Saturday, February 27, 2010

Phnom Penh Life

"So," you may ask (and if you don't, you should) "what's it like to live in Bangkok these days?"

The short answer is that these days I live mainly in Phnom Penh, which is as much like Bangkok as Lodi is like Los Angeles. It's an interesting town, even if many of the ways it's interesting take some getting used to.

Let's start with my apartment.

This is the alley one walks down to get to my apartment.

What you don't see any of is lights. It took me some time to learn to enter it around 11 PM without my pulse rate tripling. Now, however, I know every family in the place, and it's no longer an ordeal that produces interesting adrenaline spikes. After you feel your way all the way down the alley in the dark, you reach:

My door.

Note the curb appeal. Yes, it's solid steel and yes, it triple-locks. The door has a message, directed to anyone who might decide to try to get through it to relieve me of any of my possessions, and the message can be summarized in five words: Don't even think about it. Inside the door, a flight of stairs leads to my apartment itself, which has a door just like this one except that there's steel mesh behind the bars and glass behind the steel mesh and a hideous, vaguely African, fabric behind the glass. The door leads directly into:

My kitchen.

I think "functional" is the best word, although you might modify it by preceding it with "more or less." The little refrigerator comes up to my elbows and holds less than the average body pore, and freezes most of that solid. The most important thing in the kitchen is the coffee maker on top of the refrigerator. It's almost the only thing I use. The little two-burner gas hotplate is hooked up to a bright red propane tank out of sight behind the refrigerator, which I think of as my personal bomb. The gas cooker has a wonderful brand name:

You're right, that says "Endurable Collection." I think it's perfect. They could have said "durable" or "enduring," or even "endearing," but they chose "Endurable," which is exactly accurate. It's an appliance you can learn to endure, at least on a good day. The kitchen is at the back of the apartment (or the front, since it's where the door is) and outside of the air conditioned area because Southeast Asians can't think of any good reason to have an air conditioner and a stove running in the same room, which I think is quite sane.

As dire as these pictures are, the apartment is actually quite nice -- a balcony overlooking the river, a big living room with the bookcases and work area, a bedroom with its own separate air conditioner, and two big bathrooms that work just fine, thanks. When I get tired of the apartment, I can always visit:

The house next door.

Honest. This wonderful, if derelict, colonial mansion, built around 1910, is widely believed to be haunted (no kidding) and has been empty, off and on, since the Khmer Rouge were in power. Its most famous ghost is a soldier who's always encountered on the stairs, whereupon he reaches up and pulls his hair, which hinges his head back to reveal a deeply slashed throat. Surely, a simple "Hello" would suffice. When I first moved here, I could have bought it for $240,000 and didn't. A month ago, the Fpreign Correspondents Club, which is right behind it, bought it for US $2.2 million and plan to put another $2 million into renovating it into a very exclusive small hotel. Don't know what they're going to do about the ghosts.

In case all this looks too grim, we're directly across the street from:

The National Museum.

And right down the street (actually, next door to the Museum) is the Royal Palace, where King Norodom Sihomoni lives. So it's a tony area, actually. And it's full of:

Monks with Umbrellas.

How cool is that?


  1. That is VERY cool! Are you planning a book set in Cambodia? We b;uy Asian foods from an Asian grocery store run by a Chinese Cambodian woman married to an East Indian. They have four lovely children. She speaks to me in English and to my husband in Thai and in the Teochew dialect. Enjoy your beautiful views of Cambodia!

  2. You live in a visual ambrosia. As a deaf individual my eyes are drawn to the details. I found this entertaining and insightful. Interesting place to live. (Hugs)Indigo

  3. What would your mother say about your neighborhood? My son won't let me see where he is living. My daughters tell me, "you don't want to know". He lives in Boston.

    I love the term "visual ambrosia" that Indigo wrote in her post and it certainly applies to your view. The kitchen, on the other hand....

    The monks remind me of a picture a friend took in Tokyo. A couple had just been married and the entire party was in traditional dress. She said when she saw them she knew she really was in Japan.


  4. Hi, Book Dilettante -- Yes, Phnom Penh is endlessly interesting on one level and really, really boring on another. It's a dysfunctional city in a lot of ways, which can be fascinating, especially when you find yourself literally hip-deep in water on a main road during a monsoon. The Koreans spent something like 24 million bucks to drain the roads near the river, but by the time the big boys finished dipping, there was about $27.84 left, so nothing got done.

    So the woman who runs your store is tri-lingual (and probably speaks some of her husband's language, too). I really admire people like that, who pull up stakes and start new lives, and I think they enrich this country immeasurably.

    Indigo -- When I first came here, in 1998, much of the town looked like that haunted mansion. The Khmer Rouge had burned out and blown up every building that had anything to do with business or the West, and a drive down Monivong Boulevard revealed all these blackened stumps, like rotted teeth. Too bad, too, because the town was one of the most beautiful of all Asian colonial cities, built in part on a 1781 plan of Paris. Anyway, it's being rebuilt at a frantic pace and, to my mind, defaced with the addition of skyscrapers and shopping malls.

    Glad you liked the pictures.

  5. Beth --

    I know, the kitchen looks really grisly from a western perspective, but the real problem isn't even visible. Above the windows in the back wall are a bunch of slots cut into the concrete to allow smoke and cooking odors to escape. They're densely nested by a small species of brown bird, unremarkable except for the activity level of their lower digestive tracts. The birds fly around in the apartment whenever they feel like it, marking their territory as they go. I also get nesting materials and the occasional feather in the sink.

  6. Tim - Guano doesn't apply to little brown birds but it is the least offensive word I can come up with to describe what your visitors leave.

    No wonder you don't use your kitchen! The coffee pot has, at least, a cover.


  7. Talking fixer upper here and a bargain your haunted colonial neighbor...great post!

  8. Thanks, Cara. I think you'd have to fix it up and then exorcise it, and my guess is that the people at the Foreign Correspondents Club will do all of that or they won't be able to get any Khmer help. At night, you see pedestrians literally cross the street to avoid it.

    They own a huge three-story building on the riverfront (the Mekong), which is right behind the mansion. They're going to build a second-story bridge from the club to the mansion, which means I'll have to put curtains on my kitchen windows, since I frequently cook sans culottes, what with the temperature in the kitchen hovering in the triple digits.

    What a loss to the neighborhood.

  9. Hi Tim,

    I enjoyed the tour around your home and neighborhood.
    What a mix!

    I don't know how you managed the fear you must have felt walking in pitch darkness and then living across the way from a haunted mansion? Or was not buying it when it was going for $240,000 worse for your heart?

  10. Nice - I didn't know about the soldier-ghost.

  11. Tim: I started to believe in ghosts too, after 3 years in Southeast Asia. I was terrified each time I had to take the elevator up to the floor of a building where a student had died. Students were saying she haunted the elevator and I began to believe it!

    The grocery owner in Ohio actually speaks 4 languages as she also speaks Cambodian, plus some of her husband's language, yes.

  12. Foi em Phnom Penh que consegui fazer um par de óculos em menos de 05 dias, depois de tentar em Sydney, Bali, Kuala Lumpur.. E sem a receita. Eu havia perdido os meus ao longo da viagem e as lentes estavam irritando minha vista. Em uma hora tinha dois óculos, dentre os quais um ray ban folheado a ouro, pela bagatela de US$ 50,00! O processo para tal? Hilário, nem dá para contar aqui. Se interessar, vejam - os escritos (inner) da minha viagem pelo sudeste asiático.
    Patricia Renni Ouro