This is a Throwback Thursday post. This happened to me way back in 2016 (I can’t believe I first arrived in Cambodia that long ago!)
Travelling in Cambodia often calls for an inordinate amount of preparation. This was especially true of one journey where I was unsure of what facilities I would be encountering at my destination. Moreover, the journey would be quite long as well; travelling from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, waiting there to be picked up and taken to a town in Kampong Speu province, another couple of hours further. Therefore, I aimed to be prepared. In my bag I packed a couple of changes of clothes; toiletries; baby wipes (in case I got hot and sweaty and need a “baby wipe shower”); various adaptors and plugs; powerbanks; a phrasebook; insect repellent; various drugs (paracetamol, ibuprofen, antihistamines, Imodium). I did, as it later turned out, forget to pack a towel.
The journey from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh was easy. It’s one I’ve done many times and I quickly established a routine, mostly using the same company (Giant Ibis, if you’re wondering). I then had a few hours to kill in Phnom Penh. I went to a cafe Jars of Clay, because if I am in Phnom Penh it has to be done. Then, I had to meet the person who would be driving me to Kampong Speu at a local mall. This mall was probably one of the favourites in Phnom Penh in its short-lived heyday but the many newer and flashier developments across the city has rendered it obscure and obsolete. Even in the few months between my only two visits there, various shops had closed down. Only the supermarket at the end seemed particularly busy.
I wandered around the mall, bought a shirt and a tie set from a shop and ate something at the bakery outside. There was little to do except walk aimlessly, circulating the different floors. I did see one old lady struggle with the concept of escalators. Although the seem perfectly normal to us, to some in Cambodia, especially if they are older or from the provinces, moving stairs are novel and somewhat daunting. This one old lady had to be helped by two teenagers to navigate the challenge. That kept me occupied for a few moments.
Naturally, after some time, nature called. So I found the bathrooms. They seemed quite clean and well appointed. Public toilets in cities in Cambodia are usually far cleaner than you would find in the UK. In fact, this was to be one of my “reverse culture shocks”: UK toilets tend to be gross. Due to low wages in Cambodia, you will often find a small army of staff in malls, cafes or shops all cleaning, sorting and tidying. Therefore, I was relatively confident that this would be a pleasant experience. I was wrong.
The first indication that something was amiss was the contents of the small wire bin next to the toilet pan: socks. I glanced at them, puzzled but shrugged it off. I’ve seen many strange things in this country. However, I have now learnt that this is a portent of danger and it has given rise to a firmly held motto of mine: “Socks in the bin? Don’t go in.” Heed those words.
I did what I needed to do then next looked for a means with which to seal the deal. I looked around for tissue. There was none. This is fine, I thought. This just means there was a toilet hose. I looked to my left. There wasn’t one there. I looked to my right. No toilet hose there either. After a few moments of frantic searching, it became evident why there was a discarded pair of socks in the bin. Some poor soul had previously found themselves in the same predicament as I, and that is the solution they had come up with. I refused to reduce myself to such drastic measures.
I thought long and hard about what I may have on me that could serve to help me. I checked my pockets and they were empty except the usual triumvirate: keys, phone, wallet. I thought about my wallet. Surely I would have a collection of bank notes in there. In Cambodia, everything is done with notes and no coins. The lowest denomination is 100 riel, which is about 1.5p. Usually, my wallet had a small wad of them as I could never be bothered to count them out. It wouldn’t cost a small fortune, therefore, to utilise these. However, given the abject poverty many Cambodians find themselves in, I thought it would be outrageously immoral to literary flush money down the toilet. Then I noticed that I had, as usual, collected quite an impressive range of receipts. They would be coarse, but they would do the job. So, that’s what I resorted to. I can tell you, it was quite a humbling moment and I did not relish it one bit.
Head hanging, I went to wash my hands. I also wanted to pack my purchases in my main bag. I put my bag up by the sink, opened it and then saw on top two pristine, unopened packs of baby wipes. I could have kicked myself up the rear- and I can tell you, it felt like I had.