Huge contrasts were the first thing that we observed, already when arriving by bus through the outskirts of the city. The newest, most shiny building may sit next to a completely dilapidated wooden hut on stilts in swampy terrain. This characteristic is also true for the city center, where elegant hotels or new government buildings are not far from the thousands of ghastly dwellings on the shores of Lake Boeng Kak or the Tonle Sap River.
This gap is also reflected on the road: you see mostly people on scooters, often 4 of them, but the cars that are clogging the streets are usually huge, expensive SUVs. There are still a lot of cyclos, bicycle taxis maneuvered by very frail looking men. Anyway traffic is mad in this town with vehicles milling in each directions, often the wrong one. The wide pavements of Phnom Penh are used as parking lots. No wonder nobody is walking!
The quay along the river with lots of pricey restaurants is another perfect example to demonstrate this evident disparity. There tourists, N.G.O. personnel and other westerners working in town sample on pizzas for 7 to 10 dollars and drinks for half that price. At the same time, little children try to sell the customers of these restaurants god knows what, crippled people ask for money and fragile, old men without shoes pass by, who make a living by transporting goods on pushcarts.
We made the mistake to eat there on our first evening, because we were craving for a change in our diet. The food was mediocre and expensive and to be permanently approached by vendors, tuk tuk drivers or beggars turned our dinner into an unpleasant affair. It also surprised us that all the N.G.O. workers gathered in this rather expensive bars / restaurants. One would assume that these people would try to funnel money into businesses that need the money, not enterprises owned by foreigners or rich locals.
The other area frequented by western tourists is the lakeside, although only backpackers make their way here. In these narrow, stuffy & clogged streets you find a high concentration of very cheap and often run-down guesthouses, along with the usual infrastructure: Internet cafes, laundry service, traveler information, bars & restaurants and what not…
Some of the guesthouses are built on floats, which at a first look seemed kind of romantic, but when we saw the trash floating by, past the dungeon like rooms, we opted for a place further away. Besides, the thought of what the “mosquito situation” must be like in the evening made us take refuge in the super comfortable Chinese run Pho Paris Hotel, a two minutes walk from the entrance of this “backpacker ghetto”.