Stickman Readers' Submissions March 24th, 2004

Travel Tales – Pnom Penh

The descent through the dusty air gradually revealed an unexpected sight. One could clearly see broad boulevards and graceful crescents, so typical of French towns and cities. The absence of any high-rise buildings was in stark contrast to the chaotic sprawl of Bangkok.

Upon disembarkation at Phnom Penh's Pochentong airport, one was greeted with another surprise; a modern, stylish and efficient airport. Nothing to look at from the outside, but welcoming and attractive on the inside; a comfortable mix of contemporary and traditional Khmer style. On my return to Pochentong a few days later, I had time to peruse the shops located near the departure lounge and gasp in wonder at the over-priced items on display.

He Clinic Bangkok

The drive through the city was a patchwork of contrasts. The wide roads were full with swarms of mopeds, each one seemingly oblivious to the theory of self preservation. I was cocooned in the secure womb of a Japanese mini-bus, exchanging the usual pleasantries with the driver and returning the shy smiles of some of the locals who peered in through the windows whilst stopped at intersections.

The crunching of gravel signalled our arrival at the Hotel Renakse. Situated between the Grand Palace and the Tonle Sap River, Hotel Renakse is a colonial era building set in spacious grounds. Apparently, renovations were completed a few years ago, but I would describe its status as 'comfortably hanging together', rather than 'renovated'.

I was greeted by the 'concierge' who spoke good English with a romantic French/Khmer accent, which further enhanced the hotel's ambience. Breakfast, I was informed, would be between 6.00 and 9.00 AM. I somehow think that breakfast is one experience that I will not be enriched by.

CBD bangkok

My room had hot water (although not used), air conditioning, cable TV, a fridge and a bed, which was comfortable, if not a little worn. The panelled ceiling has itself been subjected to the renovations, sporting a smattering of shiny, new screws and a few metres of packing tape, to ensure its survival for a little longer.

The Foreign Correspondence Club on Sisowath Quay is a delightful throwback to another, perhaps more enlightened time of the French occupation. It is also, maybe, a hint of what might have been if the right of self governance hadn't become de rigour in the post war world. The FCC is welcoming, sophisticated and comfortable. It has variety in both merchandise and patrons. The rows of bottles that line the bar naturally lean towards French tastes, but the food shows influences from many cultures although a Gallic palette would certainly not find it lacking. I was informed that the FCC was expensive, but for those visitors used to Bangkok's rates, the FCC seemed very reasonable. The bar has a distinctly European feel. It's a haven for people watching, due to the mix of nationalities, but the atmosphere seems to act as a filter for the 'undesirable' and the 'less desirable'. Hippy backpackers are quickly dispatched after one quick beer, Americans whisper in hushed tones, the English become gentlemen again after so long away, but the Germans, as ever continue to converse loudly in coarse tones, oblivious to their abrasive effect on the ambience.

The heat and humidity are nothing new. Although I am perched on the banks of the Tonle Sap River, any breeze that ventures near is neatly diverted away by the cafe awnings that overhang my makeshift study. My notebook is spattered with drops of sweat that have fallen from my brow, making my scribbling look more like a letter to a lost love rather than a travel report. The water moves slowly by, heavily laden with red silt until it quickens not 100 metres downstream when it joins the mighty Mekong River on its last 300 or so Kilometres before it disappears in to the South China Sea.

As the day gives ground to the evening, the promenade and park areas along Sisowath Quay gradually fill with families and couples. The blazing heat of the day is tempered, but it is still too warm for any strolling; sitting on mats chatting, eating and drinking are the preferred activities, this is Asia after all. The Quay is a broad promenade which runs for some way alongside the river. What a transformation this would make to Bangkok, which only has a handful of havens where one can watch the Chao Praya carry its burden of sewage and chemicals into the Gulf of Thailand. Thailand's only colonisers, the Japanese, unfortunately had issues other than town planning to occupy them during their brief tenure here. Looking out over this scene, nursing a cool Anchor beer, concludes the day perfectly. The light gradually faded in unison with my drink until both had disappeared completely.

wonderland clinic

The Ginger Monkey was a short stroll away, past the wide public lawns of the National Museum. Inside was comfortable and familiar. Perched on a seat at the bar, vodka-tonic in hand, I enjoyed Dave and Paul's excellent taste in music as the place began to fill. The clientele was entirely western tonight; a 50:50 mix of guys and gals. Very different to any Bangkok bar that I know of; especially strange that none of the guys sported a small, dark companion. The waiting staff were different too. No begging for drinks and no pressure on you to have a refill before you'd finished you present one and perfectly happy to discuss a variety of issues with you before work became a constant engagement of their time.

Next stop was The Temple Bar. A short hop on a motodop. The bar was almost empty, so I perched myself by the TV and began to worship in the House of Soccer. ESPN do a great job providing services for all the believers in S.E. Asia.

It wasn't long before I was interrupted from my reverie by a young lady looking for company and a game of pool. I accepted her kind offer and proceeded to give a master class in inebriated, fluky pool. The Khmer girls aren't a match on their Thai cousins when it came to pool.

After an hour or two it was time to address the heart. We squeezed onto an old Honda and wobbled around the deserted city. Unexpectedly we ran into a scene of chaos; people, cars and bikes were everywhere. This was the Heart of Darkness, Phnom Penh's notorious nightclub, the scene of many jealous, drink fuelled stabbings and shootings by Cambodia's spoiled rich kids. Sounds like the UK; let me in! Inside was a mass of sticky bodies all vying for space at the bar or on the dance floor. It was dark and the music was loud and throbbing, the people gradually being put into a trance by the music's hypnotic rhythms. It seemed as if Phnom Penh's entire Scandinavian backpacker population was here. Tall and blonde mixed with small and dark, a plethora of beautiful people, a feast for the eyes. The lights gradually dimmed and the music began to soften. My brain was beginning its alcohol induced shutdown.

I perched on the back of a motodop, alone this time, my escort having long since abandoned me due to my lack of interest, and made my way to the hotel. The headlight attracted the attention of the porter who had managed to unlock the gate before I had managed to find a couple of thousand Riels in amongst all the Monopoly money that was used for larger transactions. Sleep came quickly, dreaming of a breakfast I'd never eat. I remember a scene from one of my favourite movies, 'Heaven and Earth' where the actress Hiep Thi Le was wearing the traditional Ao dai whilst riding upright on her moped through the streets of Saigon. She exuded grace and elegance. The scene is somewhat similar today in Phnom Penh. Speeds rarely exceed 25 mph; there's no point. The traffic glides past peacefully, albeit on the wrong side of the road, everyone looking for a part in the next Oliver Stone movie. This is mirrored on the river. Boats both big and small, glide past a little above walking pace, perfectly in tune with the traffic on dry land.

Yes, this write-up is romanticised and doesn't go on about the problems that affect Cambodia. I wanted to remember the good things that Phnom Penh had to offer. Everyone knows the people are poor, crime is high, the government is corrupt, there are beggars everywhere and the police are ineffective (sound familiar?). From talking to western business owners there, they tell me that the Cambodian officials bend over backwards to help you and best of all, you are left alone to run your business as you want, without having to have a Cambodian majority shareholder getting in the way and messing you about. The market for western businesses is very small though with only around 7000 expats living there, a third of them French. I really enjoyed my stay there and have to thank all the people I came in contact with for making my trip so enjoyable.

Stickman says:

Nice report. The French style of Pnom Penh gives it a certain something that Bangkok doesn't have. Now don't get me wrong, I'd rather live in Bangkok any day, but there is a certain romantic appeal to Pnom Penh, as you mention.

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