Kissing Phenom Penh Good Bye

If I had to point out one thing that I like about myself it would be the fact that I easily forget the bad. My amnesia has erased the painful years when I was the tallest and skinniest human teenager. Gone are childhood traumas, family conflicts, friendship fallouts and days of school misery. I don’t remember any of it.

Hopefully in a few days this amnesia will take care of the first low on our trip: our passports (all six of them!) and all credit cards but one got stolen on the way to the Phenom Penh airport. Crazy, right?! Now, if that happens to any of you (and it won’t because you would have read this post and you will be extra careful) this is what you will most probably experience. First, utter disbelief. Seconds later when you recover, you will scream madly a mumbo jumbo of the words PaSSpoRts! and HeLP! and many unintelligible sounds in between and after.

Useless really. Because the passports will be still gone when you are done screaming. Anyways, the scream is just a way to let out the steam. Your children (if you have any) may or may not join you in the screaming. Raina, who saw what happened, followed suit and gave her best and loudest. Boryan, on the other hand, was watching with a gaping mouth, trying to comprehend what had just happened and why is mom behaving crazy.

Anyways, once you vent out the initial shock you will suddenly feel dizzy and sick because the realization that you are not flying anywhere any time soon will sink in. The mess you have just gotten yourself in will make you wanna throw up. The blaming and the ‘What if’ phase will follow suit not long after… what if we have gotten a car, not a tuk-tuk… what if I was sitting on the other side… what if… the what if combinations can be endless really and can only drive you to insanity.

The self guilt is another dead end road you will start exploring as soon as you get a spare moment… How could I be so dumb and keep the passports dangling on my neck?! Seriously!? The greenest tourist knows that this is a no no. And even though you are not supposed to call yourself names you will. A button with the world ‘stupid’ will keep blinking in your blind vision. Lastly, you will inevitably think: ‘Ok, it happened. Nothing to do about it, but why didn’t this happen in Rome or London or anywhere else but in ______. For us the blank was filled in with Phenom Penh, the Pearl of Asia. Maybe the city was a pearl 50-60 years ago but now it is a very hot, crowded, polluted city with busy streets and facades that spoke of former glory.

Once all the emotions wear out your rational mind will kick in. Forget about the airport. Hello American embassy. We are lucky we all have USA passports. Can’t even imagine dealing with three different embassies! The guard at the embassy told us that we need to file a report with the local police. Boryan and I jumped into the tuk-tuk again and headed there. Kuba and Raina and all of our luggage stayed at the embassy.

The Cambodian police – things got really interesting here. Not only we were to spend more time in Phenom Penh, a city I was eager to leave, but we were meant to dive in deeper and get a feel for how a ‘democracy’ like Cambodia works behind the scenes. I knew that the country is not just smiles and hospitality. There is darkness lurking just beneath the surface as we read. After all, this is a country whose president has been in power for 30 years (!?), the Khmer Rouge leaders have not been brought to justice yet 15 years after the end of the KR rule and its perpetrators are now fully blended in the society. If you open a local newspaper you will read about corruption and illegal land seizures, land mine explosions and illegal logging, violence against women and child trafficking. Most of the tourists visiting the country stick to Siem Reap, the touristy version of Cambodia. The USA government advises against travel in Cambodia, deeming it unsafe. We felt safe anywhere else but in Phenom Penh as we heard too many stories of people being robbed. The rest of the country felt chill and easygoing and we enjoyed our time immensely. Together with Laos, Cambodia fit our travel aspirations the best. We learnt a lot, the country was authentic and wore no make up and the people were wonderful.

Anyways, I spent a long time at the police. We went to the scene of the crime and then back to the office. Filing a report took two guys 3 hrs of writing on some forms, then copying them by hand (no computers in sight). They asked me how I want the perpetrator punished if caught. I was speechless.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘What do you suggest the police do if they catch him?’ They repeated in broken English.

By that time I was checked out. I just shrugged. Do to him whatever you want, I thought to myself. I was getting tired, hungry and thirsty and I wanted out of that room surrounded by men in uniforms. Not yet. They kept writing and writing and asking me over and over what happened as new people would enter the room and we had to clue them in on the whole story in detail! Finally one of the ‘writers’ got a stamp pad and had me put my thumb print on all the report pages. My whole palm was red by the time I was done. He collected the papers and started stamping them. 30 min later he got on a motorbike and went somewhere to photocopy. A new man arrived and told me I need to go with him to the immigration police and file a report with them as well.

Really???! Great!

The guy with the copies came back and I had to ‘stamp’ again all the pages. I was starting to feel sick. After enduring some more heated debates about me (all I could understand was the word ‘passport’ and ‘Bulgarie’) it seemed like our job there was done. The immigration policeman whispered that I need to thank the police for the report. He probably meant giving them some Franklins, but I had none to give. My pockets were completely empty. Boryan and I jumped on the tuk tuk and headed to the immigration police.

‘It will be quick, 10 min!’ the immigration policeman assured me and then disappeared

He left us with three other policemen. The whole thing started again from scratch. Besides us there were two more barangs (foreigners) there. One was complaining about the lack of security on the river front, Phenom Penh’s premier tourist spot which is quite unimpressive IMO. A guy sniffing glue tried to steal his bag in the middle of the day. The police listened to him and then they redirected him to who knows where. The other barang pulled Boryan aside and started whispering in his ear that the police here is not good and would want money from me. ‘Don’t give them more than $5’ He instructed and then left.

Then a black man from Nigeria, visibly disturbed, came in. I was starting to feel as if I am part of some Cambodian soap opera and soon everyone will break into song and dance. Anyways, no one paid the African man any attention. The main officer was ignoring him, making small talk with Boryan and me. He pretended the guy was not even there.

“I need to file a report” the man said. “I got punched in the eye today and I fear for my life!”.

He could have easily just said that today’s weather was wonderfully hot. His words had no effect on anyone. The officer kept asking me if I had met any Cambodians in the USA.

‘None’ I answered and pointed at the Nigerian man who was getting flustered.

“What do you want?” The officer asked the man visibly irritated.

What followed was an ugly case of rascism. Not only was the officer ignoring the complaint of the man, but he even told the guy to shut up as his talk was starting to make him feel tired.

‘You are immigration police and you are supposed to protect us foreigners. The main police office sent me here!’ The man said again and again. The officer was looking at him with disgust and stated that the man could talk all he want but he is not supposed to answer to him.

Crap! I felt bad for being white and being treated like a human being. As typical for Asia, Boryan was being given too much attention. His cheeks were being pinched, hair ruffled, water served. Meanwhile the black man was instructed to clear and come back with all the evidence for the eye punching in addition to his passport.

‘My bruised face is not enough?’ He asked angrily.

Apparently not. He came angry and left fuming. I myself was starting to fume as the whole lengthy operation in the other police station was starting to repeat itself but now I had to deal with the sleazy policeman whom I disliked more and more by the second. It took the immigration police 1.5 hrs to finish their version of what happened. I had my hand covered in fresh red ink again. Before we left the policeman started showing me the report as if he was selling me something and wanted to make sure that I liked what I saw.

‘Here are the stamps, the signatures, the description of what happened’.

He was sounding proud of his work. Then, without looking me in the eyes he said:

‘And now if you can kindly support…’

‘Are you asking me for money?!’ I was furious. Wow, he was really gross. I got no words of compassion from the police, I got dragged in two offices for 4.5 hrs to file a very simple report and then I was asked for money. Kindly, but still… I grabbed the report and left.

‘Mom, is that what a corruption is?’
‘Yes baby’

‘Mom, was that racism?’
‘Yes baby’.

On the flip side the USA embassy was awesome. They were sympathetic, sweet in an american kind of way that felt very soothing and reassuring. It is amazing how healing a few words of comfort are when things are looking down. The lady that was on emergency call that morning even brought an entire meal for all 4 of us complete with orange juices which pretty much saved our lives after the grueling hours of dealing with the police. We got our new emergency passports in 4 hrs. We still have to get permanent ones in Kathmandu. It takes 10 days but we are planning to be in Nepal for 30, so this is not a problem. The cost for the passports was $480 total for all of us. Ouch, right? Well, we had to get additional pages soon anyways as USA passports are very skinny and we were running out of pages for all the full page visa we were quickly collecting. Those additional pages would have cost us $340 total anyways.

Next hurdle. Our Cambodian visa was gone so we had to get a new one to exit.
We were at the Immigration office first thing the next morning. The office is 12 km out of town across from the airport. Cost to get entry visa to Cambodia is $25/person. In case your passport gets stolen or lost the cost of exit visa is $40/adult and $25/child. At this point we had to turn a blind eye to how much getting out of Cambodia would cost us. The time it would take to get the new exit visas: 3 Days! The thought of spending 4-5 more days in Phenom Penh terrified me. We paid our way through expedited service. No receipt was offered and we didn’t bargain. At this point getting out of Cambodia became a mission for me and I was ready to go through walls.

Well, AirAsia turned out to be the most solid of the walls we hit. Yes, I did recommend AirAsia as they are ridiculously cheap. But you get what you pay for, which is no custom service, no one to give you answers and no one to bribe, talk to or complain to. We were in a pickle. The 1800 number they have on line assured us that we will be fine. They would put us on a flight and the fee will be $35/person/flight.

The reality: we got at the airport at 10.30 am with the police report in hand. They told us that they have to email the Bangkok office and get a permission to reschedule the flight. We were advised to go home and wait for an email. Because we had to wait for our exit visas across the street anyways we told them that we would hang around.

3 pm. We had our exit visas. Btw, no words of sympathy from the Cambodian immigration. It was a money in a drawer kind of business transaction till the end.

Same with AirAsia. Not a single word of compassion or a sign that they are working hard to resolve our problem. At 5.15 we were still waiting for THE email from Bangkok or was it the superior office the next level up?  By then it had been 5.5 hrs with no clear information. It didn’t matter apparently much to them that we were standing there with two little children all day. Every single bit of information we got from them we received by pestering them. The American in me was going postal. I knew that If we go home we would not fly out soon.

5.25. The girl told us to go home and promised to call if we can fly the next morning. They were closing the office in 5 min so all our waiting was for nothing.

All of a sudden at 5.27 she brought a paper with the permission to change flights. 6 hrs after she sent the email to the main office!!! Unbelievable! We were supposed to pay the fare difference which was substantially more than the penalty per ticket. I was exhausted, frustrated and angry. I blew up at the girls about how unprofessional they were and how AirAsia sucks to keep us waiting for 6 hrs for a simple procedure that should take minutes only to overcharge us. And then we paid the amount and left. What else could I have done with no one to call and complain.

We are out of Phenom Penh now. The experience will probably fade soon and the only thing that will remain will be an OCD obsession with keeping the passports safe. If this is the worst that happens on our trip I would consider ourselves very lucky. And now I am running around knocking on every available wood surface around me as I am also superstitious. And that is a quality I don’t like but have to accept.

The funny thing is that I couldn’t file a complain with AirAsia in Kuala Lumpur as they don’t have an office there as well. I am supposed to do it on line. But on the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Yogyakarta the AirAsia air hostess called me in front of the whole plane so all the air hostesses can sing to me “Happy Birthday” in four languages (yes, we had to fly on my birthday) and then they asked me what I think of AirAsia. I answered: ‘Do you really want me to tell you?’ ‘Yes’, they said with a smile ready to receive my praise. I told them what happened in Phenon Penh. The air hostess did not translate my words.

Lost in translation.

Soon, lost to amnesia.





2 thoughts on “Kissing Phenom Penh Good Bye

  1. This may be my favorite entry from you yet. WTF!!! Wow, you endured Phenom Penh & hopefully the “wound” is fairly healed. Amnesia is a good thing especially when there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. Glad you made it through Cambodia. Flying on your 40th B-day via AirAsia— an experience you will really never forget.

    1. Lol. I reread this post and realized how frustrated and angry I was. Right on my birthday! Ha! I still have the obsession with keeping the new passports safe:) You know, there is a Bulgarian superstition that you are not supposed to celebrate the 40th birthday so I guess flying on my birthday suited me just fine. Love!

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