There’s a dead man lying in the gutter. A red cloth napkin covers his face. He’s wearing a colourful floral shirt, the kind which seem to be a big hit here with foreigners. I can tell he’s a Westerner because his shirt is short sleeved and I can see his wrinkly white skin, marred by an endless constellation of sun spots. I’m not sure what I find most disturbing: the fact that there’s a dead man lying in the gutter or that merely a metre away, people continue to enjoy their al fresco dinner, seemingly unperturbed.
Chris and I walk past the scene, and the small crowd which has gathered, just as a local teenager whips out his i-phone and snaps a photo. I feel unwell. There’s a family out there who will soon get a phone call. Someone has died alone, suddenly, on a garbage-filled Phnom Penh street. No one deserves to die like this. Not here. Not anywhere. I overhear a foreigner saying it’s the second Western guy he’s seen dead on Rue 172 in a month. Nothing about this scene surprises me much.
We’ve been in the Cambodian capital for only four days and I already despise it with a fervent passion. I cannot, for the life of me, remember visiting a seedier city. Phnom Penh is incomprehensibly filthy, and I mean this in every sense possible. So many foreigners come here for the cheap sex, cheap drugs and a cheap life and the local inhabitants seem more than happy to provide all three in copious quantities.
The cacophony of sights and sounds is overwhelming. Phnom Penh is an unrelenting assault on one’s senses and, although I’m personally finding it difficult to cope with, there are many here who seem hooked on its intoxicating essence.
On our first morning in town, we sit out on our balcony overlooking the street, to enjoy a cup of coffee. At 6am, we see men stumbling back to their guesthouses, accompanied by impossibly young girls, wearing next to nothing, and with high-heeled shoes strung around their shoulders. It’s not a unique scene, by any means, in this part of the world. South East Asia’s flourishing sex industry is arguably one of its most renowned assets. Or liabilities, one might argue. It’s still not something I can get used to.
A foreigner is sitting next to us at a local cafe. His hair in unkempt, oily and tangled. His face looks haggard; like he’s a hundred years old and battled through countless wars. He’s drinking a beer and smoking a spliff, and it’s not even 10 o’clock in the morning. He’s coughing nonstop. I’ve seen homeless men in Hyde Park in better shape than this guy. I return my gaze to my copy of the Cambodian Daily, the local English-language newspaper. Horrid stories abound. Just this week, a 32 year old Swiss guy who came here on the pretence of teaching English to orphans, has been arrested for running a major child sex-trafficking ring out of his central city apartment. A British guesthouse owner was busted during a massive anti-narcotics sting in the city, and an Italian-run NGO is urging the government to look into local brothels in Sihanoukville, where local children are rented out to foreign tourists for $10 an hour.
So is this just a foreign-ignited problem? Of course not. The drug dealers, hookers and pimps are locals, as are the authorities who tolerate the behaviour and a government which is obviously too blinded by revenue to do anything to improve the situation. And here I was thinking that scantily-clad tourists, visiting Laotian temples, was a major effen issue.
Apparently, there is another side to Phnom Penh; one which I fail to discover. Admittedly, I am not looking very hard. At this point, whenever we walk out the front door, I try not to look too hard at anything, really. When normally I’d be spending endless hours wandering the streets of a new place, discovering all its hidden nooks, I find it difficult to just go down the road for a bite to eat.
Needless to say, there are many here on good and honourable business; involved in commercial trade and working for international companies. They are prolific in local, English-language forums and wax lyrical about the city’s cultural soul and enticing architecture. Perhaps they all live in high rise buildings. I see the high-end apartment complexes, where penthouses are on offer for USd3,000 a month. I also see the 2-metre high barbed wire fence surrounding them. But at street level, the only things I notice are the smell of piss, heavy pollution and decaying rubbish; the sounds of drunkenness, endless car horns, streams of scooters and tuk tuk touts. It’s sheer madness. Whenever we return from an outing, I need to stand in the shower for 10 minutes, just to scrub off all the grime. But no matter how clear the water runs, I never seem to feel clean enough.
We find solace one morning in the grounds of a temple near the river’s edge. The gardens are brimming with frangipani trees and orange-robed monks. We see a fellow foreign couple taking photos, and realize it’s the first camera-wielding tourists we’ve seen in days. I wonder if they are also seeking escape.
A friend of ours recommends we go to the FCC for a sundowner one night. The Foreign Correspondent’s Club is an institution in Phnom Penh, where once upon a time the city’s foreign journalists and aid workers used to gather for a refreshing drink and a chat at day’s end. This was the early 90s, when the country was in the midst of an upheaval and, it is said, Phnom Penh was at its worst. Back then, I am told, dead men were not just lying in the gutter but could be seen floating downstream on a daily basis.
We decide to spend our last morning in the city’s genocide museum. Perhaps not the most brilliant of ideas. Death. Torture. Abuse. Decay. Denial. We skip the Killing Fields. I’ve had enough.
In the evening, in an attempt to lift our sombre mood, we take a sunset boat ride. From afar and glowing with the sun’s last rays, the city looks beautiful. On our way back from the boat dock, we stroll along the wide and well maintained riverfront esplanade. There are picnicking families, rollerblading teenagers and couples on a romantic outing. This is, by far, the nicest spot in the city and the only one not brimming with rubbish. Pity it only stretches about two kilometres. Here, locals and foreigners merge into one. This is, perhaps, the most unique aspect of Phnom Penh. It’s the first city we’ve been to in years where no distinction is made between people. The city has a way of embracing all with a fervent ardour; young or old, Western or Eastern, backpacker or expat and yes, paedophiles and outcasts too. It sucks them in and holds them prisoner, like a black hole with no escape hatch.
Luckily, we have one. Our Thai visa is ready.