I finally arrived at the main road transit depot of Cambodian capital Phnom Penh two days after I’d set out from Bangkok under the impression that it would be a good idea to get the bus rather than a plane. After diving through an excitable congregation of taxi drivers who looked set to batter each other over a customer, I climbed into the back of a spluttering three-wheeler manned by a friendly Khmer who introduced himself as Sonny, and headed off towards my hotel. As it turned out, Sonny was either unwilling or unable to take me to my desired choice of accommodation. He cheerfully waved away my protestations telling me he knew a better place anyway. “I take you Angkor International Hotel!” he roared enthusiastically over the din of the evening traffic and his own chugging motor. The Angkor International Hotel, I thought. Sounds like it might be alright. In fairness, it didn’t look too bad when I got there and when I was told the room rate was a mere $15 I decided to skip the hassle of searching for somewhere else.
One of the first things to trigger surprise among foreigners new to Cambodia comes when they try to pay for their first taxi and the driver refuses to accept. What appears to be a token of good will, albeit an incongruent one when looked at in the context of the crippling poverty and ludicrous competition among the hoards of taxi drivers standing at every corner, eventually reveals itself as salesmanship when you wander out of your hotel three hours later to discover your driver, armed with a winning smile, waiting for you. And he is your driver now – and as such you shall be paying him a daily rate. Travellers tend to instinctually shun any tagger-on of this kind, but it actually proves far cheaper than hoping in and out of a variety of taxis while you make your way about town. It also gives you the chance to get to know someone from the country you’re visiting; and so it proved with Sonny.
A cursory examination of my room at the Angkor International revealed a basic, slightly shabby offering not substantially different from any other of a million hotels around Southeast Asia. What did stand out though, were some of the hotel rules mentioned in a laminated card pinned to the inside of the door. I’d noticed something similar in the first Cambodian establishment I stayed in, namely, a card which indicated by means of a colourful illustration that no smoking, intravenous drugs or hand grenades were allowed; but this went one better. Among ‘Check out time is 12.30’ and ‘no additional guests permitted in rooms after 11pm’ was rule number five (and I’m serious, this is actually true) which read, ‘All firearms and explosives must be stored in the safe deposit box at reception’. You have a gun, eh? You’re carrying explosives? No problem – just check them in.
My first night in Phnom Penh involved myself and Sonny nipping around the city’s dusty streets as they fell into the all-encompassing darkness permitted by the absence of street lights, and flying up the tourist strip which banked onto a swollen Mekong River. I was sickeningly tired from the journey from Bangkok, and was only faintly aware of the thunderous rain laying waste to the city outside as I drifted off back in the hotel. I got up early the next morning, all set to get my mission to write an article about the prevalence of firearms in Cambodia underway, and wandered downstairs to grab some breakfast ahead of Sonny’s appointed arrival. The lift wasn’t working so I trotted down the stairs to the lobby. When I got there I discovered the Angkor International Hotel’s fatal flaw – it was completely flooded.
A foot of tan-brown water was spilling through the door from the road outside and lapping up against the reception desk. I hunkered down and could see from my vantage point on the bottom flight of stairs, that the entire street outside was equally deluged. It was a surreal sight and I fully expected such a striking occurrence, i.e. swathes of a central district in a capital city being entirely underwater, to be making the news all over the world. As I started to take in the reaction of the Khmers however, it became apparent that we might not have been dealing with something all that out of the ordinary. “Morning Sir!” chirped a smiling staff member in a camp red bellboy outfit as if nothing biblical was happening outside.
Between staff members in the lobby, a congregation of touts peering in from the doorway and normal punters wading their way past the hotel, there were at least a dozen Khmers in sight – and none of them looked in any way bothered. So, suitably assured that we were not about to be washed down the Mekong into the South China Sea, I whipped off my flip-flops and jumped in.