Readers' Submissions

Delightful Phnom Penh – Various Attempts

  • Written by Anonymous
  • March 10th, 2009
  • 7 min read



We go to SBC Bank's ATM on the riverside. Outside the booth, a security guy sleeps on a bank. When we step out with money, the security guy is not there at all – he's moved 50 meters away, across the road, and sits next to the river, looking away from the ATM place.

"That's great", I comment to Norah, my local partner, "we come out with big money, but the security guy runs away first."

Norah says that once her cousin left an ATM booth in Phnom Penh and two guys with motorcycle helmets and guns asked for all his cash.

So I understand why the security guy disappears before we walk out with money.

Tickets Racism

We had it on the bus ride to Siem Reap, and now it happens again: Norah goes to a well-respected, private long distance bus company and buys tickets for her and me. On her ticket they write the price in Khmer Riels: "16.000 Riels". That's exactly four USD.

"Is the second passenger western or Khmer", asks the clerk in the ticket booth?

"Western."

And so the ticket for me gets the price written in USD. And it reads: "5 $".

At this company's confusing, dirty bus station ten or 20 percent of the passengers are westerners. Announcements are in Khmer only.

Attempted Shopping Trip

8.30 am. Next to the Soriya shopping mall, Norah and I walk into a side lane to visit her Thai hairdresser. The shop is open, but the hairdresser not there.

"He went to the provinces", explains a caretaker boy.

"For how long?"

"Dunno, maybe some days or so."

8.40 am. We walk over to the Soriya mall. I want to try the offers at the recently opened Swensen's branch there. But Soriya is not yet open.

8.45 am. We cross the road to buy a phone card to top-up Norah's cell phone credit. In the shop thrones a guy over 100 cellphones for sale. He says: "Sorry I can't sell a phone card. I don't have the key for the drawer."

Attempted Boat Trip

Norah and I walk around on the Chruoy Changvar peninsula, at the confluence of Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. On the other side of Tonle Sap river is Phnom Penh's busy main riverside strip.

We came here by tuktuk, a large detour across the Japanese bridge far north. To cross back to the main river side, we want to hire one of the many tiny fishing boats mooring on the muddy river's edge. It's just roughly 100 meters across the brown gurgling waters. Quite a few Khmers hang out there on their boats.

Most boats have no engine though. Norah says we should definitely only take a boat with engine. After some walking along the water line, we smile: There is a nutshell with an outboard engine and the owner sleeps right in his boat.

Norah wakes him up and asks how much he would charge for a trip across the river to the main side. They exchange a few words, then Norah turns to me and shrugs:

"He says he has no gasoline."

Attempts at Taking and Receiving Passport Pictures

For my 59 day Philippines visa I need new passport pictures. Norah had said that would take a dollar or two and maximally 20 minutes of waiting. But she is not with me when I step into one of the modern-looking photo shops near Central Market on Monivong boulevard. Four passport pictures would be 1,25 USD, I learn. I order twelve for 1,75 USD.

I am led upstairs into a studio full of lighting and backgrounds and have to sit down in front of the white background. A friendly Khmer guy builds himself up in front of me and stretches his arms as if planning to knock me down with one expert hit. But he only slightly rearranges my lower arms, then my upper arms. Then he takes my face and moves it one inch to the left, two inches to the right and one inch back to the left again. Then he re-arranges my cheeks and eyebrows each separately with a conerned expression.

Finally he steps back and – what is this – he takes an old Nikon F3 film camera! No digital. This would not be a 20 minute service, I figure, and I hadn't explicitly asked for express procedure. But then again, they have a minilab downstairs, so maybe they process a few negatives right away? He gives me an affirmative smile – click, WHOOSH, BOUNCE, FLASH, thunder & lightning – and I may walk down again.

I am told to come back three hours later. Too boring! I pay 1,75 USD up front and walk out. On the street I realize that I would never find back to that place, so I check my receipt for the street address – but it's in Khmer script only. On the busy corner with Monivong boulevard I check for a street sign, but there is none. So I walk back to the photo shop and ask in Khmer for the street's name.

"Sahdegoh."

Hmm, that must be –

"Charles de Gaulles", I ask? That road should be not far indeed.

"Cha chaaaa!"

I don't make it back to the photo shop on that day. Next morning around 8.30 a.m. I order a motorcycle taxi to "Sahdegoh" and get delivered exactly to my photo shop. But while other shops around are open, my place is locked behind steel bars and has a note outside – in Khmer script only.

Too bad, I really want to visit the PI embassy this morning. I'm already in my best official outfit, even with socks. I need passport pictures now.

I enter another photo shop and say I need passport pictures without waiting.

"That's three dollars for one shot, sir, you will get four copies."

"Okay."

"But we will try only once, because we use the expensive Polaroid paper."

"Okay okay."

Very much unlike Asians, I don't care how I look on passport pictures, as long as they're usable.

I am led upstairs into a studio full of lights and backgrounds. There's even a huge plush deco tiger. A blue background is motored away and a white background motored down, then I have to sit there. A Khmer guy builds himself up in front of me and stretches his arms as if planning to knock me down with one expert hit. But he only slightly rearranges my lower arms, then my upper arms. Then he takes my face and moves it one inch to the left, two inches to the right and one inch back to the left again. Then he re-arranges my cheeks and eyebrows each separately with a concerned expression.

Now he feeds the expensive Polaroid sheet into his four-eyed Pola cam, rearranges the cam and clicks. But he forgot to connect the camera to the flashes, so that sheet of expensive Pola paper flies straight into the trash bin.

The photographer builds himself up in front of me again, stretches his arms again and rearranges my lower arms, my upper arms, my face including every single cheek and eyebrow. He feeds another expensive Polaroid sheet into his four-eyed Pola cam, connects the camera to the flashes, rearranges the cam on the tripod and – finds out my head has moved an inch. So he holds two fingers in front of the cam:

"Look here, sir." Click, WHOOSH, BOUNCE, FLASH, thunder & lightning.

The result shows my face mostly covered behind his blurred fingers. There goes the second sheet of expensive Pola paper.

The third try is quite okay.

Exiting Cambodia

Flying out from Phnom Penh International, I order a cappuccino at the self service coffee shop in the departure area. It's a whopping 3,2 dollars. But I still do have a stack of local Riel currency. I count my Khmer cash and see – it's just the amount needed.

"This should be just right", I say to the cashier as I hand her the rumpled notes. She smiles, counts the money, counts again and says: "That's 5000 Riels too much (1,25 USD). Here's 5000 Riels back for you."

With the fine, delicately bitter coffee I sit down in a leather chair and hack the finishing lines for this submission into the laptop, about the honest cashier at the airport coffee shop. I'd love to mail it off to Stickman right now, but Wifi at Phnom Penh International is too pricy for 1,5 USD for just 30 minutes. I'll do it a few hours later, back in Bangkok, on the free broadband line in my booked room.

A passenger next to me checks his watch and looks confused. Then he drops a slip of paper onto my table: "Here's a one hour Wifi password for you. It's unused. I can't use it, my plane goes right now."



Stickman's thoughts:

Very nice. For those of us who complain rather too much in Thailand, I guess we should be grateful we are not in a neighbouring country!