Cambodia: Top 10 Best and Worst
Trip Start Sep 01, 2005
1Trip End Sep 01, 2005
Map your own trip!
Show trip route
I only recently realized that there was no Summer Edition to the Life and Times on-going saga. I'll blame it on sparse readership response and general malaise of the writing staff. However, we're back for the Fall 2005 Edition, just in time to reveal the results for the latest EIU survey (The Economist Intelligence Unit, part of the group that publishes "The Economist" magazine) assessing the "quality of life" in 127 international cities. The criteria for assessment was: stability, health care, culture, environment, education and infrastructure.
Top of the list and the world's best place to live was... Vancouver, Canada (shout out to all my Canadian friends, you lucky dogs!) The very worst place to live was Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
Phnom Penh, my beloved home for the past four years, ranked on the list.... (drumroll, please)... sixth from the BOTTOM, in the number 122 slot, sandwiched between Lagos (Nigeria) and Abidjan (Cote d'Ivoire). Even Tehran (Iran) beat us out as a better city to live in! IRAN!?!??! You have GOT to be kidding me. IRAN?!?! "I ran" away from Cambodia is more like it...
The report indicated Phnom Penh had "severe restrictions on lifestyle" and that "extreme difficulties are faced" by people living there. Noted areas of poor performance included: quality of public health care, availability of consumer goods and services, prevalence of petty crime and general public education. (A tear is running down my cheek, I'm so proud... Vancouver, eat your heart out!)
So, in honor of this inauspicious award, I've compiled a top ten list of the best and worst of living in Phnom Penh. I know a lot of my friends and family read this for the entertainment value, and so I tend to more or less sugarcoat some of the realities of living here, in favor of the more cute and fuzzy humorous stories
Ten Worst Things About Living In Phnom Penh
10. SMALL NUMBER OF WITNESSES
With currently about 200 publishers, take away the Cambodians who don't speak English and the dozens of Japanese who don't speak English, and you're left with a handful of people who speak the same language as you to associate with. Coming from Bethel where people routinely had friends in 20 different congregations, gives this an almost "dried out gene pool" feel. Besides me, there are 3 other single-brother need-greaters. One's getting married in December, one qualifies for social security and the other lives 4 hours away... Everyone knows everyone so all our get-togethers have that "been there, done that, deja-vu" feel to them. New blood needed pronto! Many living here are also quite limited in disposable income. Obviously, the locals, but also lots of need greaters. Most teach English, but since most don't have a uni degree or any other qualifications, the average is about $8-10 per hour. Most don't work full days, but only three hours per day, and rarely in a block. One brother in my congregation has to go back and forth to his school three times a day, once at 6:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 6:00 p.m.!
9. LACK OF GOODS/SERVICES
We have supermarkets (hooray!) where some Western items are available (but you'll have to pay through the nose)
A hundred degrees by 10 in the morning. Humidity like you wouldn't believe. Thunderous rain storms where you can't see a thing and that flood the streets up to your knees. Heaven help you if it starts pouring anytime you actually need to go somewhere! We all keep raincoats in our bags, just in case.
7. THINGS COMMITTED IN THE NAME OF RELIGION
Lots of religious groups are active here - Mormons, Korean religions, zany Baptists, to name just a few. So many of them come in and offer aid in exchange for membership, it paints a warped picture of true religion
6. WEIRD DISEASES
Tropical weather, tropical diseases. In the past four years, I've had two out of the three "biggies" - Typhoid and Dengue Fever. I just need to get Malaria to complete the hat trick. I'm sure many of these diseases are ones no one has ever heard of in the West, but they're quite common here. Typhoid is spread through dirty water and feces (eeek!). Typically, an infected person passes it on, usually through handling food. I rarely eat out, but you're always offered a glass of something in service and the householder always notices if you don't drink it. Symptoms are high grade fever and the feeling that someone is ripping your guts out
Dengue fever is spread by mosquitoes who have bit an infected person and then bites you. Although my house has screens, none of the locals have them, so when you're out in service, you're fair game. Symptoms include throbbing joint pain, searing headaches and fever. Had it last month and was out for almost a week and a half. Good news is that you develop an immunity to it after the first time. The other good news is that you can't eat for days. Loved the weight loss.
5. TRAFFIC AND CRIME
Phnom Penh is thankfully still a relatively small city. You can get anywhere in 20 minutes. Unfortunately, people on the streets are maniacs. It's jungle rule when it comes to traffic. Most people drive motorized scooters (motobikes). Unfortunately, you don't need a license to drive one. Many of the people are recently from the countryside and have just traded in their cow for a moto. The ones in cars are the worst. Driving down the wrong side of a one way street, moving all the way to the right before suddenly turning left, ignoring all traffic lights, piling 5 or more people onto the moto, loading it down with 50 chickens or ducks, are just some of the things you see every day
4. DIRT AND DUST
Phnom Penh is very much a developing city. Only half of the roads in the city are paved, which means muddy streets with huge potholes everywhere. No emissions checks means sooty smoke from cars held together with duct tape. We're all on motobikes, so there's no protection from the dirt and dust. Every time you wipe your face, the cloth comes away black. When I go on a far away call, I always get the "racoon eyes" effect after taking off my sunglasses to reveal a black face and white eyes! Showering 3 or 4 times a day is normal. I remember coming here with my Neiman Marcus clothes and leather shoes only to face the harsh reality of not being able to wear anything nice. Back home, if someone got a spot on their clothes, they'd probably go home and change. Here, I've waded in dirty sewer water up to my waist and kept on going in service! Roaches are everywhere. And I don't mean the "cute" little roaches in America. These ones are the size of your FACE. And they FLY. They're so big, I think they're categorized as mammals. I remember the first time I saw one, I was like: What IS that!?!? And the first time one flew and actually landed on me, I'm sure the people in Africa could hear my schoolgirl screams
Me: (to a mom holding her baby) So, do you believe in God?
Mom: (baby pees all over her)
Mom: (doesn't blink. Switches baby to other side)
The other day, I was getting a fruit shake at a roadside kiosk
Me: (suppressing gag reflex)
Most people throw trash everywhere. Especially by markets, there'll be a huge mountain of trash every night right in the middle of the road, when the trash truck comes to pick it up. If you saw where some of the food sold on the street was prepared, you'd never eat it.
3. LOW EDUCATION
While the worldwide literacy rate is somewhere around 83%, in Cambodia, it's 65%. Amongst the Vietnamese in Cambodia, it's probably around 40%. Most of these were too poor to live in an already poor country (Vietnam), so they emigrated to Cambodia (which for them was actually a step UP, if you can believe it). Most were too poor to afford schooling. Others were refugees during the Khmer Rouge era (1970's) and never got the chance to go to school
As Cambodia is a developing country, it's survival of the fittest here
We're down to the single worst thing about living in Phnom Penh - the crushing povery that is ever-present and leaves a film of despair over you which you can't wash off. People routinely work for $2-3 per day. This is for unskilled laborers, garment factory workers, construction workers, etc. Tradesmen (carpenters, mechanics, electricians) average $5 per day. Gas is now $1 per liter, which is more than most can afford. Life is daily desperation for so many, a delicate balancing act of how to buy food and still have rent money. If you get sick or lose your job, you're in big trouble. I remember trying to use the Satisfying Life brochure when I first got here. I thought the section about "Money Management" would logically be terrific to use. So I excitedly propounded the benefits of setting up a household budget. My Bible student looked at me perplexed and said: "I make $5 a day. After I feed my wife and baby, there's nothing left to budget". I didn't know what to say to that. When people get in trouble, they normally pawn something. For every $100, they pay $3 or $4 in interest per month which works out to be 36-48% interest per year. That's for the lucky who have something of value to pawn. For others, their only option is to borrow money from a neighborhood loan shark. For the loan shark, this is a risky proposition, because the borrower generally has nothing to lose. For this, he charges 20% interest PER MONTH. Borrow $100, you gotta pay back $120 within 40 days. That averages out to an annual percentage rate of a whopping 240%. (And you thought that 18% APR Visa was a bad deal!) More often than not, something unexpected happens and the person can't pay back the loan within the time limit. So it keeps on building and building, and pretty soon a $100 loan turns into an $800 loan with no hope of repayment
Housing is intolerable. I've seen people live in shacks built over open sewage and trash heaps. You could actually see trash six inches below the floor boards. Don't even ask about the smell. My Bible student lived in a 4' x 6' room that had a wooden slat as a door. There was a wooden bed which was exactly the size of the room. Rain water dripped down the walls when it rained. One bare bulb provided light. I had to keep one eye on the Knowledge Book and the other on the roach on the wall two feet from my head to make sure there was no repeat of the "screaming schoolgirl" incident. Lots of Vietnamese live near the river, as it's cheap there. Unfortunately, when the rainy season comes, the water level rises and their shack is in 3 feet of water. They literally prop up whatever furniture as they're basically living in a swamp.
Don't EVEN get me started on health care. Most people don't have the means to go to a proper hospital. So anyone in the neighborhood with a stethescope or an anatomy poster qualifies as the doctor. These people often do more harm than good. The number one "cure all" is an IV of saline solution. You see people on the streets all the time on motos, one hand holding up the bottle of saline while it's dripping into their arm. Many people buy pills individually, not by the pack or bottle, as they can only afford to buy a few pills at a time. There is no mental health system to speak of
Being here just emphasizes that fact that we all need Jehovah's Kingdom so badly.
(Thanks to those of you who have contributed to our informal "Poor Fund". Just this month, we've used it twice already.)
But living here ain't all bad. In fact, sometimes I'll just be driving down the street and thinking what an awesome life I lead. So, here are the top ten best things about living in Phnom Penh..
10. TAX-FREE LIVING
Living overseas for more than 330 days out of the year, I'm exempt from American income tax up to $80,000. (Don't think I'll be in danger of paying taxes any time soon!) And working for an educational NGO (Non-governmental organization), I'm exempt from Cambodian taxes. This added cushion makes it possible for me to have my own personal cook and a housekeeper who does laundry and ironing, cleans the house, buys flowers every week, looks after the garden, cleans out my fish pond, looks after 12 birds and four bird cages, etc. I make a decent salary while working three and a half days a week. Those days are quite long (my first class is at 6 a.m. and I normally home at 6:30 p.m. with an hour and a half off for lunch and a snooze), but gives me the option of having full days off, which is great for service. My energy level is high, so I often go out on Bible studies after a 12-hour workday.
9. SHOPPING AND SIGHTS
Cambodia isn't a shopping mecca, but certain things are definitely a good bargain
The city is built along the Tonle Sap River, so you can take a stroll by the riverside anytime you want. Wats (temples), cultural museums and old buildings give the town a "colonial" feel.
8. CHEAP TRANSPORTATION
Although gas prices are up ($3 per gallon), motobikes use hardly any gas at all. I drive around all week and only spend about $3 on gas. Plus, fixing bikes cost hardly anything. New tire? $2. New battery? $10. Labor? 50 cents. So far this year, I've spent a total of $29 on repairs, washes, road tax and miscellaneous. And for gas, a whopping $61. That'd be like three tanks back home.
7. MOVIES, MOVIES, MOVIES
I feel bad putting this as one of the best things about living here, but number seven on the list is "pirated" movies
DVD's cost $2 to buy and you can trade them in for new movies for 75 cents. Quality varies. Sometimes it'll be a video that someone clandestinely shot in a movie theater, so the sound is bad and every now and then the screen will go black from the person stuffing the camcorder in their jacket whenever an usher walks by. In those versions, you can hear the theater audience laughing and screaming and at the end of the movie, you can actually see heads of the people in front of you as they get up to leave. Hilarious. There's actually a channel on TV that plays pirated movies. So a few days after the movie is released by Hollywood, chances are that it'll be on TV here. They're even cheaper in Vietnam, only a dollar a DVD! With no movie theaters here, it's nice to be able to watch English movies at home.
Number six on the list has got to be massages. I have a Massage Schedule. Every Monday night after a long day of work, it's off for a foot massage, which starts off with a hot soak in an herbal mixture followed by a back and neck rub
Every three weeks is my Haircut / Head Massage. After a haircut, the shampoo girl comes and gives you a shampoo and scalp massage. It happens right in the chair. They put a glob of shampoo on your head and then squeeze just enough water to lather up, no sink required! Then it's off to the back for a rinse, then two types of conditioner. Meanwhile, you're getting a facial and cold compress for your eyes. Total cost: $2 for the haircut and $2 for the shampoo/massage.
Every other week, it's time for a whole body massage. The spa I go to moved to a new place just two blocks from my house - talk about convenient. You have your pick of aromatherapy, Swedish, fatigue relief, hands and feet, and the list goes on. Sip on a mango lassi during the process to feel heaven on earth. Total cost: $7.20 for the massage and $2.00 for the tropical drink.
5. CHEAP FOOD AND EXOTIC FRUIT
You could eat very well here on a shoestring
My favorite breakfasts are: Vietnamese beef noodle soup ($0.80), Chinese seafood soup ($0.80), Grilled pork and rice ($0.50), Chinese dim sum ($1.00) and chocolate croissants ($0.50).
There is fruit in abundance. While not as cheap as in Vietnam, fruit in season is quite reasonable. A dozen mangoes will set you back $2.50. Watermelon, 25 cents. A bunch of bananas, 30 cents. Persimmons are $2.50 a kilo. Jackfruit, durian, soursop, lychees, longans, rambuttans - all yummy and cheap!
This isn't really food, but I'll throw it into my cheap category -shoe shines for less than 15 cents
4. SERENDIPITOUS MOMENTS
It seems like in the West, you've gotta actively search out new experiences. Here, they happen around every corner. Last week, we were in service, turned the corner and saw a mahout washing his elephant in a pond. I bought some fruit for it and petted it like it was an everyday sight! In the city, people use the ground levels of their homes for business, so in a typical day in service, you'll see people making sugar, peeling mounds of garlic, raising tropical fish, sewing wedding dresses, and the list goes on. Today, we passed by a house where people raised tropical fish - 50 baby goldfish for $1! You absolutely never know what you'll see or experience which makes every day a surprise waiting to happen.
3. BEING AROUND FULL-TIME SERVANTS
In the West, congregations hardly ever saw real missionaries
Almost all the foreigners are regular pioneers, so our get-togethers are always encouraging and fun! Just two weeks ago, there was a big holiday here, so I had a huge brunch and card party. Everybody brought something and it was a blast. Then last Sunday, about 40 of us took over a luxury hotel lounge where there's normally a live band, but we commandeered it with our own music and had an old-fashioned dance party! The missionaries were the ones tearing up the floor!
2. TRAVEL DESTINATIONS
If you're willing to put up with a little inconvenience, travel can be very cheap from Phnom Penh.
Within Cambodia, there's a nice beach with offshore islands only $3 and 4 hours away by bus. Or you could head north to Siem Reap ($3.50 / 5 ½ hours) and see the magnificent 1,000 year old temple complex of Angkor Wat (see a picture of it in the "Who is Jehovah?" tract)
Heading east, you can be in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in under 6 hours. The bus ride and visa will set you back $12 and $30 respectively, but you're in a different world there, with KFC's, trendy cafes and boutiques, delicious, clean food and high end department stores. From HCM City, you can head south to the Mekong Delta and explore winding canals and luscious countryside rice fields or head north to the beautiful white beaches of Nha Trang, where a full day boat trip to four islands, snorkeling and a seafood lunch is only $7. A short jaunt to Dalat, in the central highlands will bring you into a temperate zone with pine trees, strawberries and cool temperatures.
For the more adventuresome, a grueling 12-hour, $15 bus-and-taxi ride (take your pillow with you), will take you to bustling Bangkok, Thailand, where East meets West. Cheap electronics, designer boutiques and name brand clothing vie for your attention alongside ubiquitous food stalls, floating markets and orchid farms. From Bangkok, gorgeous islands in the Gulf of Thailand are a short flight or train ride away. Best thing about Thailand - no travel visas required!
1. FRUITFUL FIELD, BEAUTIFUL LOCAL BROTHERS AND FREEDOM OF WORSHIP
And the number one best thing about living in Phnom Penh is the great territory, the awesome local brothers and the freedom of worship we currently enjoy here.
Despite poor education, there are many who are still thirsting for the truth
Currently we have freedom of worship and speech, in contrast to neighboring Vietnam. I'm sure all of us yearn to move there someday when the work opens up. But until that happens, being here is the next best thing!
Wow. This journal is WAY longer than I had anticipated. I was planning on this one being short and light. Sorry! But I hope this helps you to understand more about life here in this backwards part of the world. Of course, nothing can replace actually coming here and seeing it for yourself - I wish this could have been a "scratch and sniff" e-mail, as I can't begin to do justice to what you'd see, hear, smell, and feel here. So please consider this an open invitation for you to come and experience Cambodia firsthand. I'll have a spare guestroom for at least until my lease runs out at the end of 2006, so get on the internet or call your agent to start making your travel plans now!