Lawless, Chaotic, Fantastic Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Faded French colonial architecture in Phnom Penh
The scene at the ferry landing set the stage: fifty shouting men stood just behind an iron containing rail, vying to latch onto the backpackers and whisk
them away to guesthouses. A group of men surrounded me as I walked through the throng; desperate hands tugged on my bags, limbs, clothing. The shouting was frantic: "Simon's guesthouse! Very good! By the lake! Ganja! Girls! Whatever you want!" My cousin Mike was getting the same treatment several paces
ahead of me. The hands kept grasping, kept pulling. The cluster of touts moved
in tighter. Panic and anger welled up in me. "Why you touching me?"
I shouted - a blanket statement that reached no one. To escape the madness,
Mike and I finally chose two touts (thus rewarding their aggressive behavior),
hopped on the back of motorbikes, and sped down the streets of Phnom Penh. The
traffic was perhaps more chaotic than the ferry landing fiasco.
Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, is the rawest, most lawless, most chaotic
city I've ever been to.
A Stony Safe Haven
No. 9 Guesthouse's porch
From the boat landing, our drivers took us to a dumpy guesthouse on the Boeng
Kak, a lake on the northwest side of the city. Even though the rooms were just
$2 a night, Mike and I were less-than-enthused about staying in plywood boxes,
so I went on a reconnaissance mission while Mike watched the bags. After looking
at several "same-same-but-different" guesthouses (including one that
was actually called the Same Same But Different Guesthouse), I stumbled upon
the Number 9 Guesthouse, a relaxed and comfortable safe haven with rooms built
on balconies over the lake.
It was only later that we realized how "relaxed" the Number 9 really
is. Sitting at a table, enjoying large Angkor beers, talking about our chaotic
entry into the city, Mike and I were approached by a guesthouse waiter: "Would
you like some marijuana with your beer?"
Also, there were a suspicious number of Khmer girls pouring out of the guest's
rooms each morning.
"Moto? Ganja? Shooting? Girls?"
This store sells all kinds of coffins
The streets in Phnom Penh are crowded with motorcycle taxi drivers who solicit
travelers incessantly, always with the same approach:
Moto Driver: Taxi?
Me: No thanks.
MD (slightly lowered voice): Ganja?
Me: No thanks.
MD: Shooting? You like shooting?
Me: Already been shooting.
MD: Girls? I know very good girls. Very young. Very Cheap.
Me: No thanks (making sign of the cross over chest)
MD (defeated): Oh. (drives away)
Cousin Mike came up with the Christian Defense, and it worked like a charm;
we soon began drawing the cross over our chests as soon as drivers approached:
Us: No thanks Christian.
MD (confused, defeated): Oh. (drives away)
The Christian Defense seemed to be the only thing that could convince touts
that we weren't dope-smoking, gun-nut, prostitute-enthusiasts who hate to walk.
A Predator's Paradise
Her: "I'm not letting my Buddhist upbringing hold
Me: "Yeah, but, um..."
Prostitution is rampant throughout Cambodia, and it's at an all-time high in
Phnom Penh. There are notorious brothels on the north side of the Boeng Kak
where sex sells for as little as $3. More upscale sex workers crowd tourist
bars and clubs and offer their bodies for $10-$20.
It was disarming and a little frightening to walk into a pool hall and have
50 Khmer and Vietnamese girls look my way with smoldering eyes. John, a North
Carolinian who accompanied us for a night out on the town, summed it up when
he said, "This place is just like the bars at home - except women here
Tragically, Phnom Penh is also well-known for its underage sex workers, and
is a popular destination for pedophile sex tourists. Authorities have supposedly
cracked down on this crime in recent years. And woe be the predator who can't
bribe his way out of a jam: they don't separate foreigners or sex offenders
in Cambodian prisons.
Police & Mafia: "Same-Same But Different"
Police and government corruption is a well-known fact of life in Cambodia. Fifty
bucks can get you out of any jam. More lamentably, ordinary citizens often have
to make cash payments ("tax") to get their water turned on or phone
One day, on the way back from the shooting
range, a motorcade of Land Rovers passed my moto on the highway. By way
of explanation, my driver, who called himself Mr. Perfect, said: "Government
official." He laughed and then added, "Gangster!"
Mural at Tuol Sleng Museum
Nightmare Tourist Attractions
The two big tourist attractions in Phnom Penh concern the
atrocities of the Khmer Rouge: The Killing Fields of Cheoung Ek, where genocide
victims were slaughtered by the thousands, and the Tuol Sleng Museum, a high
school-turned-prison which became the largest center of torture in the country.
Visits to these important sites seem at first a stark contrast to the life-in-the-fast-lane
mayhem of the city; later it becomes clear that the catastrophes in Cambodia's
recent history are precisely the reason for the lawlessness and disorder today.
An Extended Stay
In spite of all the mayhem or, more likely, because of it Mike
and I extended our stay in Phnom Penh. It was exciting to just be around
all the madness; participation was by no means compulsory. And, in spite all
of the lawlessness, I never felt that I was in any real personal danger.
Tranquil breakfast spot
For me, the appeal was in the contrasts. In the mornings I'd step out of my
clean $4 room have a tranquil breakfast on the lake. I'd then hop on the back
of a motor scooter for a terrifying ride across the polluted city to a museum
dedicated to genocide. Later, while sifting through bootleg DVDs at the Russian
Market, I'd set aside a pocketful of small change to give to landmine victim
amputees on the street. After another helter-skelter moto ride ("Helmet?
Why would you want a helmet?"), I'd tuck into a fantastic $2 Indian
meal of curry and chapatti. I'd then dodge the drug dealers ("Christian!")
on the way back to the Number 9, where I'd meet up with a group of ragtag Europeans
to drink beer hold mock United Nations debates.
Isn't this what travel's all about?
Posted on January
26, 2003 12:26 AM
Saw your dad tonight, told me about the website, visited for a short time, will be back. it is fantastic. best wishes for the rest of the trip.
Fun site! My wife and I did the same in '98-'99 (Overland from Germany to Hong Kong, SE Asia, then 3 months in Albania).
A couple favorites were Laos and China. Great to re-live our Luang Prabang experience through your story. Sounds like the wonderful spot we remember.
Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to living vicariously through your travels in 2003!
Pugh, that bit on the Christian Defense is hysterical! This site's warming up with that MP-mojo you got going now.
So just how lawless is Phnom Pehn? Here are excerpts from a Reuters story published two weeks after I left the city:
Thais Flee Phnom Penh After Night of Riots
Wed January 29, 2003 10:50 PM ET
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Thai military aircraft evacuated hundreds of frightened Thais from the Cambodian capital on Thursday after a night of anti-Thai riots in which their embassy and businesses were torched.
...the riots ... were sparked by remarks reportedly made by a Thai actress that the Angkor Wat temple, Cambodia's national symbol and represented on the flag, belonged to Thailand.
The actress has denied making the remarks.
The Thai military said on Thursday one worker at a Thai-owned hotel had been killed in the violence. Cambodian police were unable to confirm the death.
After a day of flag-burning and anti-Thai chanting that played on the inherent distrust most Cambodians feel toward their much bigger neighbor, the crowd massed outside the embassy toward Wednesday nightfall.
About 50 protesters climbed the embassy walls and threw rocks into the compound, smashing windows, before the arson attack.
"It's all because Thai people are down on the Cambodian people," said one looter, clutching a bag of medicines, in the charred remains of the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel, believed to be owned by Thais.
"They say we are dogs. If Thai people cannot say sorry, then there will be more riots."
This excerpt is very intriguing, although, as a young female, it doesn't sound too inviting. From your experience, is there any region that seemed more welcoming???
Maria - Just for the record, there were plenty of young female travelers in Phnom Penh, many traveling alone.
Thailand and Laos struck me as extremely safe places to travel. Myanmar too. Start off in Thailand and play it by ear. Good luck!
I appreciate the kind of news in your Page. Sometimes we see ourselves better when being reflected through the mirror of other's views. Why don't you recommend Vietnam for a place to go? :-)
hi,what about currency exchange? Are you using the ATM's? Carrying cash and traveler checks?
hope you are fine,impressive pics.
go on. FIFI
Very interesting. Got this site from Mike at pugh marina.
I just returned from S.E. Asia and did spend a week at good ole #9. I had to drop a note after reading your comments because I also know Mr. Perfect. With all the things that go on at #9, the owner is very cool and is also a cop. What irony. Cambodia overall is very cool, go there and spend some dollars.
i think its pple like you who go to cambodia as a tourist who make the new tourist scene wot it is.i have lived in this amazing country for 4 years and can say the cambodians are very incredible pple.from wot u tourists see when you go for a couple weeks is the absolutly false picture...pple like you should goto package holidays in spain or something like that.
Who made you the boss of Cambodia? JERK!!!
The jerk store called. They said they are running out of you!!!
It's good to hear all these similar stories of travels to Phnom Pehn, I was there little over a year ago, had good times at the 'same same but different' lots of cold beers & pool at night and wild and sobering excursions in the day. alex dude needs to calm himself down, he doesn't know anything about these people writing their short little takes on such a chaotic city, and no shit their experiences from a short visit are very different than that of a four year stay. Get it together alex, you're not that fuckin special.
Anyway, cambodia blew my mind in so many ways, such a wonderful, crazy country. take care all, matt.
" I'd set aside a pocketful of small change to give to landmine victim amputees on the street."
What you don't realize is that many of those injuries are self inflicted. Beggars in Cambodia make excellent money from tourists that don't know any better. The sorrier they look, the more money they get, so they will inflict wounds to their bodies - or the bodies of their children - so they can make more money.
Begging is one of the better careers in a country that has few opportunities.
Try the little red pills that the moto guys are selling outside of #9.
Cambodia you gave me so much! I could have done without the STD's though!
I worked in Phnom Penh for one month last year. It wasn't enough. I'm still haunted by how much I liked the city, the food, especially the people. Great place. I liked the chaos, as well. I like the "Christian" defence you mentioned. Had I thought of it, I would have had plenty of use for it. Gawd!, I wanna go back!
I was in southeast asia last spring and I stayed at guesthouse #9. I sure had an interesting experience durring my time there but at the same time I was glad to leave that place. I like your web page it brings back memories
i live in cambodia right now.. i've been here for about 2 and a half years... at first i hated this place and wanted to leave, but now i really like it here.. if i had a choice now whether to leave or to stay, i would rather stay.. :) all the people in my school want to get out of this country, but i tell them to try to get used to things here... cuz it's a really cool place once you know it a little more.. :)
cambodia sounds like thailand back 1990.ko phan gang cool hang out.good local hospitality,food ,parties ,ganja.loved it.returned 1997.as usual american drug enforcement agency didnt like the fact that israeli kids were dying of self inflicted drug o.d. forced thai authorities to clean up act or cut out hand outs!one guy got caught with a spliff.had to report every day to the police for a month.then deported.so it would be nice to see phnom penh.before d.e.a move in
stick to beer and dope dont die!
i just stayed 4 months in phnom penh,i very appreciate the place,the girls and the drugs
phnom penhh is one of the last paradise on earth and not for long time more
just enjoy your trips there and be safe...
if u are ever in phenom pen and go to guesthouse # 9 there is a working girl named "chanti" if u do see he, and i know this is far- fetched but whatever, tell her "bergy" says he loves her and he'll be back for her...
Just reading about #9 and seeing the pics is killing me. Was there for a couple of weeks in Feb 2003....... Happy days..the best guesthouse in the world!!!!....Why am i now sat at this desk back in the UK??????
I too wasted myself and a week in Phnom Penh, smoking low quality weed on the veranda at #9, shagging the most exotic and beautiful creatures on the planet and coughing up huge amounts of phlegm caused by the "Cambodian Cold" that everyone seems to get when in that fantabulous country.
Yep, Phnom Penh is a lot of funâ€¦ for someâ€¦
For others, a hellâ€¦
I'm working in helping street childrenâ€¦ does anyone mention about those little ghosts of PP?