Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Phnom Penh—the city of Grandmother Penh

Just to bring you all, and myself, up to date.

Journeyed from Pakse in southern Laos to Phnom Penh. The bus trip began early in the morning, and we arrived in PP around about 21.00. We were delayed over an hour with a blown tyre. The stop was interesting, just south of the Cambo border, maybe 100kms in. We had a chance to chit chat and visit locals living in wooden houses along the highway. The bus was only half full, even with a dozen or so backpackers we picked up, who were waiting at the Laos/Cambo border for a ride. Road was a bit bumpy, and the trip a bit noisy, but no hassles (foam ear inserts).

Phnom Penh is as I remembered it (here one year ago). Stayed at the same hotel, BJs, one street back from the Mekong River. Pleasant, small room, breeky, wifi, good service, $21 a night—what more can one ask for?

The city itself, PP is a small city, based upon my baseline of Australian cities. The population is anywhere between two and three million, depending on who you ask, however the city is small. It is just small enough to be able to walk from one side of the central area to the other. The reason for this perceived smallness is that the population density is high. Unlike Australian cities, with sprawling suburbs filled with 1/4 acre occupying houses, the good people of PP live in small rooms, a family or a group of workmates living together, in apartment blocks. There are more than a few larger houses, usually French colonial places, most looking a little the worse for wear. Intermixed with this are new constructions, largely commercial. It is seemingly odd to see a new 'KFC' or a "Wendies" ice cream sitting next to an old, fading French apartment building. But there it is.

The people of Cambodia are caught in something of a poverty trap. Salaries in PP are in the $100+ range. A $200 a month salary is a good salary, however, a small room might cost $100 a month. Thus people on average incomes are forced to live together. Walking around the streets of the city at night you will see many small restaurants, bars, and generally people sitting outside, talking, eating and drinking. Part of the reason for this is that there homes are small, noisy and crowded. It is better to stay out, socialise, than to go home.

As a comparison, a native English teacher can earn something like $10-$15 an hour. You can see how working ~20 hours a week will bring in over $1,000 a month. This will pay for a nice, one room apartment at ~$300 a month, leaving much for a fun month. Food is also (to a western eye) cheap. Avoiding the 4 and 5 star hotels and restaurants, one can eat at a pleasant restaurant for $5 or at at street stall for $1, or of course, if one is so inclined, cook for oneself even more cheaply.

A few other pieces of info. Surprisingly, Cambodia, or at least Phnom Penh imports much of its food from Thailand. The reason, transportation infrastructure. It is difficult to move bulk goods around most of the country, while there are good highways between PP and the Thai border, as well as a few other important cities. Also, there are many Philippine nationals in the city, teaching English and working in general as professionals.

To put aside myths about the city it is not a haven for sex fiends, pedophiles or criminal activity in general. In fact PP seems a depressingly respectable city, not to say that hookers cannot be found, but they can be found in every city of the world. You can walk safely around PP at night. Safe that is from human ill-will. There are dangers, to start: traffic, traffic is a bitch in PP. Lots of cars, lots and lots of bikes, and seemingly no order. This last is not true, there is order, but it is an informal order, also, these vehicles travel slowly, maybe 30kms an hour. The trick is, look, take care, and cross the road. If driving a vehicle, blow that horn to let people know you are approaching an intersection, and slow down. Easy. Next danger: footpaths, they are broken, jumbled and under repair. Watch where you put your feet and you will be ok. The way to avoid danger, keep your eyes open, mind alert, and don't drink alcohol. Easy.

Sex/pedohilia? From a magazine article I read on the subject, from a copper I met last year who works with the task force, and from what I have seen in PP and in SEA, the vast majority of pedo activity takes place within the family, as everywhere. The percentage of foreigners involved is minuscule.

Overall, Phnom Penh is a pleasant city in which to live. The main streets are wide and broad, a legacy of the French design. There are a good range of services, albeit not as broad as say Bangkok. And the good folk of the city are friendly towards foreigners.

It is a nice place to visit, a good place to work (as a foreigner), but to be frank, not that exciting as a tourist destination. There is not a great deal to see in the city. There are of course the standard features: a museum, the royal palace, a few temples, but apart from that, a quiet, 3rd world working city. Worth a look, but head to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat, and then back home to the world.

at the border.

Major Stupa, next to the train station.

a Moon festival cake.

2 pretty girls, at a bakery.

Cambodian fruit, no details.

a tasty vegetarian meal, $3.

my preferred hotel.

A classy nightclub.

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