Monday, August 15, 2011

Phnom Penh - Capital City of Cambodia

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is a capital city of Cambodia and there are 1 of 10 Cambodians lives in Phnom Penh, with its frantic traffic, glitzy discotheques, restaurants, extravagant corruption-fed luxury and urban slum squalor. The rest are scattered across two dozen other provinces, some in small provincial capitals and most in tiny villages and settlements pinpricked among the rice paddies and forests of rural Cambodia. The countryside produces the great bulk of Cambodia's wealth, in the form of illegally felled and smuggled timber, gems scratched from the earth by massive Thai sifting machines and mud-covered workers alike, rice planted and harvested by lines of peasants doubled over at their task, and fish netted from the ever-dwindling Tonle Sap and its tributaries. One of the many explanations for the triumph of the Khmer Rouge in 1975 is that the peasants in the countryside were easy converts to an agrarian movement that promised to take away the ill-gotten gains of the urban exploiters. When the city folk were forced to the rice fields by the Khmer Rouge, these "new people" fell in droves under the backbreaking labor that the peasants were accustomed to.

24 years later, little has changed. The provincial towns have some of the signs of Phnom Penh's relative prosperity, but the countryside shows little sign that daily life has changed at all. In some ways it has progressed, if a few motorbikes and the ubiquitous karaoke video shops count as progress. In other ways, the countryside appears to have been left derelict; irrigation systems are broken or silted up, bridges are collapsed and replaced by single planks, and roads are reduced to bumpy, broken paths. In the video shops the peasants watch soap operas depicting wealthy urban Khmers at play, and in the off-harvest season some of them travel to Phnom Penh to work as moto-taxi or cyclo drivers, seeing first-hand the bright lights, the Mercedes-Benzes, and the excesses of a severely unbalanced society.

These ninety percent of Cambodians suffer yearly droughts and floods, and live under the thumbs of the ruling party's local chiefs, with little by way of health care or education to show for the international community's $2 billion in donations during the past six years. It is not hard to imagine that they might one day let their anger explode.

The traveler, however, will generally find people friendly and curious, proud of what little they have, and generous with it. One of my most prized experiences in Cambodia was a motorcycle trip I made with my friend Chris in August 1997. We planned to ride from Kompong Cham east along the Mekong in hope of reaching Kratie. On crossing to the left bank, the road marked on the map seemed not to exist. Perhaps it was under water (it was the wet season), or perhaps, like many roads marked on maps of Cambodia, it simply didn't exist. We were forced to endure a grueling eastward journey on the wreck of Highway 7, which a pouring rain quickly converted into a slippery mess of mud and edge-to-edge potholes. After numerous roadside fixes of our aging dirt bikes, using the usual strands of vine and bits of cardboard found in the road, we turned left toward the town of Dambae (which reached perhaps its greatest fame when it was prominently shown on the map on the cover of Newsweek magazine's Generation Global issue in September 1998) and the Mekong, thinking that if we reached the riverside town of Chhlong we might find a guesthouse.

But we reached Dambae at 5:30pm, when the skies were darkening. A friendly crowd gathered and between them informed us that the road ahead featured water crossings so deep that our motorcycles would be completely submerged. This was normal, you just push it through, drain the water out and wait for it to dry enough to start again. We ruled it out, realizing that this tiny crossroads town would be our stop for the night. Almost immediately, a diminutive, perky fellow offered up his home, and in fact his sleeping platform, to us. The evening began with fresh duck soup and ended in a Khmenglish conversation generously lubricated by Johnny Walker scotch fortified with the same duck's blood. Let nothing go to waste.

A different view

For another side of life in Phnom Penh, at least as some expats live it, see Ladies Who Lunch, by Victoria Stagg Elliott of The Cambodia Daily.

The foremost proponent of what he calls "the other Cambodia" as a destination is Ray Zepp, an instructor at Phnom Penh's business school. Any newcomer who plans to travel around Cambodia's provinces should pick up a copy of his book, The Cambodia Less Traveled, and the annexes to it that have come out later. The book is widely available in Phnom Penh's markets and stores serving foreigners. I have seen a good selection of the annexes for sale at the Last Home Guest House (qv).

Angkor Wat Temple

There are 2 ways to go to Angkor Wat. I suggest going up the river to the town of Siem Reap, near Angkor, by boat. It takes four to six hours, but you get to see the countryside and the riverine villages, many of which are populated by ethnic Vietnamese. Then fly back to Phnom Penh. There is usually no shortage of tickets for the boat or the plane, but you take your chances if you don't reserve.

Is the boat safe? You be the judge. I have seen fishers firing warning shots (they're angry over boats cutting their lines and nets). Also, boats have run out of fuel in the middle of the Tonle Sap lake, leaving the passengers stranded for hours in the blazing sun. One of them swamped at the dock in Siem Reap because of overloading, and yet another burst into flames in Kompong Chhnang because a guy was smoking while he sat on top of the drums that served as extra fuel tanks. Also, the smaller speedboats are grossly overpowered, go too fast, and if one was to hit something or go out of control on the lake there would be many casualties.

OK, so it's not for everybody. But I would still go by boat. Bring earplugs and drinking water, and if you plan to ride on the roof (recommended) use plenty of sunblock and bring a scarf (krama) to tie around your head.

For one account of this boat trip, see part 5 of Patrice's travelogue on this site. Tickets to the Angkor temple complex run $20 for one day, $40 for three days and $80 for a week. You're cheating yourself if you go for less than three days. Speaking of cheating, you might wonder where the money goes. See Gordon Sharpless's Cambodia Today site for an excellent explanation of this and some of the other modern mysteries of the temples.

See Canby Publication's Visitor's Guide to Siem Reap for more.


Buses to Sihanoukville, Cambodia's main beach town, run all day from early morning until early afternoon. The trip takes about 3.5 hours and costs about $5. The bus companies are near the southwest corner of Psar Tmei (the New Market in the middle of Phnom Penh). Just go there and take the next bus. If there isn't a convenient one, go the the street off the NW corner of the market and you will find many car and van taxis going to Sihanoukville. $5/person to be stuffed in there, $20 if you want the whole car (which also means you can leave immediately instead of waiting for the car to fill. Specify "air-con" if you want it, and choose a car with the steering wheel on the left side if you are concerned about safety.

The trip to Sihanoukville is generally safe. I have only heard of one case of a bus crash, and one case of a mass robbery of the whole busload. As of a year ago, there was one checkpoint near Sihanoukville where police want to see foreigner's passports. We didn't bring ours, but they simply gave up and let us pass.

See Canby Publication's Visitor's Guide to Sihanoukville for more.

Kompong Chhnang

Kompong Chhnang is at the the southern end of the Tonle Sap lake. Boats from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap stop on demand at its port, while Route 5 to Battambang passes by the main part of town. The two parts are connected by a road along a long dike. The guesthouses in Kompong Chhnang are reputed to be unpleasant. The only real hotel is the Rithisen, facing the trash-strewn riverside. It has overpriced rooms at $10/$12 with AC (in Battambang you get satellite TV, a refrigerator, and hot water for that price).

The Rithisen will face competition as soon as the Halfway House restaurant/bar (tel 026-988-621) adds guest rooms, now under construction. The owner of the Halfway House is Paul Greaves, formerly of the British Special Forces and later the project manager for the enormous, if stalled, Kompong Chhnang cargo airport project. His restaurant is about 1 km north of town on Route 5, and is amazingly well-supplied and equipped--you would not know you were in the Cambodian countryside. Whether that's a plus or a minus is up to you.

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