Monday, January 03, 2011

In Phnom Penh

So we get a cab in the airport after changing currency and feeling like Rich McDuck because we gave up $300 and received 1,200,000 rials.  It is immediately clear that this is no Bangkok, but an amalgam of any ugly provincial town outskirt in Mexico or China but with hosts of motorcycles and tuk tuks and few cars. There are 2 tall buildings, almost no traffic lights and people employ a very intuitive, not to call it almost suicidal, way of driving. Long story short, we get to the hotel, I'm trying to pay the cab driver 36,000 rials (his $9 bucks) and he's not giving me the correct change, we discuss it, I leave, and about half an hour later or more, I realize that my wallet is not in my possession any more. I go down to the desk, where Hai, the desk guy, (my hero so far), starts making calls on my behalf. We have a very official looking taxi receipt, but there is no number to call. Soon enough, Hai calls me to tell me driver and wallet were found and are on their way. Just before I start canceling credit cards, etc. Oh, joy! The driver took about an hour and a half to get here, because apparently he decided to stop for dinner, but sure enough, he shows up with the wallet just as he found it.  Happy with happiness, we go down to the night market right across the street to start taking in the local culture (Guess what? Kids listlessly performing bad Western style pop songs on a stage, cheap jeans, cheap t-shirts, etc.). The market is mobbed. At first we think, hey, these hicks don't know how to walk (only New Yorkers know how to walk, mind you), as our way is constantly impeded by people who bump into us or slow us down. They also look at us funny and beats us why, it's not like we're the only strangers in town. Then Arepa notices her bag is slightly open. A little lady with no teeth bumps into her and says "tuk", and laughs. She's funny, so we laugh. Then we feel like we are surrounded by zombies and I look at little lady with no teeth and she isn't smiling anymore. She is majorly annoyed for some reason and looks like she means business. At about the same time, somebody brazenly tries to open Arepa's backpack (inside is a camera the size of a small African nation).  Then we go full commando. We realize they know how to walk allright, and we are surrounded by a gang of very determined but none too subtle lady pickpockets. So we squeeze our belongings as tight as we can and get out of the human river. A rather paradoxical introduction to Phnom Penh.  Whereas Bangkok, a huge city, felt relaxed and unconcerned, super sweet, this is a rough little town that feels like the Wild West. People here are both sweet and gracious but more in your face about your presence here. It feels very aggressive after Bangkok. It is also dirt poor. A textbook example of poverty and underdevelopment.
We walk around by ourselves after 9:30 pm, and find the city almost forlorn, super dirty and not particularly welcoming on a Sunday night. Many streets are very dark, sidewalks broken and it feels a little forbidding but not unsafe. The next day a chorus of warnings cries out from the internet: leave your valuables in the hotels, be careful with purse snatchers, they throw bricks at tourists, etc. It's not as bad as that, but it is pretty desperate.
In the morning things look different. One can see that it could or must have been a charming town before war and madness ravaged it. It has beautiful wide boulevards. In spurts, it looks like Polanco in Mexico City (but there's a park where there are monkeys on the trees). It has pockets of former grandeur, but it is a dump (however, a dump with character, which makes it more of a honky tonk). The river view at night is not too impressive and in broad daylight it's actually ugly, a first as rivers go, in my experience.  There is little infrastructure. Things are cheap, yes, but then the cheap paradox happens, where everything is so cheap that you start splurging on tuk tuks, getting way overpriced and you don't care. So all those millions run fast.

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