By “other side” I mean the foreign business men, the developers, the movers-and-shakers, the ambassadors and embassy folk—the people that are literally reshaping the city. By “other side,” I mean the people that are removed from the street, that live behind gated properties with bored-looking security guards, that ride around the city in chauffeured SUVs. I mean that I got to stay at a Sofitel.
I’ve never been one with an eye for perks. I always kinda rolled my eyes at the travel writers that billed themselves as luxury writers, assuming they were really more interested in getting free massages and Pina Coladas than actually being writers. Which they may be. But none of the glitz ever attracted me—I was always more into the grit. And perhaps being able to make a living as a writer. But really, just the grit.
Which is why it was so ridiculous that I ended up, frayed Toms and an H&M cardigan, in the lemongrass-scented lobby of a five-star hotel, on assignment from an equally ridiculous source: Matador, an independent travel website. And why it ended up being so goddamn fascinating.
The piece I wrote on the experience went up last week on the Matador site (link here). But 900 words is short, and there’s a lot I didn’t get the chance to say.The Sofitel sits handsomely amid vacant lots and construction cranes, in what the young manager with beautiful hands told me would soon be the new city center. He moved his hands through the air when he said it, like he were gathering something and drawing it closer to him. His nails were better filed than my own.
A poor, Eastern city rapidly modernizing by foreign hands: that’s not an entirely new story. But this was Cambodia, so it was more complex and fucked-up than it appeared on the surface.
Land rights are a huge issue in Cambodia. And like so many of the country’s problems, it comes out of the war: after the Khmer Rouge fell, no one had property deeds—you just moved into any available space you found. It was a clusterfuck of a situation. Ten years ago, the government began an official campaign to get people proper titles to the land they’d been living in since the KR. But it was a muddled, mismanaged process in which poor folks largely lost out. As a result, a lot of the country’s residents still don’t have official claim to the land they’ve been living on.
It’s the perfect situation for exploitation.
The case I got to witness first-hand was the ongoing issue over the lakeside evictions. You can read more here, but in a nutshell, a foreign company bought a lake and its surrounding region in Phnom Penh, to drain and develop. People were already living around the lake, but since most had no official claim to that land, they could legally be evicted. They’ve been protesting, losing, subjected to violence—it’s basically fucked.
None of which is to implicate the Sofitel into that. (In fact, a tuk-tuk driver told me that the Sofitel property used to house a Thai-owned luxury hotel that was torched during anti-Thai riots some years back.) But if you place the hotel’s presence in the larger context of the changing city, it says a lot. There didn’t used to be a market for a business-oriented luxury Western hotel. And there’s not really, yet—the Sofitel was largely empty when I stayed there, just like the villas being constructed across the Bassac River were. But the point was, it’s coming.
And if you draw the line in the sand—between old and new, redevelopment and who it benefits—the Sofitel is like glimpsing into the future, glimpsing over the line.
Which of course brings one to oneself. Because I was, after all, staying there. Yes, I was on assignment and thus not footing the bill. Yes, I was walking the half-mile of scorching-hot driveway to catch a tuk-tuk streetside, instead of paying the 300% surcharge from the hotel. And yes, I was using my $5/month wireless modem instead of paying for the hotel’s wifi (how you market yourself as a business-centric hotel and not have free wifi is beyond me…). But, if you drew the line in the sand—which you still can do, in the parts of the city without sidewalks—I was closer to all those business men than the people getting evicted by the lakeside.
Sometimes you can fool yourself about your own privilege. You wait tables; you work two jobs through college; you squint through old contact lenses because you can’t afford the eye doctor. Or you rent an apartment from a woman you can’t communicate with, save for the green mango she gives you once a week, and you drink shitty coffee at street stalls and buy produce at the local markets and tell yourself you’re experiencing a place “at ground level”—a phrase that in and of itself oozes an underlying sense of privilege, the idea that it’s a choice.But in a place like Phnom Penh, I really can’t fool myself. Putting on a bathrobe and shuffling around my hotel suite eating the macaroons from turn-down service, BBC images flashing sharply on the flat-screen TV—and getting to do it because I’ll use the skills I learned in university to write an article for a website, in a language I was born into speaking—I can’t kid myself about which side I’m on. I could get a well-paying job any time I want. At the drop of a hat, if I were in serious trouble, I could have someone wire me more money than your average Cambodian makes in a year. That’s just the fact of it.
I had this moment, taking a tuk-tuk from just outside the Sofitel’s gates, when I sat back and watched the street: a row of barber chairs set up, scuffed mirrors nailed to a corrugated fence, men waiting for clients. It felt like I were looking at it through glass, through the thickness of some impenetrable distance, and it all struck me as quaint. As in, the simple quaint life of a the noble local.
Could where you stay really make that much of a difference in how you experience a place? I wondered. Could surrounding myself in the piped-in fragrance of lemongrass, taking a hot bath and wearing a pair of slippers each night really ensconce me, alter how I enter a city so much? Or did it just serve to heighten what was already there, hiding from me?
I didn’t find answers to that. But I did have a lovely stay.