Down and Out in Phnom Penh

In the morning I realised my wallet was gone. I searched every pocket, every bag, every corner of the room, tore through every useless page of my guidebook: the wallet had vanished in the night. I sat on the verandah beside the lake, feeling like I'd just swallowed a bucket of its fetid, milky water.
It was so obviously my first trip overseas. In my journal I gushed about how cool Singapore looked from the airport. On the plane I re-read the guidebook I had practically memorised in the months leading up to the trip. But no book can prepare you for Phnom Penh. We arrived at night, falling head-first into the carnival crush of people, animals, bikes. Children played barefoot in the orange dirt; the smell of rotting fruit and cooking fires was impossibly sweet. Though overwhelmed, I still sneered at the backpacker scene at our lakeside guesthouse with its reggae and pizza menus, at the touts whispering, 'you want girl? You want boom-boom? Cheap cheap for you.' I was a 'real' traveller, wanting to see the 'real' Cambodia. I wore naivety like a scarf around my neck.
Was I pick-pocketed, or just an idiot? I certainly was an idiot. All my cards and cash five-hundred dollars were in that wallet. 'A bastard of a beginning,' I scrawled in my journal, though it wasn't the end of the trip. I was travelling with a friend, a quick money transfer to his account and I was saved. But all around Phnom Penh that day, from the Royal Palace to the National Museum, disappointment sat in my stomach, as hollow as a beggar's bowl. I was a failed traveller on my very first day. The silent skulls at the Killing Fields mocked the slightness of my misfortune but the feeling lingered.
Until at a market stall a Cambodian boy approached us, a tray of pirated novels slung across his chest. 'You want buy book, mister? Where you from?'
'Australia,' I sighed.
'Oh, Australia,' he nodded sagely: 'Opera House, Grey Ocean Road, capital Cambrra, population twenty-three million.' How many countries could he do that for? 'Twenty-three million, minus one.'
'What do you mean?'
'Because you are here,' he grinned victoriously. 'You buy book.'
'I have no money. Really.'
'Please, mister! Cheap cheap for you.'
I patted my empty pockets. 'See, no wallet.'
The boy nodded sympathetically, 'you so poor, mister.' Then he patted me on the arm, grinned and skipped away. And that did it. By sunset I was back on the guesthouse verandah, an icy bottle of Angkor draught in hand. The red smear of Cambodian sun bled into the lake like an offering. I didn't want to be anywhere else in the world.


To this day I still laugh at my naivety, and I still wonder who picked up my wallet. Perhaps a lucky tout or a fellow traveller. I hope it was a clever child like the bookseller. How far could five-hundred dollars go in Cambodia? Farther for him than for me. Could he have used it to help a sick relative or pay for another year of school? Did my small misfortune transform into some great benefit or am I still a naive traveller after all?

R Whitten

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