Cambodia - expect the unexpected



THE tuk-tuk driver fails to mention the complimentary leg wax as we haggle over price...

But halfway from Phnom Penh International Airport to the White Mansion Hotel, that’s what I get. We’re stuck in traffic.The city is in gridlock. It’s mayhem. And the city’s thick, humid, polluted air has robbed my breath.

The driver’s “short cut” has landed us in the middle of a thunderous street demonstration.He has been sipping from a hip flask and singing the falsetto of Bohemian Rhapsody since we left the arrivals lounge.

“Thunderbolts and lightning, very, very frightening,” he warbles.

He learned English from Scottish missionaries and their eclectic record collection. He sounds suspiciously like Susan Boyle when he encores with a number from Les Mis.

He says his name is Kiri. Kiri wears his hair in a queue or Chinese pigtail. He winds one end around a finger as he speaks and the other end disappears under a Mandarin cap. He’s kind of awesome.

We’re surrounded by children, in and on cars, waving flags.

“Cambodia flag, only one with building,” Kiri shouts over the din with whisky breath.

“White temples of Angkor,” he adds.

As I turn my head away a little boy jumps out of a vehicle and hands me his flag. And then rips out a handful of my leg hair. I swallow a mouthful of expletives and tap Kiri on the shoulder, pointing at my bald spot.

“Life is not a cafeteria,” he says. “Ha, ha, ha.”


“It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop,” he says.

And then we stop.

I’m not sure what this latest Confucius-Hallmark moment has to do with anything, so I blink a silent response. I turn back a fraction too late to prevent a second child from swiping a handful of leg whiskers. It is not only my hair wearing thin now.

Another child approaches. Enough.

I pay Kiri in American dollars (the local currency is riel but the greenback is welcome) and attempt to flee. But there’s nowhere to go. The city’s grand Parisian-like boulevards are flooded with people. Buddhist monks, students, mums, dads and kids piled atop one another on groaning mopeds — like a precarious game of human Jenga.

“Cambodia people very political,” Kiri says.

“It’s a genocide thing,” he adds matter-of-factly.

I imagine he’s referring to Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and the murder of between two and three million people in the late ’70s.

“Same in Israel,” he adds.

“We march. We shout. We care. We vote. We very political,” Kiri says.

Then back to Queen.

“Scaramouche, scaramouche, will you do the fandango,” Kiri sings at volume.

This mash of bodies around me looks political. But friendly, I think.

Protests in Cambodia are usually peaceful but the government response is not always. People die. A couple of years ago, military police shot four dead around the corner from where I am now.

It’s time to get off the streets. I flee the tuk-tuk for the second time. Public gatherings are perfect hunting grounds for pickpockets so I shove my passport and wallet in my undies, hoist my suitcase over my head and head down Kampuchea Krom.

As Asian capitals go, Cambodia’s largest city and ancient capital, Phnom Penh, is rather petite. And with just 1.5 million inhabitants, it’s one of the least populous. It’s the only city in Cambodia with a million-plus people (China has over 160 cities with more than a million).

I’m only about a kilometre from my hotel, but it’s slow going. Everywhere along the way, the noisy crowd jostle and cheer and car stereos pump out bassy Khmer pop.

And then just for a moment the crowds disperse, bitumen fades to red earth and there are trunks and tails and I’m face to face with an elephant. Smaller than their African cousins, Asian elephants are way cuter. Cambodia’s like that. Expect the unexpected.

I’m in a park or a school yard, it’s hard to tell. And then just as quickly, I’m swallowed up by the crowds again before being spat out on a narrow side street.

It’s another hour before I see the familiar signage of one of my favourite restaurants, Mother in Law House, on the corner of 240 and 55 Streets. The last time I was here, one of the waiters insisted I try the bull’s testicles, and with the chalky, crumbly texture lodged uncomfortably in my memory I give the place a wide berth.

Just beyond is the White Mansion Hotel. It used to be the US Embassy but diplomacy has not lingered in the fabric of this building. The manager is famously brusque but people, including me, seem to keep coming back. Maybe because it’s central and familiar. I always get the corner room with a view of the tumbledown, saffron-grey mansion with pierced shutters.

It used to belong to a famed psychoanalyst. But he was murdered by the Khmer Rouge during their brutal regime, along with many other doctors and monks and intellectuals, and anyone deemed to be clever, like those with spectacles.

There’s something melancholic yet enchanting about the faded grandeur of Phnom Penh. Many Asian cities claim the title “Paris of the East” but this is my favourite. During the 1930s, Phnom Penh’s Parisian status was championed by silent movie star Charlie Chaplin, who described its orderly, tree-lined avenues as “little sisters” to the Champs-Elysées. And despite being ravaged by war and warlords, it remains an alluring treasure among the Asian vastness.

After checking in at the hotel, I check out my emails. And it’s no surprise to find a travel warning red-flagged in my inbox, entitled “political protests”.

“Avoid all political gatherings, protests and demonstrations as they may turn violent,” it reads.

I change my itinerary immediately. Cambodia is one of my favourite countries and the local people are among the friendliest, but as night falls and skirmishes break out it’s time to go.

Changing my flights is surprisingly painless but I’m here for the night. I decide to make the most of it but I won’t be walking anywhere.

I crack a bottle of duty-free and click through some dining choices on my laptop.

After two more single malts and a short cab ride, I happen on a place I vowed I would never return to — Romdeng Restaurant on 74 Street, a not-for-profit, part school/part restaurant.

Street kids come here to learn hospitality skills, like cooking, restaurant management and front of house. But the speciality is spiders. Big spiders.

And as I discovered on my last trip, they’re not confined to the plate. They roam freely.

A little too freely for my liking.

The dining room is crawling with spiders. All over the wait staff and occasionally the customers. Unlike my last visit, this time I make it through the front door.

I order crispy tarantulas served with lime and pepper sauce. Eating spiders is not what I expected. It’s worse. The legs are fine if you can get past what you’re actually putting in your mouth. A crispy kind of nothing. But eating the abdomen is an entirely different experience, and not one I care to repeat.

There’s a saying, something about not knowing unless you try it. But I was pretty certain I knew without trying. And as I bit into the warm sack and my mouth filled with a tepid custard of arachnid poo and eggs, I confirmed what I had long suspected, that eating spiders is pretty much the grossest thing this side of Alaskan stinkheads.