My good friend Andy Yang has always been accustomed to the finer things in life. The best hotels, the trendiest restaurants and the comfiest travel options. If there is a more expensive way of doing anything, then my friend Mr Yang will find it. He can sniff out a first class ticket at a hundred paces. He’ll quickly finger the costliest French wine on any menu. He doesn’t do things ‘on the cheap’.
And so I was astonished when he agreed to explore the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia with me.
I guessed that the allure of one of the world’s most amazing temple complexes distracted him from some of the grittier truths about Cambodia. The kind of truths that would normally cause Andy to bail in favour somewhere safer, cleaner and more expensive. But I didn’t ask any questions – Andy was an old friend, and it would be great to see these famous temples with him.
I wasn’t going to mention that Cambodia was ranked 138th on the Human Development Index, or that it was the 32nd hungriest nation on Earth according to the Global Hunger Index. I wouldn’t mention that most people survived on a dollar a day, or that the government’s human rights record was ‘wanting’ to say the least.
Arrival in the Capital
Andy had eleven days off from his high profile job at a global computer firm’s Singapore office, and was looking very smart in his expensive shirt and sunglasses when I met him at Phnom Penh Airport. The airport is reasonably modern compared to the rest of the country, which is why, I guessed, Andy looked so relaxed when I met him there.
That soon changed when I led him to the rickety tuk-tuk that would take us into Phnom Penh.
“Couldn’t we get a taxi?” he pleaded. “No”, I said, “This is how the locals travel – if they’re lucky.” This tuk-tuk – a motorbike with a carriage attached to it – then manoeuvred us into the afternoon rush hour traffic. I watched Andy’s mouth open in horror. Motorbikes and tuk-tuks missed us by inches, dust and fumes surrounded us. Andy said he was glad he had taken out travel insurance before leaving. I, however, was used to this chaos – I had been to Cambodia before, and had arrived ahead of Andy by some days – but for Andy, this was a very new experience.
On arrival in the centre, the tuk-tuk driver asked us for $7 (US), but Andy gave him $10. I told him that such a tip was a day’s wages for most people in Cambodia, but Andy was just glad to get out. I then led him to my hotel, where after much consideration he took the most expensive room in the building, which, it turned out, cost just $12. I was surprised he took it at all.
Not Exactly Five Star
We sat down in the hotel’s restaurant, most of which was based on the pavement outside. This gave us a great view of the busy street – or at least I thought it was great. Andy looked less impressed.
I ordered us some beers – as I could see Andy needed something to take the edge off. Usually by this stage of his regular holidays, Andy was sitting by a pool somewhere, or relaxing in his air-conditioned suite. But now, he was sipping 75cent beer in one of Asia’s most chaotic cities, occasionally being harangued by passing Cambodians to buy souvenirs or counterfeit books – or simply to offer some change. Within an hour he had a badly printed book about the Cambodian genocide and a sequined wallet.
We Only Went For a Swiss Roesti…
Evening was approaching. After Andy had loosened up with a couple of beers, I decided to take him to a place called Sorya Mall. This mall is a buzzing 24 hour zone covered with a big roof, where dozens of restaurants and drinking holes vie for business. I took Andy to a bar where I knew they cooked delicious Swiss roestis. Andy was a big fan of European food, so I thought he would like it.
However, the visit proved challenging to say the least. We sat at the long bar which is exposed to much of the central mall area. As we waited for our food to be cooked, numerous locals came up and started chatting with us both, but especially to well-dressed Andy. One of the first was a small sad-looking boy who arrived and started saying something in Khmer. I told Andy that it was best not to give children any money – however sad they looked – since they were often used by adults to work as beggars.
I could see Andy was shocked at the appearance of the boy – who wore dirty old clothes and an unhappy expression. Overcome, Andy told the bar girl to give the little boy whatever he wanted to eat, along with a Coke. The girl didn’t seem to understand at first, but eventually did as Andy asked.
Feeding Phnom Penh
And so there we sat, with a street kid gorging himself on his chosen meal. I was proud of my friend, but also knew that such behaviour would bring us a lot of attention in a place like this. And sure enough, a smiling Cambodian girl wearing lots of make-up arrived at Andy’s side and began talking to him. Andy seemed to be enjoying the conversation, and was oblivious to what the girl’s real intentions were. However, I couldn’t find a subtle way of telling him, and so before long she too was dining with us at the long bar.
It was getting ridiculous. Soon, Andy would have half of Phnom Penh eating with us.
Our roestis finally arrived. Andy loved his, just as I thought he would. But the situation was getting to him. I could see him looking at the girl, at the boy, at the bar staff. They looked at him with similar expressions of wonderment. These people earned in a month what Andy earned in half a day – if they were lucky.
Andy had come to see Angkor Wat, not this.
Tipping the Balance
We decided it was time to leave. But Andy had one more surprise up his sleeve for Sorya Mall. I advised against his plan, but he ignored me. He gave the bar girl a $50 note, and told her to make food for anyone who wanted it. By this time Andy had had a couple more beers, and didn’t seem to realise the chaos this act was going to cause. The bar girl just looked at Andy as if he was mad; our bill came to less than $20, leaving $30 in change.
In this town, $30 was a lot of money.
The bar girl really didn’t understand Andy’s intentions, and held up the $50 note as if it possessed some magical power. A crowd had gathered at the production of the ‘Benjamin Frankin’. You can’t just go waving around $50 notes in this country, I said to Andy.
Timidly, I decided to go to the toilet, in the hope that the situation would be resolved on my return.
Back to Singapore?
When I came back, Andy had vanished, but the gathering of people had moved behind the bar! It was a chaotic scene. The made-up girl was arguing with the bar girl, and the boss was trying to resolve the situation. The $50 had caused a definite ‘frisson’. It looked like the made-up girl thought she had some claim on the change, while the bar staff seemed to believe it was theirs.
I decided to leave before they spotted me, and found Andy lurking out on the pavement outside surrounded by tuk-tuk men seeking a fare.
“I think I’ll just go back to Singapore,” said Andy, with a very upset look on his face.
He had never experienced anything like this. It took me well over an hour to convince him that returning to Singapore was a bad idea, that the glorious temples of Angkor Wat awaited us, and that in a few days he would be used to this chaotic, challenging country.
I assured him that after eleven days, he would be glad he came to Cambodia. I believed it too – I told Andy: you have to experience the rough aspects of a country before you can experience its brighter side.
We had a few more drinks in a quieter establishment, and before long we were both laughing about the incident at Sorya Mall.
Andy decided to tip more modestly in the future!
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