Michael Batson

Travel Writer





Strength Through Oi - Cowboys & Expats - 30 November 2011

One of the interesting things about living in Cambodia is some of the expats you meet. There are some weird and some wonderful foreigners who have chosen, for a variety of reasons, to relocate to the self-styled Kingdom of Wonder.


Some are here out of genuine love of the place. They’ve come here for everything that’s different about living in Cambodia, for what you don’t or can’t get at home. Many, after a few years, wouldn’t want to return home. They’ve been bitten by the Cambodia bug and would find adjusting to life back home just too difficult.


Others are here for an assortment of reasons, some entirely legitimate and others rather less savory, if not to say downright illegal. There are plenty of cowboys here, pretending to be something they’re not. Generally, when applying for work, qualifications are not checked, so in theory an applicant could put down they’ve got a PhD and call themselves doctor, and probably get away with it.


Other countries are far more stringent, especially when it comes to careers like teaching, where a police check is required from the native country, but no such requirement yet exists in Cambodia. Not that teaching has an especially good reputation across Asia in any case. Pay and conditions are often poor, and some students pay money for lessons taught by foreign staff unqualified for the role or in some cases, unsuited to the position.


Some foreigners come here because neighbouring countries such as Thailand, popular with many more expats, is seen as too sanitized, whereas Cambodia still has a raw edge to it, though probably less so with each passing year. Not so long ago Cambodia had a real Wild West feel to it.


Provincial roads were prone to banditry. Travel after dark was not advised, and even moving around the capital could prove problematic once the sun went down. Not that it’s all roses now. A survey team from a company was advised two weeks ago by a regional director not to go a particular part of a province, as the women “would be raped”.


Peter works at one of Phnom Penh’s largest English-language schools. Married to a Khmer he’s lived here since the 1990s, when the country was still at war with itself. He explained that back then when he first arrived, you could walk down the riverside and if someone on the opposite bank spotted movement a rocket-propelled grenade would be unleashed. “Part of the problem was those firing the weapons were widely inaccurate,” he said “you had more chance of being hit by fire which was actually directed at someone, or something else, than directed at you!”
Years of civil war and violent turmoil have left the country awash with high-powered weaponry. Where ever you are it still pays to travel a well-worn path as unexploded ordnance, courtesy of the world’s largest arms manufacturers and the US air force, litter the countryside.
Clive is retired from the Sunday Times in the UK where for years he worked as a freelancer before being bitten by the “Cambodia bug”. He’s married to a younger Khmer woman, quite a looker. I met him at the Rising Sun at the bottom of Street 178 with another Brit, Tim, also in journalism and publisher of several pocket entertainment guides to Phnom Penh. Between the two of them they seem to know all that’s going on in the place. Clive said at some time he’s managed to piss off just about everyone in the industry here but still makes enough to get by. He said you need to be careful about offending people here as it’s a very small place, but then laughed, and seemed rather unconcerned.


The Rising Sun is owned by another Clive, an Australian ex-soldier. The walls are decorated with a movie poster from ‘Trainspotting’ ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ and a bevy of 1960s and 1970s British movie, music and television films and characters, especially from the punk era. I like the photo of a group of punks taken in front of gig poster ‘Strength through Oi’ a piss-take on Nazi propaganda. The weekends are family affairs with a Sunday roast, and the bar usually lined with some regular expats watching highlights of the latest football from the UK.


Further up the street towards the National Museum is Rory’s Irish Pub. Fifteen months ago Chad moved to Cambodia from Seattle and bought the lease on Rorys. He asked his buddy Rod to come help him run the place. Rod told me he’d never been to Asia before coming to Cambodia. “I sold my jeep, got a passport, dumped my girlfriend, and haven’t looked back.”


Rory’s Gaelic paraphernalia has been retained and they play some great music. The hours are long. Rod finished work one morning at 6am after dragging a large, unconscious American woman out of the toilet. The other day was his first day off in three months. Rory’s has its own tuk tuk driver, called Cowboy, or Mr Thai. He’s even fashioned his own t-shirts ‘Sorry ladies, I’m just here for the drinking’ and his vehicle is adorned with a pair of horns, Texas-style.


They drink a lot, and smoke even more. I haven’t eaten a meal surrounded by so many smokers in ages. The little Khmer girl from the family next door wanders into the kitchen and waits by the bananas patiently until the staff passes her one and she disappears back next door. Beggars however, get short shrift.


Some foreigners in Phnom Penh don’t make it home, some unintentionally. The bodies of two backpackers were found in a downtown hotel after they’d be sold heroin but had snorted it thinking it was cocaine. They’d been dead for three days.


Some bars here never close, so for some punters it’s happy hour all day every day, like the Walkabout and Candys.


A Swiss doctor in Cambodia, a cello-playing philanthropist who runs health clinics across the country, once said that in Asia with its long hot tropical nights, you either become a readalohic or an alcoholic, and judging by some of the expats I’ve seen there’s some truth in that statement.


Unfortunately, Cambodians do not always see the best of overseas visitors. Some come here to do things they’d not try or get away with at home. Substance abuse, sexual deviance, labour work practices or at times, combinations of all three bring some depraved characters here. One guy has allegedly already been deported from the Philippines and from Vietnam before setting up here and owning one of the most popular riverside bars and restaurants, a venue often publicised in guidebooks.

I’ve heard some pretty lurid tales about him from others living in town. Apparently his excesses have alienated even him from his usual sources of protection, paid officials who would, for a price, turn a blind eye to his activities. That together with his age and deteriorating health due to alcoholism has supposedly seen a decline in his worst excesses.


Another foreigner who, together with his Vietnamese wife, runs a girlie bar and specializes in molesting the new staff and sleeping around on his wife all the while she, apparently and unbeknown to him, is also seeing someone else on the side. Perhaps they deserve each other.


Some Cambodians turn the illegal activities of some foreigners to their advantage. The authorities in coastal Sihanoukville tolerated a paedophile Russian property developer while he sunk millions into a large offshore tourist development before arresting him and confiscating his property. They then extracted a large payment from the Russian mob to secure his release before selling the development, at a huge profit, to another Russian developer.


Not all foreigners are bad news. Many come here out of genuine fondness for the people and culture and a desire to improve the lot of the locals. There is no accurate count of exactly how many aid organisations work in Cambodia; one estimate puts the number at over 2000. But that’s also part of a bigger problem; competition for resources and uncoordinated aid programmes, with some actually working against each other, whether intentioned or not. Many are Christian based, World Vision being the largest. Mormons are also heavy on the ground proselytising a foreign brand of religion in a country happy with its own.


Some have even turned aid into a gimmick. ‘Orphans are not tourist attractions’ is a sign seen on billboards and tuk tuks, referring to the practice of tourists donating to orphanages where the children are forced to dance and sing for the visitors.


Even with increasing numbers it’s difficult for foreigners to remain inconspicuous in Cambodia. Phnom Penh’s not a large city. There’s no need for close-circuit television, and the locals know you’re coming about three streets before you get there. But that’s part of the charm of the place, you’re not lost in a megalopolis like Bangkok, and you can feel a part of things. All the tuk tuk drivers outside my apartment know my name, which is a bit of mixed blessing at times. I haven’t told then I’m planning on getting my own transport soon but then due to the Khmer grapevine, they probably know already.


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