Saturday, September 27, 2008

How Phnom Penh stole my heart (and camera...)

I find myself in the final few days of my extended stay in Phnom Penh - capital city of Cambodia. I have been here for over three weeks. Since my camera (amongst other things) has been stolen (more on that later) I'll have to attempt to use words to express how fabulous and filthy this city is.

I've been staying in Ellie's apartment on the fourth floor of a residential building near the river side and the old market (great for cheap rambutans, dragon fruit and bananas). Rambutans are my favourite, I am going to copy Gianna and put faces on them (this will be difficult, they are covered in hair) and post pictures as soon as I have a new camera.
The apartment itself is glorious and sparse, just how I like it, and has: 1 balcony which looks out over other people's balconies, this leads to much waving and laughing and great photos (which are now stolen) and 1 roof-top patio which is huge, and provides a 360 degree view of the city, from slums to apartment buildings, from low level markets, to the first (probably of many) high rise in this area, still under construction. Standing on that balcony, or that roof, is when I love Phnom Penh the most. Maybe because I'm not coverered in mud.

Mud. Phnom Penh is filthy filthy filthy. It rains all the time, and when it rains, all the rotting rubbish on the streets runs through them, and the mud and the blackest dirt I have ever seen. Unfortunately, in such rain, the only 'shoes' it seems prudent to wear are flipflops (given that they are plastic and don't mind getting wet), which has the significant downside of 'flipping' the dirt from the street, onto to the back of my pants, or legs if I'm wearing a skirt. Somehow the locals avoid this and arrive everywhere looking fresh, dry, clean and immaculate.

The locals. The people in Phnom Penh obviously range greatly - from the lady who stole all my things (a stupid bitch) to the children I've been working with at the shelter for ex-street children, who are the most fantastic, charming, tough, hilarious little people I have ever met and for whom I've extended my stay. They keep asking when I'm coming back and it almost makes me cry. There are also the ubiquitous tuk-tuk drivers, hassling me on every street corner "hey tuktuk lady!" "no thanks" "lady lady, where you go?" "no" and on and on, while I'm trying to hold a conversation with Ellie, with the tuk-tuk guy trailing and hassling along the way.

Along with the tuk-tuk drivers, I have never seen the difference between rich (myself, amongst others) and poor more obviously than in Phnom Penh. You can't eat a meal without a child staring at you and making hungry motions over their stomach. From an academic point of view (what else right) I find this interesting, as it means I have to face up to my own priviledge in a daily, habitual way, rather than just when I decide to go to the film fest documentaries. From an emotional point of view, well. It's really hard.

Phnom Penh is also filled with incredible beauty. Inbetween the dirt and the industrial slums, there are stunning temples, crumbling french colonial buildings, shady court yards, bright green trees with purple flowers, parks full of people flying kites and playing badminton, cafes cafes cafes, and the most physically attractive people I've seen in my life. There is also the sky which is extremely dramatic in these parts. None of that grey drizzle and lack of light you find in Dunedin. I've had showers with less pressure than the rain here. The chance of being hit, and killed, by lightning in Cambodia isn't actually as remote as you'd think - unsurprising, when lightning is striking literally every two seconds during a storm. And all this can blow into a perfectly sunny day within about fifteen minutes.


Finally, the undramatic tale of the theft of all my things:

I was sleeping on a mat, on the floor of the living area of Ellie's aforementioned apartment, in my underwear and a singlet top, stretched out in a ridiculous position below a rotating fan. My night, unusually, had provided a very sound sleep and it was only around 6am that I half-woke and in a blur, could see a woman standing at Ellie's work desk, looking over the contents.

She turned to me, and asked me something in an accusatory tone in Khmer. She was wearing jeans, a t-shirt, glasses and a ponytail and looked to be in her early 20s. It didn't cross my mind she was doing anything wrong - she must have walked in by mistake. This was, by the way, the first and only time we forgot to lock the door (we live on the fourth floor, through other peoples houses almost, so we weren't as concerned as we should have been).

I mumbled back something about "I live here with my friend Ellie" and pointed toward the door. She looked stunned (probably at my naivity, and my near nakedness) and promptly left. I was about to drift back to sleep, when I decided to tell the others. I went to the bedroom, stood there and said "um, guys, there was just a lady in the lounge" Ellie said ok and went back to sleep. Yami said "are you sure?" in a patronizing tone usually reserved for children, and I snappily replied "I know what I saw!"

On returning to the lounge, I wondered myself - am I sure what I saw? I have imagined things in the past, but really, this seems like a leap. Anyway, I'm tired. I lay back down and dozed for a while, rolled over and rested my eyes on the place I keep my camera. There was no camera there. Ok, stay calm, you probably put it somewhere else. No. I woke the others again "Guys, I could be wrong, but I don't think my camera's there" - this got them up, although they were still doubtful, and annoyed. We looked, no avail, and what did transpire was that my STA travel wallet (containing such items as my PASSPORT and TICKETS) and my actual wallet were also MIA. Shit. I freaked out. Cried. Got hysterical. Went to the pool and had a drink, complaining all the time about how middle class the lady looked and how she probably just needed some money to top up her phone.

Currently, I have a new emergency passport and can once again travel, thank god. The camera will take longer to replace, so I hope you can bear with me during the lack of images on my blog. Don't worry, most of my blogs will not be this long.

Much love xoxo

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sihanoukville - Suckynoukville (Low Season)

Ok, that word play didn't really work, but anyway, I was surprised to find that my most whiny, self-indulgent blog proved to be one of my most popular. Perhaps this post, seeing as it is about the place I was whining about, will also engage you in a similar way.

Anyway, Stuart asked the very pertinent question of - what is wrong with Sihanoukville? Why did I hate it? Well. Sihanoukville is a sprawling, ugly city whose only attraction is the beach and the laid-back life. Also, some of the cheapest prostitutes in South East Asia. In Cambodia, you can find prostitutes who charge about $2. This awesome perk draws in some less savoury characters, who then realise this is the one place they have ever felt powerful or well-liked and buy a business (cafe or guest house seem common) and drift into semi-retirement with their 20 year old 'girlfriend' (who they just happen to pay).

Since I was traveling alone at this stage, and it's low season, I had little choice but to converse with these old timers and hear about their fascinating take on the rich and ancient culture of Cambodia. My tactic was - smile sweetly, say very little, and wait for them to reveal themselves. And this they did, all too willingly, since they have lived for the last decade in a city FULL of people just like themselves, they seem to have forgotten usual social decorum.

Here are some excerpts of various conversations:

Me: So why did you move to Sihanoukville?
Him: It's more laid-back than Phnom Penh.
Me: Oh ok, but you had your heart set on Cambodia?
Him: *laughs* Not my heart, love. An organ lower down.

Him: Did you know there are only FOUR psychiatrists in this whole country? They don't even believe in that stuff here. (NB: I later found there are 20, which is still extremely low)
Me: Wow, that's crazy. And especially bad when you think about how many people must be suffering post-traumatic stress... (Apologies for sounding so banal, but it's hard to keep up my usual standards of intellect when talking to these guys).
Him: Nah, I don't worry about that anymore. I used to feel sorry for them, but you stop caring. Everywhere it's the same. In Australia, when I first got there I felt bad for the aboriginies, but then when I got to see them, I stopped feeling sorry for them. It's human nature.

Same guy: Suppose, if I told you, I LIKE going down to a cock fight, that I like the atmosphere, I suppose you'd think that was wrong, wouldn't you?

Him: (referring to a teenage girl, who is the younger sister of his girlfriend) "See her, she's a lesbian paedaphile."
Me: Sorry what?
Him: Well she's definitely a lesbian, and she certainly likes 'em young.

The top image is of a monkey being kept in a small cage in the hotel I ended up in. I didn't see the monkey until after checking in, or else I would have stayed somewhere else. The images of the beach just show how deserted this place is during the low season. The cockroaches I had killed in a fury during the night, to find them the next morning with some new friends - ants. At first I thought the cockroach was alive again, since it was moving - turns out it was being carried by ants.


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Koh Mak (and puppies!)

Koh inThai means: Island, and Mak means: super cute. No, I don't know what Mak means, but it should mean cute, because look at it. Also, it's tiny and pretty deserted (even by locals). Maybe one of the more surreal places I've been. It's in South Eastern Thailand, near the more famous (and much bigger) Koh Chang, but Koh Chang has faced a lot of development in the last ten years and Koh Mak is still pretty basic so I chose Koh Mak. I feel like I did the right thing.

Below, to the left, you will see my bungalow, where I had: my own hammock, two deck chairs, my own bathroom, a huge wooden room - all for: $10. Because it's low season and there were only two people in the whole resort. Me and the guy you can see in the picture. Three Austrians also turned up and -get this- they were the first nice Austrians I have ever met in my life! Don't worry, I didn't tell them.

Carrying on, we have some very badly taken photos of PUPPIES. It might seem like I'm becoming nuts about dogs, but this is not true, I'm not even a dog person - ask anyone (especially Anthony, he knows). But maybe these ones are quite nice, even if you can see my finger in the photo and it's out of focus! (Puppies mess with my mind)

And finally, above we have the coolest one of them all - the lovely, calm, patient Mom. This is also a shout-out to MY Mom who has made this entire trip (including these puppy photos) possible and who once again, for the 100.000th time in her life, has bailed me out of my stupid situation. I hope one day I can bail her out of at least one stupid situation so my karma isn't so out of whack. I love you Mom, and thank-you thank-you thank-you.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The 'Real' Thailand (ok, Bangkok again)

After my last post, it seems important that I show the cheerier side of traveling. Well, sometimes, I'll be all hot and bothered, walking along the chaotic streets of Bangkok, sick of the tuk-tuk drivers, and suddenly - I'll see the above. She let us pat her, and she was the softest, cutest, happiest little thing I've ever come across. Happy you say, yeah right, how could she be? How can that be comfortable? I have no idea, but I'd be willing to bet $1000 I don't have that she really is happy. I've never met such a chirpy, satisfied little beast in all my life. And who wouldn't be, with those shoes!

Below I have a selection of party snaps, important, because pretty much all I did in Bangkok for two hazy weeks was sleep and party (thanks a lot Argentinian!). The final snap is of the motorbike helmets outside the protest, I think they look like candy.

I'm actually in Phnom Penh now, living in Ellie's beautiful inner-city apartment (there will be photos), but my camera has a virus and so I've just managed to get it working, so there will be some catching up to do. Next up: the tiny island of Ko Mak, uber-next up: Sihanoukville, and an explanation of my hatred for it.

P.S. I LOVE PHNOM PENH. (like, really really).

Monday, September 8, 2008

News: Sometimes Travelling Sucks

This won't really be 'news' to most of you, but I thought for once I'd use my blog for it's traditional purpose - to whine. Most of the time, sure, great, I'm drinking too much, checking out new cities, generally doing the best possible thing one can do in their early to mid 20s (almost mid, jesus). In fact, my generally positive traveling outlook has received critical acclaim of the good and bad kind, with other travelers telling me "Oh yeah, but you're always optimistic" when I think some problem will sort itself out, or my friends saying "You love everywhere though!" when I say I love a place.

Well, here's a place I don't love: Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Bane of my life. I only spent one day there but it managed to burst my bubble in a big way. Now I'm in Phnom Penh and tomorrow morning I'll be fine for sure, but for now: I have no money left in my bank accounts (I do have enough cash, hopefully, to last me), I just paid $18 for a room because there was a power cut, a storm, I was slightly drunk and tired and I couldn't be bothered moving to a different, cheaper area right now. Now I feel insanely guilty, because I know I should be staying in a $3/ night place given my above financial situation. The tuktuk and moto drivers are bringing out a rage in me I didn't know I had, because everywhere I walk I hear the chirpy sounds of "tuktuk? hello lady! lady!! where you gooo?!" Oh jesus. I want to beat those guys up and give them a long lecture on the merits of WALKING in a new city, especially when undisturbed by tuktuk drivers I would SURELY approach myself if I needed a lift.



I'll probably delete this in a fit of shame tomorrow morning, so if you're 'lucky' enough to catch it before I do that, well, great. Thanks for being my friends, it's invaluable on nights like these (just knowing you exist).

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


On Sunday I went to the infamous anti-government protest/ sit-in at the government buildings in Bangkok. Here are some horrifying images of the kinds of "hooligans" wreaking untold havoc on the population on Bangkok.

The people in these photos have been peacefully protesting against the government for months - the problem is that their protest isn't democratic. The government has huge support in rural and uneducated groups (much like John Key back home) and would therefore probably be re-elected even if another polling was held.

Regardless, two nights ago, this group of peaceful protestors was violently attacked by pro-government groups using sticks and bats to beat them. One man was beaten to death, many more injured. The government itself has been urging restraint up until now, but the supporters took matters 'into their own hands' and now a state of emergency has been declared in Bangkok.