Phnom Penh Pet Peeves

Many people arrive on these shores and feel instantly enamored by the place, and as they settle in are often ‘rosy-eyed’ and forgiving towards any unfamiliar customs or behavior they encounter.

It is only far later, when everything becomes commonplace and life a daily dirge that the things you formerly turned a blind eye to become an irritation. For instance, there are many rubbish-pickers trawling the streets with their gunny-sacks and carts where I live. Initially I felt plenty of sympathy for them, and still do to an extent. Every now and again we’ll get a cart lady in to buy all our recyclables as that’s what everyone does. At the same time, a few of them steal stuff and rip off car mirrors or whatever, and others just rip open your garbage bags and leave a mess all over the sidewalk, so they can be an annoyance.

Monks are great for adding a splash of color to drab suburban scenarios; something many photographers have exploited over the decades. But Westerners, I feel, often naively associate Buddhist monks with the Christian monks or priests in their home countries who are generally folks who’ve have decided to do that stuff indefinitely as a vocation, and while there are abbots and clergymen within the Cambodian Buddhist community who have been there for many years, most of the monks you see around town are just young guys doing a short stint. I’m not raising this point in a wholly negative way, and I’m sure many benefit from their time in the monkhood, I’m just trying to contrast it with the life-long career aspect of the Christian equivalent. In any case, about five-hundred young monks attend a development college near my house, so I just don’t really find them all that interesting or unusual anymore, and I guess it’s a hell of a lot better than having five-hundred freshy boys going there.

Next, everyone who has lived here for a while has probably got to stage where they get rather bothered about certain things. At first I didn’t seem to notice garbage and filth on the street; maybe it was the more central neighborhoods I lived in, but now it really pisses me off.

For example, I’ve got a big yard in front of my apartment, and various people wander in and out every day, which is no big deal; they are all there for legitimate reasons – neighbors, relations, people visiting the café next door. The problem is that an awful lot of them throw garbage all over the place. This can range from plastic bags to drinks, bottles, pips, crab/ egg/ cockle-shells to various other crap which is spread around like it’s an attractive accoutrement to my bare yard.

Parts of the street are clean, but some close neighbors just throw everything in one festering heap that is never quite gone. Sweeping stuff off the curb is also popular, like it’s going to disappear or something. Actually, it does disappear – down the nearest drain so it blocks all the sewers and leaves the whole area under a meter of water come monsoon time. Even in restaurants, people commonly chuck used tissues or empty drinks cans on the floor, which is no big deal as the staff will clean it up, but you’d most likely get thrown out for doing that in the West.

There also seems to be little consideration for other people’s convenience or access. Cars parallel-parked one meter out from the curb are normal, others parked right across the sidewalk so tight that you have to walk on the road to get past are even more common, that is if there isn’t some stall with a rusty spike at the exact level of a barang’s temple jutting out from it, just to get you out of your complacent mood and keep you on your toes. In addition, I’ve often had problems just trying to get in the door of various shops or businesses because there are so many motorbikes packed around the entrance. “This is a great idea for a business. Let’s make the place completely inaccessible and then we can scratch our nads when the rent is due. ’’

Still, it often kind of works out somehow and if it starts bothering you, you can always get someone else to do a lot of the dreary stuff for you, or simply get the hell out of dodge for a while. Taking a break often works, a short holiday abroad or a trip back home will often do the trick. It’s worth remembering too that the negative feelings about Cambodia are often temporary, and come and go in phases. It’s never going to be perfect here, and who wants it to be anyway; that would spoil much of the country’s appeal.

18 thoughts on “Phnom Penh Pet Peeves

  1. Peter Hogan Reply

    Good read.

    Personally, the toothpicks and tissues under the tables thing doesn’t bother me and you often see this in Spain at the tapas places. There it seems to mean the place is popular and serves good nosh.

    So, in no particular order, here is a very personal list of everyday things that never fail to whiten my knuckles

    1) The use of car horns by stationary vehicles. Anyone living here soon finds out that the horn and the accelerator pedal are the parts of a car locals are most fond of.

    2)These days all peddlers from baguette sellers to knife grinders to BBQ egg vendors cycle around with small amps tied to their bikes blasting out recorded messages. This annoys me as sometimes when there are a few of them cruising my area, I get noise pollution in quadraphonic.

    3) We used to get rolling power cuts but these are now a memory. In 2011 we get rolling building sites as every neighbor gradually adds an extension or an extra floor on their shop house. The national sound of Cambodia should be an electrified grinding noise.

    4) Finally, I don’t like to see homeless begging kids with dyed blond hair. If they can’t afford rice, how come they can afford hair dye?

  2. David Reply

    The the noise at devilish hours and volumes, the insane traffic, and the power outages (it will be ok by next year – I’ve heard this for 9 years now.The only things that keep me here are my family and the unbelievable friendliness of the people.

  3. Dermot Sheehan Reply

    I’m glad you enjoyed the article. However I’m not sure how to break this to you, but the reason homeless kids have what appears to be bleached streaks in their hair is that they are chronically malnourished. The medical term for this is Kwashiorkor, which results from a lack of protein in the diet.

  4. Dermot Sheehan Reply

    I’m sure there could be a few with colored hair but it’s more just down to deficiencies in diet.

  5. Khmerhit Reply

    Iron deficiency, isn’t it? Creates light red (coppery) streaks.
    Nice article—could have been more negative and wasn’t. A Swiss banker once told me (he was married to a Swiss-Khmer) that the garbage problem would have to wait, etc due to other stuff–reconstruction– taking priority. That was a dozen yrs ago. I’m no expert in garbage collection, maybe there is no money in it. Even so, dumpin it just any old where is really baaad.

  6. Traveling Ed Reply

    These comments seem to be generic “much of Asia” complaints. The same is certainly true in China and HK for instance. Not sure why you think they are unique to PP.

    • Dermot Sheehan Reply

      Thank you for your helpful insight, our readers can now rest assured that the situation is exactly the same all over Asia.

      • Traveling Ed Reply

        It wasn’t an insight, but a comment. You made the case for this being about PP and I am suggesting it is a wider situation. Despite your sarcasm, I did not say it was true all over Asia. If you don’t wish comments, please don’t ask for them.

        • Charlie Barly Reply

          Geezus mate, are you one of these miserable gits that trawls blogs just to be miserable?

      • eire Reply

        TravellingEd’s comments were in order. Reading them I didn’t think he was being a ‘smart-ass’. As much travelled myself, I particularly think the ‘much of Asia’ comment rings true. This is not to undermine your article in anyway, but just to say, if you think the ‘rubbish dumping’ issue is news, you are sadly mistaken.

  7. doti Reply

    How about the monotonous whaling blaring out of those horn loudspeakers during weddings and funerals at ghastly hours?

  8. Dermot Sheehan Reply

    That hasn’t bothered me in a while, what does though is when a business decides to promote itself by playing insanely loud pop-music and setting up a stall. I fail to see how that is going to help in selling Ford trucks for example.

  9. Frank Yetter Reply

    Good stuff. I’m still in the initial craze, largely (one year in), so the recorded “num pan” guy’s message is still lyrical to me, ducking under the scalp-threatening pushcart’s roof is still a reasonable hazard of walking the city, and men peeing on walls (and the resulting charming odor) seems an odd yet goofily local custom that often makes me smile. What I’m fast growing hardened to, though, is the purse snatchings and random violence that permeates this town. A few nights ago we watched, dumbstruck, while two kids on a motorbike tossed a brick into a car’s window while it was stopped at a light on Norodom Blvd. and then sped off, the car in hot pursuit. What fun!

  10. Dermot Sheehan Reply

    To be honest I have rarely seen any random violence here, which is the subject of my next piece.

  11. Hey You! Reply

    Two months ago I felt I’d had enough of Cambodia so I went on what I thought would be a six month go-walk in India, a country to which I’d never been. One month later I couldn’t get out of the place fast enough. If India is a shout then Cambodia is a whisper.

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