Delightful Phnom Penh – The Blond Cambodian and Other Encounters
Shortly before lunchtime I walk around Wat Bottomvattey, a delightful, but little known temple complex near Phnom Penh's riverside. There is a lot of renovation going on, and unfortunately many buildings are closed, including the main pagoda. A monk approaches me and we start a very pleasant informed talk in good English. He is here to study Palí and offers to lock open the main pagoda for me. Happily I agree.
We enter the main temple, where we walk around, continuing our talk. He suddenly interrupts and says he has to go now. He rushes me out of the temple without even waiting if I visit the donation box, locks the main temple door and dematerializes.
Oh well. The grounds have some very peaceful corners so I sit down on a tree-shaded stone bench. Why did this senior monk suddenly flee? Then I check the guidebook for a good lunchtime place. Now Phnom Penh has no shortage of enticing eateries and I read until I almost forget my hunger – until my monk friend re-materializes and with a smile picks up the conversation interrupted so abruptly in the temple.
"So now you have time", I ask surprised?
"Yes, no problem!"
Unfortunately my hunger returns and before long I myself have to say goodbye. Outside the temple, I board a motorcycle towards my favourite Khmer restaurant near Kap Koh market. I am really hungry now, it's almost one a.m.
And that brings me to the solution for the monk's behaviour: Monks may not eat after 12 noon. So in mid-talk with me he realized it was close to noon and he had to run for lunch quickly. After grabbing rice, veggies and meat, he was free and interested to continue the conversation.
Three Tuktuk Drivers on Christmas Eve
Around eleven pm on Christmas eve, Norah and I step out of the Bopha Phnom Penh restaurant right on the river. We plan to check out the Khmer disco "Love Orange Club".
There's only one tuktuk parked in front of the restaurant. The bossy tuktuk driver demands three dollars for the trip, way over the top. I intend to pay 1,5 dollars, so I say "1 dollar". He barks and bellows and finally agrees to 1,5 dollars.
As I climb into the tuktuk, he barks some more about "Khmer" and "Barrang" (westerners).
Norah, my Khmer companion, remains on the street: "We can't take him, dear, he talks very impolite about Khmer people." We had that more often: drivers and other service people demand Norah to help them get a high price from me; they molest *her* for *my* polite, but informed haggling. If she doesn't extract my tourist dollars for them, she gets abused.
So I climb out again. We walk a bit, with the tuktuk driver barking on from behind. Next is the dark, slimy Old Market area where we approach a parked tuktuk. A toothless old man jumps out and will take us anywhere, only that he has no clue how to get there. "Hans, he's drunk, let's go", says Norah, guessing from his Khmer pronunciation. At that moment the toothless old tuk tuk driver wraps both his hands about my upper body and I can also smell his cheap whiskey breath – I escape in panic, dragging Norah with me.
Now we've reached the touristy riverside. Tuktuk drivers waiting here are usually expensive and unfriendly, but the other drivers had been no option either.
I approach a tuktuk and say "Love Orange Club 1 dollar" right away, planning to pay 1,5 dollars.
The driver, a young man with a witty smile, gives me an ironically sad look: "That's *3* dollars, sir!"
"Ok sir: *Two* dollars at least – because it's Christmas!"
Haha, this guy can talk, but I have an answer for him: "I'm sure you're Buddhist, not Christian, so there's no reason for a Christmas surcharge. 1 dollar!"
He smiles even more and gets into competitive mode: "Wrong sir – Buddha is there for everybody, and Jesus is there for everybody, so you can also pay me two dollars on Christmas eve!"
Reader I am not making that up.
"OK, two dollars", I say. I like funny ironic people a lot, and they are in low supply in Cambodia. Norah of course can't understand why I agree to a higher price than necessary, but his fun replies deserve a reward.
And his repertoire is not yet used up.
As we sit down and the tuktuk pulls onto Sisowath road, I shout over to our driver on the front seat: "Remember tomorrow the price must go down, no more Christmas surcharge!"
"Wrong sir – Christmas takes two days! Same price tomorrow!"
Years ago, when in Phnom Penh I preferred to stay on the riverside with river view, the only such room I could afford was in the then Sunshine Hotel (the misnamed Mekong Palace Hotel is there now). Most other customers there were elderly, pale western males. In poolside flippers and pyjama shorties they'd stumble out and bring home pale, Asian teenage females.
I had my river view room, a tinted wall-to-wall-window, a humming air-con, a large clean space all for 15 USD. I could see the river boats, the fortune tellers, every single pidgeon and all the hawkers all from my bed and couch. That was my private luxury.
Most other rooms in that hotel cost a mere five USD: gruesome, window-less, hot wood boxes with a slimy floor. Somehow the riverfront room was completely different, maybe a show pony for the hotel's website.
One day I share the hotel lift with one of the ageing, pale, western sex tourists. To get over the silence, he says: "So I saw you using the river front room?"
"How much is that?"
He rubs his chin and muses. He clearly cannot understand why anyone would pay 15 USD when rooms can be had for only five USD instead.
Then he comes up with a solution: "Ok, I guess with a river front room you can impress your girl big time."
Norah, my hardworking down to earth Norah, introduces me to a ridiculously dolled up person: her old school-friend and a nouveau riche in town. I don't call her a hi-so, because she is not connected with any rich family and visits all her favourite five star hotel lounges by tuktuk. She calls her favourite tuktuk driver any time of day on her iPhone, which lights up the whole dark side lane where she lives, and she overpays tuktuk driver by 200 percent. It's the one thing that actually drives Norah crazy: "Sopheap pays him three dollars when one dollar would be enough already!"
Sopheap suggests we visit Topaz, one of the most upmarket restaurants cum bars outside five-star-landia. To entice me, she says in the lounge area there's an international band playing "something English". It's actually a Filipina singer and a Filipino keyboarder doing soppy renderings of The Carpenters and The Eagles and other well-hung pop classics.
For Norah and me I order cocktails at 5,5 USD each. "Same as everyday", says Sopheap to the service. She doesn't know what her drink is called or what's inside. With the help of the gracious silk-clad waitress, we find that Sopheap actually sips a "Cardinal" every day, obviously a mix of red wine and champagne, for 8,5 USD per glass.
"If not here, I go to Intercon or Le Royal", says Sopheap with a laugh. To while away some daytime hours though, she visits slimy Kandal market off the riverside tourist strip. Under the hot tin roof, she says, she sits down in the hair dressers chair with iced Vietnamese coffee and chats away while getting manicured, painted, haircut, whatever.
In all her make-up Sopheap almost looks like a katoey to me, but Norah swears she's not. She has a western boyfriend based in Hong Kong providing her with 3000 USD a month. For holidays he wants to take her to New Zealand, Old Europe, Singapore, but Sopheap will only meet in Phnom Penh and Bangkok – "those are the two places for shopping and eating I accept".
Of course Sopheap can't finance her crazy champagne fuelled life style with the meagre monthly 3000 USD stipend from her boyfriend. As a true Cambodian lady, she is into land business and recently she received 500,000 USD for a piece of land she had bought for 45,000 USD a year before. This land sold again for a million soon after, but that doesn't bother Sopheap as she has her hand on half a dozen other lucrative pieces of land.
Her boyfriend lost a fortune in the financial meltdown of autumn 2008. But for people who play the stock markets with junk bonds and, "what, certificate?", Sopheap has but a stupid laugh.
The Blond Cambodian
Opposite Phnom Penh's main, touristy riverside there is the Chruoy Changvar peninsula. At its tip, mighty Mekong and Tonle Sap convene. The riverside on Chruoy Changvar is complete touristical no man's land. From this shore I had wanted to see the main riverside backed with sunset and Royal Palace.
We walk along a dirty scrubby riverside park littered with the usual zillion plastic bags and Styrofoam food containers, next to a shacks settlement. Mostly Cham people stay there, Muslims, but all is very peaceful. Apart from some loose headscarves it's just another sad, but peaceful Cambodian slum which seems no problem to wander through at least in the now fading daylight.
On the muddy river bank moor many fishing boats. We had tried getting a fishing boat to take us back to the inner city side but the one nutshell with an engine there had had no gasoline. So we just walk around a bit more and plan on finding a return tuktuk later.
It's almost dark when I notice one of the many dirty toddlers there stares intensely at me. He wears nothing but torn shorts, a silver chain and – Norah, look at that – striking blond hair! Otherwise, this flaxen-haired little boy looks perfectly Cambodian with eyes, nose and mouth as you'd expect in an Southeast Asian favela.
The toddler and I both look at each other baffled. He is clearly as surprised about my look as I am about his. The other kids show much less reaction towards me. I have seen Asian kids with reddish brown hair because of playing in the sun and I have seen kids of poor farmers getting blond-dyed just for fun, but all this clearly doesn't apply for my Blond Cambodian Baby here.
I kneel down and take his picture a few times. He lets it happen without a move. Now a few Khmer have gathered and watch the encounter with sympathetic smiles.
One lady stands close and upon asked confirms that she's the mother. Just another black-haired Asian village lady, a Muslim with a loose head scarf and obviously working hard for many years already.
I point to the Blond Cambodian Baby and ask "Papá Khmer?"
"Cham", she says. So the father is a Cham, a Muslim Cambodian, they don't call themselves Khmers.
"Papá black", I ask her in Khmer and point to my hair?
She confirms that his father is black-haired too. Now Norah asks her something and comes up with no new explanation.
Somehow I feel like taking this Blond Cambodian Wonder into my arms and out of the slum. But I am no Angelina, and so we just smile bye bye to everybody and turn around to walk on – when the blond toddler jumps at me and clings to my legs as if drowning. He doesn't want to let me go. Never in my life did I have this behaviour from a village kid, and I've seen thousands. Blond Baby clings to my legs and from under his blond hair looks at me with those huge, brown almond eyes asking a million questions in full multilingual silence. Awww, kiddie, no break me heart. Thank God his mother rushes by, dismantles her boy from me with a smile and takes him on her arms. While walking away, I still feel his silent eyes in my back.
Actually I still feel them today.
Very nice. No surprise to see there are as many hang ups about money in Cambodia as there are in Thailand.