Same same, but different

A popular saying here in South East Asia, same same, but different is the perfect phrase to sum up my experiences this past week.   My work took me away from my sleepy existence by the river to indulge in the bright lights, big city of Phnom Penh, once my home but now in the main just a place that I talk to people about whilst swinging in hammocks or sitting in cafes playing at life.


I usually get the Kampot Express bus when I go to the city, paying the princely sum of $6 to be crammed in to a minibus with minimal legroom and over the course of 3.5 hours get cramp in my legs and shooting pains in my back as I’m thrown about like a rag doll thanks to  the driver careering down highway No.3 at warp speed swerving in and out of the traffic like a lunatic and banging his hand on the horn like his life depends on it.


This time however, I discovered that my friends Leo & Gina were travelling to PP on the same day as me on the much more luxurious (you can move your legs, charge up your electronics and even get a complimentary bottle of water, Danish pastry & smelly wet wipe thingy) Giant Ibis and so I decided to push the boat out and join them, paying $9 for the privilege.  To be fair there was still a hell of a lot of horn blowing but the pace of driving was sedate and the overtaking smooth and measured.   So much so in fact that I actually felt confident looking out of the front window for the majority of the journey rather than fixing my glare to one side to avoid seeing how close to death I was coming at any given point.  And in doing so I was lucky to witness a first for me in Cambodia – a school crossing patrol.  We had ground to a halt and I looked up to see two small kids wheeling big stop barriers into the middle of the road.  A stream of kids proceeded to trot across as the traffic sat patiently waiting on either side of the barriers.  This is no mean feat in a nation where a group of policemen shouting and frantically blowing whistles at a crossroads with traffic light fail to achieve the same.  Once all the kids had safely crossed, the mini lollipop men carefully wheeled their barriers, which were taller than them by the way, back to their parking spot and the traffic moved on.


Not the best shot as it was taken through the front windscreen but you can see the miracle that is stopped traffic!

Sophat picked me up from the bus station and in a fit of ‘same same’ proceeded to regularly turn away from looking where he was going to regale me with tales of how much things cost – apparently the new condos at the Olympic Stadium (which is moving to a new location at extortionate cost!) are being marketed for rent for the obscene price of $2000 per month.  There was a little bit of ‘but different’ though in that Sophat announced that he’s going to be a dad – his lovely wife is due to have a little girl (which I demanded he call Sara) in January of next year.  The grin on his face when he told me this was bright enough to light up the whole city and brought a little tear to my eye as I know how long they’ve been trying to have a child.


My main reason for the trip to Phnom Penh was to deliver a workshop for a group of Cambodians.   Thankfully, in a huge change from my previous Phnom Penh workshop experiences within the Ministry of Fish I was blessed with a group of motivated, energetic and enthused participants who were, in the main, eager to learn rather than just being there for the monetary gain of a daily subsistence allowance paid for attendance.  Although there were no painful opening and closing speeches to endure, everyone was of course late despite many of them having arrived at the venue and reserved their preferred seat notebooks, glasses cases, a handbag and in one case a huge bag of bananas before I’d even got there to set up and the painful group photo experience did occur (twice, due to poor location choice on the first attempt). I also experienced the most prolific selfie taking behaviour I have ever known during a workshop – every time I turned around I was either part of or witness to another selfie being taken (I put it down to a large number of the participants being from a mobile phone company) but other than that the phone related activity was thankfully less prolific (in the morning at least) than has previously been my experience.


As usual the group contained a class clown who, when the group were reticent to consider stories of themselves and/or colleagues living the corporate values proceeded to regale us with a ‘hilarious’ hotel/prostitute/condom based tale complete with a hint of casual racism thrown in.   Cringe worthy in the extreme as it was I gave myself a huge pat on the back as, In a fit of genius, I managed to demonstrate a way in which his story linked to the values work we were doing, putting coco the clown firmly in his place and getting the workshop back on track #winning!


Visits to Phnom Penh always involve meeting up with friends who live and work in the city.  Phirum and I caught up on Tuesday and as usual we talked all things life, family and work whilst giggling a lot.  She reminded me that this time last year we were also together, but that time in Battambang with my & her family, celebrating Water Festival together.


Post workshop on Wednesday was the time to meet the lovely Serena from VSO.  It was with Serena that I had a very strange massage experience a while back and also went to a spa place where we were the only women amongst a number of Cambodian men drinking beer and watching sport whilst we tried to relax in the Jacuzzi.  What’s more, my other Phnom Penh based spa activity was with the lovely Kheang and Phirum and involved mixing up and then  smearing our bodies with sour milk, tamarind, lime and other bizarre foodstuffs.  So, when she suggested we go to a spa to use the steam room and Jacuzzi I was slightly trepidatious.  I needn’t have worried however, as the spa we were going to this time was in one of the most beautiful hotels in Phnom Penh – The Plantation.  OMG!  What followed was 2 hours of absolute bliss in our own private Jacuzzi, steam and sauna and as an added bonus, Serena announced that we got a huge discount thanks to her knowing the manager #winningagain.

I stayed in my usual hotel and was greeted like an old friend by the manager and staff – even the new ones that I’d never met before seemed to know who I was, hopefully an indication of how much I’m liked rather than infamy – at least that’s what I tell myself!!!


On first glance the streets around were familiar, but as I wandered I noticed how much had changed, new restaurants and shops had popped up, buildings had been demolished and one notable one had appeared housing a brand new Starbucks which was due to open today – bleurgh!  Further afield in the Russian Market the changes to the landscape were even more marked, what was already a vibrant area of the city sported so many new bars and restaurants I lost count and huge blocks of shiny new apartments had sprung up from god know where.  Some things hadn’t changed though.  A walk through the Russian Market itself solicited the same endless offers of t-shirts and other tourist tat from every single stall holder, despite them having heard me say no to their neighbour and  as I wandered the streets every single tuktuk driver, stationary or on the move, offered me his services.


And on the subject of tuktuks, wow what a change.  Post spa chillout on Wednesday, Serena and I were heading near to her home to eat (and enjoy a lovely large chilled glass of Sangiovese in my case) so she did no more than pulled out her phone and summoned a tuktuk via an app – how very 21st century eh!?!  The regular ‘you want tuktuk?’ guys watched in dismay as we tracked our drivers arrival via the app and once he arrived (in one of those little comedy Indian style tuktuks) there was no negotiating to be done as the prices are fixed and shown on the app!  And even better than that, it was bloody cheap – less than $1, which during my time in the big smoke was an impossible dream of a tuktuk fee, you were lucky if some of them would stoop to accepting $2.


Popping to the shops to grab some supplies before heading back to Kampot I was greeted with one more element of same same, and one that I particularly love – the random bonkersness that is Phnom Penh.  On route to the shop I witnessed a woman transporting a huge (and hideous) picture on the back of a motorbike and a tuktuk piled high with watermelons that on further examination also contained a woman lying in a hammock strung so high her stomach was touching the roof.


And then once in the shop I turned a corner to be greeted by another example of the ‘same same’ which is Phnom Penh madness, this time in the form of the ‘but different’ never seen before (and if I’m honest never seeing it again will be no loss) Gorilla Snot Gel!


Definitely time to go home!

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