Sep 23, 2023
Sep 23, 2023
I exited easily and efficiently from Phnom Penh airport. The airport itself was a small elegant affair, embellished by wooden panelling. Wood has the ability to create a warm homey atmosphere, which in some strange fashion can be reassuring to first time visitors to a country, instead of the more glitzy, steel and aluminium style you get at many airports.
While still inside the airport, I decided to buy a local SIM card to be able to call home and friends easily while I was in the country. There were very many options to choose from. I would eventually discover that overseas call rates were much cheaper here than in India. In recent years overseas calling rates have come down in India, but Cambodia the overseas calling rates were still lower.
At one of the foreign exchange booths in the airport, I changed dollars into riels. As it turned out I needn’t have, at least not immediately. When I found myself a taxi the driver quoted 9 dollars, and took 40,000 riels instead. Later when I had dinner at my hotel, I was given a quote of 12 dollars. Dollars work very well all over the country, I discovered, testimony to the large tourist traffic here.
It was an hour’s drive to my hotel. On the way the taxi driver, Sovann and I fell into conversation. When he found out that I was from India, he immediately asked if I was a Buddhist or a Hindu.
‘I’m attracted to Buddhism,’ I said, ambiguously but truthfully.
‘Ahhh!’ All smiles now, he started to explain how as a Buddhist he longed to visit other Buddhist temples and holy places in other countries.
I looked out of the window. Night had fallen, and it wasn’t bright enough to see much of the passing countryside.
A tinge of bitterness clouding his voice, he was saying, ‘It’s only rich people who can afford to go to such places.’
‘Which places do you have in mind?’
‘Oh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka!’ He confidently rattled off the names of the countries in the general neighbourhood with large Buddhist populations.
I thought that the way he had phrased his question about my own religious faith – if I were Buddhist or Hindu? – was possibly based on a false presupposition that there existed a large Buddhist population in India. It wasn’t an unfair assumption. After all, a person could reason, the Buddha himself was born in India, so surely it must have a large population of Buddhists. It was a bit like a Christian concluding that Israel, the modern day country where Jesus was born and lived, would have a large population of Christians. Or conversely the existence so many Hindu temples in Cambodia might suggest to someone that it had a large Hindu population; in fact there are practically no Hindus Cambodians.
It is of course a great irony that the country that today has among the most magnificent and large scale Hindu temple architecture to be found anywhere in the world does not even have a minority Hindu population. As I was to witness during my trip to Siam Reap, nothing in India or Nepal can compare in sheer scale with what those great builders, some of the kings of the great Angkor dynasty created in Angkor Vat.
* * *
I engaged Sovann in small talk about politics. What did he think of Hun Sen? Mr Sen has been the Prime Minister of Cambodia for fifteen years now, since 1998. A veritable monarch.
‘A bit like Thaksin, I think,’ he chortled, ‘and they happen to be good friends as well.’ I imagined that he had deliberately avoided giving a direct answer, which was understandable. Hun Sen was basically a dictator. No one could say anything against him. The Cambodian People’s Party, or CPP is the only political party that matters in Cambodia.
‘Yes,’ I agree, and somewhat disingenuously added, ‘but people seem to like Hun Sen more. I don’t see a Yellow Shirt movement here.’
‘But people like Thaksin Shinawatra too, for he win every time,’ he laughed.
* * *
Cambodians are well aware of their two important neighbours, Vietnam and Thailand. They view them differently though. With the Vietnamese they feel threatened; with the Thai’s a bit jealous. The roots of this divergent attitude towards these two neighbours are to be found in history.
For many centuries the Khmer (Cambodian) and Vietnamese empires were rivals. Much of Cambodia was either under Vietnamese rule by the 1800’s or was forced to pay tribute to it. In more recent times, in December 1978 the Vietnamese invaded and occupied Cambodia, an occupation that was to last for nearly thirteen years. It was only in 1992 that the Vietnamese withdrew following the signing of the Paris Agreements. The UN had come in to help with the transition, a creature that went by the name of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). The Cambodians therefore have reason enough to be wary and suspicious of the Vietnamese.
After I left Phnom Penh for Siam Reap, I remember talking to a local Cambodian tour operator who spoke unhappily of how a Vietnamese company had won a big commercial contract to manage tourism to Angkor Vat.
‘We should not trust the Vietnamese,’ he said. ‘They are clever people.’
Relative to the troubled history that the Cambodians share with the Vietnamese the situation with their Thai neighbour is only marginally better. Here too relations have been troubled. Riots broke out in 2003, after a newspaper incorrectly reported that a Thai actress had stated that Angkor Vat belonged to Thailand. Such was the backlash that Thai immigrants even fled Cambodia to escape the violence. Responding to public sentiment, Prime Minister Hun Sen banned all Thai films and shows on Cambodian television.
A few years later a dispute developed over the ownership of the Preah Vihear Temple A military clash took place in 2008 following which the matter was referred to the International Court of Justice. In 2013 the ICJ issued a ruling in favour of Cambodia.
Comparing these two nationalities, I found that in general Cambodians have a franker, if less polite nature compared to the Thais.
* * *
‘Will you go to see the Killing Fields?’ asked Sovann.
‘Everyone go there,’ he said.
It was the most common request by tourists. Some tourists who landed at Phnom Penh airport during day time went straight to see the Killing Fields for the way to the city was one way and a major site of the massacre fell on the other side of the airport. There were tourists who got off the plane at Phnom Penh, went by taxi to see a prominent site of the massacre and then came back to the airport to take the flight to Siam Reap, completely bypassing even a short stay in the capital.
The logic behind such decisions was a much touted view (which I resisted) that there was little else to see in Phnom Penh. It’s sad but yes, for many tourists, the Killing Fields are the capital’s main tourist attraction.
* * *
The traffic increased now and so did the overall visibility. Norodom Sihanouk, the king had died at the age of 89 and large photos of the erstwhile monarch hung all over the city. He had a role in the rise of the Khmer Rouge, so I wasn’t sure what people thought of him. I asked the taxi driver.
‘Khymer Rouge use king but still he very popular.’
‘Why is that?
‘He made mistake. Not intentional you see. And before that he did a lot for the people..’
The king’s body was to be held in state for a hundred days; meanwhile the new king had already taken over. The British axiom goes: the king is dead, long live the king. In this case King Norodom Sihanouk abdicated nearly eight years previously in favour of his son. Sihanouk, the father had frequent clashes with Hun Sen; not so his son and successor, King Norodom Sihamoni.
‘Who is more popular?’ I asked. In Thailand the king has been keeping unwell for a long time now. The Thai king is revered and vastly more popular than his son, who is going to find it difficult to fill the old man’s shoes, as and when he passes away.
‘Oh, the old king for sure,’ he said. ‘One strange thing about my new king…. He is not married.’
‘How old is he?’
‘Not young,’ he said. ‘Maybe forty, maybe fifty.’
‘That is unusual then ‘
‘A king can have three or four wives but him not a single one.’
There were rumours swirling around the press that the new king was gay. King Sihamoni used to be a ballet dancer in his younger days, not a proper kingly hobby according to more conservative elements in Khmer society.
A bright red BMW raced past us; a yellow Lexus followed not far behind, a young boy behind the wheel.
Sovann, who I estimated to be in his mid to late fifties now started to complain like a fussy father.
‘Many people have new cars,’ he remarked, ‘but most are second hand like myself. Now there are other problems. Too many youngsters doing drugs especially these rich kids.’ Warming up to his theme, he added: ‘You see KTV everywhere, many robberies, petty thefts…’
‘You be careful. They come silently and snatch your I-phone.’
‘Your English is very good,’ I said, trying to divert him to happier subjects.
His leavened face broke into smiles. He looked pleased and proud.
‘It is okay,’ he said modestly. ‘The problem is that earlier we didn’t have any schools. The rich sent their kids overseas for studies, places like Canada, but now there are schools everywhere. After UNTAC came,’ – he was referring to the UN mission set up after the Vietnamese withdrew – ‘we all wanted to learn English.’
As a matter of fact the following day, I was to meet Anne Chew, a Chinese from Singapore who was helping to set up an International School in Phnom Penh on behalf of a Singaporean entrepreneur.
The roads started to get congested more and more, as we started to enter the main city.
* * *
The Naga World Hotel, where I had chosen to stay was a large hotel with a casino inside. The word ‘Naga’ intrigued me. When I thought about it, I realised that the word which means ‘cobra’ for us in India had probably transmuted or been given another meaning when Hinduism had crossed over to other territories. In the Khmer language it meant dragon. While in China I had realised that unlike in Iran and most of the West where the dragon is perceived to be something threatening and evil, in China and many countries in the East it is widely regarded as a positive symbol. So ‘Naga World’ was really a ‘good’ name, brimming with positive energy, not anything negative.
The advantage with staying in a hotel with a casino, I’m told, is that your valuables are always perfectly secure. The reason for this is simple. People come with cash to play at the casino and the management just cannot afford to have someone lose their valuables, or money. It would kill off the business. A second advantage is that you generally tend to have value for money in terms of the quality of your room. The hotel calculates that if they give you a saving of say twenty dollars on the room, it’s still worth it for them because you’ll lose much more at the tables.
There was a bit of a mix-up about my room. I had done my booking through the Agoda people whom I’ve always found to be reliable. While they were getting the problem about my booking fixed, I discovered during the course of chit chat with hotel staff that the Naga World entertainment complex was owned by a Malaysian-Chinese. Many Chinese from the mainland as well as Chinese from Malaysia flew in to play at the casino.
I thought I saw some Indian looking faces. As a matter of fact they weren’t Indians, just looked like they could be. In Cambodia, the yellowish tint common in Thailand and Vietnam is diffused and merged with a brownish tint and this was the source of my confusion.
There is another thing. Unlike the Thai’s and the Vietnamese the Cambodians often have a square-ish cast to their face. While the women have a delicate Asian look about them the men often have swarthy, rugged look. Despite having suffered military defeats at the hands of their neighbours, many Cambodian men broader shouldered than their counterparts in Vietnam and Thailand.
I had a look at the casino as I made my way to the lifts. It was a proper casino unlike the one I had seen at the Fortuna hotel, on Lang Ha Street, Hanoi, Vietnam which was a sham.
My room was large and well-appointed as the expression goes. After checking in my bags I unpacked, and out of curiosity flipped through the yellow pages directory inside my hotel room. It provided an indication of the rapid transformation Cambodia is undergoing. Inside, I found an English listing of karaoke clubs, several 'entertainment' club, Khmer restaurants, burglar alarm systems, Singaporean restaurants, Saigon restaurants, a Cambodian Adventist centre and a Bible training centre. There were two coffin makers that I saw listed, one of them with pretty Cambodian scenery painted on the outside of the wooden box. I even found a private helicopter transport service that filled in for the absence of flight routes to many places in the country.
I had a some documents that I needed to print out. I quickly drafted a letter using the hotel’s stationary and went off to look for the business centre. It surprised me that this huge hotel did not have a functional business centre. What happened, I couldn’t help wondering, to overseas gamblers who ran broke after a streak of bad luck and might want to wire amounts to Phnom Penh to have another few tries at the tables?
I thought I would take a walk about the vicinity of the hotel, something I often do whenever I reach a new place to sort of get my bearings.
As I stepped out of the hotel, I realised that an evening walk wasn’t such a good idea. The hotel was opposite a major city road which has cars crawling over it at the speed of a few feet per minute. There were great gusts of smoke being belched out by the vehicles and loud honking by impatient drivers. It was nearly nine in the evening. What further dissuaded me was the sight of the hotel’s fountain spraying so high and far that it wouldn’t even have been possible for me to properly cross over to the street without getting sprayed. Bizzare! As I stood and watched, and mulled over the future course of action for the night, someone somewhere reduced the power Instead of blasting out water as if they were trying to put out a blazing fire the fountains now started playing at normal strength.
The jets of water, I now realised, were intended to spray the sidewalks in the evening to settle the dust. The overshot was actually calibrated to last for no more than twenty minutes. It wet the pavement, settled dust and provided some cooling. Clearly the hotel management was trying to make the best of a bad situation and had thought of a way to partially counteract and remedy the poor planning by the municipal authorities.
* * *
I decided that I would get a haircut instead.
A hair salon inside the hotel was open till nine thirty, and despite the near full occupancy of the hotel, I managed to get an appointment. Ros, the young Cambodian girl who gave me a haircut spoke good English, a qualification I suppose for hotel staff having to deal with so many nationalities.
As Ros snipped away with her scissors I engaged her in small talk.
Had she ever travelled overseas?
‘I have been to Ho Chi Min City but it wasn’t for a holiday. I took my mother for medical treatment,’ she said. ‘Vietnam has much better medical facilities that we have here, and the border is just 75 km from her village.’
Ros came from a large family, two brothers and six sisters. The hotel paid a small salary of only 70 dollars and the rest she made from commissions and tips.
What did she think of the Vietnamese?
‘To tell the truth I don’t much care for them,’ she said, after a brief pause. ‘I don’t find them particularly friendly for one’ – I, on the other hand had found the youngsters very friendly in Hanoi - ‘or perhaps,’ she acknowledged with a small laugh, ‘it is because I am Cambodian.’
How did she find the Chinese?
‘The Chinese-Malaysians are very good tippers,’ she said, ‘but those from the mainland…. To tell the truth I don't much care for them either.’ There were many Chinese in Phnom Penh - in business mostly.
I hung around the casino areas for a half hour, watching the players. There weren’t any glamorous women serving alcoholic beverages the way they show it happening in Las Vegas or in the Bond movies but on the other hand the hotel management had set up a stage where there were singers and dancers performing. Some of the women showed a bit of leg, but it was all within the bounds of respectability. Rows of chairs were laid out in front of the stage on which were seated mostly women and children. I joined them and listened to some Western pop music as well as songs in the Khmer language.
Unlike their Western counterparts, Asian gamblers did not travel alone but with their families. What were the wives and the children to do, while the men played the tables? Naturally the hotel needed to fix some entertainment for them. This made sense. For women with itchy fingers who wished to try their luck there were hundreds of slot machines that could be played.
* * *
The following morning I found the main road outside the hotel practically deserted. I had been expecting heavy morning traffic, but it was not the case. The urban chaos of the night before was gone. The traffic was now skeletal and I decided to make my way to the river front.
I saw across the road, a little further, something that went by the name of Dreamland Children’s Theme Park. At this time of day it was completely deserted, the Ferris wheels didn’t spin. It opened in the evening and contributed to the traffic the previous evening.
Adjacent to the hotel stood the Korea Cultural Centre, a large building. The centre ran a health club and screened free 3 D movies once a week. Cultural offerings are sometimes an indication of keenness to do business and clearly Korean business was trying to make inroads here.
The huge Cambodiana Hotel that I now walked past had a massive board with the photo of the late king and below it was written as follows:
His Majesty the King-Father Novodom Sihanouk 31 October 22 - 15 October 2012.
Some of the buildings had curious sounding names. For instance I passed a large building with steep golden arches known as the General Inspectorate for National Buddhist Education of the Kingdom of Cambodia. The
Preah Sihanouk Raja Buddhist University followed just ahead, which claimed to house the 'Ministry of Cult and Religion.’ I have not seen ‘cults’ respected in other countries; perhaps on the other hand, it was something lost in translation.
While the French colonial past is evident in the architecture of many of the buildings, the language itself has been largely supplanted. For instance it is now the Court of Appeal, the Office of the Prosecutor General instead of the French equivalents, the changed terminology witness to the greater dominance of the Anglo Saxon and of the English language. Hardly any of the youngsters speak French, although several are multilingual; my masseuse in the hotel spoke Vietnamese, Khmer and Chinese.
I reached the Royal Palace. A panoply of international flags fluttered in front of the palace. A golden lion gazed on to the waters of the river. I walked across to the river and enjoyed the view.
* * *
During my travels in South East Asia, the hotels I stayed in were often peopled mostly by tourists from other parts of Asia. This, however, is a relatively new trend, and the overall domination of the Western tourist continues. For the past few decades, post decolonisation, it has been the European tourist who has been the most important, globally speaking.
The Americans are not as fond of traveling, despite their nation’s wealth. I suspect that there are two reasons for this. Firstly, the Americans haven’t enjoyed a rich colonial history in the same way as the Europeans (although they did occupy Philippines and Japan for some period). When you colonise a territory, it is part of your property in a sense and you develop an interest and relationship with it. For this reason the Dutch are more likely to visit Indonesia, the Spanish holiday in Argentina and the British tour India. I speak here of the Spanish, the Dutch and the English as ‘groups’ – an individual may of course have his own individual preferences about the countries he would wish to visit, thought these choices too may be fashioned by historical context. Anyhow, aside from the absence of a rich colonial past, I suspect that the Americans are somewhat insular and too immersed in their own large country. They can travel quite a lot within the United States, and if they really want a change they are likely to confine their explorations to Mexico, Cuba or the Caribbean.
As a result of Western economic power, even that of the poorer sections of the populace, the so-called backpackers, there have sprung up in important cities all over Asia, areas which are popular among the Western tourist or where they tend to stay or come together. Some areas cater to the lower end of the market, namely the backpacker; others to the high paying tourist. In Delhi for instance you have Khan Market for the upmarket Westerner and Paharganj which caters to the backpacker, in Bangkok you have Khao Saan for the backpacker and Sukhamvit for the better heeled, and so on and forth. And here in Phnom Penh, I found the Sisowath Quay, a three kilometre stretch besides the junction of the Mekong and Tonle Sap River to be popular with the Western tourist. Enthusiastic joggers can be found here in the mornings and in the evenings the place lights up with music and meals on offer.
* * *
After some river watching I went over to the very same Sisowath Quay that lay just beyond the Royal Palace. It was popular with the Western tourist as I’ve mentioned. Although its location is generally upmarket, it does not entirely exclude the backpacker, being a mid-level tourist kind of place.
The wide road that ran alongside contributed to this up-market feel as did the attraction of the river nearby. I found the usual travel agents, some good Western style eating places (heartening to see after the not-so-excellent dinner I had eaten at the Naga World the previous night).
Several hotels advertised themselves as luxury boutique guesthouses. One of these hotels in particular was all of twelve feet wide but climbed up to seven floors! The Khmer Royal Hotel was another one such so-called boutique hotel and still hung a large cloth banner outside saying, ‘Welcome Mr Obama!’ long after the President’s visit in 2012, possibly to lure patriotic American tourists. Some hotels were genuinely boutique though like the reasonably large Bougainvillier hotel with rooms leading out into traditional French balconies that faced the riverside.
* * *
I booked an afternoon tour with V Silk Travels and Tours, one of several travel agencies at the quay. During the course of three hours the driver took me to a few notable places in the city such as the famous Silver Pagoda and the Russian Market. The most important part of the tour was a visit to the Genocide Museum, and the Killing Fields that adjoined the commemorative stupa at Choeung Ek. The Royal Palace was grand and the nearby pagoda had exquisite carving and an Indian feel to the architecture, but the so-called Russian market was a disappointment. Nothing remotely Russian about either the ambience or the merchandise, it was quite simply an ordinary market for cheap goods. We passed an impressive new building that housed the prime minister’s offices, built by the Chinese.
* * *
Choeung Ek was around 17 kilometres outside the capital. We reached there after a forty minute drive to expectedly find a large group of tourists visiting. A walking track complete with small wooden signs indicated the manner in which the genocide had been carried out. Gadgets fixed to your ear contained Western style sound recordings in different languages which explained what had transpired. So you walked along the path listening to the tape. Of course the creators of the recording couldn’t possibly know how long you would stand at a particular spot, so you had to use your head and work it out. In a way the whole affair was much like visiting the scene of a crime which has been marked out by a crime investigator – but where forensics has already taken away all (or almost all) the physical evidence.
The single terrible exception to the absence of physical evidence of what had happened was a huge tower that stands in the centre where human skulls were mounted over each other. It looks like a truly bizarre piece of modern art, only of course those skulls are real and not manmade!
The area used to be previously an orchard, and it still carried the outdoorsy countryside feel. The sun shone brightly outside. Aside from the tall skull filled monument that stands at the centre and the mechanised voice recordings providing information in the detached, emotionless tones of a voice over professional, little actual physical trace of the terrible crimes remains here. It could have been any other part of the countryside for all you knew. Nature can sometimes seem so quiet and peaceful relative to manmade violence.
* * *
After forty five minutes, we drove back to town to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocidal Museum. They hadn’t kept any human skulls here, but there were scores of photographs mounted on the walls of those who had been kept in custody, tortured and ultimately killed. There were faces of young boys and girls as well as older men and women. Some prisoners were depicted in a terrible state; I saw a large photograph of an emaciated and aged naked man and another of a naked woman. The Khmer Rouge was as brutal as they came. More affected than I had imagined possible, I sat on the steps for a long while, quite overwhelmed.
* * *
When I got back to the hotel, I found that someone had left a message for me at reception for me to call her. This was Anna K, a prosecutor with the Cambodian War Crimes Tribunal. A common friend had suggested we meet up while I was visiting.
I called her. She sounded startled to hear the name of my hotel.
‘Let me come and rescue you from that vile Naga World,’ she said, adding that she had never actually seen it from inside. She knew a good place for dinner in the neighbourhood. An hour later, I was looking at a fair, well-rounded woman with in her early forties.
We could have walked but the evening madness of the traffic near the hotel had started, and more to avoid the traffic and fumes than for the distance we decided to hire a tuk-tuk.
On the way to the restaurant, we passed a Kentucky Fried Chicken,
‘It’s fake,’ said Anna. ‘There was a fake MacDonald’s too earlier but it closed down.’
‘There is still a fake Starbucks in town.’
‘How’s the coffee?’
‘Don’t ask.’ She laughed. ‘That why I think Starbucks isn’t bothered!’
The offices of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia or ECCC where Anna worked, were a few km from the airport on the other side from the city.
We ate dinner at the Chinese House, an ancient building with a mix of French and Chinese architecture that had been converted into a restaurant. You have to be in the know that it doesn’t serve Chinese – mostly Mediterranean fare.
The tuk-tuk driver wasn’t satisfied with what Anna gave him, and followed us right inside demanding two dollars instead of the single she gave him. Anna may not have been wrong in her estimate of a fair price considering that it took us barely two three minutes to get to the restaurant. I had already understood during the course of my time in Phnom Penh that the auto drivers thought of two dollars as a starting rate, no matter what the distance. Clearly it is better to prefix these issues.
Anna complained of poor funding arrangements for the tribunal. There wasn’t enough international backing for it anymore. Clearly the tribunal was a case of too late, (if not too little as well) considering the number of criminals in their eighties and nineties who had committed the crimes many decades previously when they were still young. Questions have in fact have been raised as to whether it is a question of ‘justice delayed being justice denied’. The war criminals are too old; some are almost senile.
Anna complained of the regular traffic jams in the city.
‘If we start at four we have a good chance of getting home by five,’ she said, ‘but if we start at five it’s going to often take all of two hours.’
* * *
The following day I was to meet a woman by the name of Anne Chew, a friend of a friend who worked in the field of education.
After breakfast I took a walk up to the Sisowath quay boulevard, always a good place to hang around. I had the option in the morning to take a boat ride, and if I didn’t want to venture out too far, I could go to Preig Bangkang Island or alternatively Mekong Island. These were interesting options but I had to meet Anne for lunch and there wasn’t enough time. Better to take in the ambience of the city itself, I told myself, especially as I was leaving the next day for Siam Reap.
I discovered a University of Fine Arts, not far from the quay. Wonderful sculptures stood on display, reminding me of artefacts I had seen in Bali. Around the university area antique shops were to be found, selling all manner of artefact. This was not surprising at all given the extent and vastness of the Ankor heritage.
Young students milled around. I noticed pretty Cambodian girls with their hair tinted or dyed brown. The more adventurous yellows, reds and greens that you can sometimes see with teenage girls in Japan were not to be found.
* * *
The upmarket school where I was to meet Anne was not far from a famous but disreputable establishment that went by the name of Paris Hotel. It was near the Kampuchea Krum Boulevard and it was known to have a fish bowl on the 3rd floor. As part of my research on sex trafficking in the region, I decided to stop over by the hotel on the way to my meeting with Anne.
As the taxi I hired went through the city, I saw KTV signs everywhere. I also saw many shops with Khmer characters; the Chinese script was also much in use. Unlike Vietnam, where they use the Latin script for their language, the Khmer script survives alongside the language.
The taxi driver gave me a careful look. Perhaps I wasn’t the usual type who went to Paris Hotel.
Aside from the name of the hotel itself, colourfully emblazoned across the façade of the hotel in English, Khmer and Chinese, each in a different colour and design, the cream coloured building itself was largely a rundown affair scarcely meriting the appellation of the famous French capital.
At the hotel’s small wooden reception the lady at the counter quickly estimated that I wasn’t a customer for sexual services and so tried to sell me a room instead. Outside the lift I saw a notice that spoke of how child prostitution was a crime and would not be tolerated. It was an appropriate and yet an odd place to have such a notice. Was it a warning for paedophile firangs, or simply a clever disclaimer by the hotel? The concern the notice reflects is not without cause. There are many stories told here of a Russian billionaire who owned an island in Cambodia and was rumoured to throw child sex parties there for himself and his perverted friends. Pardoned by the king, he was eventually extradited to Russia in 2012.
Anyhow I went up and found between 20 to 30 young girls sitting on chairs inside a small dingy hall. The girls wore what appeared to be genuine smiles and did not seem unhappy or miserable. Fortunately I didn't see anyone underage. It was relatively early in the day for business though; it would only be in the evening and night that the customer footprint and that of the girls would increase.
‘How much?’ I asked the fat, young manager who had a table.
‘Five dollars,’ he responded, to my astonishment.
I had a quick look at the rooms. It was equipped with the bare essentials in the style of a brothel, which this place pretty much was.
I exited quickly, there was nothing more to be seen. I made my way to the school and my appointment.
* * *
I met Anne outside the ‘international’ school she worked for. I found the place without any difficulty but that was because of the size and prominence of the establishment. Otherwise when looking for a house in Phnom Penh one has quite often to do a bit of a wander around before managing to zero in on the residence. This is because house numbers in Phnom Penh and other Cambodian cities are not necessarily chronological. After House No 6 it could be House no 9 and then House no 5, further indicative of poor town planning.
She was waiting for me before time. I spotted a slender, middle aged woman with a lined and tired looking face. She seemed to be under some stress.
The school itself was a large yellow and red double storeyed building. It has large green lawns on which some children were playing football.
‘There’s a café close by where we can chat,’ she suggested.
I followed her to a Chinese dim sum restaurant that also served tea and snacks.
‘So how long have you been here?’ I asked, once we had settled down at a table.
‘Six months already,’ she said, ‘but thankfully I’ll be gone in another three.’
We ordered Chinese tea.
I learnt from Anne that private schools with dubious credentials but claiming to be international had mushroomed all over Phnom Penh. Clearly though she did not feel her own school fell into that category; I wasn’t convinced though that her own institute was a true exception.
Anne explained that the ability to speak English was often a requirement from the teachers, given the current global dominance of the language. There were many English speaking Filipinos available but her boss preferred to hire Western farangs – their presence added prestige and so-called ‘class’ to the school. It was all really a matter of catering to public perception – in this case the prejudices of well-to-do Cambodian parents who were looking for a good school for their offspring.
In order to put up an upmarket we-have-many- farang-teachers front, and at the same time economize on wages Anne’s employer had suggested to her that they hire backpackers. This would mean white English speaking faces, but lower wages needing to be paid. Anne managed to hire was one such backpacker, an Italian dance teacher who came over with her boyfriend from Bali. Eventually though despite attempts to hire the Italian farang for her ‘face value’ the government turned down the Italian lady’s work permit as not demonstrating sufficient and suitable qualifications. Under instructions from her employer, Anne was running around trying to get that decision reversed.
Schools bore names such as East -West International School, Bright International School, Hope International School, Canadian International School, British International School, Western International School, Logos International School and so on and forth. Universities were not far behind with even something called Building Bright University. I was reminded of a Lovely University back in India. Who was I to judge?
Anne spoke of how the children of the elite often came to school in chauffeur driven cars with even a security guard and nanny in tow. I noticed several blue, yellow and green Lexus’s in the two days I had been in the capital. Sovann, the taxi driver who had driven me from the airport said there were about eighty of those luxury sedans in town. I mentioned this to her.
‘Could be,’ she said, ‘although to me it seems that I’ve seen something like eight hundred of those.’
It was well past the lunch hour when I met Anne.
‘There’s a place called the Diamond Island,’ said Anne. ‘Shall we go there for dinner?’
* * *
We took a cab to the Diamond Island, which wasn’t an island at all, and as it turned out was walking distance from my hotel. Had Anne known this we could have arranged to meet at my hotel directly. Anne herself didn’t know what it was about, but had heard praise for it from her friends.
It was really a large open air eating place with dozens of restaurants that overlooked the canal of the riverside. A lovely, almost surreal, white bridge shone in the distance. If Sisowath Quay was the place for the farangs to assemble, this was the place for local Cambodians to pig out, drink a few beers and generally hang around. It was reasonably upmarket, and was a place for youngsters rather than families. Several young boys drove in on their motor bikes with a girl riding pillion.
Pizza and Chinese food options were available, but the cuisine that was by far the most popular on Diamond Island was to self-cook raw fish and meats that you selected, kind of a Korean style barbeque.
Anne took a pizza. I made my selection of fish and chicken that I started to cook over a slow coal fire. I ordered a glass of red and settled down to enjoy the colourful ambience and lively atmosphere.
Our conversation somehow drifted to a discussion of discrimination against Chinese in Malaysia, a country I had recently visited. I spoke of my understanding of it. Anne spoke of how in her view things were worse for the Chinese in Indonesia as compared with Malaysia for there they had been forced to change their names even and adopt Muslim ones. At the same time I pointed out that the Indonesians had no equivalent Bhoomiputra policy. One could argue which was worse.
The Chinese were not so well liked in Cambodia. Anne remarked on how she hadn’t found them friendly or well-disposed to her in general. She herself was a fine one to talk though for she was clearly yet less friendly herself, snapping frequently for little cause at the waiters who served us.
The Cambodian’s laid back attitude angered Anne, who saw it as ‘inefficient.’ She conceded though that they might actually be a happier lot in comparison to the Singaporeans with their frenetic lifestyle.
It had been more than worthwhile to do a stopover in Phnom Penh, but now I looked forward to my trip the next day to Siam Reap, the cultural heart of the country tom see the temples at Angkor Vat.
More by : Rajesh Talwar