Delightful Cambodia – You Are Welcome
1) On the Border
Right from the beginning, Cambodia welcomes you with subtle Khmer charm. There was this overland entry I had back in 2000. I travelled from Thailand's Trat area into Cambodia's Koh Kong province. Back then, Khmer tourist visas were not issued at Koh Kong, so I bought the proper visa in Bangkok. There was no reason to pay any more money upon actually entering Cambodia at Koh Kong. Or so I thought.
"You pay money one Dollar", the officer goes and hands me another immigration form.
"Why do I have to pay? I already have the visa!"
"You pay money one Dollar for photocopy this paper!"
Haha. "Sorry, I don't have Dollars, I only have Thai Baht."
A dark hand rushes out of the immigrations shack, palm up: "We take Thai Baht, too."
As the overland border posts in Koh Kong and Poipet now issue Cambodian visas, Khmer officials have discovered new ways to revenue. The official price for the one-month-tourist-visa is 20 US Dollars. But border police prefer to charge 1000 Baht – which sometimes can be changed into 25 Dollars or more. Nobody stops them doing so. Most times, you are also forced to buy semi-informational papers about health risks or even dubious vaccination pills for a few more Dollars or Baht.
To be fair, the same yellow health information paper that costs 50 or 100 Baht on Cambodia's overland borders is handed out for free at Phnom Penh International Airport. The content: You might get sick here; you might want to see a doctor.
You can study this paper over and over while waiting extensively for the passport control at Phnom Penh International Airport. Your mood may rise when you see this sign which is one of my favorite delights in Cambodia. You encounter the sign when you get the visa stamp, and you read it again if you leave the kingdom by air. In September 2003 it had been a quick laser-printout. In April 2004 it reappeared as a professionally printed sign with yellow letters on glossy blue cardboard. The words remained the same: "We apologize for any delays that are caused by the use of our new computer system."
2) Against the Law
With a rented Honda Dream, I am doing pothole research on Phnom Penh's appallingly rocky main roads. A policeman stops me. My offence: The lights were turned on at daytime. Yep, that can be an offence in some Khmer towns. In other Cambodians towns it is no problem to drive with lights on ("police here lazy", as my friends explain it), and of course your are always welcome to drive without lights at night time, drunk-handphoning-nosedigging-too-fast – even as a westerner.
But now it is 2 p.m. afternoon on an unbearably hot April day. Phnom Penh fell to the Khmers Rouges on one of these days. Between sun and asphalt, I am baked like a human pizza, and a dwarf in khaki stopped me for using lights at daytime.
I know: The fine will only be around 0,50 US Dollars. But for this, I have to negotiate and to demand a receipt from greedy ridiculous money sucking bastards in uniform. I can't do this now, I am not stable enough for their childish game. I switch into cynical mode, open the wallet and fish for a 5-dollar-bill getting me outta here without humiliating talks that give the police guys way too much face.
The heat is killing me, and the policeman is surprised that I grab money without any talking. I only find a 20 dollar note and give it to him with a sarcastic smile. He takes it and walks away without further demands. My eyes follow him. A second policeman gives me a shy smile like "Thank you mister for your kindness". You are welcome. The greedy ridiculous money sucking bastards do not even feel like greedy ridiculous money sucking bastards.
On my rented Honda Wave, I bounce out of Sihanoukville towards the airport. Near the port, the road splits into different one way roads for in- and outbound vehicles. Going north, out of town, you are most likely to take the wrong lane – the traffic flow leads onto the inbound lane, and the correct outbound lane is especially messed up with potholes. Driving my rental moto in a Khmer state of mind – i.e., without any regard for traffic signs or other commuters – of course I land on the wrong lane. That's not a problem, as Khmers are well used to traffic from the wrong side, they don't even see it as "wrong" anyway.
But of course there is a police post stopping me for using the wrong lane. They ask for 5000 riels, 1.25 USD. I talk them down to 3000 riels. While we just agree on that deal, they stop another tourist couple and demand 5000 again. I tell the policemen, 3000 should apply here, too, and the khakied daylight robbers agree with a stupid grin.
Along rides a Khmer lady on her Suzuki Viva. She takes the wrong lane, and the policeman signals her to stop. She grins at the western victims, she waves at the policemen, she shouts "Byebye" to all of us – and roars off without stopping or paying. Gal has a sexy ass actually, and my policeman has one more stupid grin.
3) On the Street
Obtaining a motorcycle used to be so easy in Phnom Penh. Interested parties would stop down a moto driver, show their gun and kindly ask for the key.
Hard times for motorcycle aficionados began, when the moto shops in the capital equipped flashy new machines with remote controls. As the robbers happily roared away on their new found transport, they were suddenly remote-stopped by the previous owners. A few screams of "Jao plong moto!!! Jao plong moto!!!" would then gather an angry crowd taking good care of the thieves.
In Phnom Penh, there is a solution for every problem. These days, those in need of a new Honda, Suzuki or even a cheap Korean Daelim don't just show their gun. They use it.
Obtaining smaller assets free of charge is another popular option in Phnom Penh. As Chowl Chnam Thmei (Khmer New Year) approaches in mid-April, city dwellers desire some brand new clothes, and a few new things around the house are welcome, too.
However, the proper amount of money is not always at hand. On April 11th, Srei Tuj calls me while I browse Psah Tuol Tom Pong (Russian Market) for jeans: "Be careful when you go out in Phnom Penh now. Bag snatchers just drove off with Srei Dah's handbag, and when Srei Tee walked to Psah Thmei two hours later, somebody tore the gold chain off her, worth 450 USD." I suppress a reflex to hide my cellphone in my slip. "So now, did they report to police?", I ask back. Srei Tuj gives me a very sarcastic laugh.
4) Meet the Locals
I sit on the riverside promenade in Phnom Penh, the capital's premier/only place for a leisurely stroll in the cooler hours. On the other side of the street, after a day of dull rounds at Wat Phnom, the tourist elephant is just led back home and enjoys an after-work-shower from the park's water hose. I try my best mimicry, but no chance, I don't go unnoticed, not even with a massive pachyderm happily splashing nearby. "Som muy roy, som muy roy", the beggars moan with a most self-pitying tone. This translates into "sorry, one hundred riels", about 0.025 US Dollars. If you pay, they refrain from shoving all their open wounds and rotten limbs right into your face, and they will not touch you. A fair price. But upon encountering a westerner, the more polyglot beggars switch to another playback and a price hike. They utter a very bossy "Mister! You give one thousand!"
I sit on the riverside promenade in Phnom Penh and try to finish a can of coke with my best mimicry. But no chance: Around me stand four very dirty, skinny and poorly dressed dark skinned street kids, maybe from some hilltribe minorities up north. They watch my every sip eagerly. Each of them separately wants to grab the empty can later; for three empty cans they get 0.025 USD from the recycling shop. So I sit there with my can half full and four dirty streets kids guarding my every sip.
I sit on the riverside promenade in Phnom Penh and try to finish a can of coke. Boy 1 stops one meter short of me and and points softly at the can, he wants to put it into his rotten rice sack and take it to the recycling shop. But I haven't finished yet, so I tell him "dawp nyathi tee-et", ten minutes later. Boy 1 is my default coke can remover, actually, because he is polite (or maybe just very shy). Boy 1 off.
Boy 2 shows up and points at my now empty can. I say "Adh ban" (cannot), because I had already promised the can to Boy 1.
Boy 2 tries to grab the can in a sudden move. "Chop hoai", I shout (stop already) and take the can myself.
Now Boy 2 slaps me two times on the leg with his dirty, slimy hands. "Chop hoai", I scream again and pretend to hit him back. Boy 2 goes in a Kung-Fu-position and puts on an arrogant, stupid face. Khmer strollers watch interestedly. Boy 2 knows he is stronger than me. Obviously I cannot hit him back, nor can I ask for his parents or for the police. Boy 2, on his side, can easily spit at me or throw road dirt at me without any punishment – what could I do with a little boy who has nothing to lose and all those Khmer onlookers? I try to handle the confrontation Khmer style and put on a bored, empty face.
Boy 2 off. (Surprise.)
Boy 1 never reappears. I walk away with a useless empty coke can.
I sit on the riverside promenade in Phnom Penh and try my best mimicry, but no chance. If beggars, hawkers, can collectors and pickpockets miss you, still there are the students and monks: "Oh, hello mister, I am so happy-happy to meet you because now I can practice English with you!" I have already ignored a few attempts today and ran away from a few others who wanted to grab a free conversation lesson. But when this very smart young man in a blue shirt, well-ironed trousers and solid shoes sits down beside me, I finally give in and accept some small talk.
Ok, he is a student in Phnom Penh and sleeps in the pagoda. Ok, his family is from Kompong Chhnang, he has three brothers, two sisters and a motorbike. Ok, he will see his family next weekend, and this will be a happy time. How nice!
After 20 tiring minutes, he suddenly lowers his voice. "Mister! You want lady?" — "No need lady? So you like man? Ok, can have, too!"
I sit at a rice stall in downtown Sihanoukville with Khmer girl friend. The junior street beggars here have such a mean face you wouldn't believe it. The eight year old ones smoke cigarettes and who knows what else. To create a maximum of attention – or horror -, they touch you with wet dirty wounded hands at the very first approach. If you refuse payment, they pee on the asphalt right beside you. They shout things that make Khmer girl friend spit out her food and leave the place without explanation. The rice lady stall watches silently.
5) Near Justice
My hotel in Phnom Penh has a most attractive location – between the riverside promenade and the royal palace. It is an eery, spacious colonial building like no other hotel in town. A big fenced garden keeps the riffraff of beggars, robbers, taxi drivers, snack sellers and hawkers at bay. Actually, this gem of real estate was once part of a bigger colonial complex used by the Khmer government. In a move that raised more than a few eyebrows among Phnom Penh's leading zoo, this single building went into private hands and was turned into a midrange hotel.
The colonial offices next door are still used by the Cambodian government. But I never noticed a lot of activity in the government mansions next to my hotel. And why – it is only the Ministry of Justice.
Aptly titled. Delightful indeed.