I have never been a fan of the pristine and the immaculate when it comes to cities. Don’t get me wrong, I think the Bitexco Tower in the heart of Saigon’s District 1, is an amazing building and provides a superb focal point, close to the river. However, it is surrounded by enough of what makes Saigon, Saigon. The glittering pristine, perfection of Singapore has never held any appeal for me. It is one of only a few large Southeast Asian cities that I haven’t visited, and I have no intention of going there any time soon. Every person I know who has been, has started his or her description of Singapore with, “Oh, it’s so clean”. Well Bangkok is filthy, and I bloody love it. Phnom Penh has, quite frankly, seen better days. The French colonial buildings along the Riverfront on Sisowath Quay are jaded, faded and crumbling shadows of what they must have been like, at the height of the French rule. The side streets, particularly at night, are missing only the odd strand of tumbleweed to really complete the Hollywood film set, cowboy town look. But for me, this is the charm of the place. Getting around town could not be easier, there are tuk tuks everywhere, they are cheap and great fun. Unlike the rip off merchants in Bangkok, the drivers charge either 1 or 2 dollars depending how far you are going.
A Room from Middle Earth and a bar from the 1960s
The bus drew up by the night market in the centre of town and I jumped off. There was a corner café on the riverfront and I decided to sit, get some air and eat. I ordered a bowl of Thai Red Curry and an iced coffee and settled down to write some more of this. The curry had little to do with Thailand and the coffee was piping hot, but hey! This is Asia. I enjoyed the food and the coffee was at least good coffee. I set off in search of a hotel. The ones that I know from previous visits were fully booked which is unusual, possible a much needed product of the chaos that is costing Bangkok millions of tourist holiday bookings. Bangkok’s loss could well be Phnom Penh’s gain. I was tired and bedraggled and booked into a place called Nordic House, “just give me a room, it will be fine”. . . It wasn’t. The ceilings were so low and the doors so tiny that I swear they had squeezed it in between two floors, a bit like the train platform in the Harry Potter books. I should have taken a photograph of my ‘bathroom’ door, I swear it was less than 5 feet high. So just the one night, it would be.
This is probably my 5th or 6th visit to Phnom Penh and every time I come, something has been added, some crumbling failing business has been replaced by a bright new one, a bar, a hotel or a shop. But it still retains its ‘it will be alright, when its finished’ feel, and is all the better for it. The first time I came was in 2006. I arrived at night, booked into my hotel and jumped in a taxi, asking the driver to take me to the bright lights and best venues. He took me to Sharky Bar, arriving in pitch blackness as their had been a power cut. When I asked what the problem was, he said simply, “rain coming, lights go out” As I found out on that first visit, back then, they had to cut the power before the rain came, or face masses of power box blow-outs and the subsequent outages. So on my first night here, I decided to visit that scene of my first introduction to Phnom Penh life. I hadn’t been to Sharky’s in 8 years. It’s a strange old place, up a flight of stairs that run from the entrance right up Street 130 away from the Riverfront. Inside it’s a large old style American saloon, with live music and lively girls. A few grizzled old timers were seated round the bar and I joined them at a discreet distance. Many of these guys are Vietnam Vets who simply never went home after the war. If you ever had a film set image of a bar from M.A.S.H. in your head, this would be it.
Bright Lights and Bright Young Things
Leaving Sharky’s I headed out to Street 51. This is girlie bar central, a couple of dozen bars all with pretty young girls vying for your attention. I stuck my head into Walkabout as I thought I had been there a few years ago, but it was the wrong bar. The place was packed and a girl who looked as though she had been here since the war, tried her best to get me to join her. She seemed nice enough, but the hardcore approach left me in no certain terms that it wasn’t directions she was after. I moved over the road to Shanghai Bar and Restaurant.
Last time I was in here I bumped into an old mate from Bangkok. It is much less in your face, the girls are really just waitresses and whilst they earn money by getting guys to buy them drinks, the place has a much more laid back ambience to it. I sat at the bar and ordered a glass of wine, eventually two lovely girls came and sat with me and chatted away. They were really quite sweet, with my second drink I bought them both a drink and they seemed happy enough. The prices here are not as expensive as the full on girlie bars of street 104. This is more my kind of place. $12 for two glasses of wine and two drinks for the girls is pretty reasonable; no more than you would pay just for the wine in the UK. I was surprisingly tired by about 11.00pm. I guess I’m not as young as I used to be or as I would like, the bus journey though thoroughly enjoyable had left me drained. I jumped in a tuk tuk and headed back to Hobbiton and my hole for the night.