Feeling all wrong in Phnom Penh

02 Aug 2011, Posted by Maxine Sheppard in Travel, 2 Comments

Feeling all wrong in Phnom Penh

A friend sent me a text today, from the FCC in Phnom Penh. It took me back to my time in Cambodia a few years ago. The FCC (Foreign Correspondent’s Club) is a hotel, restaurant and bar in central Phnom Penh, overlooking the Mekong. It’s an elegant colonial-style place filled with potted palms and mahogany armchairs, with huge whirring fans hanging from the open rafters. A perfect place to sit back and relax while you ponder why your mojito costs more than the average Cambodian weekly wage.

Whenever I think back to that part of my trip, especially the afternoon I spent in that bar, it makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. I was eking out a meagre budget (for a Westerner) on a round the world trip. I’d spent close to 300 nights in hostel dorms. I remember justifying blowing my daily budget on cocktail after cocktail (they weren’t even that nice) by telling myself I deserved a ‘treat’ – ridiculous. The reason I was there was because I’d grown weary of begging, of being followed down the street, harassed, poked, stared at. I wanted to read the Phnom Penh Post in peace, sip a martini and pluck olives from a bowl. I wanted to escape from the six year old girls standing at my feet, staring at me with huge sad eyes, one hand outstretched and the other clutching a tiny baby wrapped in rags. The reality was that I’d been in Cambodia for little more than a week and I was already seeking respite from the realities of life there.

When I look back on it now, I know I got a lot of things wrong. I bought bracelets from the street kids at Angkor like the girl up above because I felt sorry for them. I allowed myself to be well and truly scammed by a bogus monk in Ta Prohm. I volunteered for a day in a well-known Phnom Penh orphanage to feel good about myself without considering the effect on the children of a continual stream of people entering their lives in the morning and leaving again at night. I was essentially an unthinking tourist.

I don’t think I was under any illusions about what to expect. I’d experienced poverty plenty of times, and was used to being relentlessly hassled. But while I found the culture endlessly fascinating, the temples beyond beautiful and the people warm and stoic, something about Cambodia got to me. It was a sense of disquiet that stayed with me the whole time I was there; I couldn’t shrug my shoulders and brush it off.

But now, with the benefit of hindsight, I sometimes wonder if it was actually anything to do with Cambodia at all. I found a couple of extracts from my diary at the time:

“Lunch at Friends. Gorgeous noodle salad and mandarin daiquiri. Atmosphere ruined by table of loud Mancunian dickheads behind, complaining loudly about everything under the sun. Poor waiter so subservient and accommodating.”

“Dinner at Veiyo Tonle. Horrendous group of drunk South Africans making suggestive comments about a couple of the dancers, who couldn’t have been older than 12 or 13.”

“I had to walk out of a cafe today. Was sitting at an outside table, watching the ferries. Constant stream of kids coming up to me. One girl can’t have been older than five, with two other toddlers in tow. Who are these people who bat them away like flies? English bloke next to me shouting “GO AWAY” really aggressively whenever anyone got within 10 ft of him, and his idiot wife just barking “NO!”. Rolled eyes at man opposite who was also surveying scene only for him to respond matter-of-factly with “It’s the only thing you can do to get rid of them.” Got up and left.”

Maybe I am just pretty naive. Maybe this is just how you deal with it – I guess you become hardened to anything after a while. But why is it necessary to be an arsehole? I could never yell at a child – five years old – to go away. And I think that’s the real reason I ended up in the FCC – not because I wanted to escape from the children and their outstretched palms, but from the people who looked like me.


August 28, 2011 10:01

lara dunston

Wonderful post, Maxine! Although I’m sure you weren’t anywhere near as bad as the travellers you described in your diary ;)

We loved Siem Reap and Phnom Penh – met some incredible people – but we found ourselves getting more irritated than we normally do, especially with the incessant “you want tuk tuk?” yelled out to us every second, even when we had a tuk tuk.

I think Cambodians are at that stage in development where they’re still trying to work things out, and it will take them some time – along with education, training and opportunities – to figure out the best means of making money from tourism to pull themselves out of poverty and not piss the tourists off. In the meantime, I wish travellers (ourselves included) could all be more empathetic and patient with them.

August 28, 2011 23:22

Maxine Sheppard

Thanks Lara. I think you’re right. I’d really like to go back with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective and see how things have changed since I was there, because it seems the pace of development over the past few years has been quite rapid.

I also think one of the difficulties was that I didn’t really speak to any Cambodians other than those in a service capacity, and I think this really prevented me from getting a bit more under the skin of the country like you did.

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