Songkran Escape: Phnom Penh, Part 1

If you’ve ever experienced Songkran in Pattaya, you’ll know why I can’t stay there during the Thai New Year any longer. I did parts of all of three Songkrans and that was enough.

For the past two years, I spent Songkran in The Philippines, splitting time between scuba diving on various islands and drinking myself into oblivion in Angeles City. But spending that week in Angeles is like being in Pattaya: The bottom of Fun Town’s sexpat barrel seeps into A.C. like a sewer backing up. I don’t want to spend time with them here, so I’ll be damned if I’m going to hang with them there.

So this year I thought I’d try something new, and less expensive: Cambodia. I’d never been anywhere except the border so, inspired by Bangkok Bad Boy’s three-part opus on Phnom Penh, I decided to spend a few days in the Khmer capital and then relax for a week in Sihanoukville, a place few have been but many say is good. This is a multi-part tale of my 2009 Songkran Escape. Continue reading

Phnom Penh

A cute Khmer chick attacks my ballsA cute Khmer chick attacks my balls.
She’s never going to pot that yellow.

“Oh no”, say the Americans. “Our dollars are worth jack shit. Thailand should devalue the baht, or we won’t be able to afford to go long-time any more”. Of course, the dollar’s been depreciating against every other world currency too, which doesn’t help.

Anyway, it’s a bad time to be selling US dollars – as visiting Americans must, in order to purchase Thai Baht. Conversely, and rather obviously, it’s a fantastic time to be buying dollars. And, as luck would have it, the prevalent currency in already-cheap Cambodia is indeed the good ole’ greenback.

Just a year ago, US$10 was about ?400. Today, it’s a little over ?300. And you can pick up a cute Khmer or Vietnamese freelancer in Phnom Penh for US$10. That’s full sex for half the price of a Bangkok barfine. So if you’re earning baht (or just about any other world currency that isn’t tied to the dollar), it’s a great time to visit Phnom Penh.

Getting there from Bangkok is trivial by air, and is even doable by land if you’re saving those nickels and dimes – although I wouldn’t recommend it. I stayed in a hotel near the river, where simple but decent-enough rooms went for $10 to $15 per night. Draught beer is far more commonly available than in Bangkok, and generally sells for $1 a glass. At today’s exchange rate, that’s about ?30.

The Wild West of South East Asia

A friend once said that Thailand is a country for those of us who either can’t or won’t cope with life in the Real World. I’m inclined to agree with him, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. He goes on to add, however, that Cambodia is for those people who can’t even cope with life in Thailand. He’s got a point.

If you thought Thailand was a little cavalier when it comes to enforcing the law, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Cambodia isn’t exactly lawless, but it’s not far off. Head out to Thunder Ranch, a firing range run by Cambodia’s 911 Paratrooper Commandos, only a twenty minute drive from central Phnom Penh, and fire away with a variety of handguns (dollar a bullet), an AK-47 or an M-16 ($30 for 30 rounds, or ?900), or if you really need to blow away the cobwebs try an M79 launched grenade for $100 (?3,000), or a B40 rocket propelled grenade for $200 (?6,000).

Live animals are readily available, if those paper targets get a little dull – from $5 chickens (?150) for small arms fire, to goats and water buffalos for your grenades – these go for $100 to $300 (?3,000 – ?9,000).

Cold beer’s not on the menu, but it is available. What better way to relax than with an ice-cold Ankgor beer in one hand and a machine gun in the other?

Head out to the market later on for some shopping, and you’ll find the live hand grenades on sale between the bread and vegetable sections. Cambodia is seriously messed up. I saw a posting on a website recently where an ex-pat defended Phnom Penh as being much safer than it’s given credit for. “Bodyguards are cheap enough”, he said – “what’s your problem?”

Girls, girls, girls

I couldn’t live here. It’s insane. But a long weekend is perfect. Sharky’s bar is full of 8-ball and 9-ball pool tables (pictured above), cheap beer, and swarms of freelance girls (one pictured above). It’s maybe a 60/40 split between Khmer (Cambodian) girls and Vietnamese. The Vietnamese chicks find it much easier to work in Phnom Penh than in Vietnam, and the locals prefer their lighter skin. The Khmer girls are more familiar-looking to fans of Thailand’s own sisters of Issan.

Most girls were asking for US$20 for short-time, but expected $15 and would often settle for $10. Being “yung and handsum” may have helped here, but even if you pay the full $20, it’s only ?600 at today’s prices. ?300 if you get them for $10.

After the first round of the evening, move on to (relatively) nearby Martini’s, where there’s a disco, more pool tables, an outdoor restaurant, and a big projector screen for movies. And hordes more girls, of course. Motorcycle taxis, tuk-tuks and songthaews are everywhere. Taxis are not. Most journeys cost a dollar, maybe two if you get ripped off.

The Unexplored

I only scratched the surface during my visit. The problem with freelancers in Phnom Penh, as in Bangkok, is that you’ve got no recourse if they steal your stuff. Be wary.

It’s a problem that can be avoided by visiting one of the karaoke clubs or hostess bars. But you’ll pay way more for the privilege. I didn’t see the point of doing so, so can’t report on them. There are no Bangkok-style gogo bars, but there’s apparently a BJ bar called Sophie’s Club. I didn’t find it.

The local brothels, catering to Cambodian men, are of course far cheaper than the western-targetted industry. As a tourist though, you’re never going to get away with paying local prices. The motorcycle taxi drivers will know the local scene, and their spoken English is usually way better than their Bangkok equivalents. They’ll be in for a cut, of course, but when it’s this cheap, who cares?

The Dark Side

With firearms so freely available, there’s always going to be trouble. The Heart of Darkness bar, where Westerners have indeed been killed by Khmer gangsters, now features a reassuring metal detector by the front door, where customers are frisked for weapons. The gangsters avoid the issue by entering via the side door, of course.

The two main freelancer hangouts, above, apparently check the girls’ ID, and are generally safe environments in which to pick up 18+ year-old girls. Other venues are not. The infamous Svay Pak area, also known as K11, was closed down after NGO pressure a few years ago. The effect has not been to stamp out underage prostitution though, but to move it from one easily-avoidable place to the inner city.

Secret brothels above shophouses abound, apparently. I saw a heavily dolled-up girl of maybe twelve years old being led down the street by a minder early one evening. I don’t think she was being taken to a beauty pageant. The touts will ask you if you want “young lady” or “small girl”. It’s here, it’s deeply unpleasant, and there is nothing you as a tourist can do about it. Make a fuss, and you’re likely to get into some very unpleasant trouble. Turning a blind eye can be difficult, but it’s the only safe option. Just say no, folks.

The Roundup

Phnom Penh can be fun. Drinks are so cheap that they’re effectively free. Even the girls aren’t that much more expensive. It’s a wild, wild place though, and you do need to watch your back. Life is cheap here, and the less pleasant members of society could quite easily get away with murdering you if they were so inclined. Don’t encourage them.

I couldn’t live here. Some people do, but then some people live in Hull too – there’s no accounting for taste. But for a long and dirty weekend, especially with the current exchange rates, it’s amazingly affordable hedonism.