Despite all the things wrong with this city; the dust, the insanity of it all, the traffic, the heat, the devastation from which is it still recovering, and the unbridled capitalistic ventures of the money-hungry, Phnom Penh has a lot of really cool stuff to offer people.
After seeing the killing fields with the English girls and the French girl, we switched out with an American woman and headed for the riverside to seek out some dinner. There is a street near the riverside completely lined with restaurants which use “Happy” like a prefix. “Happy pizza,” “Happy Khmer,” “Happy…” This word happy is the local way of saying “with weed in it.”
Apparently, you can get all sorts of food mixed in with cannabis oil and get high off your dinner. The women I was with went for happy pizza, and I just got a normal one, because I hate the feeling of being high, especially in a new city. But the food itself, it turns out, is just okay. Out on the street, you can buy real stuff from anyone. Literally every person standing on the street is there loaded with all sorts of drugs you can buy for practically nothing.
“Hey, you want happy?” someone asked me as I got out of the tuk tuk to look at the restaurants.
“Happy. You happy? Sticky weed for you my friend,” he said, pulling out a giant bag of weed.
“Oh my god, no!” I said, walking away.
“Did that guy just offer you weed?” one of the women asked.
Another man on the street put his mouth next to my ear.
“You want happy sticky weed, my brother?” All I could do was slow blink and keep walking. In the two or three minutes it took to walk down the street, I was offered weed at least six times, and cocaine twice, meth once. One guy even followed me down the street and asked several times. But no, he thought, of course this guy wants to be high! Everyone does! He’s just playing hard to get…
Inside the restaurant wasn’t much better. Little children with coat hangers came bearing a bunch of bracelets on them.
“3 for a dollar! 3 for a dollar!” they repeated, looking sternly at us like they expected us to cough up the money.
“Te, arkhun,” I repeated. No thanks. One little girl responded to me with “I DON’T SPEAK CAMBODIAN,” and stomped off like I’d taken her parents away or something.
Another place worth visiting is the “Asia Europe Café,” which is a patisserie from which you can buy all sorts of European style sweet breads and cakes and stuff for really cheap. I got a whole box for dinner for under $2.
A really cool rooftop bar and hostel I’ve spent some time at is “11 Happy Backpackers,” which is a great place to meet other travelers and pay for overpriced drinks while enjoying the breeze from up high, out of the way of all the dust that plagues the streets. At night they gather the people in the bar to play drinking games on the tables and play loud club music so people start dancing. It’s like my party refuge from the rest of the city.
My very first meal after not eating for three days was at Mike’s Burgers, which was actually really good for a burger place, even by American standards. It’s really expensive for the area, running between $4-8 per burger depending, but it’s worth it if you haven’t eaten anything in days and all you want is a western food kick.
The bathrooms in basically all of SE Asia are nearly always covered in water. The toilet seats, the ground, and the walls, depending on how often the bathroom is used for showering (oh, and the bum gun that you use to clean your butt) contribute to this phenomenon. I like to describe bathrooms here as water parks designed for cube people.
The Tuol Tom Poung market was popular with Russians in the eighties, so they’re referred to by tourists as the Russian markets. You can buy anything there, from fans to TV cables, sacks of corn to tailored suits, fake Rolex watches and wooden carvings of the Buddha and various other eastern images. I went there for hippy pants ($2 after some haggling).
The day I was supposed to leave Phnom Penh, finally, I bought a bus ticket for $9 to Sihanoukville, a small city on the southern coast of Cambodia. From there, I’d be able to leap around to some islands and celebrate my birthday in relative paradise. But when I went to the bus station to get on the bus, I sat in my seat knowing full well something was very wrong.
My head started to feel cold, my arms became very weak and it felt like I had a fever. My stomach felt too full for the small bit of food I’d had for lunch, expecting a five hour bus of torture on the Cambodian roads (which I wouldn’t even really call roads). The guy next to me asked if I was okay and I pointed to my stomach and then to my face, making a pained expression. He got a few plastic bags for me from the driver, and I just stared at them. I figured the symptoms would let up in just a few minutes, and I wasn’t about to waste $9 unless it was an emergency. But as the bus was just about to get on the highway, I decided I needed to get off. I felt like I was going to throw up, and if food poisoning was resurfacing there was no way I’d want to spend five hours with forty other people on a little rickety bus. I signaled to him that I was getting off and he let me out of the seat, but the bus driver didn’t quite understand what was happening. One of the local women sitting at the front of the bus looked at me and pulled a little vial of balm out.
“You want?” she said, shoving it in my face.
“What–?” I was disoriented by my symptoms and I was in a quickly declining state. All I wanted was to get off the bus.
“Here! ALL BETTER!” she said, as she began to put gobfuls of the icy hot balm in my nose, on the sides of my face, my temples, and my forehead. I just slow blinked and wondered how terrible I must look for a total stranger to be okay putting their fingers in my nose.
“Arkhun,” I said. “Thanks.” And then I made the bus driver stop on the side of the road and immediately ran out, caught a moto driver home for $2 and went directly to bed, booking another three nights in this forsaken city of dust.
The first day passed without anything really happening, but on my second night stuck in the city, I had the whole night busy. Justine, a French woman who was in Cambodia studying theater and shadow puppetry on a grant from the French government (France has their shit together) with whom I’d visited the killing fields invited me out to a traditional Khmer opera. The cost was a little high for my liking ($15), but I really felt a need to experience something cultural and it’s never bad to support the arts. So Jules came with us and we got to see “The Story of Mak Therng.”
An old man, Mak Therng, and his young and beautiful wife (whose name I cannot remember) are happily living together until the wife is stolen away by the “all-powerful” prince because he wants to do dirty things to her. He threatens her life if she speaks the truth about what happens as Mak Therng seeks justice from the king, and only after a bunch of ceremonial stuff and hiding a small child in a drum to overhear conversations between the accused does the truth come out. As the wife is reunited with her husband, the prince stabs her in the gut (sort of by accident but not really), and the prince is subsequently sentenced to death by the king so that justice is served (but in reality, the moral of the story is that there is no justice in the world). It was delightfully racist (there was an “Indian” silk merchant with heavy eyebrow makeup and overly exaggerated lines and poses) and sexist (the only line the wife had was “Mak Therng! My dear Mak Therng!” over and over for an hour), but it was a lot of fun, very entertaining, and the vocal and art styles were so much different than anything I’m used to. It was very impressive.
The other issue is that during the Khmer Rouge’s rule, most of the master artists in Cambodia were murdered. The company that has been putting together these performances now has sought out the survivors so they can pass art forms on to the next generation. As a result, we can see daily performances at the National Museum with subtitles in English displayed above the stage. It’s definitely worth checking out.
I wasn’t feeling that ill and went to 11 Happy Backpackers once again to hang out with my new good Dutch friend Jules and his entire group of fellow volunteers. Some local kids were breakdancing on the floor when we arrived.
There were 14 people headed for Koh Rong, an island off the south coast of Cambodia near Sihanoukville, for the weekend. Their bus was to leave at 3:30AM, and Jules had it in his head he would just party and drink until the bus came so he would be able to sleep on it. The group had rented out a private van, and one of the people going canceled last minute to study for exams before flying back home. That’s when some of the volunteers started suggesting I go.
“But I already booked another night here,” I said. “And I won’t get my deposit back, there’s no one working at reception…” the list of my excuses went on for half an hour. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go, but trying to rush switching cities has always caused me a lot of stress. But Ana, a woman from Madrid, finally convinced me to go. I was the only other Spanish speaker in the group and I think she was happy to have me around, and I liked her a lot so I finally gave in. Not to mention, I liked all of these people, and I’m coming to realize that it’s not always the best idea to go it alone.
“Okay, I need to go back and pack. See you guys there!” I took Jules and I back to my hostel on his motorbike and told him to wait for me to pack and shower. I got everything ready but totally lost Jules for twenty minutes while I searched around the pool, bathrooms, and a couple dorm rooms to see if I could find him. The manager of the hostel just happened to be there at 2:30 AM and was ready to help me check out, but I told her I had to find my friend first. Then, I realized I hadn’t checked beds. Upstairs in the dorm room I’d been renting, Jules was asleep on some random person’s bed, and after waking him up and checking out, the manager was less than happy about this… but agreed to move my last reservation to another date if I were to come back. Sounds good.
We joined the rest of the group at the apartment buildings where the volunteers were staying, and we loaded up on a minivan sleepily, getting very little sleep on the four-hour drive there and sitting in incredibly uncomfortable seats.