Throughout my twenty years of teaching EFL in Indonesia, we – that is my noble fellow teachers and myself – tended to regard Cambodia as below us in terms of prestige. We looked down on Phnom Penh as the place you went to teach if you couldn’t cut it in a “proper” Southeast Asian city like Jakarta (or if you were wanted by Interpol). However, now that I have made the move to Cambodia myself – without any loss of self-respect I might add – it’s clear that our view was unwarranted. Cambodia is a fine place to live. In many ways it’s the same as Indonesia. In many other ways it’s very different. I’d like to focus on some of those comparisons.
On the face of it, everyone has a lot of money in Indonesia. Beggars have hundreds of rupiah. The middle classes have millions of it, even billions. It might well take a computer with the power of Deep Blue to calculate what the entire country has. Cambodia meanwhile has adopted the US dollar as its unofficial second currency. There are 4,000 riel to the dollar. Therefore, if you buy, say, a can of Anchor beer for US$0.50, you’ll receive 2,000 riel in change from your seemingly much preferred dollar bill. It can get confusing. During the Khmer Rouge years, when the population was forced to work in farming communes and the country was closed to the outside world, there was no currency at all. That might be why having two currencies now seems like a sensible idea.
Don’t come to Cambodia looking for your pedas fix. You won’t find spicy nasi goreng here. Furthermore, sambal sauce bottles aren’t placed conveniently on every table top in the land like they are in Indonesia. One famous dish (at least for tourists) is Loc Lac – stir-fried beef or chicken with fries or rice. It won’t exactly set your tongue alight. Cambodian food is bland in general. Mind you, pepper is popular and it’s high-quality stuff. Local varieties of pepper are organically grown and produced in Kampot Province where the conditions are perfect, and pepper cultivation dates back to the thirteenth century. Sprinkle lots of it on your pork fried rice to make up for the lack of chillies. Indeed, pork is a favourite meat here. But you won’t find the two different types of McDonald’s pork burger that you find in Thailand, since Cambodia doesn’t have a McDonald’s! (Positively unique as far as I know.) You like sandwiches? Phnom Penh is the only Asian city I know of where it’s as easy to get a baguette as it is a bowl of rice. That’s the French colonial influence. Beer is cheap too. Fifty-cent glasses are sold everywhere. Wine is reasonably priced as well. Again, thank the French.
Ex-convicts will feel right at home in Phnom Penh. Practically all the buildings, the houses included, are secured with iron bars, grills and shutters. I challenge anyone to find an accessible window in Phnom Penh that doesn’t have bars cemented across it. Consequently, every place is a fire trap. But at least your blazing TV set won’t get stolen. This might seem like overzealous security – frightening if you’re claustrophobic – but, hey, it’s that violent Pol Pot period making its mark again. In reality, crime is no greater in Phnom Penh than in any other big city. One warning though: They have guns here. There are up to 85,000 weapons outside of government control. You see pistols tucked in the waistbands of the bodyguards of well-off families casually enjoying a day at the beach, or rich kids having a night out on the town. Many bars and clubs have entrance signs stating NO DRUGS, NO GUNS. A few clubs even have gun lockers, where those entering are invited to leave their Smith & Wessons. For tourists in general though, the biggest hazard is bag snatchers who ride up behind victims on motorcycles. Wear your bag properly, not just slung over your right shoulder. Or else attach it to your belt with a long piece of elastic. Then see what happens.
Indonesia wins hands down here. Think there are a lot of mosques in Jakarta? Try counting the multitude of shopping malls which seem even to outnumber the city’s religious edifices. OK, not true (there are obviously more mosques). Still, there are more than 170 shopping malls in Jakarta, adding up to almost four million square metres. Undeniably this wealth of clean air-conditioned retail space provides refuge from the bother of the city streets. While other cities have parks to take a walk in (where you can pick a flower), Jakarta has malls (where you can pick a shirt). And they’re big enough to exercise in. Every morning I used to walk briskly around Grand Indonesia in Jl. M. H. Thamrin. It took a long time to do circuits of all the floors, as round and round I went like a mouse on a wheel. Phnom Penh, on the other hand, has only one upscale shopping mall that can compete with those in Jakarta. It’s called Aeon Mall, and it has nothing much to boast about, though it does have modern, comfortable cinemas. And it has an ice rink (Cambodia has a national figure skating team; can you believe that?) Don’t expect this mall to be cheap though. Buy a basketful of goods from these stores, and you might want to borrow Deep Blue from a Jakarta shopper to calculate the grand total.
You may find this hard to believe as you narrowly avoid being hit by a hurtling Metro Mini bus on Jl. Sudirman, but Cambodians are worse drivers than Indonesians. Motorbikes (the roads are just as frenzied with them) hardly ever stop for anything. Phnom Penh’s road system takes the form of a grid, like Manhattan’s – the difference being that nobody’s ever sure who has right of way at the hundreds of crossroads. There are few traffic lights to give a hint. “Just do what the vehicle in front of you does” appears to be the rule. Accidents are common, and just like in Indonesia the foreigner, if involved, and sometimes even when not involved, is always at fault. Drunk drivers are a menace too (Cambodians sure like to drink). Incidentally, don’t just hold out a halting hand when crossing the road in Phnom Penh like you would in Jakarta. You’ll get run over!