12 Hours in Phnom Penh

I initially went to Cambodia from Bangkok and went to Siem Reap, which is the hub for going to the Angkor temples. That route is well travellled with backpackers, and since two million tourists per year go to visit Angkor Wat, that hub is quite well prepared for westerners. Despite the temples and the history being incredible, I cannot lie and say I was not disappointed by just how much the place felt like a theme park. After a while I left and headed to Phnom Penh, the capital, in order to get a visa for Vietnam and as it is a good starting point for visiting anywhere else. I expected it to be similar to Siem Reap or at least, as used to tourists, and in a way it is. I had a very very interesting initial twelve hours.

Since I got there, in no particular order I had to break up fight between a crying prostitute and an angry german, listen to one guy's entire life story, listen to a drunk Irish guy singing then offering blowjobs, comfort a drug dealer, and have a beer with a different prostitute.

It started with Bert. I went down to the hostel bar around 10pm to see if anyone else was around to talk to; it was however almost completely empty. I had my laptop just in case and started to poke around on the internet, killing time briefly before an American guy on the table next to me leaned over and asked how I was doing. I was fine, I told him as much, and he continued with the questions. This was immediately way more interesting than reddit so I moved over and sat down at his table for a chat.

That man can talk. I don't think I said anything for the next sixty minutes but I learned all about his divorce, his five children from two separate marriages, his other marriage to a Japanese woman in Japan, his hospitalisation and subsequent brain damage after a mugging, and then all of those things again just for good measure. He is a really nice guy, even bought me a beer but I started to feel like this was my payment for staying and listening.

I went to sleep around midnight but not for long, as it turns out. Four hours later I was half awake anyway - something strange has happened to my circadian rhythm in the last year - but even had I been sleeping soundly I'd have been woken up by the shouting and screaming coming from just outside my room. I didn't quite follow everything that was said since one side was half-Khmer and half-English words and the other was a bewildered German. This went on for a several minutes but after she screamed "help" I decided I had to go see what was happening.

She turned out to be a prostitute, wearing heavy makeup and what must technically have been a dress but lacking shoes as her partner for the night was clutching them and shouting at her almost as loudly as she was shouting at him. She was very upset and even crying.

The German went downstairs, still holding her shoes hostage, and so now I was standing in a corridor with a fraught prostitute. I'm not sure what to do in situations like this, it's not really something I've been trained to handle. Soothing pats and "there-there" noises seemed wrong so I just stood awkwardly. To make matters worse, the guy in room 304 nearby started shouting about the noise.I offered her some water, she didn't want any, but she was very keen to tell me something about boom-boom. Offering or complaining, I have no idea, so I just nodded as best I could.

After a while I retreated back into my room, not exactly planning to sleep but mainy planning not to be in the conflict zone any more. Then came a knock at the door, which I wanted to ignore but figured I'd go see what was happening. It was the German guy, who firstly asked for cigarette then was all apologies about the noise. This is a man who prioritises.

We went to stand on the balcony as he finished a beer, where he started to explain it all in excrutiating detail. It turns out to have been a dispute over the quality and quantity of services rendered. I'm not sure why he was so keen to make sure I knew the details of his arrangements but I listened politely. He'd arranged with her at the bar they met for two "shots", for $40. I initially assumed this meant tequila or something but this is the nomeclature for ejactulation, it turns out. The thing is, since he was already a bit drunk, he took his time with the first one. Too much time, and she decided she needed to get back to work, and so the fight ensued. The rest was negotiation, since he wanted to pay only $20 for half of the promised amenity. He was very forthright in his views on this and I really could not figure out how to escape nor figure out a way to care until fortunately, the door to room 304 opened and a different prostitute walked out and down the stairs. Then the guy in room 304 shouted at us to shut up, so we went back to our rooms.

By now I was fully awake and not particularly interested in trying to go back to sleep, so I went downstairs in the hostel and figured I'd wander about outside to see what was happening. Unfortunately, large metal grates had been pulled across the doors and padlocked shut, and the ostensibly 24-hour reception was manned by one guy wearing only a towel and sleeping on the pool table. I wandered around a little trying to figure out a way to avoid betraying my Britishness and doing something as uncouth as waking a sleeping person, but after a while I realised I was trapped. Then I tripped over a tuktuk that had been parked inside the reception area and the noise woke up the man in the towel, who let me out.

Finally free I wandered down the street looking for anything that was open, but it seems that in this particular area of Phnom Penh, all the bars and restaurants shut around 3am. Now my dilemma was about trying to wake up the sleeping towel guy or find anything to do, and fortunately, I spotted a 24hour convenience store with a table outside. It sold instant noodles and beer (separately) and since I had brought my bag containing my Kindle, I at least had something to kill time until the hostel opened up again.

After a bit of reading and some welcome noodle munching, someone came and sat at the table with me and said a friendly hello. His name turned out to be Eddie, we chatted briefly before he turned to his phone to start sending messages. I nodded at him then went back to my book. I didn't get far though as a drunk Irishman and a Cambodian woman appeared at the convenience store too. She went inside to buy something, while he decided to loudly serenade us with some kind of song that neither I nor my table buddy recognised, so the two of us rolled eyes at each other until the song finished. Clearly the singing Irishman realised this was a tough crowd, to decided to up the ante by asking if we wanted a blowjob each.

Our horrified looks must have been all the answer he needed, as he quickly backtracked. The woman came out of the store clutching a pack of condoms. "Not from me you gay twats," he bellowed, "from her! My treat!"

Now Eddie spotted an opportunity and started asking the Irishman would be interested in any drugs? Any drugs? Cocaine? Valium? At this point I zoned out and went back to my beer and book, so I missed exactly what was negotiated but seems like the prostitute wasn't the only one who found a customer from the Irishman. However he didn't have the drugs on him, so asked the Irishman to stay for a while as he rushed back home to get them.

The drug seller got onto his motorbike and sped off. So now I was facing a bleak future of trying to put a moratorium on conversation with my new companions. I really hope they didn't notice just how releived I was when the Irishman clearly had other plans, grabbed the prostitute by the hand, and walked off making a beeline for his hotel I guess. He was drunker than the German, so a part of me wondered if he would manage to make his two shots. I wished him luck.

Then Eddie came back to discover his customer had disappeared. He complained that he'd just driven for 20 minutes to get the goods. People are so frustrating, he said. So rude.

Eddie sat glumly saying nothing, so I tried one last time to read some of my book, when the prostitute came back. There was a heated discussion between her and Eddie - turns out they knew each other. So now I'm sat next to a drug dealer lamenting about the unreliabilty of customers and a prostitue doing the same. I seem to have inadvertently become the agony aunt of Phnom Penh.


Carl Crowder


Hi I'm Carl. I'm wandering about the globe and writing code as I do it, and occasionally doing comedy standup or improv or webcomics too.

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