a three star hotel. Behind a glass were ten uniformed girls. The girls ranged in age and attractiveness. The manager told me not all girls would give full service. The younger ones wouldn’t but the used ones would.

The second one was hosted by about 15 girls. They weren’t nicely dressed and didn’t seem that appealing. As with all the massage places visited they charged $5 per hour.

Caution: I was chatting with a fellow traveler one night over beers. He had frequented some of the brothels. He used a condom supplied by the establishment. He got a case of gonorrhoea. After hearing this I always brought my own.

Restaurants/Food

I strongly recommend getting away from the Farang type establishments lining the river. I was in PP to experience a little of the Khmer culture.

I found the issue of food contrasted greatly with Thailand. The Thai people have a love affair with food. One cannot walk one block in Bkk or any city without finding a noodle stand or small outdoor stall. The same does not hold with PP.

It could be that in Khmer culture meals are more centered at home. The Thais love to go out for a meal with family or friends.

In PP there are many outdoor type establishments located on street corners frequented by locals. Moto drivers taking a break drinking tea and watching boxing. I must admit I never found any of them very appealing. They all looked run down and not that hygienic.
I found one close to my GH and decided to take the plunge. I was greatly surprised by the delicious coffee and French bread served costing $.50 as opposed to $2.50 at the GH. When it came to regular meals it could be rated as average. The fried rice wasn’t as good as Thailand. Also the food overall is not as spicy which can be a nice respite. Normally one can find a waitress who speaks some English.

When serving a meal a mug of hot water was brought to the table with chop sticks inside for disinfecting.

At night many upper scale Khmer beer gardens open throughout the city. These resemble Christmas trees because the interiors and exteriors are strung with festive lighting. These places typically have live Khmer music consisting of singers on stage. An army of promotion girls dressed in colorful beer brand uniforms will accost one until deciding on which beer to order.

Tiger draft beer can be very cheap when bought by the large pitcher ($3). It is nice to sip cold beer and listen to the sombre tones of Khmer music. One really gets the feeling of being in a different world. The staff are generally quite helpful and anxious to practice English.

A typical nightly itinerary would be as follows. I would first eat dinner at a Khmer restaurant. There are some good ones recommended in the Lonely Planets Guide. There are many others. Then I would go to several of the beer garden type establishments. From my experience the food in the Beer Gardens visited was average. It is better to eat at a restaurant first which is generally cheaper. Then I would end up at either Heart of Darkness (Heart) or Howie’s Bar for a night cap.

Miscellaneous

If one of the Beer Garden promotion girls takes your fancy ask her to sit down for a beer. It is part of her job. The level of English is generally poor. These girls work until 1am in general and in restaurants less because they tend to close earlier. I understand some can be picked after the establishment closes.

Khmer frequented restaurants in PP tend to be the most crowded between 7 and 8pm.
There are several large Beer Gardens located on more or less permanent structures moored on the River. These are often crowded and frequented by Khmers. I personally found the ones in town nicer. There tends to be plenty of free lancers milling around on weekends in the river front BGs.

I went to Martinis and Sharkys on several occasions. I cannot be an expert on these establishments. Having a Motto at my service I was happier to spend an hour here and there. To basically bar hop around town. Sharkys is located near the Central Market.

It is located on the second floor of a run down building. On weekends it can become quite crowded with expats and tourists. Even though it was always possible to find a seat at the bar. I didn’t find the ladies there that attractive. Many of them looked fairly used.

Martinis is located a bit out of the center of town. I found the decorum of plastic tables/chairs to be less desirable. The freelancers I saw were better looking than Sharkys. I really didn’t see seriously under aged girls in any establishment visited. Obviously because of the crackdown.

Security has always been mentioned as a concern when visiting PP. My evening typically would end around 2am. Some expat type places like Heart and Howies stays open all night. When there are customers. I never heard any gunfire in town. Twice we ran into a police road block looking for weapons.

I personally didn’t find much to do during the day. It is typically oppressively hot. There are no movie theaters or shopping centers like found in Bkk. The Central and Russian markets are a nice way to spend some hours. I was somewhat watching my money. There is a shooting range outside of town where one can rent an AK47 or a rocket launcher. Also for $10 a motto driver will take you to some temples 45km out of town. This is nice to see some of the rural countryside and endless flat rice paddies.

One can get an excellent room in PP with a/c, cable, bathroom, refrigerator and nice size bed for $10 per night. There is a full range of accommodations available in town if one is on a strict budget. But paying anymore than $12 is totally unnecessary!

On my GH wall was a list of rules to be followed by tenants. There was to be no use of illegal substances. Well one could not avoid getting a strong smell of ganja floating on the air so this rule was not adhered too. The second rule was no prostitutes. Normally I don’t take ladies LT in Thailand. But in PP it might have been interesting to learn more about the culture and have some company during the day. My GH was family run so I adhered to this regulation. I would strongly consider staying somewhere else next time. One should choose accommodations carefully if this is an issue.

Stickman says:

It sounds like Cambodia is starting to go mainstream… The situation with the Vietnamese girls is an interesting one. They are there illegally, and most (?) are bonded labour.