The Moped Diaries with S Sorrensen
Chapter five: Phnom Penh, Cambodia:
After poking around the far north on little bikes it's great to be back in the capital.
Phnom Penh lives on its streets. I'm walking down 137th Street towards dinner; towards a Khmer place I know that serves an excellent chilli crab. (It also does fried frog on a stick, which goes well with the coldish Angkor beer they serve.)
The city is buzzing in the evening cool.
A cloud of marijuana smoke drifts onto the street. It comes from a table of tourists outside a little bar where cold beer and joints are specialities of the house. The group has beatific smiles and munches enthusiastically on the complimentary sugared and salted peanuts that always come with drinks in Cambodia.
Next door is - surprise surprise - another bar. This one has a giggle of girls draped over cane chairs on the footpath. They all wear stilettos and red T-shirts embroidered with the bar's name. They seem very friendly. This is one of the many girlie bars around here. These beautiful young women are traded like beer and joints to satisfy the lonely and sometimes sadistic cravings of tourists and businessmen.
"Hello," they chorus, noting with an expert eye that I'm single (no ring on my finger, no girl on my arm) and I'm rich (westerner).
"Hi girls," I smile back at them.
A huge (no, fat) white bloke with a crew-cut and Tiger beer singlet waddles over to them. Grim-faced, he chooses a girl and pulls her into the bar. Obviously he's in the mood to buy a girl a drink.
I pass the motorbike rental shop.
Mr Lee, with whom I've had some dealings, is sitting on one of his rental motorbikes on the footpath smoking a cigarette. The Khmer have an intrinsic and deep connection with motorbikes. They can sit or sleep on a 110cc Daelim step-through as comfortably as I can pass out on a bar stool. Dressed in a white singlet, black trousers and thongs, he's enjoying the evening bustle, adding the smell of a Marlboro to the aromatic mix that the night breeze wafting from the nearby Tonle Sap river already carries.
"Hello Mr Lee," I say.
"Ah, hello sir."
Yep, I like this town, despite the rampant corruption - a governmental corruption that can see the town's ancient central lake sold to a Korean company which has drained it for property development; and a social corruption that sees mothers with babies begging in a street where very expensive hotted-up Hummers idle. Phnom Penh is not a moral town by any means, but it's alive. It hisses with energy.
A tuk tuk driver veers in close to me, cutting off three women on a motorcycle. The women are dressed to the nines. The three beauties on the motorcycle swerve expertly away with neither an eyebrow raised, nor mobile dropped.
"No no", I say.
I'm enjoying the walk.
As Lismore thinks about its future as a city, Phnom Penh demonstrates the secret of all vibrant cities - people live in the CBD. Above the shops and bars of this street is where people live. Working parents, youngsters, grandmothers and babies - they live on these streets. At night the town is not deserted. I feel safer walking through Phnom Penh at two in the morning than through Lismore CBD after ten.
Later, I might take one last ride on my motorcycle through this town. Once more down Sisowath Quay with its flashing neon and drunken tourists. Once more through the strip here, smelling the ganja, waving to the girls and dodging tuk tuks.
One last night ride in Cambodia. Then to Burma.
But first, chilli crab.