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Phnom Penh as Sin City, 1990s style

Phnom Penh as Sin City, 1990s style

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According to Amit Gilboa’s 1997 travelogue, Phnom Penh is the Gomorrah of Southeast Asia: “Cambodia is like you’re always tripping.”

The Kingdom of Wonder’s sinister side sucked Gilboa in. Between 1996 and1997 a quick visa run turned into many long-term stays at the then notorious Majestic Guesthouse.

With a profound interest in the city’s expats and their escapades, Gilboa created an explosive piece of writing. It is a mash-up of personal diary entries, newspaper articles and post-edited anecdotes mostly circling around the Majestic crowd; a bunch of prostitute frequenting, drug-addicted, perverted schoolteachers with a taste for firing AK47s.

Gilboa’s memoir is a time travel into post-war Cambodia, a time when the resulting chaos attracted a host of bizarre characters that never fail to elicit either shock laughter or shivers of disgust.

Events and peoples’ actions are rarely analysed. Fellow Majestic barflies’ exploits of frequenting brothels three times a day, and one man’s penchant for underage girls, seldom warrant explicit judgement from the author.

Crude quotes commenting on human ‘flotsam’ illustrate both Gilboa’s vague detachment from his subjects and the freewheeling expat bubble of the nineties that allowed so many of the city’s foreign community to behave with bacchanalian impunity: “They’ve burnt out so many brain cells and fucked so many fourteen-year-olds, they’ll never be able to go back to the West.”

Despite the fact that most of Gilboa’s adventures revolve around sex and drugs, there are some remarkable insights into Cambodia’s recent history.

Mixing the absurd and the obscure, Gilboa recounts Hun Sen receiving a World Peace Prize by the “Commanding General of World Mongolians” in 1996, shortly before describing his firsthand account of the 1997 coup in which the Prime Minister consolidated his power.

Off the Rails in Phnom Penh is an easy and authentic must-read for adventurers and expats in Cambodia. To some, tales of buying a kilo of ganja in the Central Market for less than the price of a Beer Lao will inspire nostalgia. To others, a reminder that this city is no longer an unbridled playground for entitled westerners.

Off The Rails In Phnom Penh, Asia Books

To contact the reporter: Julius Thiemann at [email protected]

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