Welcome to Cambodia

The Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

The Royal Palace, Phnom Penh


THE snap of the elasticised surgical glove suggests the creepy man with the hairy mole is not joking about the strip search.
I’m in deep.
In some alternative universe, his breathy whisper in my ear, “What are you hiding in your bottom?” might have raised a titter.
But not in the arrivals lounge of a Cambodian airport.
It’s getting late and my heart is buzzing faster than the solitary fluoro tube, high above me in the stark, sphincter-clenching interview room.
Away from other travellers, the question is posed again — rhetorical and less eloquent this time.
“You have drugs in ass?”
But my reply to the group of customs officials is the same.
“Umm, no.”

IThe elevated harmonies of business class have come down to earth with a bang — or rather a crack — because this is what they’re convinced I have concealed in mine.
Hairy mole man says this is the ONLY reason why I would be drenched in cologne, to confuse the sniffer dogs.
But it is not the only reason.
There is a far more innocent explanation why I’m doused in fragrance.
An upgrade at check-in quickly soured when the adjacent traveller threw up on my skybed.
“Aeroplane food is the only cuisine improved by partial digestion,” the passenger in 3B joked before resuming his snoring.
It was not the auspicious start to my Cambodian getaway I had imagined.
And it was about to get much worse.
Exactly 54 moist towelettes later I had restored a modicum of cleanliness to me and my airspace, and erected a great wall of flight pillows to guard against further in-flight reflux.
But the smell of honey-glazed carrots, potato rosti and slowroast wagyu lingered as we descended into Siem Reap.
Later, in duty free, I hovered at the perfume counter spritzing liberally.
I cleared immigration easily enough but in customs, the fragrant cloud of bergamot and amber drew the attention of the officious ground staff and their sniffer dogs.
The man with the hairy mole eyed me with immediate disapproval and pounced.
Now, in the room with the solitary fluoro light, surrounded by Cambodian customs officers, I am being questioned about what exactly I am trying to hide.
Apparently CCTV captured me spraying 23 different types of perfume.
But purchasing, “not one”, says Hairy Mole with a flourish of his bony wrist and a pretend perfume spray.
He snarls.
Several officers have already gone through my luggage and found nothing more incriminating than a pair of Hello Kitty boxer shorts.
And three stolen hotel hangers.
A theft on which I can no doubt blame this current karmic retribution.
But aside from the hangers, which I vow to return, I am clean, so I plead with Hairy Mole, employing staccato for effect.
Each syllable bold, crisp and purposeful.
Hairy Mole appears unmoved.
My mind is a chaos of despair.
I am barely able to point at my crotch where the stain of red wine jus is still clearly visible.
“Call the airline,” I say in a desperate finale to my theatrical explanation of windmill arms and heaving bosom.
I point to the stain on my pants again.
And again.
Hairy Mole tires of my entreaties, and looking at my crotch.
He picks up a phone and makes a call.
He says something in Khmer before nodding and grunting for several seconds.
He hangs up the phone.
“We hope you enjoy your stay in Cambodia,” he says damply as he hands me my Hello Kitty boxer shorts.
“Soum swa-kumm (welcome).”
Just like that.
I’m about to say something clever and just a little bit cheeky but Hairy Mole is giving me his best Clint Eastwood, “go ahead, make my day look”.


“We hope you enjoy your stay in Cambodia,” he says damply as he hands me my Hello Kitty boxer shorts.
“Soum swa-kumm (welcome).”

So instead, I hastily repack my case, grab my knickers and dash out the door to the taxi rank.
It’s my first time in Siem Reap.
And like most people who journey to this jungle resort town of 200,000, I’m here to see the magnificent UNESCO World Heritage site of Angkor — the ancient capital city of the Khmer Empire.
I am determined to put my close encounter with the amateur proctologist behind me.
It’s getting dark and there’s nothing to see on the way to the hotel. But there’s plenty to hear — monkeys and cicadas duet in the darkness.
And inside the cab, Tintin, my driver, continues her monologue on the history of Angkor. I tune back in as she says:
“They say Angkor Wat discovered by French man. Not true. He very ugly man.
“How temples discovered, if never lost? Cannot lose something so big,” she says.
Tintin explains her version of the 19th Century mania for aristocratic adventure and discovery. Victorian gentlemen just loved mummies and pyramids and monuments and anything shiny, she says.
Lord Carnarvon of Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle) fame was a famed Egyptologist.
“You know Lady Sybil?” she asks.
I smile no.


“Sadness is luxury Cambodia cannot afford”.

But it was Frenchman Henri Mouhot who claimed Angkor.
But not in fact.
As Tintin explains, “he just mowed lawns so it look neater”.
It seems a touch simplistic for two centuries of restoration and preservation.
There are so many temples at Angkor it’s almost impossible to tally them accurately — some being little more than a pile of clay bricks.
Some say there are about a thousand, but only 300 that resemble temples as we recognise them — albeit in various states of decay. Erosion and monsoonal flooding make the entire site at Angkor precarious.Not to mention the tourists.
But Tintin seems reluctant to talk tourism.
After some gentle coaxing on the topic, which she ignores, my questions become more pointed.
I ask her if she’s sad some experts claim Angkor is literally crumbling under the weighty burden of tourism — over two million visitors each year.
In a tone that ends any further discussion she says crisply:
“Sadness is luxury Cambodia cannot afford”.
And then she distracts me by almost crashing into a tree. Point taken.
Tintin tells me entire temples have been disassembled and reconstructed on new, concrete foundations.
But the work is costly, and for a country still struggling to recover from two decades of war, genocide and civil war, foreign aid is essential to Angkor’s survival.
When Tintin runs out of narrative puff, I tell her about what just happened at the airport.
She falls silent. Then wipes away a tear.
And then she descends into a frenzy of apologies.
“Please, please, please, do not write,” she pleads.
“Do not write. Bad for Cambodia. Very bad.”
She tells me about two foreign tourists who were killed in the Cambodian seaside resort of Sihanoukville and the effect it had on the community and the economy.
I tell her about the two men who were gunned down in the restaurant next to me in Sydney to illustrate it can happen anywhere.
“Australia not dependent on tourism like Cambodia,” she says.
She’s right of course.
I try to cheer her up by telling her about other stories I’ve written. Being mugged in Madrid, and Rome and London, and London again but the tourists keep coming.
But she won’t have it.
And neither will I.
I write about the good and the bad, I tell her. She nods.
“I make up for terrible welcome to Cambodia,” she says.
She throws her rusting Fiat down a gear and races into the jungle. I’m tossed like a salad in the back seat.
Suddenly we stop.
But when I pick myself up from the floor of the car — ready to bark at this crazy driver who almost killed me — this woman who won’t talk about tourism but suddenly wants to play tour guide, I fall silent because this is what I see (left).
“Welcome to Cambodia,” she says.