Burnt to the ground in 1772 by the invading armies of the Thai, resurrected by the French and once again abandoned in the 1970s by the Khmer Rouge, Phnom Penh is transformed by the light. Daytime reveals a dusty city, all the glamours of the night are laid bare by the flat uncompromising sunlight of the equator. Since the 1400s, it has sprawled along the banks of the Mekong, Tonle Sap lake and the Bassarac in its various incarnations.
On the Balconitel skydeck we have breakfast and plan the day. The to-do list is as follows: Find ATM. Find place to rent dirt bike. Find market, find shoes. Relatively straightforward until we realise that not all ATMs accept all cards. Some are made for local use only, others look far too impromptu to be a wise choice. Eventually we find a suitable one in a large service station. Banks and most shops deal in a mixture of Riel and US dollars but ATM card or credit cards may not work everywhere.
At the first location, where we presumed we might rent a bike, the owner informs us that he no longer deals with dirt bikes on account of the condition in which they are frequently returned. He boldly includes us in the category of “You people”. It’s a needless insult, serves as a reminder that visitors tend to fall into that loud, brash category known derisively as “You people.”
He points us towards a few alternative locations. There is no trace of the second dirt bike shop. We stop at a small bar. The courtyard is slightly dishevelled, colorfully painted in primary colours, and stacked with disused oil drums. I’m fondly reminded of sesame street. We push off through a confusion of street numbers that follow no discernible pattern to the third bike shop.
Closer to the center of town the mood shifts. Hints of Cambodias darker underbelly surface in the guise of GRO bars, women a little too well dressed for the sidewalk on a hot afternoon, and casual combinations of local women and foreign men arranged around beer towers and tables. It seems that this country still exists in the minds of many as a place of agreable abandon. In need of a bathroom break I wander into a cafe bar: The Black Cat. The names speaks volumes.
We select a bike and I hand over my passport as a security deposit. Now carrying a spare tyre tube, a spark plug and a rescue ticket we head home. It is too late for the market today. Shoes will have to wait.
Our second night in the city is a happy accident of fireworks. Over a sprawling city, on the other side of the Mekong, the sky pulsates. A micro galaxy of comets, red Dahlias, golden peonies, scrambling green starbursts gently explode. Each sparkling eruption glides about 200 feet into the air before breaking into a full half hour of sky tinsel to celebrate the Queens birthday. From the Sky Deck Bar at the Baconitel Boutique Hotel with whiskey sours in hand, we watch.