Michael Batson

Travel Writer





Expats about Phnom Penh - 30 June 2015

Some people go to Cambodia for a holiday. Others never go home. Here are a few I've met.

Davey – bar manager
Davey was from Hull. This struck a chord with me as I once went out with a lass from Hull or ‘ull. I was able to tell him I’d been down to the old Boulevard ground to watch Hull FC play rugby league. That I knew of the Hull Cheese, a well-known pub in town, and other landmarks about Humberside. I’ve even been across the Humber Bridge, that great white elephant that was once the longest single span suspension bridge on the planet. At one point I came close to living in Hull, but my choice of employment was selling double glazing or working in a pickled onion factory. Needless to say however neither appealed, but back to Phnom Penh.

One night at his work Davey was telling me he was on to wife number three. He’d spent time working on the Gulf before coming to Cambodia. He had a grown-up family back home. His current spouse was a local woman with whom he had two young children. He worked at Sharky’s Bar, a Phnom Penh night spot well known for pool (nine ball) competitions and much live music. The food was passable and the taxi girls to be honest, on the downward side. Next stop the Walkabout Bar for many. Since I last spoke to him, Davey has done a runner back to the UK apparently owing Cambodian authorities about six grand for failing to renew his visa. This is likely a figure designed to line the pockets of some local officials rather than any intention to get expats to obey Cambodia’s long unenforced visa requirements. The last time he went home he told me no one knew what to make of his wife, and she’d had a miserable time. Seemingly, he won’t be able to return to Cambodia for the foreseeable future.

Chad and Rod (Guesthouse owner & bar manager)
I met Chad and Rod in Rory’s Irish Bar and Guesthouse on Street 178. I know this street well having lived in three apartments along there and frequented its watering holes and eateries. It’s known as one of the artistic streets in town with galleries, shops selling handcrafts, and studios with art and photo exhibitions. It’s become increasingly trendy and more upmarket of late. Chad and Rod hailed from Seattle on the Pacific Northwest. At the time I met them I was living on the top floor of an apartment block down a side alley about three or four doors down from Rory’s. Chad had bought the place from its previous owner, who was in fact Irish, but his name wasn’t Rory. When I say bought, I mean the secured the lease, as the property was owned by a Khmer woman. She was never seen at the place and sometimes failed to turn up to collect the month’s rent, which was about $3,000. At least it was when “Rory” owned it. Rory’s had about a dozen rooms upstairs. Some guests did the usual Phnom Penh thing and were in town for a couple of days. Others came for indefinite periods. Chad rented a space to a couple of Hungarian tattoo artists who practised their craft under the name, Dr Ink.

Chad arrived first. Rod came later after Chad called him and said to come over. They were mates back home. “I was a plumber” Rod told me. “After Chad called I decided to go for it. I sold the truck, dumped my girlfriend, and here I am.” Rod used to run the place from about 4pm until closing, which was whenever the last customer left and sometimes could be 5am. They’d often organise boat trips on the river. Put on big feeds free of charge to the regulars. At the time I was living nearby, there was a heavy drinking crowd staying upstairs in the guesthouse and among regulars who frequented the bar and restaurant. After a period working together strained their friendship, Rod got a job in Sihanoukville to prevent their friendship dissolving entirely. After a spell on the coast Rod returned to Phnom Penh. Last I saw him he was working at the Swiss Bar on Street 51 doing the late shift. Chad is still at Rory’s. The best time to see him is in the morning when he’s invariably sitting on a bar stool attending to the online bookings or reading the paper.

Bob (Oilman)
I liked Bob, an American oil man who wore green fatigues, thick-rimmed glasses and had his hair in a crew cut. He reminded me of some war correspondent from the sixties, the kind who would’ve been covering the various conflicts in the region back then. I also met him at Rory’s in 2011. He was in his forties, and was always accompanied by his Khmer girlfriend. She never spoke to anyone else, drank soft drinks and whispered anything she did want to say to Bob. He was “between jobs” and would wander in during happy hour with another tale of job hunting on the internet, interviews with consultants, and hilarious tales of pervious jobs in some far-off place for which he was paid upwards of $1,000 a day. From what I could tell he constructed camps and infrastructure for oil and gas companies, usually in far-off dusty countries with very few amenities. “I’m sorry sir,” he mimicked the voice of one Australian woman HR person he’d been speaking to that day, “but we would only pay our executives that kind of fee, why should we pay you that?” “’Cause it’s a fucking war zone you’re sending me to!” Last I heard he was working in one of the “Stans” on a long-term, lucrative contract. After much toing and froing, he’d managed a visa for his Khmer girlfriend, so she was living there too. Though I had trouble imagining what she’d find to do all day.

Kieran (business owner)
Kieran was built like a prop forward. He owns Little Bikes, a motorcycle rental company renting everything from scooters, the Southeast Asia staple mode of motorised transport, to large road bikes and Japanese enduro machines. I usually rented a bike off of him by the month. He gave me a good deal. His head was always shaved and when at work wandered about in shorts and bare feet. I’m not sure how long he’d been in Phnom Penh, but it was a quite a while. He’s a great font of knowledge, and knew lots of stuff about what was going on. He had many tales of expats and in some cases, their demise. Like the French drug dealer and heroin addict, who rented a bike from him. With the police closing in on him and not the money to buy his way out of trouble, he had taken what he presumed the option open to him, he had committed suicide.

He’d had plenty of insights into the locals and in dealing with the local police. He knew lots about the expats about town too. If I needed advice about what to do in some tricky situation he’d be one of the people I turn to. When I first met Kieran his shop was on Street 13, near the Friends Restaurant. Most of his bikes were out on long-term rentals, and scattered across the country. Kiwi Paul first introduced me to Kieran back in 2010. At that time he also ran a bar on Street 172 around the corner from his bike rental business. Most bars in Phnom Penh don’t make any money, and Kieran’s was no exception. He soon got out of the bar business. Aside from making very little money, running a bar means being tied to the place, putting up with staff hassles and listening to drunk customers talking shit until 2am. To fill in time, Kieran had occupied himself with one of the barmaids, getting her pregnant. This went down like a cup of cold sick with his wife, with whom he also had children. If I was ever threatened or had whisper of any unwanted police attention, Kieran would one of the first I’d turn to for advice. He’s had practice at dealing with the intricacies of Cambodian law enforcement. One of his clients, a Frenchman, was arrested for possession and dealing. Apparently he went about with the drugs concealed in the petrol tank. So the police confiscated the bike and demanded a “fee” of $1,000 for its return. Kieran said the bike was his, and as the legitimate owner he wanted it returned. In the end he bargained them down to $400 – this to get his own property back.

Last time I spoke to him he had bought a lease on some land across the river from Phnom Penh, at Arey Ksat. Leases are available to foreigners for 99-years. A block layer by trade, he was planning on building his own house. Land there is still relatively cheap. Though there’s a regular ferry service, the river puts off many visitors and would-be buyers. Though like many things in Cambodia, this is changing with more foreigners moving there.

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