September 22, 2007

Coarse Cambodia
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I'd heard that Cambodia turns into a muddy puddle during the rainy season, and the watery view from the air seemed to confirm that we'd arrived in the country at the tail end of such things.

US$20 gets you a tourist visa on arrival in Cambodia, and the conveyor belt of officials that my passport moved down looked almost German in efficiency. One final stamp from immigration control, and Tatiana were in another new country together.

The first thing I thought of on the way into town was how brown everything was. It seemed like everything was awash in the color of dirt. The second was what a wild contrast the capital of Cambodia was between that of Singapore—wow.

Homes in the city are constructed in the most peculiar manner—built very narrow and very tall. The average width of each building is only one-room wide, but built up several stories. It's almost as if land were at such a premium people could only afford to buy a small plot, and then use it to build up as high as they can rationalize.

The young children in this country love to be photographed, and I love to photograph them. These are just normal kids found out on the streets, having fun, or playing with homemade lanterns dangling from sticks in the evening hours. Interestingly, the kids seem to know what a digital camera is, as they request to see the digital display with their image after photos have taken (and always laugh and smile when shown).

There seems to be a total lack of mini-markets in Phnom Penh. There are no 7-11s or anything of that sort. Sometimes it's very difficult to find a place to get a drink while walking on the street—it's like these people are camels or something.

Phnom Penh has also got some slow ass Internet connections. I'm really surprised with the lack of Internet cafés—probably the fewest of any Asian country that I've seen, and certainly the slowest of any capital city I've been in.

Ahh, but the city certainly makes up for many things with their blended fruit shakes—super sweet because of the condensed milk and sugar.

Getting Around

Tatiana and I are harassed for tuk tuk and motorbike rides everywhere. And it's not just the professional scumbags either; I'm absolutely amazed with the sheer number of regular locals on motorbikes that will try and solicit rides when they seen a foreigner on the streets (and certainly don't offer respectable prices, either). Hearing "Sir, motorbike?" as someone putters past you is an experience we get every few minutes when outside.

There appears to be a complete and utter lack of public transport infrastructure in this city—that is to say, there are no buses. And always having to negotiate for transport (when 9/10 drivers want to screw you over royally) is as exhausting as walking in the heat. This aspect of Phnom Penh is really affecting our happiness level with the city.

You just don't see that many pedestrians in Phnom Penh. Everyone's got a motorbike or is riding in a tuk tuk or bicycle rickshaw. Walking here is wildly dangerous, and just venturing out for the afternoon frightens the crap out of Tatiana regularly.

Crossing the street is not for the tame of heart. It doesn't bother me much, but I honestly can't imagine the majority of people from the United States being comfortable with it. There is practically zero traffic control (or let up in flow), and one feels the constant sensation of wind from the passing motorbikes nearly clipping your body as you walk. I'm happy my parents can't see me doing this stuff.

Check out this video (10 seconds, 5MB) of what a typical street crossing looks like. It's no wonder a defensive, five-month pregnant Tatiana fears for the safety of her belly. The important thing to remember is to never run, and avoid stopping in the middle of the street—motorists will wash around you like a moving rock in the middle of a stream.

Disappointments

Psar Tuol Tom Pong—more commonly referred to by foreigners as the Russian Market (it's where the Russians shopped during the 1980s). I was hoping this would be the spot that Tatiana could finally get some clothing that would fit her now very large belly. My guidebook says:

Made in Cambodia

This is the market where all the Western clothing made in garment factories around Phnom Penh turns up. There is a good range of T-shirts, boxer short, and shoes, all at just 10% of the price paid back home. Popular brands include Gap, Colombia, Calvin Klein, Quicksilver, Aigle, and Next. Bargain hard as thousands of tourists pass through here each month.

Sadly, this place was pretty much a total wash. Not only is it very, very small, but it's also mostly shoes. Tatiana walked away with a stretchy shirt and trousers.

The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda—home to a life-sized gold Buddha decorated with 9,584 diamonds (the largest of which weighs 25-carats), another made of Baccarat crystal, and a floor covered with over 5,000 silver tiles. Said to be remarkably similar to its counterpart in Bangkok, the Royal Palace in Cambodia sounded like a cheaper alternative than a visit to the one in Thailand (which I refuse to do because of the price of admission).

Now overpriced at US$6.25, the cost for admittance has more than doubled in the past two years. I always compare things against the price of my room, and Tatiana were both turned off by the thought of each of us paying for more than a night's accommodation in the city to see this thing. I'm a price-sensitive consumer, and these people found my threshold: US$3, yes; US$4, possibly; US$5, doubtful; US$6, no way.

Tatiana was also required to cover her shoulders to enter the palace—her tank top was not permissible for entry. The story is the same in Bangkok, but at least there they offer garb to rent (free of charge), as opposed to the vendor selling overpriced shawls to those who forgot or didn't know. We blew the palace off and didn't look back.

I think we were both ready to split from Phnom Penh days ago, but were waiting to get the lab results back from Tatiana's pregnancy checkup. Tomorrow we're finally heading off to Battambang, where we'll be just a boat ride away from the Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor.

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