Phnomenal (Bizarre Magazine. 1999)

© Dan White. No repro without permission.

Phnom Penh is a city that has seen more suffering than most. For thirty years, Cambodia has endured uncompromising Cold War politics, incessant fighting, mass ariel bombing and crimes against humanity. Until recently, it was a bad idea to go there without a good reason. That has all changed now. Cambodia has a relatively stable government. The war with the Khmer Rouge is over and the streets of Phnom Penh are no longer as dangerous as they were.

Not so long ago, visitors risked being robbed, kidnapped or shot. Now my biggest worry, as I perch on the pillion seat of a Honda motorcycle taxi, is that I may not survive the traffic. To call it anarchic would be an understatement. Everything goes in all directions in an ebb- and- flow that’s determined only by weight of numbers. It’s terrifying.

8.00 AM
Capitol Guest House.
14 Street 182

After dumping my stuff, I go to the Capitol Guest House. It’s located in a grotty part of town where you’re deafened by traffic, freaked by glue-sniffing kids and choked by dust. But it’s the best place for the newly arrived to get information.

I am so glad to be out of the traffic that I must look stupidly glazed. The bloke at the next table leans over to check that I am alright. It turns out that he is the editor of a local magazine called Bayon Pearnik ( which chronicles Phnom Penh’s bizarre happenings. “It’s the bloody country that’s warped, ” says Adam. “You are right to be scared of the traffic. A few years ago the government brought in a law requiring pillion-passengers to ride side-saddle. They did it because they wanted to cut down the number of grenade attacks from moving vehicles.”

When I tell Adam I am on assignment for Bizarre he says, “bizarre? I’ll show you bizarre.” And he does – starting with his idea for a morning excursion.

9.30 AM

Half an hour later, I’m six miles out of town, blasting a machine gun at tin cans and feeling tough. How could I not? I have an M16 in one hand and an AK47 in the other. Kambol is a rough-and-ready shooting range run by the Cambodian army. They will share it with you for a price. “Let’s get some grenades,” says Adam. “They’ll sell you a cow for seventy bucks. Then you can fire grenades at it with a B40.” Apparently the guys running the range tamper with the sights so that you miss and they get to keep the cow and the money. One Australian ex-army guy was so incensed that he walked his cow back to Phnom Penh and gave it to the poor. I decline the offer of cow- murdering and stick with the tin cans.

11.00 AM
Tuol Sleng (S21) and the Killing Fields
Streets 113 and 350

To understand the less-than-logical nature of life in Phnom Penh, it’s important to understand its history and how it was totally trashed 25 years ago. Between 1975 and 1979, Cambodia was run by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge – demented Maoists who reduced the whole country to a starving, terrorised work camp. Anyone who had the slightest contact with the previous regime was murdered. Citizens were tortured and killed fore engaging in such ‘subversive’ activities as wearing glasses or speaking in foreign languages. Up to 3,000,000 died. No one knows the exact number.

The school at Tuol Sleng was converted into the regional torture centre where Khmer Rouge torturers extracted ‘confessions’ from people who generally had no idea why they had been arrested in the first place. In the strangely bureaucratic style of 20th-century butchers, the Khmer Rouge photographed their prisoners before torturing them and killing them. The walls of Tuol Sleng are lined with thousands of faces, all staring death in the eye. It’s eerie. The place is not fun, but I had to come here: anyone who comes to this country needs to know what happened here.

Adam says we should go to the ‘Killing Fields’ south of the city centre where thousands of people were bludgeoned to death with shovels and hammers. A monument to the victims has been made from human skulls. I should go. I know should go. But I can’t. Not after visiting S21. There is only so much evidence of insane, ruthless brutality that any human being can absorb in the space of 24-hours.

13.00 PM
Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Cambodia (FCCC)
Sisowath Quay

After the disturbing history tour, I have to chill out. When you need to relax, there is no better place than the FCCC. Although it’s not a real press-club, it is a restaurant-cum-bar situated in one of the nicest, old colonial buildings in town. It’s also right by the river with great views and a nice breeze. It’s a great place to drink yourself into oblivion in comfort if you have lots of cash.

14.00 PM
National Museum
Streets 113 and 350

Although it is recent, brutal history that defines the state of modern Cambodia, it’s the era of Angkor, from the 8th to the 15th centuries, that provides evidence of the country’s past glories. The Khmer empire was based near the north-western town of Siem Reap. It extended into Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. In the 15th century, the Khmers lost control of Angkor to the Thais. You can taste the richness of the Angkorian empire here. It’s full of ancient carvings, statues and artifacts.

16.00 PM
Russian Market
Streets 115 and 144

Adam takes me to the Russian Market where you can get pirate CDs, software, videos and imitation antiques. Until recently you could also get marijuana by the bale. A couple of kilos of illegal baccy might have set you back about $2.00. But because the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has has pressured the Cambodian authorities it’s now more difficult to obtain. Prices have skyrocketed and it is now a lucrative cash crop. In the past the Khmers used to feed these pointless weeds to their cattle.

It was another triumph of US foreign policy. Not content with carrying out ‘secret’ bombing raids during the Vietnam War, sponsoring a coup that led, indirectly, to the brutal fanaticism of the Khmer Rouge and imposing sanctions on the Vietnamese who were the ones who liberated Cambodia from appalling tyranny, the United States has now accelerated Cambodia’s slide into being a criminal, narco-state.

A stallholder invites me to sample a plate of bugs. I consider the choice: caramelised beetles or toasted grasshoppers….. I go for grasshoppers.

18.00 PM
Happy Herb’s and the Pink Elephant
Siseowath Quay

In the days before US intervention Happy Herb’s was said to serve pizzas with ‘happy’ toppings. They don’t anymore. Next door is the Pink Elephant, a British themed hang-out favoured by thirsty journalists.

20.00 PM
Moninvong Boulevard

As the only Cambodian food I have sampled is toasted grasshopper, I suggest we eat. There are any number of Khmer restaurants on Moninvong Boulevard, the central thoroughfare. Adam suggests a soup made from all kinds of offal – ‘meat’ that in England would end up only in sausage rolls and meat pies. Close your eyes and swallow.

23.00 PM
The Heart of Darkness
26 Street 51

The Heart of Darkness is, indeed, a small, dark, crowded place populated by a mixture of people that would be best described as ‘varied’. According to Adam it is the best drinking hole in town. Some guy called Jerome starts banging on about, “gay Khmer Rouge bikers.” He beats me at pool and then someone else starts firing a pistol at the ceiling. The pistol is real as are the ricocheting bullets. I hit the deck, as does everyone else. Maybe even the gay Khmer Rouge bikers, where ever they might be. The man with the gun walks out glowering. Once he is gone the place empties. The Heart of Darkness is best avoided unless you like that kind of thing. Apparently this is normal in the Heart of Darkness. A nasty venue.

0.00 AM
Street 84

This is one of the most popular nightclubs in Phnom Penh. It’s fantastic if you like taking ecstasy and dancing manically with unsmiling prostitutes in a threatening atmosphere.

1.00 AM

Legendary if definately bizarre. This place has been around since the influx of UN supervisors in the early ’90s. Basically, it’s a giant village disco full of heavily made-up Cambodian peasant-girl prostitutes and legions of large foreign men, all watching a huge cinema screen and eating soup. I need a cup of tea.

4.00 AM
Corner streets 174 and 51

It’s the only 24-hour bar in town. It comes into its own in the early hours. After a couple of hours of fractured conversation with a Scandinavian whose working day is spent digging explosives out of the ground I realise it’s nearly time for breakfast. Fortunately the Walkabout serves the finest breakfast in all of Phnom Penh. After feasting on eggs, bacon, fried potatoes and fried bread washed down with good tea garnished with real milk we wobble into the dawn light.

7.00 AM
Ecole des Beaux Arts
Street 70 and Moninvong Blvd

At first I thought he was cracked, recommending that we attend a rehearsal of the Royal Khmer Ballet at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. But he was serious. The dancers start early to avoid the heat. If you don’t cause a nuisance, you can watch. Khmer ballet is the purest form of South East Asian dance and probably the most graceful thing I have ever seen.

8.00 AM
Royal Guest House
19 Street 154

Back to my hotel, I drift into a confused sleep lulled by the maudlin strains of karaoke drifting from across the street.

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