Stickman Readers' Submissions May 4th, 2006

Delightful Phnom Penh – Small Notes 2

By Hans Meier


He Clinic Bangkok

Cambodia's Khmer New Year ("Chowl Chnam Thmey") is the same degenerated job as in Thailand's Songkhran orgy: Some days of water-throwing from around April 13 to 15. One local friend says he got sick from a water attack:

"I had to stay at home for some days!"

"What", I ask, "you staid at home because after a water attack?"

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"Yes, the water came down on me from a second-floor-balcony."

"And that's so bad you have to stay at home?"


"I mean, did they put ice into the water like in Chiang Mai?"

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"No, no ice."

"But then, why did it make you sick?"

"They had small stones in the water."


Before Khmer New Year, there is a lot of free live music in Phnom Penh. Open air stages near the Old Market and near the Independence Monument are used to play mostly super soapy Khmer pop. The ridiculous dance shows near the Old Market even get televised. While TV broadcasts commercials, the whole live show pauses and is silent for some minutes; the entertainers freeze to stone.

Much better is the "Phnom Penh Arts Festival", staged for three days in front of the National Museum. A big troupe from Siem Reap does a shadow play with a huge fire behind a white screen that is much better than what regular actors in Phnom Penh like Souvannaphoum Theatre or the Apsara Arts Association offer every weekend. From Battambang comes an interesting group that plays comedy and artistry with an educational edge about the role of the woman etc. Dress and music are at the same time traditional and freshly modern. The accompanying band plays traditional Khmer music for New Year – maybe hundreds of years old, but here spiced up with electric bass and with a western drumkit, a nice experience.

On the first evening of the "Phnom Penh Arts Festival" the audience is an even mix of Khmers and westerners. The second evening has some very light rain. Westerners only come to see the show.


A New Year lunch with a Khmer family. A big floor mat is covered with plates and plates of cold food, mostly meats, salad, veggies, sauces and some unidentifiable objects. Benevolant aunts roll the stuff into cold, Vietnam-style spring rolls for me, which is much easier to eat. Everybody sits on the tiled floor, only the western guest gets a pillow. The children resort to a separate mat covered with food in the darker, less ventilated part of the living room.

And here's a run-down of the complete drinks menu:

– Johnny Walker on the rocks, no mixers

– canned Anchor beer

– green Fanta


Occhateal Beach in Sihanoukville has a string of three decent midrange hotels. The front rooms offer sea views (across the street and through the trees). The front rooms also offer the most noise, as all three hotels have installed their generators out the front. Close neighbors Crystal and Seaside hotels terrorize each other with their machines. Jasmine Hotel's machine targets their own customers who lounge on the delightful spread-out terraces in the first and second floors – in earshot of the powerhammerelectricitymachine.

As the waitress at the Seaside Hotel's breakfast buffet hands me a cup, she makes sure she's touched all of the cup's inside before surrendering it. A spoon is handed next, of course touched at the food-end, not at the shaft.

The once basic snack stalls along Occhateal beach go upmarket. Many have put elegant rattan chairs and tables into the sand or on concrete platforms. What once was something like "Chea's food shack" or hadn't any business name at all, now comes with fancy signs such as "Le Roseau" or "Via Veneto". On the menu: ordinary Khmer food.

At night, there are so many indistinguishable beach shacks that each one gets about two customers. A new competitor there is "Balloon Bar", according to their flyer "raising the standards on Occhateal". If you need lukewarm gasoline, order "Mai Tai" there.

While Phnom Penh's motorcycle taxis are ruffled Korean-made Daelims, Sihanoukville motodups drive shiny new Hondas. The customer gets a smoother ride, especially along Snookyville's newly paved main roads. "They can drive good motos here", explains Norah, "because here no bad people who shoot to steal moto". Are gangsters on the coast really that lazy? C'mon guys.


The bridge between Kep and Kampot broke down. Locals were quick to construct a wooden replacement – and now charge one dollar per car per direction.

"I want to see a receipt for that money", says Norah to the ticket man, as we use the shaky bridge with our jeep and have to pay the dollar. – "Not possible", says the ticket man, "because you have a western driver". – "That's no explanation", complains Norah." – "No, I mean, we issue receipts only for government clerks."

Next time he demands 1,5 dollar – "special price for new year, sir". Norah yakks at him for ten minutes before he lets us pass through for the usual buck. From other tourists we hear that they were charged 5 USD special new year's price.

Instead of zooming along a smooth 50 meters bridge, barely noticing the river-crossing, commuters now need about ten minutes for the replacement bridge, including the very narrow driveways and the waits. The air-con bus from Phnom Penh can't cross at all, which is a pain for tourism. The bus has to stop at one end of the bridge, send passengers walking over the bridge through the hot sun with all luggage, where another bus picks them up.

An official street sign now leads you to the "Breake bridge". The English press speculates that the original, once solid steal-concrete-bridge broke down because too many locals extracted materials for house-building or for sale. The papers report that the old, free bridge will NOT be reconstructed: Some powerful families now couldn't do anymore without the toll charge from the slow wobbling replacement bridge.

Delightful Cambodia.

Stickman's thoughts:

Cambodia really does sound so similar to Thailand. I must go back. It has been too long.

The author can be contacted at hansmeiermail at googlemail dot com.

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