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Sunday, August 22, 2010


10,000 reasons to be pissed off with Phnom Penh

I arrived in town late on Friday afternoon. At the airport I was besieged by tuk-tuk drivers offering to take me to town for $7. (US dollars are semi-legal tender in Cambodia.) I said, no that was too expensive and they quickly pointed out that car taxis charge $9. I said last time I was here I travelled by motorcycle and paid $2. They pointed out how difficult it would be with my bags on a motorcycle. But I've done it before. It can be done. Then a motorcycle driver who looked like he was blind in one eye turned up. He offered to take me. "How much?' I asked. '$5.' 'No way. I paid $2 last time.' Eventually I got him down to $3.50, so off we went. I'm sure if I'd actually walked out into the street outside the airport I could have found one to take me for less. But the one-eyed driver seemed a nice sort of guy so I went with him. He even knew where International Guest House was and while he tried to talk me into accommodation where he might get a commission, he was happy to take me there.

I first visited Phnom Penh early in 2005. At that time I remember one of my challenges was the fact that many of the motorcycle-taxi drivers knew the city hardly better than I did. Since then, whenever possible in Phnom Penh I walk where I can.

During this visit to PP I have several agendas. I want to visit a dentist who worked on my teeth a few years ago. I want to catch up with my friend, Vana, who is now working and living in Phnom Penh. On the plane from Australia I sat next to a young woman named Erika who was heading to Cambodia to do volunteer work on a similar basis to what I do. We agreed to try to catch up. And I needed to go to the Australian embassy to vote. To communicate with all these people I also needed to get a Cambodian SIM for my phone. I needed Vana's help for that. You need citizenship ID to get the SIM. I got my last one in his name.

Before I left Australia I emailed the Australian Embassy and asked if they would be open for voting. I got a quick response saying they would. I borrowed a phone from the reception guy at the guesthouse on Friday evening, called Erika and arranged to meet her at the Oz embassy at 10 am. I left the guesthouse at 9 am. This allowed me plenty of time to visit the dental surgery and walk to the embassy. I knew where it was. I'd been there before.

At the dental surgery they told me the dentist was now working elsewhere. They checked the number I had and said yes that would find him. OK, off to the embassy.

When I reached the corner of the street where I expected the embassy to be I asked someone for confirmation to make sure I had the right street. He said that the embassy had moved but he couldn't tell me where. I went on anyway. He had to be right because it certainly wasn't where I expected it to be.

On a corner there were two motorcycle drivers and a tuk-tuk driver. They offered to take me somewhere just as every other motorcycle and tuk-tuk driver had done on every corner I had passed. I asked if they knew where the Australian embassy was. One guy was very confident. He searched my map for about two minutes and then pointed to a mark on the map where it clearly said US embassy—and this was in the other end of town. One insisted that it was further along roughly in the direction I had been heading and the third vaguely described how to get to where it was before. Despite their inability to convince me they knew where it was now located each of them thought I should still go with them. I decided to continue walking but in the direction that seemed the most probable.

At the next corner another tuk-tuk driver asked if he could take me somewhere. I asked if he knew where the Australian embassy was. He described the direction that I thought had the most potential which suggested I was heading the right way. I was concerned because I was supposed to be meeting Erika. I didn't want to be late. I was prepared to get this guy to take me so I asked the fare. '$3'. He quoted. "No way.' I said.

To put this into context, you need to understand that the average income in Cambodia is about $50 a month. So, if he was quoting this fare to a Cambodian how many fares do you think he would get? Obviously this is a special price for foreigners. And having been raised in a country where all taxis have meters and therefore everyone, no matter who they are, pays the same fare. I find this attitude unfair. (No pun intended.)

He dropped his price to $1.50. I said 'no'. He asked what I'd pay. I said '2,000 reil' ie 50 cents. He rode off.

I simply kept walking in the direction I believed the embassy to be; stopped here and there to ask directions; spoke gruffly to any tuk-tuk or motorcycle driver who dared to approach me and eventually found the embassy at 10.30 am. There was no sign of Erika. When I signed in I checked the list of previous visitors and Erika's name wasn't there. I did my democratic duty, went outside and waited until a little after 11 am. Still no sign of Erika.

I walked back home dodging the motorcycles and tuk-tuks as much as possible, had some lunch and during the afternoon went to the National Museum where I was to meet Vana. He was almost an hour late which meant I sat in the shade on the opposite corner and I noticed the motorcycle and tuk-tuk drivers. Most of them never moved. It became obvious, if it wasn't already, that there were far too many of these guys so that very few of them can make any sort of living out of it. They sit around all day doing nothing, thinking they have a job but complaining how little money they make.

Compared to my first visit in 2005 the number of tuk-tuks has increased greatly. There are probably more motorcycles too but proportionally, the tuk-tuks have increased far more. My guesstimate is that there has to be about 10,000 tuk-tuk drivers in town—maybe more than there are in Bangkok, a much bigger city. There must be far fewer tourists than tuk-tuks. I certainly don't see as many Westerners as I do tuk-tuk drivers. Most have a spot where they sit all day and return to if they are lucky enough to get a fare. I guess they pay someone for this right. Whether such a payment is official or not I don't know. This being Cambodia I suspect it's not. Those who don't have such a spot cruise.

The cruisers can be more persistent. They come along beside you as you walk, engaging you in conversation. One guy was quite good. He saw me going to a statue to take photos and waited where I had to pass coming back. He started chatting and was a good conversationist, drawing me out. In fact, I dumped a lot of my feelings about his profession on him. He didn't disagree but during the conversation pointed out, as they often do, the costs and other challenges involved in running this business.

I can sympathise but the reality is they have got themselves into a business that simply can't make money. There is far too much competition. In most of the world of business competition means lower prices but not in Cambodia. The way they figure it is that because they can't get so much business they have to charge more to get the same income. Elsewhere they would go out of business but somehow they hang in there and it is simply a crazy situation. If other travellers feel the same as me they are actually having a negative impact on tourism. I don't recommend anyone visit Phnom Penh unless they are prepared to put up with constant harassment from these guys. Come to Cambodia by all means but go elsewhere.

I want to end this on a positive note. I love Cambodia. The Cambodian people are the friendliest I've met anywhere. They are so generous with their smiles it is a delight to be among them. Please come to Cambodia and enjoy your stay anywhere outside of Phnom Penh.

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I walk (almost) everywhere, at home and abroad. If I'm on holiday I often want to take a walk to get to know where I am. Yet taxi/tuktuk drivers always seem mystified by the idea that we're "going for a walk" and so taking a taxi would defeat the point....
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