Phnom Penh Flipside

June 5th, 2008

Some of the people who read the NOOKS AND GRANNIES post seemed disappointed that the Phnom Penh it depicted wasn’t more, well, third-world. To make those folks feel better, here’s another look.

Let’s start with my apartment.

This is the alley one walks down to get to my apartment.

What you don’t see any of is lights. It took me some time to learn to enter it around 11 PM without my pulse rate tripling. Now, however, I know every family in the place, and it’s no longer an ordeal that produces interesting adrenaline spikes. After you feel your way all the way down the alley in the dark, you reach:

My door.

Note the curb appeal. Yes, it’s solid steel and yes, it triple-locks. The appeal is directed to anyone who might decide to try to get through the door illicitly in order to relieve me of any of my possessions, and it can be summarized in five words: Don’t even think about it. Inside the door, a flight of stairs leads to my apartment itself, which has a door just like this one except that there’s steel mesh behind the bars and glass behind the steel mesh and a hideous, vaguely African, fabric behind the glass. The door leads directly into:

My kitchen.

I think “functional” is the best word, although you might modify it by preceding it with “more or less.” The little refrigerator comes up to my elbows and holds less than the average body pore, and freezes most of that solid. The most important thing in the kitchen is the coffee maker on top of the refrigerator. It’s almost the only thing I use. The little two-burner gas hotplate is hooked up to a bright red propane tank out of sight behind the refrigerator, which I think of as my personal bomb. The gas cooker has a wonderful brand name:

Yes, that says “Endurable Collection.” I think it’s perfect. They could have said “durable” or “enduring,” or even “endearing,” but they chose “Endurable,” which is exactly accurate. It’s an appliance you can learn to endure, at least on a good day. The kitchen is at the back of the apartment (or the front, since it’s where the door is) and outside of the air conditioned area because Southeast Asians can’t think of any good reason to have an air conditioner and a stove running in the same room, which I think is quite sane.

As dire as these pictures are, the apartment is actually quite nice — a balcony overlooking the river, a big living room with the bookcases and work area I showed you in “Nooks and Grannies,” a bedroom with its own separate air conditioner, and two big bathrooms that work just fine, thanks. When I get tired of the apartment, I can always visit:

The house next door.

Honest. This wonderful, if derelict, colonial mansion, built around 1910, is widely believed to be haunted (no kidding) and has been empty, off and on, since the Khmer Rouge were in power. When I first moved here, I could have bought it for $240,000 and didn’t. A month ago, the FCC, which is right behind it, bought it for US $2.2 million and plan to put another $2 million into renovating it into a very exclusive small hotel. Don’t know what they’re going to do about the ghosts.

In case all this looks too grim, we’re directly across the street from:

The National Museum.

And right down the street (actually, next door to the Museum) is the Royal Palace, where King Norodom Sihomoni lives. So it’s a tony area, actually. And it’s full of:

Monks with Umbrellas.

And, of course, bubble tea.

22 Responses to “Phnom Penh Flipside”

  1. fairyhedgehog Says:

    What wonderful pictures! I don’t think I would stop having adrenaline spikes in your alley even if I did know all the neighbours. Dark little back alleys always make my heart race.

  2. suzanna Says:

    Hi, TIm

    The photos of your neighborhood haunted mansion, alleyway and doorway does make your home away from home look a little dicey but I’m glad you feel safe there.

    The “Endurable Collection Suit Your Kitchen” stove label is hilarious. If you only have to endure the tiny frozen solid ice box, making coffee, and hoping your “personal bomb” doesn’t explode that’s not so bad.

    Great color, light and composition on your monk photo by the way.

    How’s your writing going? Are you coming back to the U.S. soon? When does your book hit the bookstores?


  3. Andrea Mitchell Says:

    Wow! Thank you for this, how interesting.

    I miss living in the third world … well, sometimes. Where I live now in New Zealand is very pretty-pretty, with lots of old wooden villas and gardens full of flowers, and I miss the heat and harshness of Zimbabwe. Well, I miss a lot of things about it.

    (Am very grateful to be living here, though!)

  4. Lisa Kenney Says:

    Ah! That’s more like where we’ve been picturing you. I especially like the monks with umbrellas. What’s bubble tea?

  5. RJ Baliza Says:

    uh…hi tim.

    nice neighborhood.
    i was wondering. have you heard anything about the ghosts next door? or perhaps, you’ve heard them…

  6. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Boy, you guys checked in fast.

    Like most third-world cities, how Phnom Penh looks depends on which way you point the camera. I actually live in one of the most expensive areas of the city, at the edge of the Mekong, and probably within 3-4 years everything that looks a little dodgy will have been torn down and replaced with quaint little silk shops and American coffee chains. I like it the way it is. But if you turn away from my apartment, you’re looking at the Museum and Royal Palace in one direction, the very fancy (in places) riverside in another direction, and in a third direction is Hun Sen Park, which is a beautiful family playground in the daytime and a haunt for skeletal hookers at night. My driver goes past Hun Sen Park VERY fast after ten PM.

    Fairyhedgehog, it’s amazing what I’ve gotten used to in 25 years or so in Southeast Asia. And I’ve only felt physically threatened twice, and both times it was by ghosts, which I wrote about in another blog. (Also, see below.) I do the alley now without even thinking about it.

    Suzanna, thanks for the nice words about the pictures. I actually took the monks from a moving car and cropped to make it look like anything. I like “Endurable” too — more brand names should be so truthful. I’ve quit writing the book for now — I’ve had an unprecedented four days off — because it was either that or have a nervous breakdown. But what I’ve got is terrific, and I’ll probably pick it up again in a day or two. And I’ll be back in the States at the end of June and in San Mateo on Thursday, July 17. Maybe we can meet.

    Andrea – do you blog about Zimbabwe? I’d love to read it when I’m back in the States and working on a connection that’s faster than crystal growth. I’ve only ever been to South Africa, and that was on a television shoot, so I saw practically nothing, although I got to share an insect-infested hut for one densely populated night with Alan Alda, who made the entire experience hilarious.

    Lisa — What do you MEAN, that’s where you’ve been picturing me? Is that the image I give off? And for all you could ever want to know (and more) about bubble tea, check the end of the comments to NOOKS AND GRANNIES.

    RJ — I haven’t heard or felt anything from the ghosts in the house, but I haven’t gone in at night, either. Before the FCC bought it, the Palace guards from across the street sometimes slept there, just on wooden platforms raised above the bare floors. The two ghosts they and their wives talked about were a soldier with his throat cut and a woman in her mid-thirties, dressed in country farmer clothes, who looked normal until she opened her mouth, which was a black hole — no teeth, no tongue — and which she could make very large indeed. The soldier was on the first floor only, but the woman, who was the one they were most afraid of, could apparently go anywhere in the house and was most often seen on the various stairways.

    But I haven’t experienced anything directly, unlike in Thailand and Bali.

  7. suzanna Says:


    Looking forward to the 17th!


  8. Andrea Mitchell Says:

    Hi Tim

    I do blog about Zimbabwe from time to time … the book I’m writing this year is about growing up there post-Independence, which has forced me to revisit the years I grew up there. When we first moved to NZ in 2002 I pushed it out of my mind, but now (six years later! can’t believe it) I’m trying to remember and recapture it all.

    So envious that you’ve met Alan Alda 🙂

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Andrea, isn’t it amazing how experiences that seemed like nightmares at the time gradually accumulate a kind of glow until we find ourselves nostalgic for them? I mean, think of high school.

    How did you wind up in Zimbabwe?

  10. Larissa Says:

    That looks more like what I was imagining when I hear the name “Cambodia”. Anyway…thanks for the post. The alley way looks so…homey…but glad to hear it doesn’t give you any problems. What happened in Thailand and Bali? Do those stories ever get put into your books?

    While I’m still waiting for the afterglow of high school I wholeheartedly agree that Endurable is probably one of the best product names out there. I did see a store called “Bushdoctor” in Budapest which made me laugh for various reasons-not quite a brand name but entirely straightforward.

    Enjoy your 4 days off. Nervous breakdowns are messy. (c:

  11. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Larissa — As I said, it really depends on which way you look, although less and less of the city looks like my alley every month. I’m afraid gentrification is in the cards, especially in my neighborhood.

    I had two extremely unpleasant encounters with ghosts (or something) in Thailand and Bali, which are recounted in earlier blogs. If you’re in the mood for ghost stories, they’re here
    and here.

  12. Andrea Mitchell Says:

    Hi Tim

    I’m second-generation Zimbabwean 🙂 My grandfather was involved in all kinds of hush-hush things for the British government in Zimbabwe. He also worked in the British South Africa Police force there. I was born in England simply because my Mum happened to be visiting there, but I lived my whole life in Zim until I was 17. Most of my time there was definitely deserving of nostalgia – it’s only the last couple of years that were horrific.

  13. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    On the topic of the true Thai ghost story I posted here, a Thai named Elizabeth wrote the following, which I received today:

    I am from Thailand and I do know the hotel he had stayed at but I have never been there of course there are ghosts in Thailand my house in Thailand are surrounded by temples and ghosts like to hang around the temples mostly at night in my little village in Bangkok you can here most of the dogs howling and yelping then hear something running around great little story though.

    I’ve heard some other ghost stories, set in Phnom Penh, recently. May post a few.

  14. Lisa Kenney Says:

    Gosh, I hope I didn’t give you the wrong impression about where I’ve been picturing you! I’m thinking about the beautiful old hotel, the museum, the monks and yes, the narrow alleyways and metal doors that look exactly as you’ve described them in the Poke Rafferty books. They, like the Foreign Correspondents Club fit more into my vision of Cambodia than the modern coffee shops do. The “Endurable” appliances add more to the charm that is how I’ve heard you describe the sometimes interesting translations into English from eastern languages.

  15. Sylvia Says:

    Perhaps writing ghost stories would make for a good diversion from your book issue whilst keeping you writing?

  16. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Lisa — Aaahhh, I’m just giving you a bad time. PP is a third-world city that’s currently experiencing a landslide of capital, mostly from the Chinese and the South Koreans, and it’s renovating so fast that maps are out of date six months after they were published.

    Sylvia, I don’t know whether I could actually make up a ghost story. I’ve only written two, and they were both nonfiction. But some kind of diversion is definitely needed.

  17. Peter Says:

    Phnom Penh is insufficiently Third World; Bangkok drinks too much Nescafé. I’ve spent most of my time in the First World, but when visiting Hong Kong, I was naturally struck by the contrast between narrow steets of teahouses and chop stalls on the one hand, and my cousin’s cool, airy, thoroughly modern apartment on the other. Perhaps it is geographically significant that the former were on the side of the island that faced the mainland, the latter on the side that faced away from it.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

  18. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Peter, and welcome —

    Phnom Penh didn’t USED to be insufficiently Third World, but money is currently being spread a foot deep everywhere (mostly from the Chinese, who have eyes on the possibly enormous oil deposits), and the city is rising toward Second-World status fast enough to make one’s ears pop.

    And I don’t know how long since you visited Mainland China, but there are now First World cities of 2-3 million where, ten years ago, there were rice paddies.

    By the way, for those of you who don’t know Peter’s site, it’s well worth spending time on.

  19. Eric Says:

    I’ve spent a great deal of time in SEA as well. There is a fine balance in talking about the 3rd world without sounding like one is “posturing” or romanticizing that which , in the end, simply has a lot of people living barely scraping by for food and shelter.

    But if you’re living there, Timothy, then I don’t think there’s anything “romanticizing” about in providing a good or bad opinion of money and foreigners coming into what was a deprived country.

    Cheers, Eric

    Border Crossings- SE Asia Travelogue
    -Including Cambodia

  20. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Eric —

    What a surprise to get a response to this blog after all this time. As you know, since you’ve spent time in Cambodia, it’s still a deprived country, unless you’re a member of the top one-half of one percent, who own everything and who are busy stuffing their pockets with all the money that comes in from China and elsewhere. By the way your site (you can all get there by clicking on Eric’s name above) is sensational and very beautiful.

  21. Eric Says:

    Thank you for the compliment. I’ve just sat down to read “A Nail Through the Heart” and I’m hooked in after 50 pages.

    You’re living the dream that I’ve always wanted, tried once and failed, and may be over-romanticized: living in a SE Asian country and also being able to work there.

    I tried to do that with a Website design company that did projects for American companies, but ended up closing it. For that brief 3 year period I did get to live in SEA half the year and it was an unforgettable memory.

    The adventurous pull of living in a far off SE Country will tug on my strings for the rest of my life. It is not, however, an attraction grounded in entirely in reality. I find when things are most difficult at “home,” the grass always looks greener in Philippines, Thailand or Cambodia.

    I hope you will continue to set novels in SE countries! There is so little written, fiction and non fiction, about these countries, and they have so much to teach us.


  22. Michael Says:


    Interesting stuff.

    I live in Phnom Penh. Been here a little over 2 1/2 yrs now. Lots of history & spooky goings on around here. My wife’s Cambodian and she’s told me that she knows people back in her province who are convinced that they’ve seen a Kamote – this is a ghost/witch, the worst version of which is a head that detaches itself from its body. The head, entrails dripping gore beneath it, then flies off into the night looking for victims. I guess this would be similar to the Thai hungry ghost.

    The local press regularly has stories of villagers killing suspected sorcerers for bewitching them. One favoured method of despatching a sorcerer is to drown him/her.

    Here’s a strange little tale. For part of my work I deal with prisoners. Sometimes prisoners are moved into the prison wing at Monivong Hospital. This is on St 63 just down from the Soriya Centre. A prison charity paid to have the plumbing fixed and give the prisoners running water. They discovered what the blockage was stopping the water flow – the well was stuffed with the skeletal remains of victims of the Khmer Rouge. This was only discovered in 2007, right in the centre of the capital. It’s no wonder why so much of this city is considered haunted.



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