Not a Party in Cambodia

Alison and I got to Cambodia early today (Tuesday); we’re staying at the Raffles hotel in Phnom Penh. This hotel is really nice – apparently the Raffles chain is super amazing, though I’ve never stayed in one before. This place has the feel of old colonial French Vietnam combined with old-school military dormitory. It’s nice, and relaxing, and yet kind of awkward.
Getting to the hotel was pretty easy, as we’d had a car come for us. But the streets were crazy – lots of motorcycles, toyotas (literally, only toyotas), tuk-tuks and bicycles. Kind of what I expected. But nobody walking on the street. And no foreigners. Hmmmmm. Maybe that should have been my first cue.
Alison was immediately put off and her first reaction once we got to the hotel was “I’m staying right here”. I, of course, want to go out and explore some temples! So after a nap and some food and sorting out my laundry situation etc, I decided to head out for a walk to the temple that is about three blocks away. Then I figured I’d walk over to the riverside, which is just a few more blocks.
Exiting the front gates to the “hotel compound” (guarded by two not-too-friendly men), I’m immediately set upon by three guys – two with motorcycles, and one with a tuk-tuk, all of whom want to give me a ride. Even though I’m out for a walk. One of them follows me for awhile and eventually I dispatch him by taking his name card. After I leave him the tuk-tuk driver keeps following me and chatting me up. I walk all the way to the temple with this guy following and not taking “no” for an answer. (Walking through a road-side eatery on milk crates, and then a couple people who’d set up some stuff for sale.) Eventually he gives up when I tell him I might be looking at temples and things two days from now, but not today. I swear he will be at the front gate that day…
The temple I visited was a small temple on a 27-meter-high circular hill. After braving the traffic (basically, you walk through the fast-moving traffic and don’t make any sudden moves), I reached the path which goes around the hill. I didn’t get very far until I was once again set upon by a couple would-be drivers, who I dispatched with a wave and without looking up. Soon thereafter I was joined by a few small children asking for change, and then a little further, one of them took an old blind man by the (one) hand who was an amputee, and he held out a bucket for change. Not too much further, and the tuk-tuk driver found me again and started chatting some more. Then a few more kids. Argh!
I realized at this point that I was a stranger in a strange land. I don’t really have any clothes with me that don’t scream out “Westerner”. I was wearing black pants (yeah, and it’s hot here, so sue me), sneakers, a “Game Developer” blue T-shirt, and a PlayStation baseball cap. I was trying not to look up and catch people’s attention, but on my whole three-block walk to the temple, around it, and back, which took about ten minutes, I was solicited for change or rides perhaps 20 times. And I thought San Francisco was bad!
I punted once I reached the temple. Decided to come back to the hotel and do some email. More solicitations and dodging traffic and arguing with Mr. Tuk-tuk and his friends at the gate. Finally I just rudely walked away. Perhaps I’ll venture out again when Jason shows up, that’ll make it a little easier. Actually, tomorrow Alison and I will fly to Siem Reap, where Ankgor Wat and the Tomb Raider temple Ta Prohm are. I’m sure that will be an interesting experience. For now though, I’m going to sit here in the hotel with my goddamn latte and my feet up on the table and do some work.
I’ve always been frustrated by this whole “walled compound” thing. But right now, I’m glad it’s here.






4 responses to “Not a Party in Cambodia”

  1. roBin Avatar

    A good friend of mine spent a summer in Cambodia as part of his graduate work – sounds pretty much exactly like his own experiences. Being a scruffy grad student made *some* difference, but not much. In the long run, you’re always going to be insanely rich by most standards there, and that means you’ll get the attention.
    I hope the rural experiences are less hectic – I should think you will enjoy them more. I certainly found those to be my favorite experiences in China.
    PS: Try not to feel guilty about haggling. It’s a game – enjoy it!

  2. Lee Avatar

    Oh no Mark! You did not stay in the hotel only? Please…come on guys – it’s a great city. We walked all over and with backpacks no less. yes they will bug you but that is part of the charm. You must get out and eat at Friends – it supports getting kids off the street and you will be rewarded with a lovely Khamer experience. Good god if you are having issues here wait until you get to Vietnam and Bangkok. I think had you been a twosome they would have left you far more alone.
    Siem Reap is amazing but remember Cambodia is truly a 3rd world country – with zero infastructure and terrible corruption in the governement. After all the Prime Minister was a member of the Khamer Rouge who killed 90% of the elderly educated population. Civil War was only 25 years ago.
    Mark – I know you can step outside your comfort zone long enough to get a true experience. They won’t hurt you – I promise – I did it for 3 months and came back in one piece and I’m a girl ;-). Just try and go look and see what there is to really see – not what your tour book tells you to notice.
    If you don’t you’ll come back and say “oh Cambodia was really dirty”- instead of “oh my god, it’s a world heritage site and it’s amazing with the kindest people”. We found Cambodians to be amongst the friendliest we met along our way – you just need to remove the padding and let them in.
    With that said – a tuk tuk taut becomes a pain in the ass and I lost it on some guy in Bangkok one day – in retrospect it was funny to see him so offended after 1 mile of harassing us.
    BTW – the Toyotas all come from hijecked freighters on their way from Japan 😉
    Go forth and adventure!

  3. johnwbyrd Avatar

    Sorry the experience was not what you were hoping for. But at least your experience was a first-hand one, and yours, and not read from a travel manual. Props to you for making the attempt. Now, give me a quarter?

  4. markdeloura Avatar

    Thanks, Robin, Lee and John! If I’d had more time in Phnom Penh I would have explored it a bit more; after returning from Siem Reap we had little time left before jetting out of there. Sometime I may have to come back and explore that city. Now that I’ve experienced Siem Reap and Saigon, I’m a little more experienced in the haggling and the bothering and that whatnot, and it doesn’t bother me. I think it was just the transition from Dubai that screwed me up! 🙂