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Playing in the Penh: I Think We Enjoyed Phnom Penh More Than Most People…

…there was a guy on the dance floor and his ‘signature’ move was screaming. Literally. He would (during a song) emit shrill screams.

Well I always expected that Phnom Penh (PP) would be a memorable stop on this SEA circuit we have endeavored upon. I had done some homework by reading ahead. Namely, I read the sensational Off the Rails in Phnom Penh: A Story of Girls, Guns and Ganja. Things have certainly calmed down a bit since the author’s stint during the mid 1990s. And thank god for that because shot guns shells are bad for your health (and shit was about to get real at a Cambodian artillery range). Anyway, it was a good read and I’d certainly recommend it to anyone, travelers or sedentary folk alike. Additionally, any trip to PP or Cambodia for that matter requires some insight into its sad, sad past and the politics of civil war which I will not go into here. Between the apparent lawlessness and deeply tragic modern history, I had a very unclear set of expectations. Army operated shooting ranges: throw a grenade, shoot an AK 47, launch an RPG at a cow. What?! Genocide museum, killing fields. Heart of Darkness night club. Range Rovers and Land Cruisers, everywhere. Happy hour from 4pm-11pm (come on, these people are trying to recover from genocide, they deserve more than 60 minutes a day!).

After an obscenely long bus ride (6 hours) relative to distance traveled (291km), we arrived at the Central Market in the early evening, in the fashion that most travelers prefer: after dark. I am being facetious. Cue the typical backpacker guesthouse hunt. On this hunt, we were searching for a very specific hotel attribute: Fox Premium Movie Channel. Greg was championing the viewing of a significant UFC fight that was to air the next morning. Angela had gone to the trouble of looking ahead to find a hostel with a large sports bar, presuming they would be able to play it. Well, no. It turned into a huge schmozzle, guys versus girls. The guesthouse did have the channel but the room was too small. Okay, move on. We had also managed to collect a tuk-tuk driver who was intent on following us in attempt to sell us to his affiliated guesthouse. F#*% off!!!!! We went to another place. It only had two available rooms, but its brother hotel around the corner had rooms. Alas! The elusive room had the very paramount Fox channel. All order was restored and the girls (who had been rolling their eyes the entire time) promptly shed their bags and ordered a Quick Fuck shot from the bar. Well if that guesthouse didn’t turn out to be the worst room of our entire goddam trip. However, I will eagerly recognize that the bar staff were AWESOME. But first, I have to go on a tangent about this room, if not to make myself feel better, but to forewarn other travelers.

Longling Guesthouse II Street 172, Room 102

The first evening had to be the worst sleep of my entire life. It was quite hot out and the A/C switch had a metal band, locking it in the ‘off’ position. Not knowing any better, I figured that the A/C was broken. So the fan would provide the only comfort in terms of temperature. During the night I woke up because the fan was emitting a loud grinding click each time it rotated. It was intolerable so it was switched off. The heat was stifling and Greg and I constantly woke up. Come morning I felt like a zombie and inquired within, whether the A/C was operational. It took a hotel maintenance worker to remove the metal band. 
Finally, A/C again (although I wanted to eat your human flesh)…except that it had a major drip which flooded our floor…Also infuriating was the fact that the door lock jammed every goddam time the door was closed, whether or not it was locked. I wretched on the handle every time, grunted in extreme frustration and began to develop a callous. There was no way I would have known about this because the door was open when we inspected the unit. To top it all off, the ceiling was extremely low, there was no window (fire risk!) and the few decorative bricks along the upper wall allowed sound to travel in from the lobby. It was simply. fucking. awful.

I digress…

I think we then unpacked and the bar became our perch for the evening. We were quickly acquainted with Jaime (manger or owner?) and Kim (bartender). We must have been some sort of a spectacle because Jaime was sure to stop by and check up on things each evening we were there. And by spectacle, I mean that we were collectively drinking the bar dry. But seriously, an eight hour happy hour with $0.75 vodka red bulls? Let’s  just run a tab…

You know, I think that we had an exceptional experience in Phnom Penh and I’m sure there are others our age who would rate it less positively. The five of us were a social force to be reckoned with. If Steve was feeling ill or I wasn’t into going out, there were still three others enthusiastic to indulge.

On one particular evening we were playing drinking games at the bar (which had essentially become our property with Kim being a very attentive bar tender), which had particularly devastating effects for GTO. ‘F*ck the Dealer’ was not kind to him. We must have played three times and each time GTO ended the game as Dealer. Jaime had stopped by and was positively entranced by our card game, and was absolutely losing it doubled-over with laughter. Two other travelers had come back to the guest house and were swept into Hurricane Canada. They were Chinese newlyweds and Mrs. China didn’t speak a lick of English (Mr. China had grown up in California). Anyway, she was an absolute riot. Having been in China a couple months before and been exposed to Chinese keeping ‘face’ in public, this was my first experience with a native Chinese person letting loose. Us girls were Best Friends with an impenetrable language barrier. The games wrapped up and it was Go Time. Destination: Heart of Darkness, quintessential stop on the SEA backpacker circuit. Not really having a good grasp of directions or willing to walk, Angela and I jumped on Jaime’s motorbike (two tall blonde, white girls and a Cambodian man are not commonly observed) and arrived in spectacular fashion. Hurricane Canada et al had jumped in a tuk-tuk (come on, G was not about to see me whisked off into the depths of PP) and the six of us loudly unloaded onto the street. We must have been pretty obnoxious because security and the patrons milling about the entrance were intently staring. Unfortunately, Heart of Darkness was pretty empty for a Monday. Who da thunk? Mr. Tuk-Tuk driver, take us to….a gay bar! That always makes for a fun time. Well, it was less of a bar and more of a gay-friendly restaurant, that is if flying a rainbow flag in your establishment qualifies you as such. Let’s just say that we arrived and absorbed a lot of dirty looks from the people who were dining street side. Uhm, Hurricane Canada needs to blow out of here. Mr. Tuk-Tuk driver, take us to a club. We stop at a club surrounded by Lexuses, Range Rovers and Beamers. Apparently one needed sleeves and a collar to get in. Whatever, I don’t want to party with children of corrupt officials ANYWAY. Striking out in PP. We eventually settle down in the next disco and have our first experience at a truly authentic Cambodian night club. This would not be the last time we would be the only white people in a Cambodian club. The details of this night aren’t particularly important after this point. Although, G would persecute me for not mentioning that he was kissed by a Cambodian dude and allegedly ‘nearly raped in the bathroom.’ Those were drunk words talking but I can attest that this guy had been following G extraordinarily closely. Lastly, no one else recalls this but there was a guy on the dance floor and his ‘signature’ move was screaming. Literally. He would (during a song) emit shrill screams. It was unbelievably obnoxious as you may imagine.  

During the daytime (after a horrible sleeps in #102 and recovering from the night s before), we toured Phnom Penh’s sites. We haggled for goods at the Russian Market, toured the highly depressing S-21, visited the Killing Fields, went to the movies, got $5 mani-pedis and went to a Cambodian shooting range.

Russian Market. You’ll find a hoard of goods from knock offs to authentic but don’t quite meet Western quality standards. Haggle hard! I got basic tank tops for $1.50 each, Gap shirts for $2 and G picked up four name brand tank tops for $10. Alternatively we both bought a knock off North Face backpack and Birkenstock sandals which fell apart within a couple weeks and were abandoned anyway. You get what you pay for.

S-21. A former school used to torcher 17,000+ Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge period. Haunting photographs of all who passed through will drive you to tears. Shocking and horrifying. Hire a guide at the entrance. For $8 split between four people, it’s a marginal amount of money for the insight you get. Plus, most have personal experience with the Khmer Rouge. Our guide had been placed in a children’s work camp.

Killing Fields. Smaller than you anticipate but equally depressing, one tours the fields with an audiobook. This site is a little ways out of town so ensure that you have a fast tuk-tuk driver. Coming back into town during rush hour is an experience in itself and was probably the most motorbike congestion I have witnessed in all of SEA.

The cinema. There are two great theatres in town. One is centrally located in a mall near the Olympic Stadium. We went right after a downpour and the streets were flooded, nearly a foot in some places!

Salons. Probably not up to any Western hygiene standards but you can get a screaming deal on manicures and pedicures. Feel a little feminine on the road!

Shooting range. Originally I wasn’t keen on visiting the range immediately after touring the Killing Fields but I took solace in the fact that none of those massacred were killed with a bullet. The range is very close to the fields and any tuk-tuk driver should know its location. You arrive at a gated compound and are greeted by some Cambodian men. In hushed tones you are unceremoniously escorted into the main room which is decorated by an assortment of guns and a sign reading “Do not Touch, No Photos.” Geez. And then you are handed a gun menu and the fun begins. Most of the guns are old Russian artillery though there are American M-16s. You can shoot a round of 20 bullets for about $40, throw a grenade for $50 or shoot an RPG for $350+/-. And yes, you can arrange to shoot a cow for an additional $300. Between the 5 of us we spent well over $500. Yours truly shot two bullets from an M-16, G shot a round from the M-16, Angela and GTO each shot 100 rounds of some automatic rifle on the ground and Steve threw a grenade. Bartender Kim had come out with us and we decided to buy him a round on the M-16. He was over the moon. $40 may not be much divided by the five of us, but it’s a frivolous expense in terms of Cambodian wages. I’m sure it’s something he won’t soon forget!

Other mentionables in Phnom Penh:

‘Sam Pop.’ When we went to the Russian market we had the tuk-tuk driver from next door to the guesthouse take us. He was THE cutest old Cambodian man. G affectionately dubbed him Sam Pop and he had to be the slowest (but safest) tuk-tuk driver in all of PP. He had thick glasses and the left side of his face showed evidence of some former malady such that his mouth gaped slightly. Anyone who has travelled SEA can attest that tuk-tuk drivers sometimes represent the spawn of evil. They chronically pester. So we were more than enthusiastic to utilize Sam Pop’s services for the duration of our stay in PP. We would get caught up in PP congestion and defensively yell at drivers who were aggressive to Sam Pop. Also, there’s no pension plan for the elderly in Cambodia so I was pleased to give our tourist dollars to this man whose wife would see him off every time we left. SO CUTE.

Traffic is pretty hectic in this city where the right of way at an intersection is often dictated by the largest vehicle. We also noticed that many intersections acted as unmarked four way stops. A bike will quite literally approach the intersection, beep the horn and then sail right through. This produced an incredible traffic fail shortly after we first checked into Longling. Two motorcyclists were hit by a car at the end of our street which created a large scene. Bike parts were scattered about the intersection and one of the injured pulled from the street. From Steve’s account there were some broken bones protruding from the cyclist’s foot. Motor vehicle reality check: be careful!

We met a sociable gentleman from Switzerland in a bar on Street 172. He enthusiastically told us that he was in Cambodia to arrange a drug shipment to his native country. Neat business venture dude, thanks for sharing. Go away.

We dined at the Laughing Fat Man (formerly Oh My Buddha!) a couple times and really enjoyed it. The mashed potatoes and gravy were really good and the pictures on the wall of the owner (the Laughing Fat Man) were highly entertaining. I recommend it.

At $3 a pop, PP is a great place to buy books.

Once again, there are a lot of child beggars here. Not in need of another bracelet or book, G and I started playing (and losing) Rock-Paper-Scissor with them. This one night as we drank at (our) bar, we attracted a pair of beggars. The little girl couldn’t have been more than five and she awkwardly swung around the box filled with books that was hung over her neck. She was promptly distracted by some of our chicken nuggets. The way she discarded her load of books was priceless. Kids will be kids. A fellow competitor soon approached us (a young boy) and began to tug at the back of our shirts. Angela, who by this point was sitting behind the bar and mixing drinks with Kim suddenly fingered the child. Those of us sitting with our backs to the child were taken aback. “Angela! He is just a child!”

Angela: “He [insert incredibly lewd gesture here]’d me!”

Us: “Oh.” Look at child. “Yah, you need to go. Now.”

Yah you can never forget that these kids grow up too fast when they are wandering the streets after dark selling trinkets to strangers. Scary thought. Can you imagine sending your children into such potentially dangerous scenarios?

We stayed five nights and Longling Guesthouse and had been exercising a tab. It took the woman about 20 minutes to settle our bill. First she wrote all of the charges on to two invoice sheets. Then added it up and had me review it. Notable charges included: vodka water lime (she had never heard of anyone ordering this and I told her it’s what Canadian girls order to stay skinny) and ‘borrow $1’ (didn’t have money on us to settle our Rock-Paper-Scissors debt). The total damage? $125 for five days. That included accommodation, some meals and a TON of drinks for two people. $12.50/person per night. I love it.

Go wild in Phnom Penh. Really get into the gritty. Talk to the people. Cambodians are truly amazing. They are friendly, happy, speak excellent English and you can’t help but  consider them to be incredibly resilient. Their tragic story belongs to every single Cambodian. No one was spared from the Khmer Rouge’s insanity. 

Following our stint in Phnom Penh we made for the beaches of Sihanoukville. 

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