Impressions of Phnom Penh
My trip to Phnom Penh began with booking a flight with the low-cost carrier, Thai Air Asia, over the Internet – a painless process these days the way air travel for the masses has evolved over the last decade.
The flight to Phnom Penh was leaving at 14:50 p.m., 16th September. With the other passengers we were bussed to the aircraft waiting at a remote part of the apron at the huge, new Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport. Our ‘plane was a very old Boeing 737-400, the stewardess telling me that the day’s schedule for her and the aircraft was a quick turn to Phnom Penh followed by a further quick turn to Hanoi. The flight to Phnom Penh takes about an hour. On arriving at the small, grand sounding ‘international’ airport I was struck by the fact that many of Thailand’s provincial airports are larger than this one in Cambodia’s capital, when to augment the feeling of diminutiveness, there were no planes there either apart from some ageing military aircraft hidden behind trees on the airport fringes.
To enter the Kingdom of Cambodia one needs to obtain a visa, either at an embassy abroad or on arrival at the airport; application forms are handed out during the flight. The whole visa business is just that, a money making exercise – one could say embezzlement. Visa entry fees are US$ (payable ONLY in Dollars) 20 for tourists and 25 for business visitors, required to be paid by each incoming passenger. I counted about eight uniformed officials who were ‘processing’ the visa applications – it was like a conveyor belt, one person taking the money – the most important part of the routine (!) – the next person opening the passports, then another attaching the visa stickers (occupying one valuable full page from your passport incidentally), the next official writes in the detail, then another stamps then a further official signs it until finally your passport is handed over by yet another individual satisfied that you are the person who matches your mug shot. There is then a reverse, exit-tax, euphemistically called a ‘passenger service charge’ of US$25 for the Cambodian government to raise even more revenue from hapless travelers and, believe me, you are pleased to pay the money in order to escape from the ghastly country.
I had arranged to go at the time I did because a good, old friend of mine from London was going to be there who kindly collected me from the small airport in his old Toyota Camry car (vintage 1978) and off we went into the maelstrom. Well, I had heard about the unique and erratic style of driving manners but I was in for a shock as the traffic was far worse than I was anticipating – masses of motor-bikes going in all directions, on the wrong side of the road, cutting in and out at will and with no signals, crossing one's bows with impunity. Cars, too, followed the same sort of ‘rules’ with one rule being predominant over all others – the larger and / or newer the car, the more you could assume priority. As my pal stated, to have a decent car there would be folly; for not only would it be a target for thieves but one would be afraid of the likely damage sustained from inevitable minor accidents. Being a westerner driving in the first place means you are automatically responsible for any accident regardless of fault, on the twisted logic that if you were in your own country (where, of course, you belong!!) the accident could never have happened! We witnessed one collision between two motor-cycles, the lone, female rider of one was on the floor with her machine on top of her – the other bike ridden by a male with a pillion passenger just rode off at pace!!
Phnom Penh stands at the confluence of three large rivers, the Bassac, Tonle Sap and the mighty Mekhong with its origin in China to the far north. The whole city has a light brown tint to it, the same colour as the river water and surrounding mud, a dust surface in the same colour covers all roads – many of which are not metalled – and people’s clothing has that same hue, presumably due to their clothes having been repeat washed in the same tainted water over the years.
Comprising mainly of two / three storey buildings the city is sprawling and now very busy. Only one high rise office or apartment building could be seen under construction. The whole city is laid out in a grid system with no street names, merely numbered, like Street 136 for example. Very few public buses were in evidence, people mainly moving by their own motor-bikes or in articulated tuk-tuks, which comprised motor-bikes drawing a two-wheeled passenger compartment behind. Outside all hotels, restaurants, bars and shops were clusters of men – touts one should say – offering taxi and motor-bike taxi services. Their attention was relentless and became a nuisance after a while, but they were looking for Dollars – in fact the whole place runs on the US Dollar. All prices for everything are quoted in Dollars and the ‘greenback’ is the official currency of the country. There is a local currency called the Riel, @ 4000 to 1 x US$, but only used for small change and tipping. I was amazed that the ATM machines there dispensed American Dollars. Since the average monthly rate of pay is about US$60, a single Dollar has good purchasing power.
Much poverty could be seen everywhere and there were disconcerting mounds of rubbish left in the streets all over the city making one wonder when refuse collections ever take place…if at all. The disparity between (filthy) rich and very poor was in evidence all over, like in most communist and former communist countries, but what struck me most was how UGLY the people are, especially the females. We saw only a handful of young ladies the whole time I was there who might have been remotely considered as attractive, with one particular lady in the Colonial Bar, the best.
My hotel, booked over the Internet the previous week, was adequate and at US$ 25 / night was perfectly OK for me even if it did lack certain amenities found as standard in many other hotels in Asia, but at least the mini-bar was inexpensive although not used, my preferring to visit the nearby Shanghai bar on the adjacent corner where there was some atmosphere and the beer was cheaper during Happy Hour. One of the principal attractions of Phnom Penh to single, male, western tourists is the night-life scene, said to have improved by many times over during the last few years. Most of the ‘scene’ was clustered around the river frontage area where many hotels, restaurants (even English pubs) are situated, though the ‘girlie’ bars all had a rather depressing, seedy aura about them I thought, to say nothing of massage places, karaoke bars and hairdressers offering ‘other’ services at the back!!
We were recommended to a newish place called the Beaver Bar by one of my pal’s Australian, Phnom Penh resident friends we met. A newly opened, single shop-house rendezvous complete with a full complement of females (for hire) where there was a pool table occupying a back room, a long serving bar with stools, a large, plasma arc TV screen by the entrance door and individual flat screens at each table at bar height along the opposite side from the bar where individual TV programmes could be viewed or the ever popular (in Asia) karaoke songs for ambience and relaxation.
A further bar we visited, named the Colonial Bar, was in a first floor corner location over shop-houses where the ceiling had been removed to reveal the underside of the pitched roof construction giving a superb impression of space with added ‘minstrels galleries’ to simulate an even more homely feel. I was impressed with that place especially since the background music was not played at ear-splitting levels – a quite stupid practice prevalent in Asia when most customers just want to talk, drink and perhaps wish to cavort with the generous quantity of bar-attached females on parade.
Other bars visited were Sharky’s, probably the original drinking bar in the city, located upstairs but in a rather dismal, unfashionable area, although other bars have sprung up in the same area. Sharky’s was full of free-lance tarts for hire – in fact prostitution is in your face everywhere, an ever-present by-product when there is national poverty of the masses. Finally, on the last evening I was taken to the other original Phnom Penh bar, Martini’s, remotely set in an open garden location but the plastic, garden style furniture (because it rains so frequently) gave the place a cheap sort of atmosphere. Girls there abounded, said to include many ladies who are clothing factory workers in the day, looking for spare cash and, perhaps, a nice place to sleep and where they could use proper showering facilities (?).
For those wishing to know the current rates that operated, well, it was mainly a bar fine of US$5 (Bt.170 approx) at most ‘girlie’ bars, then 15 Dollars ‘short-time’ and 20/25 (Bt. 850 top whack) all night depending, I suppose, on what the ‘lady’ thought you could pay based upon your appearance, choice of hotel, etc.
I only stayed two nights in Phnom Penh and departed (quite happily) on the third day again using Thai Air Asia whose old Being 737-400 plane (again, but a different, slightly newer aircraft) was on time arriving and departing – the service with that particular airline being excellent and efficient. The problems occur when you arrive at Suvarnabhumi airport I am afraid to say. On reaching at the terminal building having been bussed back from the outer apron, there were four (yes, 4) immigration officers on duty to deal with dozens of incoming foreigners and the same number to receive Thai citizens, except they amounted to only a handful. So everybody unnecessarily had to wait an inordinate amount of time to get processed, the only advantage I can see with that is you then have less time before your luggage arrives on the carousel.
My home is in Lad Phrao and I always get a taxi away from the departures level usually by their dropping off point at although the police, airport security people or even the taxi ‘mafia’ that has always operated at airports here are making this sensible (but they think, unfair) practice as difficult as possible by erecting a barrier all the way along the length of the terminal building. However, one can get a taxi at the ‘away’ end of the road. To further compound the difficulty for incoming passengers, the trolley lifts no longer stop at the arrivals level in an attempt to force one to use the ultra expensive airport limousines or regular taxis available from a booth at the lowest level and involving a wait for the next available cab, which could be ancient and clapped out, when you have to then suffer inside it regardless. At the departures level one can select which taxi to take. My first guy had a new car but did not want to use the meter plus wanting his ‘friend’ to come as well. Not on his Nelly! He was rejected; but the next taxi took me all the way home, some 30 km approx. for Bt.210 (about US$6)
My overall conclusion is that I’m glad I went to Phnom Penh if only to witness how awful the place is, but likely will not be returning, as there are many other attractive places for me to visit where I’ve not been before.
22nd September 2008
I have only been to Phnom Penh once and that was way back at the start of the decade. I enjoyed it very much – I have yet to go to a country that I haven't enjoyed visiting (although there are plenty of places I would not want to live in) – so am kind of surprised at your comments. I do remember that Cambodia was noticeably poorer than Thailand and with that you get various "issues", but on the whole, I liked it. I hope to go again early in 2009. Your report has not put me off one bit!