Landing in Phnom Penh
Hello! I guess I will try to break down my 30 minute ride from the airport to my hotel, which is a temporary arrangement until a suitable apartment can be found. I think I expected Phnom Penh to be like Saigon. It’s perhaps Saigon 15 years ago. I think I reasonably expected Phnom Penh to be like Siem Reap, but that’s apparently off too since Phnom Penh doesn’t have a real tourist draw and therefore no corresponding hotel chains and big money (from what I can tell in one car ride). The weather and the people are great, but let’s talk about poverty shall we.
One major pro to Cambodia, and something I am a particular fan of, is what I call the Wild West Syndrome. Anything goes. There are no rules. Well that’s not true, there are a lot of men in military uniform and probably a ton of rules that could land you in Broken Down Palace re-runs for life, but money talks. You want a year visa with no hoops to jump through and very little paperwork? Sure, just swipe that credit card lady. We’ll have you out of here in 5 minutes. Also, here’s a cell phone for cheap and a new bank account for your trouble. Land at the airport, get everything done fast – just show those crisp American bills.
Everything else is pretty shocking. First off, the tuk tuk ride itself sets you up for culture shock because no place has great prosperity right around the airport. So before you get to your expat oasis in the sun, you have a heart attack for 30 minutes and learn the hard way why you’re one of a very few people to head away from America and toward a developing nation.
Obviously there are no street lights or order to the traffic at all, but you knew that about Southeast Asia. No direction is a wrong direction. No turn is too close to collision. What I mainly had to watch out for is that my stuff didn’t get stolen right out of the tuk tuk by drive-by thieves (a threat I had been alerted to previously). With hundreds of motorbikes driving inches away from you it’s no easy task.
Secondly, when you actually see those jam-packed mini buses with people squished next to chickens and sneakers and whatever else they bought at the market it hits you that this isn’t a National Geographic spread. They’re livin’ it. And the roads are dusty and dirty. People are everywhere. That’s the other thing about poverty, there’s no work to be done so the resounding career is boredom. Just sitting on a street corner staring at… me. And the markets look crazy. Crowded, dirty, intimidating. Filled with old men and women in their bamboo triangle hats with cut up orange slices hocking goods in your face. I was glad to see that scene from far away. I need a few more baby steps before I’m ready to bargain in Khmer.
The buildings are falling apart: old and dirty, with clothes lines outside and a huge ball of fire-tempting electrical cables wrapped around one corner of the unit. Little babies balancing on motorbikes in a crowded intersection like nothing you’ve ever imagined. These are the local neighborhoods. The real Phnom Penh. The Cambodia with no real infrastructural support.
If you glance at my pictures below you will notice that my hotel is quite different. It’s a tourist haven filled with Australian people taking refuge from the chaos. Three feet away horns are honking and men are pulling carts loaded up with trash or t-shirts or pineapples. Everyone’s a hustler. My cabbie has been sitting outside the hotel this whole time hoping I ask him to take me somewhere despite my assurances that I would be sleeping the rest of the afternoon. I saw two yaks pull a cart made out of sticks and I need to let that process a little.
Lastly, there is something that needs to be written because it’s important. My first impression did, on multiple occassions, show me that the people here aren’t unhappy. Plenty of locals were kidding around or talking with the each other or laughing while they welded a hubcap back into shape. The kids running around were enjoying themselves. This is certainly a place where hope and progress live. Everyone seems relatively clean and well-fed and those are important things when it comes to developing countries on the mend.
(I believe if you click on the pictures they expand.)