Friday, December 30, 2011

Street 51

Street 51, early evening, 1AM

New Year nears. A perfect excuse for talk of auld lang syne (times gone by,) and so I indulge. In the following I mean only to note some of the changes on Street 51 over the years, not imply (as would be cliche in expat reminiscences) that it was somehow better ‘way back when,’ (even though it was.)

Street 51 in Phnom Penh, at least the short section between Streets 154 and 174, is an ‘entertainment center’ as the nearby hotels like to say – a couple of blocks of bars, clubs, a few eateries and more bars - a 'bar street' reminiscent of a Sukhumvit soi. And the Heart of Darkness was the start of it all, the seed from which the Street 51 bar scene grew, planted in the early 90s and now in full blossom, though not exactly fragrant.

In the beginning (1993) the Heart of Darkness was the only bar on a dark block of Rue Pasteur (Street 51) - a small one-shop open-facade place next to a couple of brothels. The old French Colonial Police Headquarters sat opposite, but otherwise it was a quiet block of daytime shops and houses. Inside the Heart, the walls were flat black, Doors, Hendrix, Stones and the like on the CD player, cobwebs hanging from the ceiling, a betel box of ganja on the bar, beer from an esky and the same three guys behind the bar every night. There was a duct-tape patched pool table in a small back room that required a short stick for the near side. "No Dancing" was spray painted in large letters on the poolroom wall. And in fact there was no dancing at the Heart.

Back then during the monsoon season Street 51 would flood every time it rained. I have fond memories of plowing through shin-deep water after work, past the old police HQ and stopping at the Heart, which sat comparatively high and rarely flooded. I'd check in a couple times a week for a smoke and some chess with the bartenders. On weekend evenings it was the place to go (in fact one of the few places to go) in Phnom Penh - frequented by the embassy and NGO crowd, English teachers, journalists and the few tourists that happened to be in town. It had something of a 'notorious' reputation and was on more than one embassy no-go list, but for the life of me I could never figure out why.

Heart of Darkness, New Year Eve, 31/12/99
Heart of Darkness, New Year Eve, 31/12/99
Heart of Darkness, New Year, 1/1/00, Samnang

There were no soldiers, regular trouble makers or much in the way of dodgy dealings, at least by Cambodian standards. It wasn't that kind of crowd. There were a couple/few regular prostitutes, but that was it. Sure, there were people sitting around smoking pot but that was, for the most part, the hardest drug in the place, and back then it was de facto legal in Cambodia anyway. I used to imagine that the bar garnered its notorious reputation, not from anything that actually went on there, but from its dark name, the town it was in and the imagination of travel writers who were afraid to go anyplace truly notorious (like the Cambodian night clubs.)

The Heart slowly expanded over the years, growing two shops wide in 96 (absorbing the brothel) and eventually closing in the front and adding air-con. The brothels of 51 were all gone by the late 90s and the second bar I recall on the street, in 96 I believe, was the Duck Tub a couple of doors down from the Heart. They did semi-regular live rock - the only place in town at the time. After the owner was killed in a tragic traffic accident, the Duck Tub became the AK-47 briefly, then Huey's (if I recall correctly) and eventually Howie's which it still is today. Beginning in the late 90s other bars opened along that couple of blocks - some of the earliest being Club 51 which became Shanghai within a year, and the Walkabout, formerly the Pasteur Hotel.

By the early 00s the Heart started taking on a clubbier atmosphere, it expanded to three shops, changed its look, music and ultimately its clientele. The decor went from rattle-can basic to Khmer baroque, it became a dance club, no pot, no rock, more cocktails, drawing clubbers, travelers, young locals and Khmer bad boys. Around that same period, especially after the 2003 elections, more small bars, many of the hostess variety, opened along the same block, eventually filling out most of the street and stretching around the corner. The old colonial police station was finally torn down 4 or 5 years ago and replaced with the Golden Sorya Mall a couple of years later where Pontoon Club (Phnom Penh’s most popular foreigner disco of the moment) opened its doors last year like the proverbial cherry on the top of the Street 51 sundae.

The street was now officially booming.

Street 51 is a totally different place - a different crowd, a different look, a different atmosphere. Though the Heart isn’t my kind of place anymore, I’ve been generally pleased with ever growing choice of bars and clubs on 51. Yet these last couple of years the street seems to be taking a bit of a mean turn.

I have always felt safe on Street 51, or at least as safe as on any tourist street in town. And there have always been beggars and of course the occasional punch up, drunk drivers, trashed backpackers and such. It all goes with the bar business. But the other evening, for the first time ever, I felt unsafe on 51.

It was the end of the night, admittedly quite late - 4ish - when I left my last bar. I wanted to buy food at a burger stand 80 meters away. In that 80 meters, over the next 10 minutes, a couple of Middle Eastern guys tried to pick a fight with me, 2 drunken luxury cars weaving through the intersection at 60kph narrowly missed me, a tuk-tuk driver told me to ‘fuck off’ because I politely declined his offer of a ride or a prostitute, a parade of infant bearing beggar women and half a dozen glue sniffing children pawed and moaned for money, two people offered to sell me drugs, and when I finally got to the food stand a 6-year-old tried to pickpocket me while I ordered my dog and ribs. I sat with my back to the wall as I waited for the food. A tourist girl vomited in the middle of the street in front of me and a motorcycle crashed trying to avoid her. Down the street near the Heart a commotion began. Some sort of fight, drawing a crowd. I went for a look.

A barang and a Khmer guy were having at it. The barang was big. His friend was trying to stop it. A barang standing next to me in the crowd started taking photos with his phone. A Khmer girl ordered him to stop. “You cannot take photo. No photo of Khmer fight barang!” she barked. He didn’t respond so she repeated herself then continued, “I am Khmer! I tell you what to do. You not stop, I take camera. I am Khmer. I tell you, stop!” Inspired by her words, I took out my phone to film it too. This is what I got. That's her, in the pinkish clothes and light hair, bouncing in and out of the commotion. 

I’ve seen most all of these things on 51 before – fights, pickpockets, glue sniffing kids, aggressive drunks, moto crashes, rude tuk-tuks, the beggars, druggies, etc., etc. – but not all within 80 meters and 10 minutes of each other. That was a first for me. It gave me pause.

Street 51 really does seem a bit notorious these days.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas

Santa's Bodyguard

Originally drawn in 1998 by Dutch artist Arijan (Aryan) Jansonius, inspired by life here in Phnom Penh at the time. Note the old style motorcycle. Issued as one in a set postcards available in Cambodia in the late 90s.

Merry Christmas

On Earth Peace, Good Will toward Men

Friday, December 23, 2011

Cambodian Beggars in Bangkok

3 or 4 year old Cambodian boy, begging cup in hand, working the tourists on Sukhumvit, about 1:00AM

I was in Bangkok last week. Stayed in the heart of the Sukhumvit tourist area, Soi 4. In my 3-day stay I was a bit surprised by the number of Cambodian beggars I saw there – all women and young children. Seemed to be a lot more than usual. I don't know much about the foreign beggar situation in Bangkok. I’m in the city every couple of months for a few days or a week at a time – shopping, doctor, perhaps a bit of R&R. I know the place mostly from the perspective of a tourist.

There have always been both Thai and foreign beggars in that area. Of the foreigner beggars I’ve noticed, it’s been mostly Cambodians and some Vietnamese in the past, often children. One or two at a time here and there. What seemed unique this time was the sheer number of Cambodian beggars, and that they seemed to be working in family groups. There were at least a dozen and a half that I saw, comprising 3 or 4 family (or family-like) groups working a relatively compact tourist area around Sukhumvit Soi 4, including 3 or 4, 22-32 year old women with infants, several very young (3-6 year old) children begging and selling gum, and also several, mostly female flower sellers, around 9-12 years old. They all seemed to know one another and from what I could overhear they all spoke Khmer i.e. Cambodian Khmer, not Khmer as it is spoken in Thailand. These people were from Cambodia, not ethnic-Khmer from Northern Thailand.

They were likely trafficked here from Cambodia.

One evening I sat in front of the hotel for more than 3 hours, drinking beer and lazily watching the street scene including watching the beggars work. That area is solid tourists and those feeding off of them – punters and prostitutes, shoppers, street sellers, travelers and, of course, beggars. There was an easy dozen Cambodian beggars working that block alone. No men. All women and children. The youngest beggar children carried plastic cups to collect money, as did the infant toting Moms. The older children sold flowers and chewing gum.

A three year old boy was working the sidewalk right in front of where we sat, pacing back and forth hitting up passing tourists for change and doing a pretty good job of it. Seemed about 1 in 3 or 4 would give something, highlighting why he's been put on the street to beg. Because it works.

My wife called him over and asked him in Khmer where he was from. He said, in Khmer, that he was from Siem Reap and that he had been working in Thailand a ‘long time,’ (whatever a 'long time' may mean to a 3 year old.) One of the flower girls saw him talking to us and yelled to him in Khmer, ‘Don’t speak.’ He went back to begging, working long stretches unsupervised. He sure was a puffy-eyed, tired looking little guy still working at 1AM. He’d lay his head on the railing in front of us to rest, but would go on auto-pilot when he heard a tourist coming, automatically waving his plastic cup in their path. He knew how to do it in his sleep, so to speak.

A few times the whole lot of them went dashing up the street in a panic as if they were running from something, but we never saw anybody give chase. I asked a Thai street seller what it was all about and she explained that they probably spotted the police nearby and were fleeing for fear of arrest. Apparently the local constabulary is not on the trafficker's payroll.

I noticed in the Pattaya Daily News a couple of weeks ago that there are reports of Cambodian beggars of similar description working the tourists (and now arrested) in Pattaya – all Cambodian women with infants and children. While noting that there are Cambodian beggars in Bangkok would not be news, in my limited observation this time there seems to have been a recent influx and numbers are up. And I wonder why. Is the increase because of the beginning of the tourist season? Or did some new trafficking route just open? Or did I just fail to notice all of them before?

Cambodian girls selling flowers on Soi 4

Cambodian mother with infant (well, presumably she's the mother) working as a beggar on Sukhumvit Soi 4, Bangkok


The Nature and Scope of the Foreign Beggar Issue (especially as related to Cambodian child beggars) in Bangkok

Monday, December 19, 2011

Kim dead. Flag lowered (a little)

Flag at North Korean (DPRK) embassy, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Dec 19, 2011, the day Kim Jong-il died. Flag at 3/4 mast.

Kim Jong-il died today. The North Korean embassy here in Phnom Penh flew its flag at 3/4 mast. Typical. Yet another half-truth from the DPRK.

(Or does it hint at something else?)

North Korean (DPRK) embassy, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Dec 19, 2011, the day Kim Jong-il died. Flag at 3/4 mast.

From the display board on the front wall:

Photo at North Korean Embassy, Phnom Penh, Cambodia: The Leader Kim Jong Il provides on-the-spot guidance at 927 Chicken Farm

Photo at North Korean Embassy, Phnom Penh, Cambodia: The Leader Kim Jong Il provides on-the-spot guidance at Pyongyang Textile Mill

Sunday, December 18, 2011


The step sisters do Beyonce

Running about a week late on this post.


Last week the local expat theater group, The Phnom Penh Players, did their annual Christmas pantomime – that peculiar form of traditional British family entertainment that includes risqué wordplay, slapstick, political in-jokes, rampant cross-dressing and, ideally, raucous audience participation. This year’s outing was entitled ‘Cinderella’s Hard Day’s Night,’ and like last year’s ‘Robin in da Hood’ it was a general success.

Written by local expats Claire Barker and Zac Kandall, Cinderella’s Hard Day’s Night tells the story of a provincial girl from an ill-fated family – her widower father dies suddenly (of 'a broken heart' according to local officials,) then their mango trees mysteriously burn down and a development company rubber plantation pops up in its place. Her inheritance lost, she moves to the city where she ends up doing factory work and acting as a servant to her self-centered, bearded stepsisters played by Mark Twine and Dom Sharpe. Interspersed with adapted Beatles songs, the story winds its way rather unpredictably through the Cinderella tale, from her abuse by her adopted family (and their threats to traffic her to Bangkok,) to the 'connected' fairy godparents, the royal ball, the insecure (and busty) Prince Charming, the climactic cake baking contest judged Chef Ramsay (whose every other word is a censorial "beep") and ultimately to a ‘happily ever after’ ending and a grand romantic kiss between the Prince and Cinderella (both played by women.)

The writing was sharp and knowing, the songs fun, the actors all in good form and the play as a whole a bit rough around the edges, just as a local performance should be. I feel I must make special note of the play's bitingly timely local in-jokes, and of Tim Johnson as Buttons, Cinderella’s love struck sidekick, whose merry muggings made many a moment. Great stuff Tim. Consider quitting your day job.

Last but certainly not least, the over-the-top rendition of Beyoncé’s ‘Single Ladies’ by Cinderella’s cross-dressing step-sisters was uproariously funny, the highlight of the show. I've never really seen the humor in drag, but this sketch had me belly laughing. I hope somebody caught it on video. It was a keeper.

It was all great fun. A touch of home in the Christmas season, even if I’m not British. The audience, made up mostly of expats, many families and children, obviously enjoyed themselves. Having no idea what it will be or even if there will be one, I highly recommend next year’s show for the whole family.

At the Russian Cultural Center. The crowds await.


Hamlet introduces the traditions and rules of Pantomime

"Lakeside this, lakeside that. If I knew it was going to be such a big to-do I would have done things differently. Yes, I definitely would have shut down the newspapers..."

Fairy Godmother, Buttons and Cinderella

Fairy Godfather (and writer, Zac Kandall)

Domino and Buttons

'All you need is love...'

Finale, 'All You Need is Love'

The cast


EAS: Panto Time: Cinderella’s Hard Day's Night

Phnom Penh Post: New panto combines Beatles and fairytales

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Red Moon

Lunar eclipse (Red Moon) Phnom Penh Cambodia, Dec 10, 2011

There was a total lunar eclipse here this evening in Cambodia (and across much of this part of the world.). The sky over Phnom Penh was clear and the eclipse readily apparent.

I was busy this evening and didn’t think I’d have the opportunity to see it, but carried my camera just in case. I stepped outside at about 9:35PM. The eclipse seemed just a bit lopsided, one side of the moon slightly darker than the other. The whole surface was in deep shadow and distinctly pinkish red with a touch of orange.

I aimed my camera skyward and took a couple of snaps. I noticed the Vietnamese woman standing near me, staring at me. I pointed up and said, “eclipse of the moon, shadow on the moon.”

She said, “I know, no good.”

I smiled and said (admittedly somewhat insensitively,) “What? Dragon eating the moon or something?”

She snapped back, “You think this is funny?”

I said nothing.

“Bad luck,” she said. “Bad luck, next year the Dragon comes. Bad luck last time this happened. Bad luck this year and next.”

I didn’t smile this time. Just went back to taking photos. She walked away.

The photo above was the best I could do hand-held. Taken at about 9:52PM with a D5100, 18-200mm lens, f5, 1/30, ISO 6400.

According to the Phuket News:
...the entire eclipse should be visible from Asia and Australia. However, North America and Canada will witness only the start of totality as the moon dips below the horizon.

The partial eclipse begins at 7:45pm when the Moon reaches the umbra, Earth’s inner dark shadow. Totality will be achieved by by 9:06pm as the entire Moon is covered by the Earth’s shadow.

The eclipse will reach its zenith at 9:31pm, with the Moon starting to move out of shadow at 9:57pm.

The total eclipse will last 51 minutes.

From start to finish, the partial and total eclipse phases will take 3 hours 32 minutes, with the final penumbra ending at 12:30am...

Eclipse location:
From: All About The Total Lunar Eclipse On 10th December, 2011

Monday, December 5, 2011

Riverfront Scammers and the Filipino Blackjack Con

It’s the beginning of the high tourism season in Cambodia. The tourists are back, and so are the scammers that prey on them, especially in tourist zones like the riverfront in Phnom Penh. Actually, the scammers never left, but in my forays up the riverfront these last couple of weeks they seem to be out in numbers and working hard, chasing the fresh crop of newbies in Cambodia. Day before yesterday in front of the Royal Palace I almost got a photo of three different scammers in the same shot, but they saw me raise my camera and scattered.

There are of course the professional beggars that pester tourists as they try to have a meal on the riverfront, but they are more of an annoyance than scammer. There are also more insidious forms of this, such as the women (and sometime children) that carry around rented and drugged infants as sympathy props and child beggars that have been put on the street to work. All this is fairly well known.

Then there are the foreign scammers. ‘Wild Turkey Man’ (a.k.a. the Australian beggar) is probably the best known and longest ‘working’ of the group. He and at least one or two other foreigners are running the same scam on the riverfront, a rather old one in fact, often used on the traveler’s trail. He approaches you and spins a tale about how he’s a tourist who has lost or had his passport and money stolen, the embassy requires him to pay for a new one, or is making him wait, leaving him penniless and on the street, or he needs a bus ticket to Siem Reap to pick it up, etc., etc. The tale ends predictably, with a plea for financial help, “just a dollar, maybe a few…” Leaving aside issues of honesty and such, the biggest problem I have with these sorts of foreign ne’er-do-wells is that while they are scamming tourists for beer money they are also competing with poverty-stricken third-worlders for the limited pity dollars that flow in the tourist areas.  

But it wasn’t the usual suspects that inspired this post. It was the appearance of a comparatively new and potentially much more dangerous group of tourist scammers in Cambodia – what’s become known as the ‘Filipino Mafia’ or ‘Filipino Blackjack Con.’ One of these guys tried to work me the other day in front of the National Museum, and it wasn’t an hour later that a tuk-tuk driver was complaining to me (unprompted) that a tourist couple he had been ferrying around had to cut their Cambodia holiday short for having fallen prey to “Filipino sharks.” He claims that there are several of these scammers working in Phnom Penh and that he and other tuk-tuks have complained to the police, who have as yet done nothing about it.

The Filipino scammers have been running this con for years in Vietnam and their doings in Ho Chi Minh City have been well documented by Adam Bray on his website Fish Egg Tree. Even the well-experienced Vagabond Traveler was taken for a ride by these guys in Saigon.

I first noticed them here in Phnom Penh about a year ago. While walking past the Royal Palace I was approached by a friendly Asian couple – a man in his 50s and a woman in her 30s in casual dress. They began by complimenting my hat and asked where I got it. This led to more friendly conversation, and more praise and interest in my knowledge, appearance and country. They claimed to be Malaysians living in Australia. When they found out that I was a long-term expat they ended the conversation politely but quickly. I was immediately suspicious. It may sound cynical, but while somebody may stop to ask directions or perhaps try to sell you something, nobody starts extended conversations with passing strangers for no particular reason. I didn’t know what the game was at the time, but something was definitely fishy.

Three weeks later the same couple approached me in the same spot in almost the same way, but this time it was my beard they liked. They had forgotten me from before. They claimed to be half-Khmer/half-Malaysian visiting family in Cambodia. Again, they showed glowing interest in my country, my travels, my family and my experiences as a tourist in Cambodia. All 'feel good' stuff, appealing to my vanity and sense of openness as a traveler. Again, they ended the conversation when they learned I was a long-termer. I still didn’t know what they were up to but it was clearly no-good. I saw them a few times after that, walking the same area, but they didn’t approach me again.

It was shortly thereafter I learned about the ‘Filipino Blackjack scam’ being run in Saigon and heard that the same scammers had been seen in Phnom Penh. I put 2 and 2 together.

About a month ago in front of the National Museum here in Phnom Penh another couple approached me in the same way – different people, same general description, same sort of conversation except this time they started by complimenting me on my handsome backpack. Like the others, they spoke English well and with a non-Khmer accent. Unlike previous encounters, I changed my story and said I was a tourist. The conversation ran much longer. They expressed great interest in learning more about my country and invited me to join them for an authentic Khmer meal, a cultural exchange of sorts. I already knew enough, begged off and walked away. Whatever was to happen next, it was going to be some sort of an attempt to lead me into a situation over which I had no control and then separate me from my money.

Over the last month I have spotted the male half of the couple several times working tourists on the Sothearos Blvd sidewalk in front of the National Museum in Phnom Penh. Twice in the last two weeks, apparently forgetting that they have already done this to me several times, he approached me with the same lame sort of compliment/question they use every time. Day before yesterday it was my sunglasses he liked. “Very nice sunglasses. Did you buy those here?…”

They have been seen in several places in Phnom Penh including other parts of the riverfront, at Sorya Mall, in the park next to Wat Botom and in front of the Central Market (Phsar Thmey.) There are also recent reports that they are working in Siem Reap as well.

No need to detail the rest of their scam – how they manipulate you into a compromised situation, how you get into a card game you never thought you’d enter, how you lose money you never thought you’d bet, how it can amount to hundreds or even thousands of dollars, how they pressure, threaten, even drug you afterwards. They are slick and they are professionals and if you start to walk down the rosy path with them, they will get you there. The details of the scam have already been well covered by Fish Egg Tree and Vagabond Traveler.

You only need to know that THE FILIPINO SCAMMERS ARE HERE IN CAMBODIA, that they are targeting tourists, and to follow the advice that your Mom gave you when you were young...

BEWARE of friendly strangers.