Cowboys and Kymers
photo credit: Dave_B_
’ve always preferred to think that you can get inside a country’s psyche faster by sitting in bars talking with the people who live there. My night-time walking tour of East Berlin’s seedy history and seedier bars led by a man dressed as a magician is a treasured memory of a great weekend blighted only by a tedious afternoon looking at the Reichstag. Skipping out on the “cultural” attractions of Barcelona to reel blindly around the Gothic Quarter, ambling from dive bars to squat parties was one of my greatest ever decisions. I know I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower, but I can’t remember a thing about it. I do however, remember every moment (relatively speaking) of the evening after, spent drinking absinthe and arguing with an irate Parisian arts student over the merits of Paris as an “more iconic movie location than New York”. It is a tried and tested method of travel that so far in my life has done me well, and thus I arrived in Cambodia, a country which would test this theory to it’s limits, not least because it’s virtually impossible to find a Cambodian
Real poverty is hard to take. It is even harder to take after a sleepless night in Bangkok, a cramped sweaty minibus to the Cambodian border and a bumpy, life-threatening car ride to Siam Reap spent dodging potholes the size of swimming pools. The largest town near Angkor Wat and on the main road between the Thai border and Phenom Phen, Siem Reap has a thriving tourist industry. Consequently, according to the most base laws of economics, it also has a thriving panhandling industry. To walk down the street here unprepared is like turning a corner in your neighbourhood and finding yourself inside a game of Resident Evil. The emaciated and the limbless are everywhere. Dirty, stick-thin children are begging for food on every corner. Those with stumps are waving them in your face mumbling memorized pleas for cash. It can be a bit much to take – so I remembered something PJ O’Rourke once said about travelling in 3rd world countries; that one should never run out of whiskey. So I took his advice and immediately got drunk, discovered it all much less stressful and decided on the spot to evacuate Siem Reap and head straight for the capital, bottle of whiskey in hand.
Phnom Phen is a city that carries it’s reputation before it. Murder, genocide, corruption, prostitution. This old city with it’s crumbling French Colonial architecture seems on the surface a relaxed, if impenetrable series of rubbish strewn boulevards and markets, of Kymer beer gardens and private security forces. The motorbike taxis (motos) and shoddy tuk-tuks amble about at half the pace of any other South East Asian city. Bangkok on valium is perhaps the easiest way to discribe it. Yet scratch beneath the surface and there is a vibrant social life in this city, with 24hour clubs and bars and a multicultural society consisting of the native Kymers, Vietnamese, Chinese, and large numbers of western expats, drawn by tales of cheap drugs, cheaper booze and the thrill of living in a city reputedly overrun with guns and danger. The expat community in Phnom Phen is close knit. They all seem to look out for one another, and given the tempestuous nature of politics who could blame them. One bar owner told me of a syndicate that had been formed between a group of European bar owners. Should the capital ignite in riots, civil war or the random violence that is always simmering, they will all be evacuated to Thailand within twenty-four hours. They also seem to have all figured out the whiskey rule for themselves. Finding a sober expat is akin to turning an oil tanker in a puddle.
Phnom Phen can be divided into three sections for the average western visitor, lakeside, riverside and street 51.
Lakeside consists of a collection of narrow rambling grimy alleyways opening onto restaurants, internet cafes, low cost accommodation and loud bars catering to the drunken, stoner European clique. Anybody who has ever spent any time on Bangkok’s infamous Koh Sahn Road can just imagine a darker, grimier, more intimidating version and you’re coming close to the idea.
That many westerners come to Phnom Phen and rarely see outside of lakeside is a worrying cultural imbalance. Kymer culture on the lakeside consists almost entirely of sevice industry staff, prostitutes and tuk-tuk and moto drivers who are more inclined to turn down fares so they can hang out and sell drugs to westerners. So perfect is their sales pitch that it can take a few minutes before you realise that that mumbling, chanty sound that drifts by you every fifteen seconds as you walk down the street is actually a breathless offer for, well, for whatever you want; “heymanyouwan’an’tingweeds’unkcokeexstacyheroin?” Adnausium. Hour after hour. Night after night.
Riverside is the more “upmarket” side of the Phnom Phen tourist trail. Consisting of about 2km of road running along the side of the Mekong and Tonle Sap tributary this is where you can find more upmarket restaurants and bars, including the infamous Phnom Phen Foreign Correspondants Club, a spot where a pizza will cost you more than the average Cambodian makes in a month – about $12. Other bars and cafes along the riverfront are similarly upmarket, but the lazy charm of the capital is perhaps best observed from here. My perennial Phenom Phen memory is of sitting outside one of these cafes, marvelling at the first good cup of coffee I’d found since arriving in Asia while shooing away the group of street children trying to sell me books I’d already read. A particularly emphatic burst of beeps from a moto horn caused me to turn just in time to see a group of moto drivers miss a loose elephant that was casually strolling down the side of the street. Nobody else paid any attention, as if this were one of the more common traffic infringments that Cambodians deal with on a daily basis. The strange thing is that this may be true.
Just off Riverside everything becomes decidedly more downmarket. The bars along here are smaller and seedier, Tom Waits would really be at home in any of them. Most are run hands-on by westerners who have settled in Phnom Phen for one reason or another. The Red Fox, run by an young Australian named Rick, is perhaps one of the more typical tales – he’s one of the breed that came to Phnom Phen on holiday, fell in love with the lifestyle and decided that opening a bar would be a good way to pass the foreseeable future. Right across the road is Bogie & Bacalls, a dimly lit, chrome and neon bar with pretentions towards classiness run by a retired Englishman named Shane. Having made enough to retire early, Shane had moved to Phnom Phen to live the easy life. Constantly proppped up at the end of the bar in front of the air-conditioner, Shane is a lively, welcoming and gregarious presence, working constantly to draw together the disparate personalities propping up his bar. In here I found North Australian miners (who insist on the distinction of North Australian to distinguish them from their “poncier” sounthern countrymen), retired SAS soliders who refused to discuss the specifics of their careers (until later in the night) and the various flotsam and jetsum of Phnom Phen based expats – english teachers, NGO workers and enterprising buisnessmen with their fingers in the various mining rights that the Cambodian government has been selling off over the past few years. Even the Killing Fields memorial to the Cambodian genocide has been sold to a Japanese firm, meaning that all proceeds from the gate so to their Japanese shareholders, not to survivors of the the KR’s regime or the families of the deceased.
After hours, everyone in Phnom Phen drifts toward Street 51, a strip of late night and 24hour bars, dubious food stands and even more dubious women. It’s on 51 that you will find the infamous Heart of Darkness club. Once the city’s epicentre of vice and late night hedonism, the club made headlines a few years ago when an angry customer punctuated the end of an argument by lobbing a grenade onto the dancefloor and disappearing out the door. Management have cleaned the place up since, mostly by employing a small army of private security to frisk every punter who walks in for firearms which, if found, must be checked in with your coat to be returned when you leave. This practice is not unusual at the larger bars and clubs. Some small bars rely on an honour code to keep their customers from waving their firearms about. Some preferred to display their own arsenal behind the bar. Either way, it seemed to work. Everyone I spoke to said the the city had calmed down a lot in the past few years.
Most long term residents are more than happy to entertain you with their dangerous exploits in Phnom Phen. They’ll tell you about the time they had a gun pulled on them on their way home. About the time they saw a gunfight break out during a political rally. About the time they saw a 12 year old shoot his friend over a $2 debt. Often they’ll tell you about all this without even being asked. These stories are a form currency amoung the expat community, a way of earning your stripes. It is the TEFAL worker’s equivalent of having a collection of ears hanging form your dog-tags. If you’ve seen a shooting or had a gun pulled on you, then you’ve made it – you’ve been “in the shit”. Some foreigners who had been in the city for a few months or more confessed that they had never seen a robbery or a weapon pulled in threat during their tenure in tones that suggested thay were either embaressed or disapointed with this lack of “experience”.
And there luys the hypocrisy at the centre of the expat community in Phnom Phen. Most have come to live in a new culture with ideals of helping in some way by teaching, by working in NGO’s, but instead they find themselves living inside a western community, albeit one that eats a lot of noodles and rice. They can throw off the expected standards of behaviour we live with here. It’s ok to be drunk or stoned or hung-over all the time, because chances are your boss is too. It’s ok to wake up in a different bed every day, because sooner or later that aqward one night stand is going to have to move home. Kymer culture and society is reduced to an outside spectacle, a constant circus which creates a never ending stream of anecdotes to be traded over bars. No-one claims to understand them, but even less seem to have even tried. What truely draws the expats here is the lawlessness, the possibility of violence and danger around every corner. It is, to them, a zoo where you’re allowed to climb into the monkey pen. A safari that allows you to get out of your car and run with the lions.
All of which is incredibly unfair to the Kymer people themselves. Their country’s reputation for violence does them a great injustice. Never before had I met a race of people with such a propencity to smile. They show a great interest in the outside world and a great pride for their own country. They look upon the antics of the foreigners in their country with a bemused indifference – an attitude I could never get to the bottom of. Some of the expats I spoke to cynically put it down to the KR’s policy of eliminating everyone with an education in their work camps and killing fields. The KR “dumbed” the country down, leaving a population of ignorant serfs to repopulate the country – a sort of nightmare reverse eugenics – or so I was told. On one of my final nights in the city a tuk-tuk driver I was talking to did manage, in that typically understated way only Kymers seem to have mastered, to give me something of an answer. We had been talking about the July elections – at the time only a few weeks away – in which the Cambodian Democratic Party (the legitimate leftovers of the KR) had been threatening a return to civil war and the “days of Pol Pot” if they were not reelected. Asked about his opinion on the legitimacy of this threat the tuk-tuk driver shrugged. “It is ok for westeners to worry about our government,” he said’ “they have good jobs, make good money. I work 14 hours a day, sometimes more. I have no time to think. My family cannot eat my opinions.” I was stunned. I wished everyone I had met over the previous nine days and nights could have been there to hear it. But I went home instead, promising myself to return to this city as soon as i could, and for once I didn’t try to haggle over the fare.
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