Phnom Penh: The Sleaze Hierarchy

Phnom Penh skies.

Our bus out of Siem Reap was a sort of giant mini-van, lodged with many seats, all Cambodian-sized. This is to say: tiny. I am not a tall man, and even I sat mostly with my kneecaps braced against the seat in front of me. The road was long and meandering, though beautiful and serene which allowed us to space out and enjoy, interrupted only by the incredibly regular and lengthy phonecalls taken by every Cambodian on the bus (the folks we rode with were popular, some of them getting calls roughly once every four minutes for the six hour bus ride). The sun set, the roads darkened, and we could no longer see the cows lolling parallel to our path, but in a few hours, we were in the capital of Phnom Penh.


The hipster parts of my personality (which is to say: large, large parts of it) are, of course, particularly concerned with authenticity. With experiencing the real, with getting down and seeing a country for what it is. Being a big, fat, be-backpacked tourist with a giant DSLR and a wallet full of money understandably kind of precludes me from some of the experiences I wish to engage in, but occasionally you can find yourself in the midst of just regular, actual life while travelling.

There are times when you just want to get away from the tourist bubble: while it’s safe and well-lit and full of English-speaking guides, it has a tendency to be white-washed and sanitized for foreign consumption (with appropriate price-gouging to match). You go all the way to a foreign country, and you can’t help but actually want to see it, to see the people and how they live real life in that place. That I have deep, raised-pinky douchebag yearnings to experience life off the beaten path and get in touch with real Asia drives me to seek this out even more.

Most of what we got to experience in this regard had to do with food. There were food stalls everywhere in Phnom Penh, but our best, cheapest, and most Cambodian-y meals were always the ones on little byways, in the depths of gigantic, sprawling marketplaces, in the shadows away from the main road. The greater the density of locals eating at an establishment, and the less chance that the proprietor actually spoke English, the greater the chance of the food being real (and being real cheap).

Cambodian market food

That many stalls tended to specialize in one type of dish certainly helped, as we didn’t need to stumble through much preamble. We would walk down an alley or through a crowd, spot something tasty, and essentially ask, “One food, please.” Everything else is ultimately ancillary, and usually if we simply nodded at whatever was asked of us in Khmer (and later, in Vietnamese), we were provided with still greater amounts of deliciousness.


One of few big hulking masculine goon fantasies I harbour is to shoot a bunch of guns, and Cambodia has places you can do that. (The bigger step, also available in Cambodia, of shooting a rocket launcher at a cow, we decided we would forego.) Bobby, similarly intrigued, packed a wifebeater and dirtied it up some for the express purpose of wearing it while holding a big giant weapon.

But some of the desire to fire big weapons drains a little when you find out about, you know, gigantic historical tragedies. Our second real day in Phnom Penh we went to S21 Museum and the Killing Fields.

The Fields themselves are incredibly quiet: upon entry, you receive an audio-guide available in approximately one billion languages, and then you set about walking the path in silence. The guide is narrated in grandfatherly tones, as though wisdom being passed down to the younger generations by regretful, weary elders. It is a man who tells you simply and without preamble about the horrors committed in his country, and most specifically on the ground where you stand.


Butterflies tumble in the air over grassy knolls, rent upwards from level ground from the excavations and years of rainy seasons. Bones and teeth still erode up from the soil, and pieces of fabric are entwined in the roots of trees. Terrible, terrible things happened there. And they didn’t happen all that long ago.

It is awful, but you knew that. And it was important to be there to understand it.


Local tuk-tukists are always spouting game at you no matter where you go, and there is generally a hierarchy of sleaze which they will offer you. Most will start with a simple tuk-tuk ride, and will usually follow soon after with an offer for a full-day tour. If you decline, they also want you to know about the many, many hotels they know.

If you keep walking, they will say, in a comically loud whisper, about all the weed they can get you. Still not piqued, if you have not yet turned, they will begin shouting at your tail about prostitutes.

Once you are out of earshot, I can only imagine what goods they still have on hand. Nuclear warheads? Hyper-heroin? Roasted orphans?


Our third and last real day in Phnom Penh we took an impromptu walking tour and took in the sites, eating locally, and eventually fleeing back to the hostel to shower and siesta, drenched as we were in our own exhaustion and sweat.

By nightfall we wandered to the riverfront, seeking out food and beer, and eventually moving to simply sit along the boardwalk, looking out to the water. Party boats drifted by, blasting music in English, Korean, Khmer. Light reflected across the water, and we simply sat, and talked, and remembered that on vacation, you are, occasionally, entitled to sit down and rest.


8 thoughts on “Phnom Penh: The Sleaze Hierarchy

  1. I understand your desire to experience the people, the culture and the land as it really is and not dressed up for tourists. And though my backpacking days are not completely over, my age (no matter how much younger I am than your mother) and my nationality always belies the fact that I/we have more than they and so you are viewed as a sign of untold riches unless you get off the beaten path.

  2. the best day i had in cambodia involved hyper-heroin, a light meal of roasted orphan and an afternoon shooting nuclear warheads.

  3. Nicely written man. Makes me want to go. Maybe I’ll shoot a cow, depends on my mood. Was that easy to access? People come up and offer that? If it’s any effort to find, I’m out.

    • As we were negotiating our tuk-tuk for the killing fields, the tuk-tukist outside our hostel had a picture menu. The fields and S21 museum had pictures of willowy, beaten corpses, and several columns over were pictures of big guns for the gun tour.

      It will not be hard to find.

      P.S. Saw you followed. You bit the bullet, huh?

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