It has admittedly been a while since the last update but please don’t get the impression that I’m losing interest in this thing. Excuse #1 is that I’ve been busy in Bangkok. Excuse #2 is that I slept through much of Saturday #84. Excuse #3 – which explains why I slept through Saturday #84 – is that Friday #84 involved a 14-hour bus ride between Phnom Penh and Bangkok and more than a few cold beers once they took the duct tape off my wrists and let me off that damn thing. But let’s not get ahead of the story; I’ll write more on that later. Without further adieu, I present to you ‘The Cambodian Top 10’ – a list of things that struck me as strange, interesting, or just downright good ideas.
1. You need tuk tuk? The motorcycle rules the road in Phnom Penn, but if you’re a tourist and don’t happen to own a bike, then hiring a tuk tuk is your best bet for getting around the city. Unlike India and China where tuk tuks are almost always 3-wheeled vehicles, the Cambodian tuk tuk is generally a 2-wheeled “chariot” that is hooked to a motorcycle with a single hitch. You can generally negotiate with the Cambodian drivers, but why bother when they quote $3 or $4 for a 15 minute ride across the city? Some even offer free wifi.
2. Micro Stores and Low Overhead: There are thousands of Phnom Penh businesses that occupy a space equivalent to a King size mattress. And some of those are the largest stores on their block! I came across one man who was selling various types of pipe from a space between two buildings that was at most 18 inches wide. The pipe was stored horizontally with only the ends of each piece of pipe visible from the street. One man + small stool + unused space between two buildings + 500 pieces of pipe = a viable business in Phnom Penh. I also chatted with a young guy who was selling pens and pencils from a blanket on the sidewalk. He was not homeless or looking for handouts; this was his business and he was very businesslike. He stocked one type of pencil, 5 types of pens, and a few padlocks, key rings and luggage tags. Everything was displayed on a towel that he placed on the sidewalk where he sat all day, ever day. When I left him I thought about the ridiculous amount of real estate that your average big box Staples store devotes to pens and pencils. It’s no wonder they sell my favourite fine tip pen for about $3 and the guy in Phnom Pen had the same pen for 25 cents. You can bet your last dollar that he was making a profit at 25 cents!
3. My Love / Hate Relationship with Brits: I hate to stereotype but I will, because I’m like that. About half the Brits I’ve come across have been named Nigel or Simon and give them a minute and you’ll hear words like twat, wanker, posh and literally. “I just died, literally,” is a common saying amongst Pommies. No, you didn’t “literally” die, Simon, because you’re standing in front of me and while a bit on the pale side, you appear to be alive. Many things that Brits say go right over my head and I grew up speaking a form of this language, so imagine how hard it must be for your average Cambodian. One night I was the last person sitting in 20-table restaurant when a British couple walked in. They were in their 70s, very posh (as they would say), and probably travelling with a private guide or as part of a small group tour. After inspecting the menu that was on display at the entrance, the man turned to the restauranteur and said: “Splendid, absolutely splendid. Shall you draw us a table?” Draw us a table? WTF does that mean? The restaurant owner gave them a look that said, “Would you like me to use a pen, pencil or perhaps charcoal?” The three of them stared at each other for 30 seconds – which felt like five minutes – until I intervened. “The place is empty. I think you can sit wherever you want,” I said. Good deed of the day: Check. The restauranteur was happy to snag two more customers before closing time and the Brits were happy to sit down and place their order. “Two ciders, old chap.” I left them to work that one out for themselves.
4. LGBT Nightlife: On my second last evening in Phnom Penh I came across a hopping little sidewalk cafe / bar by the name of Blue Chilli. I noticed a rainbow decal on the window before my gaydar kicked in. (I’m slipping, I know.) There were a dozen people on the patio while another 20 enjoyed the air conditioning inside. It was a nice mix of locals, tourists and expats. I felt it was my duty to check it out and report on it since a number of Trip Advisor postings suggest that gay bars are closing left, right and centre in Phnom Penh. Blue Chilli bills itself as the oldest gay bar in the city and it’s easily one of the most popular. The crowd was friendly, the staff a fun loving bunch, and the atmosphere was about as good as you can get in a 15′ x 30′ room with a bar, several tables and a small stage. They regularly present karaoke, live singers and drag shows, but on the night I visited the main attraction was the shirtless bartender who could juggle two bottles of beer with his pecs. Now that’s talent! (Oh, and the beer was about 1/15th the price of Woody’s in Toronto.)
5. Remind me not to open an auto insurance business in Phnom Penh: For starters, there aren’t that many cars in the city. However, every single family has at least one motorcycle or scooter and many would have several. At first glance the traffic Vietnam and Cambodia appears to be utter chaos, but if you step back and watch it for a while you’ll see that somehow everything works out just fine. There are very few collisions considering the the insane volume of traffic, the age of some of the drivers (kids as young as 12 driving scooters), the scarcity of anything resembling a lane marking, sidewalk, street sign, stop light, cross walk or any obvious form of law enforcement. Dozens of cars enter a four-way intersection at the same time and somehow they all make it where they want to go without any swearing, shaking of fists, pointing of fingers, or pulling of guns – which would probably be the case in a US city.
6. George Washington is Everywhere: I don’t know what it’s like in the countryside, but the US dollar is accepted EVERYWHERE in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Most businesses provide change in the local currency but they’d prefer to be paid in greenbacks. The other interesting thing about American money (and Euros) is that you can buy a one inch stack of it in the market for about $2. Funny though, they don’t accept these particular bills as payment for more bills. I tried.
7. Coffee Culture: With hundreds of hole-in-the-wall cafes, street vendors, and modern, western style franchised cafes, it’s not hard to get your Java fix in Cambodia. On most of the major intersections in the city at least one of the four corners will be a franchised cafe – Brown Cafe, Joma Cafe & Bakery, Costa Coffee, Gloria Jean’s, Paul’s Brew House, Chatime, Amazon Coffee, Starbucks to name a few. My favourite, Brown Cafe, had free, fast and unlimited wifi with a simple password that was printed on the receipt, power outlets in the floor at every table, indoor and outdoor seating, a mix of tables for 2, 4 or 6, long communal tables with stools and good lighting, leather sofas and comfy arm chairs with side tables, every coffee beverage you could possibly imagine, great food offerings, clear signage, eclectic music playing in the background, really good air conditioning and clean, stylish bathrooms. There wouldn’t be many coffee shops in Toronto that couldn’t learn something from Brown Cafe in Phnom Penh.
8. Hostels and Hotels: I stayed at three different Cambodian hotels (Harmony and Double Leaf in Phnom Penh and Reveal Angkor in Siem Reap) and two hostels (Reach and Aura in Phnom Penh) and after the better part of three weeks I only had one minor complaint. The staff at Harmony Hotel wouldn’t let my brother-in-law take a coffee up to his room. Beverages are strictly prohibited in the elevators, we were told, and no amount of pleading would change their mind. Policy is policy. Other than that, I think I got excellent value for between $35 and $55 a night at very nice hotels and $5 and $10 a night at two different hostels. All the properties were new or recently renovated, stylish, spotless, and staffed by exceptionally nice people. I had an issue at one property where I had accidentally double-booked through Expedia and the front-desk staff took care of it even though Expedia’s policy is “no refunds, no exceptions.”
9. Kids at Work: Mom and pop businesses are common in Phnom Penh where mom and pop generally live behind a curtain at the back of the shop if not in the shop itself. When the kids aren’t in school, they are working in the business or sleeping on a cot in the corner. On my last night in Phnom Penh I had dinner at a small indoor-outdoor restaurant where a boy about 7 or 8 took my order, delivered and opened my beer, helped plate the food, and delivered it to the table. He washed dishes while I ate. Later he brought me the bill and made change when I presented him with $10 for a $4 dinner. As I was leaving I handed him $3 and said: “You’re working very hard; this is for you.” He said thank-you and gave a little bow, then walked across the room and handed the money to his mother. I was a little sad but I guess that’s how it works in Cambodia.
10. Yes: The answer is always yes. No matter what you ask, the answer is always yes. I once showed a tuk tuk driver a business card from a hotel on 123 Street. “Do you know where that is?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “Really,” I questioned. “Yes. Get in. We go.” Those are five English words that every tuk tuk driver knows by heart. Fifteen minutes later we passed 141 Street, then 143 Street, then 145 Street. He didn’t seem to notice the pattern and I was reluctant to call him out because, well, he makes a living doing this and I’m just a dumb tourist. After we drove past 147 Street I told him to stop and I paid what we had agreed upon. It was just easier to get out and walk back to 123 Street than explain this crazy numbering concept to the driver. As I was approaching the hotel another tuk tuk slowed and and asked if I needed a ride. I said no then jokingly asked if he knew how to get to the CN Tower and Rogers Centre? “Yes. Get in. We go,” he replied.