RECENTLY, two Danish television journalists spent three months in Phnom Penh making
a report on an original subject. The two men spent their time getting in touch with
the "marginal" foreign population living in the city.
They recorded more than 30 hours of interviews, following a flotsam of expatriates
during the day and into the night. The documentary doesn't yet have a title, but
"Phnom Penh: The End of the Trip" might be one.
"I came to Phnom Penh last year for holidays and I really was surprised to meet
so many strange people, living in a crazy way, losing everything and living completely
out of reality. So I decided to come back and to follow them with my camera,"
explained Stephan, the cameraman.
The people they recorded were from many nationalities and between 20 to 60 years
One, the youngest, only knew his way to the Russian market where he used to go to
buy ganja to smoke on the rooftop of his guesthouse near the lake.
Another, from Turkey, was one of the most frequent guests that many Phnom Penh brothels
have had. He was interviewed earnestly discussing how he had to make love twice a
day, sometimes more, and why he never used a condom with prostitutes.
Yet another, who teaches English during the week, spent all his money and time during
the weekend at the shooting range near the airport, firing an AK47 at paper targets.
"This guy was really funny. He told me one day while I was filming: 'a good
ham sandwich, a cold beer and a gun, that's the only thing I need'," Stephan
According to Wido, Stephan's partner, this population was quite normal in Phnom Penh.
"Drugs, girls and a feeling of total freedom are the usual thing in southeast
Asia. It is common that some people, especially those who have personal problems
at home, lose their minds with the apparent simplicity of living in Asia".
According to the two journalists, Phnom Penh has a special attraction for many foreigners
who want live in Asia, but in no one country in particular.
They say fringe tourists don't go in Thailand because it is too popular, nor Vietnam
because there is too much trouble with the administration and to get a visa, nor
yet to Burma.
They hear about Phnom Penh, a town where ganja is not against the law and where the
taxi-girls are common and cheap, they said.
"When we went to a well-known backpacker's restaurant in the city center, we
met an amazing number of people who just arrived in Phnom Penh and asked us where
they could find a job," Stephan said.
Usually, they just wander into NGO offices. Dr. Daniel Philippides from the French
Red Cross said he received between four to six people every month asking for a job.
"Most of the time they don't have any qualifications or diplomas, but they want
a job with a good salary. I try to explain to them that its as hard to find a good
job here as anywhere in the world. If you can't work in your own country, just because
you are in a developing country nothing will change," he said.
Every NGO boss says about the same thing. One, who asked not to be named, said: "When
someone without any experience asks me for a job, I show him a cyclo in the street
and explain how in this job it is hard to earn 5,000 riel a day. Most foreigners
who come couldn't even ride a cyclo. Phnom Penh is becoming a dreamland. But the
dream never existed."
The Danish journalists spent a long time following a young girl from the Czech Republic.
"She arrived from the Philippines where she told us she had been in jail over
a visa problem. She was really broke and hadn't enough to pay for a room in a guesthouse.
"We gave her a few dollars and she found a job as an English teacher in a private
school. The salary was just enough to cover living expenses but she hadn't a flight
back to Europe.
"So she began sleeping with foreigners for 20 dollars an hour. She was a really
pretty girl and a guy fell in love with her. She was lucky because he paid to her
the flight ticket to go back home," Stephan said.
Many foreigners survive well enough on the dole or unemployment benefits from their
home countries. It is easy to cheat the system.
One 30-year-old Frenchman had lived here many months on the dole, till French authorities
caught up with him and cancelled the payments.
He tried but couldn't find a job, and began borrowing money from the owners of his
usual restaurant, and later from his hostel. He rented a motorbike without paying
for it, and it was later stolen.
The French Embassy eventually bailed him out, contacting his brother in France, paying
$700 to the motorbike rental shop, and packing him on a plane home.
"Before leaving, he came to see me," the owner of the rental shop said.
"He asked me for $20. I felt pity for this guy and I gave him the money. As
he left he told me that he wouldn't go back to France but would leave the plane in
Bangkok. I am afraid for his future."
Wido said that "for many backpackers, Cambodia is a dream.
"It's a dream of an easy life with easy drugs and easy girls. A life out of
reality. But the reality is not like a great movie about Indochina.
"At the very least, the Asian sunlight burns the mind of these people... very