Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A Taste, Look + Feel of Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The Okay Boutique Hotel, made and decorated with old growth rainforest hardwood, one of Cambodia's prime resources. Classy, for sure, and the reason the area around Phnom Penh looks barren and brown.
beautiful interior of the "Okay Boutique Hotel"
Superstitious? No floor 13. 
The ubiquitous motorbikes of SE Asia whiz by you, missing you by whiskers as you traverse the streets. Most spew toxic and visible fumes, but hey, it's economical transportation.
Walking down the street you'll have to avoid the occasional pile of garbage, a combination of plastics, leaves, cardboard cartons, dirt, and bottles. In fairness, late at night, at least in the commercial districts, a man comes and manually scoops it between two large flat metal plates and transfers the trash heaps into a garbage truck.
outdoor corner barbershop
crazy wires all crossing
independence monument

here you'll get a more complete sense of what Phnom Penh is like/ feels like

night market entertainment
I venture out at night. A few years ago the streets were nearly dark. It still feels a little eerie, but today there far many more lights. Progress.
I pass various lady-bars/brothels, a gaggle of scantily clad women wearing too much make-up trying to beckon me inside.
At nearby markets vendors hawk wares ranging from local fruit, breads, and fowl, to candies and cheap souvenirs. The Cambodian financial system operates on the US dollar. If you need small change from handing over an Abe Lincoln it comes in the form of Cambodian currency, which, when touched, has the feel of monopoly money but is an actuality, worth less.
the palace of the the Cambodian King
Restaurants in prime locations of the capital cater primarily to tourists and government officials. You can eat a wonderful meal preset meal here at an Italian restaurant called Caravan consisting of appetizers, a glass of wine, a main course, and a scrumptious dessert for $12. Good luck getting that price back home.

While people seem generally friendly, there is undoubtedly a collectively felt trauma still present in the population from the genocide committed by the Pol Pot regime. Many of today's parents and elders grew up without families, forced into slave labor, witnessing atrocities, with nowhere to turn for help, a combination which rarely makes for a healthy mind. Sadly a gift bestowed upon the next generation.
Phnom Penh is not a must see, but if you do go, accept it for what it is. I'm doing my best.  
old woman at night market

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Touts- Making the Journey From the Thai/ Cambodian Border Exciting

Tout- attempt to sell (something), typically by pestering people in an aggressive or bold manner

I'm the sole remaining passenger on the shared van as my Thai transport pulls into her final destination. I exit out and hike 50 meters to the border, the locale is surprisingly quiet and tranquil. I flash my passport and walk across to Cambodia.
Thai/ Cambodian border 
To give credit where it's due, a metric in which the Cambodian government truly excels, scoring in the top 90 percentile worldwide, is corruption. As I'm beset by impoverished touts seeking to part me from the money I've just spent on a visa which has jumped in price by 150% since my last visit, I'm filled with sadness knowing I've handed over a couple days worth of their wages to help pay the lease on some government minister's Range Rover.

Strategies vary- some smile, some cajole, some threaten consequence, or give exaggerated and false information to justify an excessive fee. The presupposition all touts adhere to is that it's a short game/con and the goal to extract as money as they can; good faith bartering largely absent.
A British couple (the only Westerners to cross the border in the half-hour I was there) bargain on our mutual behalf for a ride to Phnom Penh. The tout negotiates hard, they back at him, while I sit back, slightly bemused, witnessing the acrimonious fight over a few dollars. At last we get a price we can all agree on.
"Hey, at least he speaks English," I remark as we're escorted to a SUV. Our tout barks at an older man sitting nearby in Cambodian, gruffly ordering us in as he hands the keys over.
"Apparently not," remarks my new British friend.
We're faced with a bait and switch, a driver who doesn't speak a word of English. When we complain, our tout barks back that we'll get where we need to go and walks away.
Not too far from the border, crossing a bridge
It's 5+ hours to the nation's capital from the border. The first third of the journey is surprisingly beautiful, as we drive through what is essentially a jungle, only waterways and the highway interrupting.
vast expanse of trees :) 
Our driver fearlessly passes slower trucks around blind bends, betting our lives that there isn't a car coming the opposite direction, as we cover our eyes like children at a horror film, high-stakes gambling being legal in Cambodia and all.
The jungle gives way; the further we move towards the country's center, the more sparse and arid the land appears, the greenery giving way to man-made brown and ugliness.

The ugly part of Cambodia as we near Phnom Penh
packed cattle car full of garment workers 
Closer to the capital, we arrive at a factory town. A shift of workers appears to have been let out en masse as carpooled vans and cattle trucks with standing room only transport garment workers back to their homes. These workers make $100 a month, their yearly income not even paying for a month's rent for a one bedroom apartment in Los Angeles. When workers decided to strike, the government sent in the army, killed a few of them, and banned public assembly. Hey, we all want cheap clothes right?

The reason for the traffic- factories letting workers go for the day. Look at how packed all the cars are

We arrive in Phnom Penh in the evening at the crowded river waterfront, the commercial center of town. Our driver has no idea where our hotel is located. We find a tuk-tuk driver who speaks English who sees our hotel name, and tells us it's quite far (4 km away) and demands $4 to take us there. "We can't fit three people plus luggage into your tuk-tuk," I tell him, "our driver will follow you and we'll give you the money upon arrival."
Three blocks later we pull up to the hotel. 4 km huh? I give the money to our driver as a tip instead. We walk away, I turn around to see a verbal scuffle over the bills; our driver soon hands them over. Fucking Touts.