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Delightful Phnom Penh – Small Notes

  • Written by Anonymous
  • May 2nd, 2006
  • 6 min read


Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok

By Hans Meier


— THE WORKERS —

The sliding kitchen window of our temporary apartment had been a tad open. Now the workers who did something on the façade of our apartment building fully opened this window and shoved two wooden boards inside. Thus they create a scaffold which helps them working on the outside area right over our kitchen window.

The wooden boards extending into our apartment are dirty. Wet mortar drips from the boards onto the kitchen floor. It also drips into my travel bag which is parked right under the kitchen window.

I don't realize the mess for a while, because I sit in the living room at the other end of the apartment. This is one of Phnom Penh's typical row-houses, our apartment has about 4×20 meters, and some doors are closed between my living room end and the kitchen end of the apartment.

When I finally realize what had happened I tell the workers with a firm voice "Chop! Adh baan! Adh chowl-chet!" (Stop. Can not. I don't like.) I point to the mortar dollops on floor and travel bag and say accusingly: "Adh s'aat!" (Not nice.)

They make a guilt-ridden face. I gesture them to move the boards out of the window. They start to do so – and more mortars drips into the apartment. My god, what will Norah, my Khmer lover girl, think when she comes home, she is so concerned about floor-cleanliness.

I don't want to clean-up the mess myself, but I won't ask the inconsiderate workers either. I guess our landlord must be somewhere in the house, supervising the progress on the façade work. He is an distinguished, rich elderly man; we always greet the polite way, with a wai and "Jom-re'ap suah".

I dash up and down the staircase. When I finally meet the landlord he already knows of my anger. He makes another guilt-ridden face. Now I believe he has instructed his workers to shove the dirty boards through our kitchen window – a suspicion that is supported later by Norah.

The landlord grabs the janitor. This poor guy is seen day-in, day-out mopping the staircase, always silent as a grave. Now he has another mopping job. Landlord, janitor and I climb back to our apartment. The landlord inspects the mortar under the kitchen window with a regretful face. Then he instructs his janitor to mop it all up.

The landlord rattles off quite a tirade in Khmer, every sentence ends with "na, Na, NAAA!" Every "na" is louder and a fourth or fifth higher then the previous "na". This is polite Khmer style to put pressure on somebody.

There we stand, three men. A landlord and a tenant, doing nothing. Watching a silent janitor cleaning up the mess on kitchen floor and travel bag.

"Na, NA, NAAA!"

— THE BEGGAR —

On the riverside, among the millions of beggars, I give money only to one indivudual. He's a young cripple with a soft, melancholic face. Maybe 1,50 meters high, but you can't estimate it, as his legs are confusingly knotted. Unlike his colleagues, he never asks for money. He just creeps along in rotten outfit with a melancholic face.

Usually I give him 1000 riels, the equivalent of 25 US cents. This is more than Cambodians give. Every day. He replies a sweet "Sssenkssyouuuu" with a low voice and a moved face and creeps on.

On just another Phnom Penh day around sunset hour, Norah and I walk along the riverside. Suddenly we hear a proud, loud "HELLO-HO!" from behind. From the back appears – our beggar, now on a self-driven cart. An NGO gave him a bicycle that moves by arms' power. He makes a face as if showing off his new Mercedes.

It's funny – now that he has his own wheels, I only give him 500 riels. He seems already privileged.

On just another Phnom Penh day around sunset hour, Norah and I sit on the riverside. Along comes our beggar – crawling again with bare legs over rough paving stones.

"Why don't you come with your new vehicle", asks Norah. He says he didn't have the power to drive it to the riverside and and back home. His arms were too weak.

Interesting, I think, he has a home. But this time I give 1000 again.

— POWER —

Electricity is expensive enough in Cambodia. Phnom Penhois pay around 22 to 24 cents per kwh. We are also charged just this price in our expensive, touristy temporary non-serviced apartment.

A poor Cambodian friend from Stung Treng province moves with his family to Phnom Penh to have better schooling for his sons. They barely make ends meet. They find a 1-room-rathole for 45 dollars per month.

To switch schools, he has to pay 30 USD administrative fees, the usual scam. Then the teacher asks "Would you like to pay the photocopy fees daily or at the beginning of the month?" This scam is unknown in the provinces.

For electricity, his landlord charges him 32 US cents per kwh.

— THE SHOESHINER —

My default Khmer neighborhood restaurant has a default shoeshine boy. When this boy approached me first, I asked him for the price in Khmer language, with Norah sitting next to me. The shoeshiner answered: "1000 riels, sir." That's 0,25 US cents, the default rate in Phnom Penh. So I took off my shoes.

Next time in my default Khmer neighborhood restaurant, I see a seemingly single rich westerner being approached by the shoeshine boy. The westerner asks for the price in English.

Shoeshine boy: "One dollar, sir."

Westerner: "Ok… no, wait – one dollar is expensive! 2000 riels [0,50 US cents], ok?"

Shoeshiner: "Not ok… no, wait, 2000 riels is ok."

— PHNOM PENH TAXI DRIVER RECOMMENDATION —

If you need a good, considerate taxi driver in Phnom Penh or all around Cambodia, try Mr. Tee, mobile phone 012 – 957049. We use him whenever possible.

Mr. Tee is a family man in his 40s, based in Phnom Penh. His English is absolutely excellent and he has wide interests, so he isn't at all dull to hang out with. I believe his knowledge and language comes from extensive BBC consumption.

Mr. Tee has a good sense for what you would like to see and do and will never impose any unwanted trips on you – especially *not* to any tailors or gem shops. He is so un-greedy, it is difficult to pay for his lunch (say it's your duty to care for your driver). He doubles perfectly as tour gide, translator, door-opener and stringer.

Mr. Tee's driving style is very anticipatory and smooth and much less frightening than that of some other drivers. He owns a decent Toyota Camry family car with the steering wheel on the correct, left side (no cheap Thai import with the steering wheel on the wrong side). For a day around Phnom Penh he charges the usual 25 US dollars, but we always tip him more. He has been all around the country many times, from Battambang to Siem Reap to Mondulkiri, so you could also hire him for extended trips as driver, guide or both. He would be a great motorcycle driver/guide too, but he himself owns no moto.

Stickman's thoughts:

You should provide tours around Cambodia – I am sure many readers would love to see the country with you.