Friday, August 17, 2007

Life in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

2007-08-16 Life in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Our friends at Burly.We have had a pleasant chance to meet our friends in Cambodia this year. First Bill and Betty came over from the US on their six month tour around China and South-East Asia. Together we explored Phnom Penh and Angkor, and made a virtual tour to the famous temples. Bill & Betty travel a lot spending around half a year abroad. We met in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where we both used to live. You can read about Bill's and Betty's travels at Bill's blog.

After the first of May came Helena who took care of Santeri when he was a baby. Helena is living in Kuala Lumpur where we celebrated last Christmas with her family. Helena used to live in China for some years, and according to her Phnom Penh is very much alike. She had been travelling in the neighbouring countries but this was her first visit to Cambodia.

Our latest guest was Arto who bicycled from Finland to South-East Asia. Arto's trip begun one year ago, in June 2006. He first explored Europe (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Bulgaria, Turkey), and then took a flight to India. The whole bicycle trip (including Thailand and Cambodia) amounts to over 9.000 kilometres. You can read more about these travels at Arto's blog.

Cambodia as a long-stay destination

South-East Asia is a very popular tourist destination which may partly explain the astonishing amount of friends we have met here. When we were living in South America, nobody came to see us. From Europe the more natural direction seems to be the east. Of course Thailand still draws most of the tourists in the region, but the situation is rapidly changing. Vietnam seems to have grown more popular, and also Cambodia had 20% more visitors during the first quarter of the year (Source: News Asia). Thailand's volatile situation is an obvious reason for the development, another is Cambodia's flexible visa system. There are no visa-runs unlike in Thailand. Besides, Cambodia is exotic. It is more traditional and genuine as it hasn't become westernised like the neighbouring countries. You can't for example find a McDonald's here which we find especially charming. Instead, you can enjoy some very happy, or even ecstatic pizza with strange herbs, if you like.

A chinese restaurant at the end of the universe.

Cambodia is advertising itself as a bit unsafe and adventurous destination. Land mines and violent past of Khmer Rouge is attracting those who want to prove that they dare. Hotels have signs prohibiting explosives and guns in their premises, and roadside advertisements ask farmers to give away their Kalashnikovs. However, we have found the country secure and relaxed. People are friendly and humble, excluding the foreign NGO trash with their big SUV's trying to hit pedestrians. Money makes people arrogant, and Cambodia is not an exception.

Two persons can live in Cambodia with less than 300 € a month. That includes hotel accommodation in a new hotel, two restaurant meals a day, snacks and monthly visa costs. Check out the price comparison between Finland and Cambodia below and see for yourself.

Finland versus Cambodia (Aug 2007 €/us$=1.38)

TitleFinland €Cambodia €
Baguette / piece1,290,43
Basic cheese /kg6,25,94
Yoghurt /can0,240,33
Water melon /kg1,190,33
Apples /kg1,901,23
Chicken /kg2,701,95
Chicken in marinade /kg6,353,00
Instant coffee /kg4213,41
Renting DVD2,000,18
Hotel room /night764,35
Whisky / 0.7 L15,901,09
Lunch in a restaurant /pp81,09
Massage / 1 hour /pp17-453,62

As a country, Cambodia is very much like Thailand but without dictators, king worshipping cults, visa-runs and western fast-food chains. There are a few things you might want to know when living in Phnom Penh. Obtaining extension for Cambodian business visa is easy, but the system is corrupted. That was one of the few things that made us feel uncomfortable. Travel brochures, local magazines, and guides advertised that the official way exists, but it is very slow and complicated. We tried the legal way and ended up discovering that the legal way was just a smokescreen. Offial price for a one-year visa is US 180$ and the so called express visa costs US 243-280$, depending on where you buy it. Non-immigration office, where we applied for the official visa, was insisting that we have to show them a resident certificate. We discovered that such certificate does not exist any more. The only way to get that piece of paper would be to pay for the tourist police US $50 for writing it. In the end, it was cheaper to buy the express visa which does not require any paperwork and is ready in one day. We tried to find out if anyone had actually got an official visa extension and asked around from the police, travel agencies, local expat newspaper and other foreigners we met here, but found nobody. We wrote a newspaper article about the corruption, took some photos, and made interviews. If you are interested in running the story, please let us know.

Arto bicycling.
Arto came to see us by bicycle.
Santeri´s little friends.

Santeri and his friends.

There are also some smaller issues worth to take into account on a long stay. Some shops, especially bigger supermarkets like Thai Huot, Lucky Market and BIG A -supermarket usually short-change. We are not sure if this happens only to tourists or not, but they usually give 100 riels short. If you ask for the missing money, the manager comes to you and you get the note without any questions asked. This implies that it is a company policy instead of being a little private business of the cashier. Keep a calculator in your pocket to check the change. Having a two currency system (US dollars and riels) at the same time complicates things a little bit.

Helena came to see us from Malaysia.You might also want to check the best before dates of products if there is such information available. For example Lucky Market was happily selling expired condoms and they continued selling them after our complaints. They could not see anything bad in possibly infecting people with HIV by selling outdated condoms that might break in use. It was also sad to witness how western countries spread revengefulness to Cambodians by demanding for the Khmer Rouge tribunals.

The rest of the annoyances are similar to most undeveloped countries. There is no public transportation which we solved by walking. The quality of service varies a lot, even with the same service providers. The idea of clean and cleaning is pretty far away from western standards. Our solution was so stick with a small amount of service providers and try to make them understand our expectations. This worked out pretty well. Lack of hygiene, however, was something we could not find a fix for. We talked about writing a booklet about washing hands and not touching other people's food etc., but did not do it in the end. Cambodians love to touch everything with dirty hands, especially things they are not buying or things that someone else is buying. If they drop something to the floor, they pick it up and pack it for you like nothing happened. Insisting changing the product helps, but you have to do it by yourself. Taking these little annoyances in account, we can highly recommend Phnom Penh for a relatively hassle-free long-stay.

Related photos.

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