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Tuesday, February 21, 2006


My illusion of Phnom Penh

When I visited my son, David, before leaving Australia, he was reading a book by Lama Yeshe called 'Becoming your own therapist'. Yeshe who died in 1984 was a Tibetan Buddhist monk. The book was published together with another of his called, something like, Make your mind an ocean. I read most of both books while I was there.

I really loved those books. I think it is easy to get caught up with all the crap (to my thinking) that surrounds the basic teachings and get away from what I believe the Buddha was really about. But Yeshe gets right down to that important stuff. I will try to pass on what he is saying in just a few words. If it speaks to you, the books are distributed for free by the Lama Yeshe Foundation (or something similar to that) or perhaps through the Society for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (or once again something similar—I'm doing this from memory). Anyway, if the books are right for you, you'll track them down.

Yeshe is basically saying that everything is an illusion and how we perceive it comes down to our individual brains. If your brain is stuffed up, you'll experience a lot of shit in your life. If you've got your head together you can experience happiness. What you own, what happens to you does not matter. It is entirely up to you and the way you think. Obviously there's a lot more stuff than that but that is the essence.

The point of all that is to explain that I am seeing Phnom Penh through different eyes this year than when I was here last year. If you've been following my blogs faithfully for a year or more you will know that PP was not my favourite place. If you want to see what I wrote, it will be in the blog archive for early February, 2005. Perhaps at that time it lacked something by comparison with what I had seen before I arrived. Lets face it, Angkor Wat is the most spectacular thing I have experienced in my life and the people of Kompong Chhnang were extremely friendly. But this time I'm coming here first, direct from Australia, and even though I had just left some dear loved ones behind I am feeling very comfortable and happy here in PP.

The flight over was pretty normal, ie boring. The first leg of the journey was seven hours. I had a window seat but as it was night I didn't see much more than the lights of Sydney as we left and of Kuala Lumpur as we landed. The seat next to mine was empty so I was able to spread out a little but still didn't manage to get a good sleep. KL has a new airport, or at least the buildings are new, with lots of opportunities for shopping. But you know me better than that. I made use of the five hours waiting time to do some reading. From KL to PP took about 1.5 hours. It was a smaller and older plane. The service was not as good but I was able to look out the window to see a wonderful view of KL, the oil palms that cover much of rural Malaysia, the beaches and occasional island as we crossed over the Gulf of Thailand and before I realised it there was land again, mostly looking quite brown as most of the rice has been harvested. As we came in to land I got a good view of PP. It is amazing for a Westerner to see that many of the back streets in the suburbs are just dusty tracks. This is a city of 1.2 million people. We crossed the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, flew in low over the city and then we were there.

Going through immigration was pretty simple. There was a row of people sitting in front of computers at a long counter. You handed your passport and visa application to the person at one end and then you went to the other end to wait until it reached the person there. If you'd ticked all the boxes correctly and could spell your own name, your passport was returned to you with the appropriate visa. There were a couple more gates where other things were checked and then you were out and free to explore Cambodia.

I thought there might have been a bus to get you into town but no, the only option was taxi at a set price of $US7. Please note that $US are legal tender here in Cambodia so whenever I mention $s, it will be US. To convert to Oz, add about a third more. Cambodian money comes in reil—4,000 = $US1. Traffic was busy all the way in to town: lots of motorcycles and bicycles as well as cars, 4WDs and vans with people sitting on the roof. The driver was pleasant. Of course he tried to talk me into accommodation where he got a commission but I had decided I was staying at the Royal Guesthouse this time. At least he knew where it was and drove straight there. He even helped me to carry my bags in.

Royal Guesthouse hadn't got my email to say I was coming and they had (or so they said) only one room available, which just happened to be the top of the range @ $10 per night. The reason I chose the Royal is that in the old Lonely Planet guidebook they say that they give a little extra. I now see that in the latest edition this comment has been dropped, perhaps appropriately so. I'm not complaining about this place. It's fine. Last year I stayed at the International Guesthouse just a few blocks away. I'd say that for the same price it was roughly equal. Each has shortcomings, depends what's important to you. Next time I come to PP, maybe I'll try somewhere else in the hope of finding somewhere that feels like my home in PP. The picture accompanying this blog is the view from my Royal Guesthouse balcony.

I tried to rest for a little while but couldn't. I wanted to get out there amongst it all. I needed to do some shopping before heading on to Kompong Chhnang so I headed for the Central Market.

Anyone who has seen much of me in Australia recently will know that I usually travel light and don't carry a huge range of clothing. Well, you'll be pleased to know that I've extended my wardrobe. At one entrance to the market there is stall after stall carrying a big range of souvenir t-shirts. 'How much?' I asked one young woman.

'Two dollars.'

I hesitated.

'If you buy many, I give you discount.'

'When I was in Siem Reap, I bought t-shirts like this for $1.50.'

'I give you same price.'

'OK.' I picked out two. One with the Khmer alphabet—figure it might help me to learn it—and one with apsaras (heavenly dancers) from Angkor Wat. Now my wardrobe includes a total of six t-shirts. Hope you don't think I'm extravagant.

While I am making my purchase one or two beggars are waiting for the transaction to finish to see if I might give them a donation. I don't. As I go though the market I am constantly accosted by beggars—old women, young women carrying a baby, men with missing limbs. While I have pity for those who live in poverty I realise that if I were to give to every one of them I would soon run out of money. I choose instead to give my time. I have been told by Cambodian people that they can get a better job if they speak English. When I get to Kompong Chhnang I intend to give my time freely to those making this effort to improve their lot in this way. If I get a reputation with the Central market beggars as being stingy, that's fine. Perhaps they'll leave me alone.

I acknowledge that to the average Cambodian I probably look rich. As many of you reading this know, I live on a fraction of what most Australians do. However, I am carrying a camera that cost me the equivalent of three years salary for a Cambodian with a good job. How could I not look rich to a Cambodian without a job?

I spend an hour or two in the market. I buy a daypack—I need some way to carry my purchases to Kompong Chhnang—, some electrical adaptor plugs and some books. If you know me, you're not surprised, of course I buy books. I buy books on Cambodia, books to help me learn Khmer language and books to help me teach English. Most of them are pirate editions and therefore quite cheap even if you pay the price they ask at first. In Thailand I don't usually haggle but here it is almost mandatory. It takes me a little while to get the hang of it. If they ask for $6 I say, 'Will you accept three?' They then quote another price, and gradually you work your way up while they work their way down to somewhere around two thirds of what they first asked for—if you're lucky. The mistake is to offer what you really want to pay straight off—you'll never get it. Most of the books come from stalls but some are sold by vendors carrying a basket. One such guy pointed to his two artificial legs to try to get some sympathy from me to pay a higher price. It worked. At least he has taken the step of working rather than begging.

On the way back from the market I see a barber shop that caters to Cambodians. There is a barber free. Actually he's asleep in his chair. I ask one of the working barbers, 'Haircut. How much?'

'One dollar.'

I take a seat and he wakes his colleague. This guy speaks no English but somehow he understands that I want it short. I have in my mind that I want my hair cut to about the length a monk's hair is just before he has his monthly head shave. That's exactly what he does. Can this guy read my mind? Sometime I will get a photo of myself with one of my new t-shirts and put it on flickr so you can see the haircut and the t-shirt.

I spend the afternoon walking, taking in the sites. Not the regular tourist sites but walking the back streets and through some of the markets that cater to Cambodians, smiling and saying hullo to the people—enjoying the real Phnom Penh. This is an example of the Asia that I love. I take lots of photos. Gradually I'll add them to my flickr pages.

I am even friendly to the moto drivers and have a chat with several of them. One is observant enough to notice I have just had a haircut. 'How much you pay?' he asks.

'One dollar.'

'Ooh. Very expensive.'

I walk to the river. This area caters for tourists in a big way and charges accordingly. Me, I'm more comfortable in the real Phnom Penh.

After lots of walking, lots of little chats and many photographs I eventually return to the guesthouse. They have a cafe downstairs and that is where I have my dinner. It's slightly more expensive than the street food but I've done enough walking for one day. I order a chicken curry with rice @ $3.50. It tastes good. Quite spicy. Perhaps I've lost a little of my acclimatisation after four months in Australia. Only problem is that it has quite a lot of peanuts in it that I have to remove one at a time.

I notice that the guesthouse has its own little internet cafe and charges only 2,000 reil (US50 cents) per hour. Unfortunately he won't let me connect my own computer when I tell him I want to upload. So today, Monday, I'll take a walk and find somewhere that will.

When I get up this morning I go out on the balcony and I notice that it's lightly raining and there are food stalls catering to Cambodians in the side-street over the road. I wander over. The first one is selling fried noodles with bean shoots. It looks OK. I take a seat. I get her to give me a plateful with an egg added. It is an enjoyable breakfast. I hold up some money to ask how much. She holds up one finger and then five. I think she is saying $1.50 which I figure is fine. But when I give her one dollar that is enough. She gives me change. She has charged me 1,500 reil.

When I return to my room I spend about 15 minutes taking photos from my balcony of the interesting traffic in the street. Coming soon to my flickr pages.

I expect I'll be heading to Kompong Chhnang tomorrow, Tuesday. I'm not sure about internet connection there. It may be a little while before I report in again.

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