When I emerge from the hotel a flurry of baseball cap wearing men stare at me excitedly.
“Te, Arkun.” (No thank you.)
Endlessly they vie with one another for my precious custom, ‘pick me, pick me!’
A little further away from the hotel where competition is not so fierce, a brief discussion and a bargain is struck, the driver will take me to the riverside, a trip of perhaps ten minutes, for a dollar.
We set off, he pleased with his pay packet, I pleased to be paying only a dollar. Taking the usual anarchic approach to traffic laws that is prevalent here, we sail the wrong way up a road, and squeeze through ranks of traffic to head off down a side street.
Cutting across another line of traffic, we get back on a main road and the driver accelerates, to little effect. His is not the most powerful bike on the road, and I am not the lightest of passengers. Hefting onwards we pass a long row of stalls all offering mobile phone sim cards, not for the first time I try and work out the logic of so many stalls next to one another, all offering the same product for the same price.
On the back of a motorbike is one of the few places one is free from the constant cries of ‘moto’ or the demented clucking of ‘tuk tuk, tuk tuk’ at every street corner and empty stretch of pavement I chance upon when walking around. I try and work out why the moto drivers adopt this approach, surely they can see I’m walking, and when they’ve seen me turn down half a dozen other offers, they know I’m not going to accept theirs?
Arriving at the riverside I enter the air conditioned café fresco which sits at street level beneath the famous Phnom Penh foreign correspondents club. I’ve come here because I noticed on a previous trip to the riverside that they offer free wifi access after 3pm with every purchase of coffee. I opt for a hot chocolate rather than coffee, and eagerly try and log on to the wifi.
Predictably its something of a damp squib, I manage to download about four emails, all spam, and cant quite get on to my blog to make a new post. I turn on skype and eventually it connects. I look eagerly to see who is online. No-one.
At that point I realise it’s actually about 8.30 am in the UK, meaning that Kel will be getting the kids to school, and wont be online for at least another hour or so. By that time my half hour token will certainly have expired.
I sit back, my plan has been scuppered, partly due to my own lack of foresight, and partly due to the vagaries of supposed wifi access.
Turning off the laptop which I have hugged to my breast all the way from the hotel I pick up a newspaper and flick through it, while enjoying the last half of my hot chocolate. A big story here at the moment is the rise in fuel prices, it’s heading up to about a dollar a litre, which is bad news for the various members of society who are dependant upon travel for work. A Cambodian teacher is paid about 160,000 Riel a month. This translates as $40. Little more than a dollar a day. By contrast a garment factory worker is paid 200,000 Riel per month. Which of course translates as $50. Or about £25 at current exchange rates.
Reading on through the article I read a little vox pop from a moto driver. Bemoaning the hike in fuel prices he points out that his average wage is about 5000 riel a day. Half of which goes on fuel. Leaving him on 2500 Riel to pay for food and housing for him and his family. That’s a little over 50 cents, perhaps about 30p.
I resolve not to haggle too hard with moto drivers, and to have more patience with the insistent cries of ‘moto sir?’
Reading on through the paper I notice that on November the 2nd, a week or so before I arrived, a 61-year-old German man was arrested in the hotel across the street from mine. He was charged with debauchery after he was found with a 14-year-old girl in his room, and pictures of four other young girls on his computer.
Evidently he had chosen this hotel because it isn’t popular with westerners, and he was less likely to be reported to the police. Makes me feel great about staying in this part of town.
All around this country are people living in desperate poverty, scratching a living in anyway they can, selling whatever commodity they can. Its unsurprising that Cambodia is a key fixture on the sex tourism circuit now. Even the disgraced pop star Gary Glitter spent a little time here on his recent tour of Asia. There’s plenty more who want to be in Gary’s gang.
It’s hard to tell sometimes where the line is between genuine relationships and economically motivated ones. Some are obvious, a pair of young looking girls fawning attentively over a grotesquely overweight man in a bar, seems like they don’t have all that much in common. On the other hand I know a number of western men who have found genuine happiness in relationships with Khmer or Thai women here. It’s difficult not to judge, and harder still to get the judgements right! After all, its only recently really that marriage wasn’t a primarily economic issue.
Walking back to the hotel from the riverside I notice yet again many large Lexus’ and other four wheel drives zooming their occupants through the rush hour. Their sleek and shiny silver or black paint jobs contrasting with the muddiness of much of their surroundings. Behind sleek tinted windows rich Khmer or foreigners are being whisked home, or perhaps to the aptly named ‘Lucky’ supermarket for a spot of grocery shopping. I too visit Lucky’s occasionally to pick up a bit of food – I always think that Lucky is a good name for it. Lucky to be able to afford to shop here.
Lucky’s is still the biggest chain of supermarkets here, although others are beginning to catch up. I remember seeing a Tesco in Bangkok when I was there a couple of years ago, and wonder whether they have people even now assessing Cambodia’s potential for investment.
My dad’s field of work is Leprosy. It’s still a massive problem, although most people don’t realise it. We’ve all heard of the cure that has been around for some time, which can rid the sufferers of the disease. But what is not so well publicised is that still the same number of people contract the infection every year, in fact it may be more, as I have a feeling it’s the same percentage of the population. I’ll have to ask.
Leprosy is a disease which principally affects the nerves. Someone with leprosy will not feel any pain if they cut themselves, their body simply doesn’t acknowledge the injury.
I wonder how much we in the west have a kind of institutional leprosy, tucking ourselves away behind the tinted windows and air conditioning of luxury, refusing to feel the pain which is eating away at the flesh of the world.
Few things hurt us, perhaps a rise in oil prices may cause us some minor irritation, but largely we’re well insulated. Especially when we can even appease our consciences by sending some helpful charity donations – this is made even easier when we can do it via the medium of a tv show or big concert! Wow, how great to be part of something which can make us feel like we’re all working together, we can give a substantial donation, give of our ‘excess’ (how do we define excess by the way? What’s left over after we have paid our household bills, including sky subscription and credit card payments?) We get thanks from all around us for all that good what we did, and then go home happy…
We prefer to remain in our leprous state, ignoring the pain of the world and slowly letting our global body decay.
The other day I took a quick trip down to Wat Phnom, the small hill with a temple or Wat in its centre, which is quite a big tourist attraction here. To be honest it’s a little underwhelming. Good for its novelty value perhaps, but not exactly fascinating.
At the bottom of the hill a wide walk way lined with benches is home to a whole range of beggars, kids, hawkers and gawpers. It’s also the day time home of an elephant, and presumably permanent home to a family of monkeys.
The elephant is a Phnom Penh fixture, taking tourists on stately rides around the hill. He looks tired and dusty to me. I wonder why a massive creature like that allows himself to be tamed – whether he occasionally has a yearning for the wild, and entertains thoughts of escape and rampage. Or perhaps he is a simple, gentle soul, happy with his quiet life, ferrying white people around the circular track. Maybe he is content in his friendship with the monkeys and his handlers, and has no need for adventure.
The monkeys on the other hand are full of mischief, some are old and grumpy looking, gazing at you as if to decide whether you might harbour some food they could purloin. Others are sedate, sitting quietly taking in the scenery before bursting into a run and disappearing up a tree. Baby monkeys seem like they are about one third eyes, which reminds me of my youngest daughter. They scamper delightedly around the ground, playing traditional monkey games with one another.
Nearby are sellers – some offering large bunches of bananas, ‘Sir, you buy banana for Munk’ee?’ Others with large cages housing dozens of tiny little birds. I think of the little birds which love my garden at home, and feel sorry for these tiny creatures in their cage home.
“What are the birds for?” I ask warily.
The bird seller waves her hands in the air.
“To let them go?” I query.
“Yes sir. You let go. Two birds, one dollar.”
Presumably this is some kind of activity related to the temple above me, whatever the reason I’m not impressed. I want to free all the birds, but can’t afford to. I stalk off huffing to myself.
When Jesus was presented at the temple, according to Luke’s gospel, his parents presented two birds for sacrifice – in accordance with the law of the old testament. The offering of birds in sacrifice was for the poor, for those who couldn’t afford a more expensive sacrifice.
This all reminds me that Jesus was a poor man, a refugee, from a poor family, not a man of position and influence, not a man of wealth, nor as some suggest ‘moderately well off’. That’s a load of crap. He was a wondering teacher, unwaged as the custom dictated. Homeless, with no place to lay his head. His disciples would eat corn they found growing in the fields. To pay temple tax Peter had to look in the mouth of a fish. Jesus has much more in common with the Khmer bird sellers, prostitutes and moto drivers than he does with us wealthy westerners with our tinted windows, air con, and nice churches.
Walking past a book shop I looked over the display of books related to Cambodia – along side the usual travel guides and historical explanations of the Khmer Rouge regime’s genocidal activities, one title proclaimed boldly ‘Girls, Guns, Ganja and Gambling.’
Well they are certainly all available here for a moderate price, although I think the guns are less widely available than they were a few years ago. At one point penniless soldiers would take tourists to firing ranges where they could have a go with AK47’s, Grenade launchers, the lot. Talking to a guy on the plane on the way here he told me that in his first week visiting Cambodia he saw two shootings. So far I haven’t seen any. I hope it stays that way.
It remains a terrible thought that this country is a tourist destination because of what it can offer in terms of the other three ‘attractions’.
I did see a homeless guy though, by homeless I mean a rough sleeper, as homes here are often merely a step away from the homelessness in the UK. In Heathrow the rough sleepers I saw all had a certain look – indicative of problems with alcohol or other substance abuse, and perhaps mental health problems. Clearly they had to be pretty skint to be sleeping in a tunnel near Heathrow, but how much more skint does one have to be to sleep rough in Phnom Penh? Later I passed the same spot where the homeless guy had been curled up. The tatty Khmer flag which had covered him was now hung in a tree, and where he had been lying was a few fragments of broken glass.
I guess he had been ‘moved on’ by the police or local shopkeepers.