Mike visited:

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» Myanmar (Burma)
» Laos
» Cambodia
» Vietnam
» India
» Nepal
» Egypt
» Jordan
» Uganda
» Tanzania
» Malawi
» Mozambique
» Swaziland
» South Africa

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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) Christian.
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:

MD: Taxi?
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 back."
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 dig me."

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 lines installed.

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


Comments (post your own below)

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.

Posted by: Michael on January 26, 2003 08:48 PM

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!

Posted by: dave on January 27, 2003 10:27 AM

Pugh, that bit on the Christian Defense is hysterical! This site's warming up with that MP-mojo you got going now.

Posted by: o'brien on January 28, 2003 03:54 PM

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."

Posted by: Mike on January 31, 2003 12:41 AM

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???

Posted by: Maria Holdur on February 2, 2003 08:01 PM

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!

Posted by: Mike on February 2, 2003 11:49 PM

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? :-)

Posted by: Do Trong Tan on February 26, 2003 07:44 PM

hi,what about currency exchange? Are you using the ATM's? Carrying cash and traveler checks?

Posted by: isaac on February 26, 2003 10:55 PM

hi mike
hope you are fine,impressive pics.
go on. FIFI

Posted by: FIFI on March 3, 2003 12:09 PM

Very interesting. Got this site from Mike at pugh marina.

Posted by: Nowoarnever on March 11, 2003 07:43 PM

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.

Posted by: pdam on June 3, 2003 08:28 PM

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.

Posted by: alex szilagyi on October 7, 2003 03:48 PM

Hey Alex,
Who made you the boss of Cambodia? JERK!!!

Posted by: Mike Ahkertz on October 8, 2003 11:19 AM


The jerk store called. They said they are running out of you!!!

Posted by: the dude on October 9, 2003 09:57 AM

Hey there,

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.

Posted by: Matt on October 31, 2003 04:18 PM

" 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.

Posted by: Witold on December 23, 2003 04:11 PM

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!


Posted by: JT on January 6, 2004 08:38 PM

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!

Posted by: Mike on January 9, 2004 10:00 AM

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

Posted by: Adam Shuey on January 12, 2004 01:07 AM

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.. :)

Posted by: JY on March 14, 2004 09:24 AM

cambodia sounds like thailand back 1990.ko phan gang cool hang out.good local hospitality,food ,parties ,ganja.loved it.returned 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 it would be nice to see phnom penh.before d.e.a move in
stick to beer and dope dont die!

Posted by: denie on May 3, 2004 02:37 AM

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...

Posted by: alx on June 21, 2004 08:24 AM

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...

Posted by: greg bergman on July 28, 2004 10:27 AM

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??????

Posted by: Lee on September 23, 2004 09:33 AM

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.

Posted by: The Fat Man on September 27, 2004 06:46 PM

Yep, Phnom Penh is a lot of fun… for some…
For others, a hell…
I'm working in helping street children… does anyone mention about those little ghosts of PP?

Posted by: Nick on November 17, 2004 04:04 PM

Comments closed.


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