Michael Batson

Travel Writer

Vietnam

Cambodia

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Travelogue

The Withered and the Worn - Expats in Phnom Penh - 2 June 2015

I’ve noticed of late more of the hard bitten expat brigade about Phnom Penh. These are much like the ones you more often see in Thailand in large numbers usually congregating in that kingdom’s fleshpots. This is probably because many of them are those same ones.


Previously, I’ve seen expats from Thailand hanging about the streets in Phnom Penh. You can usually pick them out due to their overwhelming lack of dress (sense). They’re often in shorts and singlet.  So what you say, so are half the backpackers. That’s true, except this crowd have a different edge about them. They sport an array of tattoos, some have crew cuts or shaved heads, pack a solid build, while others are often advanced in years and in poor physical condition. Many do look like they’ve just been released from jail. A mate of mine refers to them as the “jailbreak crew”.


These more temporary visitors usually arrive in Phnom Penh out of mild curiosity on a visa run. One of the conditions of living across the border in Thailand, and in other Southeast Asian countries, is the temporary nature of your stay. Visas only last so long and invariably require you to leave the country in order to renew them. Doubtless this is some attempt by the host country to infer you’re not really welcome to stay all that long.

 

Consequently, there’s the monthly or quarterly ritual of expats in Thailand heading for the nearest border with neighbouring states. Most go to Myanmar, Laos or Malaysia. Now some are coming to Cambodia.


Usually the visa run entails a day-trip where you literally pop across the border and exit the same day and are back home that night. Never shy to spot the opportunity to earn a dollar or a baht, there’s an entire industry built-up around getting said expats to and from border crossings.


Most wouldn’t usually contemplate Cambodia as an option longer term. It’s much poorer and less well-developed than most of its neighbours. Most of the expat brigade prefer a more westernised Asian experience and Cambodia really isn’t all that. That and Cambodia coming into its own as a destination only recently has largely incubated the country. This is now changing.


Occasionally there is also an influx of semi-permanent expats into Cambodia from across the border which usually follows another change in Thailand’s fluid visa situation. The Thais seem to have an underlying rationale to this constant tampering, rabid xenophobia. This is coupled with the absence of any clear coherent long-term plan for a visa regime. As far as expats are concerned, the Thais seem to be of the view you can bring your money, but we don’t really want you staying.


Cambodia by contrast has a much more laid back entry system, at least for the time being. Foreigners can come and stay pretty much as long as they like. You can buy property but not land, though this can now be leased. You can work if you want, usually in a limited range of occupations, teaching usually features for many. You can operate a business, guesthouses and bars are the old favourites. The more enlightened, educated or connected work for intra-governmental organisations like the UN, or amongst the myriad of NGOs. There are thousands of those in Cambodia, from the dodgy and downright criminal to truly worldwide outfits like Save the Children.


Some can command a Western salary and are provided with maids, cooks and drivers; often in company supplied houses or in one of the increasing number of high-rise apartments springing up all over town. Some of them may even be earning tax free. After two or three years you could probably be financially set for life. Except that most of them get addicted to the privileges and standard of living, and move onto another posting. Little wonder then that Cambodia’s prime minister has referred scornfully to some of these as “overpaid tourists.”


In Cambodia, life for expats can be relatively comfortable, as long as you behave yourself, or are capable of buying your way out of trouble even if you don’t. There are two golden rules for expats in Cambodia. Firstly, never say anything detrimental about the prime minister or his coterie. Secondly, if you’re a business success, stay low profile. Don’t flash it about.

 

Otherwise you’ll likely attract attention from the locals who may covet what you have. There are many stories about the ruthless ways well-connected locals have got themselves onto someone else’s good thing.


Unfortunately, people in Southeast Asia rarely get to see the best side of expats. Thailand, and to a lesser degree Cambodia, has long attracted the lonely, the depressed, the damaged, the addicted, those on the run and those looking to make a fresh start.  As far as Thailand goes more than one observer has said “the place is a shit magnet.  Westerners with problems move to Thailand thinking it will be a new beginning, failing to see that the problem is with them and not related to geography.”


This is now becoming more the case in Cambodia. On Street 51 the withered and worn start assembling in the outdoor beer hall from late morning on. A common enough sight in Thailand, they can now be seen in more numbers in Phnom Penh, and to a lesser extent, Sihanoukville.


In the Walkabout Bar you can see guys like this one described here anytime. He’s an older guy probably in his mid to late sixties but difficult to say for sure. He sat his legs comfortably crossed wearing shorts, the kind with the pockets on the sides, and short sleeved shirt. He had withered limbs. There was no muscle mass left on his body. Skin hung loosely under his arms. His long bony fingers, nicotine stained, held another cigarette, the latest in lifetime of cigarettes. He held his cigarette and inhaled delicately, like a woman. Two packs of his chosen brand sat one on top of the other on the table, doubtless the sum of his daily habit. On his arms were dark faded tattoos. His thin hair was turning grey and stained at the front with years of tobacco smoke. He had leathery skin, his face deeply lined. A can of the local brew was within arm’s reach. He probably hardly ate, surviving largely on the empty calories of alcohol. One of the local hard-bitten prostitutes, taxi girls, sat nearby. He seemed not to notice her and instead stared off looking at nothing in particular. All ambition was gone. No curiosity was left. Another day, like so many others, all the same, waiting to die.


I’ve seen these characters about before, and yes, there are some more or less permanently living in Cambodia. But as some people are apt to point out, Cambodia is about 20 years “behind Thailand” which in my experience is no bad thing. So the current influx is perhaps just a sign of things to come. Something to not look forward to, and something the Kingdom of Wonder shouldn’t seek to emulate from the Kingdom of Smiles.


Many permanent expat residents in Cambodia are ex-military. Some are still of sound limb and sometimes mind. With regular pension payments their lifestyle seems provided for. In case of medical issues, it’s a quick trip home to the medical care afforded former armed forces personnel.

 

They live in rented accommodation in Phnom Penh and usually have female companions. I wouldn’t call them wives, at least not in the traditional Western sense. But then Cambodia isn’t either of those.


There are others like Australians of an older generation, survivors of the war in Vietnam. They seem incapable of returning to life back home or any type of employment. There’s a group of them about Southeast Asia, moving between countries. Their days seemingly consist of wandering about half-dressed, drinking in bars from mid-morning, and generally wasting away.


Some expats rent a wife in Cambodia. They’ll do the shopping, clean the house, cook, and take care of most of your home care needs. Everything is negotiated up front and is pretty much a straightforward business transaction. If you’re a local it makes sound economic sense, providing an income not guaranteed by many other means. Arrangements vary from the purely domestic to full cohabitation depending on what suits both parties. Such arrangements usually involve expat males, though not always.

 

Women take advantage too. Not all are the withered brigade. Some expats work for diplomatic missions or intra-governmental organisations. Believe you me there’s many an “overpaid tourist” in Cambodia with a family back home, and sometimes another in Cambodia.


Fred is a frequent visitor. He doesn’t fit with the withered brigade either. As for being worn he’s rather maturing like good wine, and with stamina to burn. Well-dressed, tanned, multi-lingual, quite the man-of-the-world, his passion in his sixties is to live as much like a rock star while in Phnom Penh as possible; morning, noon and night. As worldly and educated as he seems to be he suffers from the delusion that the taxi girls in the Walkabout are nubile and sexy. I’m undecided if this is amusing or sad.
His Vietnamese wife at home in Malaysia was “understanding” as he put it.

 

It seemed the price she was willing to pay to maintain the lifestyle for her and her daughter. Fred showed me a photo of his adopted daughter, quite the stunner. “I’m closer to the end than to the beginning” he would say, and seemed determined to go out with a bang, not a whimper.


Looking at the withered and the worn, some are closer to that end than others.

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