Monday, December 19, 2005

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

My last post was a grim one but such things have to be done. Now for the lighter side.

Phnom Penh is like a lot of capital cities in South East Asia with the notable exception that I like it . It’s busy and big and dirty but not too much. Also a big plus is the Backpacker Ghetto in this fun town.

Usually such places are in an area that has both cheap property and proximity to the cultural stuff. Look at your local town and find an area that fits this description and you will get an idea of the beautiful parts of town usually developed for the rucksack crowd. The difference here is not apparent when you first catch a glimpse of this quarter and I guess some have arrived, taken a look and scuttled off to a more salubrious part of town. Big mistake.

Once you have got past the aggressive goats and sheep that seem to guard the entrance to the street, dodged the puddles and the open manholes, avoided the insane motodrivers and their deluded belief that their beat-up cyclo is an all-terrain bike and finally got down a tiny alleyway replete with dodgy groups of chaps playing cards and women washing their screaming kids with a watering can, you arrive at whatever guesthouse you have set your mind on or been conned into going to. Then you enter a different world.

Most of these places consist a longhouse with rooms that lead on to a platform over the lake. The owners put up sofas, hammocks and straw mats covered with cushions and I settled down very quickly to watch the sunset on the lake. Paradise.

The reason this prime piece of real estate is the BG and not some crappy street near the station is probably that it is illegally built. This is one of the poorest parts of town and it seems the zoning regulators are too busy milking the NGO crowd to bother with this place. It saddens me that it will eventually disappear but I’m enjoying it while I can. Plus it will add a I-Was-There-When merit badge to my backpacker credentials.

The delights of Pnohm Penh are hard to find but worth the hunt. There is the Royal Palace and various Wats but mainly there are loads of markets and alleyways filled with shifty characters. This gives a fun, if slightly worrying, edge to this town. To further put the visitor at ease, a backpacker will be a tad surprised at the offers of the moto drivers. Alongside the customary transport, drugs and hookers I found myself politely but firmly refusing the procurement of "AK-47, M16, Uzi Sir?".

Phnom Penh is a moderately dangerous place and is reputed to be awash with guns but I was a bit surprised to be offered assault rifles. I personnaly believe that a cheap second wallet stuffed with various crap, a few UK loyalty cards and 2 days worth of petty cash will be my best guarantee of survival if I get held up at gunpoint, along with begging for mercy. But even for the stupid, the paranoid and the American I would have thought a handgun would be a more portable way of insuring your mugger shoots you instead of pissing off content with his takings. Backpacker clothes are baggy but not baggy enough to hide a Kalachnikov.

This was actually a mistake on my part as I believed that he was offering to get these items for me on a permanent basis. As for the women, this was a rental offer. The chaps were trying to offer me the great Cambodian experience of going to an army range and playing with military toys.
Like a lot of third world countries, the Cambodian government follows the wise policy of spending a lot on weapons and close to bugger all on the men who have to wield them. I suppose they believe that the trick to being a stable nation state is to have a disgruntled, impoverished but very well armed military. Instead of taking over the country, the soldiers have instead decided to make a deal with gun-ho (and by that I mean anglo-saxon) travelers based on the great law of supply and demand. They give what they have plenty of (ammo) and receive what they have little of (money). Capitalism at it’s finest.

Because of what I had seen at Tuol Sleng the idea of playing around with things that were built with the sole purpose of killing human beings did not appeal to me. Once I had cleared up that particular cultural misunderstanding I decided to check the veracity of am urban legend that has been on the backpacker circuit for a while. The Cow and RPG legend.

The first time I heard this particular gem I was in Saigon and was a younger, less cynical version of myself and had been taken under the protective wings of a more seasoned and braided crowd. I was then privileged to watch a fine bit of domestic argy develop because of The Legend. This particular bit of folklore is set around the shooting ranges of Cambodia. Beside pissing about with machine guns and whatnot, it seems one of the things on offer in these places is the possibility of buying a cow and putting a rocket propelled grenade in it. Even at the time it seemed like bollocks but it is a persistent legend.

The girl in the couple told me about this stuff with scorn and disgust in her voice, supported by her boyfriend. To a point. He declaimed his revulsion at such sadistic practices but slowly started to put small qualifiers to his condemnation. He started to mumble about the idea that he would do it if the cow was ill and would be doing a favour to the local community. The boy kept putting out feelers untill his lady snapped and told him he could blow up a cow or sleep with her but not both. A fun fight ensued.

Since then I have been curious about this warped tale and told myself I would check it out once in Cambodia. It's bollocks. I can say this as moto drivers will arrange and sell you anything for a fee and they were adamant about the impossibility of doing this. Something that is not for sale in Cambodia is something that does not exist in Cambodia.

Who says reading this blog is not educational?

Take care,



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