January 10, 2010

First Impressions of Phnom Penh

My very first impression of Cambodia was the smell. A thick, warm, and delightful smell! Even in the airport, the very foreign air made me feel adventurous. I wasn't expecting anyone to pick me up at the airport, but after waiting for my mystery tuk tuk for 15 minutes, a blond woman asked me if I was “Jenna.” Relieved, I said, “Yes! Are you my person?” She said no, but she knew who my person was and sent me to her directly. I think my somewhat frantic and pathetic e-mails to the director of Conversations with Foreigners (CWF) paid off. The director sent Ally, a tiny Cambodian woman who works for the school to pick me up. We found our tuk tuk driver, piled in my overweight suitcase, and sped off into the dark city (Phnom Penh has only a smattering of street lights). Ally and I briefly discussed weather, dancing, and school as I examined the city from inside the carriage pulled by a motorcycle. The buildings looked old, and the little piles of trash on the corner let me know I wasn't in Nebraska anymore. Stray dogs mingled with fruit stands and women in ambiguous parlors. I noticed men in uniform stationed about every two blocks. Police officers? A braid of thick wires was strung between the wooden telephone poles lining the street. It was surreal to finally be in the place I had being talking, reading and writing about for so many months.


Okay, I've been in Phnom Penh for 12 hours, officially. I've had enough time to bumble my way through Cambodian breakfast—indeed a hearty soup of a little beef, some mystery veggies, rice noodles, and broth. Don't forget the bean sprout, lime and chili garnish. I was thrilled, actually. The iced coffee was the best, though. I can't figure out what they did to it, but a good coffee is an omen for a good morning. About 90 seconds of Khmer-English and Riel-Dollar confusion later, I had paid probably $2 for the whole meal, plus tip.

After that, I tried to buy some toiletries. The little stall next to my Guesthouse has a fair supply of usual products in strangely sized containers. I got a Thai version of Pantene shampoo in a miniature size, and a large bottle of Japanese soap that promises to whiten skin. Selecting my items was easy enough, but figuring out how much they cost was anything but. Keep in mind that Cambodians use two currencies, the Riel for small amounts and the US dollar for larger purchases. At first, I thought she said 3000 riel, which is not even one dollar. Then she clarified 8500 Riel (two dollars), so I shuffled the dirty bills out. No, she said, that's for the soap, 3500 more for shampoo. It sounds pretty easy when I write it out, but I gave up and handed her a $10, hoping for honest change. I think I spent less than $5. In many countries, however, the art of bargaining is the only way to protect yourself from being overcharged (by the way, I have no problem paying the price they ask for—but most foreigners insist that we must bargain—that's another blog entirely). At this point, I'm having enough trouble figuring out what language anyone is speaking, and if it isn't English (or even if it is) I'm pretty much useless.

Getting a cell phone was a very efficient fiasco. The moto ride to the Russian market was incredible—colors, smells, traffic everywhere. My moto driver didn't want to speak any English, but he got me to the right place and helped me wheel-n-deal at the cell phone stand. Okay, wheel-n-deal is not exactly what happened. I pointed to a phone that looked functional, but not attractive enough to be coveted. Eighty bucks. Since I really knew neither how much I should expect to pay (though I heard rumors between $70-$125), nor if it was appropriate to bargain in this situation, I figured it was a solid investment. They copied my passport, talked amongst themselves, and soon I was the proud owner of a used Nokia.

I'm non-confrontational anyway, let alone when I don't speak the language or understand the culture. Another day, I'll blog about how haggling irks me. For now, I'll listen contently to the wonderful water feature in my room and try to learn my Khmer numbers.

So, this water feature...my very foreign bathroom has a toilet that runs non-stop. With great dismay, last night, after 36 hours of travel, I tried to finagle the darn thing to stop wasting water and to stop making noises that would certainly cause incontinence. I managed to do three things: 1. spray toilet tank water all over the bathroom, 2. get that water on my face, and 3. not fix the problem. The staff seemed to disregard my request for repair, so I guess my room is equipped with a water feature—one of those sound-therapy deals. Actually, if a running toilet is the worst thing in my room, I think I'm doing pretty well.