I’ll say this about Cambodians, when it comes to living space they don’t mess around with bathroom availability.
We’re two tours into our search for an apartment in Phnom Penh, and amidst the weird mix of layouts, designs, features and oddities we have encountered one consistent feature stands out: there are usually more bathrooms than bedrooms in apartments, each with its slanted-floor-to-accommodate-runoff-from-the-shower-attached-to-the-wall-next-to-the-toilet design. It’s been quite the excursion so far, and as we head into the city for a Saturday morning apartment tour with “Art”, a real estate agent highly recommended by one of our VIA colleagues, we thought we’d give a glimpse into the variety of what we’ve seen so far – the peculiarities, creative uses of space and architectural nuances of available living space in Phnom Penh.
One place – a fourth-floor two bedroom aerie – was accessible via a nearly vertical steel staircase which led to a narrow corridor which in turn led to a narrow spiral steel staircase which mercifully took us to the apartment. As if we weren’t daunted by the ascent during daylight hours – perish the thought of tackling the climb in the dark – the place didn’t work for us. Besides, there’s no way we could have gotten our 93-pound suitcase up the stairs.
Another oddly elaborate mishmash of living space featured a pool table in the middle of the living room, and the dining area a floor above the kitchen.
Separation of church and state apparently applies to food preparation and actual eating in Cambodian architectural circles as well, as most kitchens (a fridge, two-burner propane cooktop, meager counter space and a cupboard or two) are set well apart from tables and chairs. One place passed on a dining area altogether, disappointing us as we dismissed what otherwise would have been a great place to live.
Then there was the place which was more motel than apartment. Another third-floor haunt, it featured a corridor running along the outside of the building, off which one could access the kitchen and two bedrooms – each with its own door to the corridor. The corridor ended with a living room at the corner of the building, completely encased with floor-to-ceiling glass. Imagine watching TV in a fishbowl suspended above the city. In another place the landlord stuck a TV and two naugahyde chairs in the corridor to compensate for the lack of a living room. Steps away was a door leading to a 30×30 foot covered balcony that would have made either a great place for entertaining or a dance floor.
Since landlords seem to have cornered the market on ground-floor apartments, most units are up. Very, very up, in most cases. Stairwells are often dark, narrow and very vertical. A third-floor unit offers a serious workout to come and go; higher accommodations would make a gym membership redundant if not impossible, given the daily demands placed on your legs.
You really have to look closely before buying. One place was nice…great living room, kitchen, baths and bedrooms, but when I peeled back the curtains on a bedroom I was afforded a wonderful view of the next building’s roof, generously topped off with a curl of razor wire and barbed wire to keep thieves away.
You have to look past the entrance to make a fair judgment. Nice apartments are often accessed past piles of steaming, stinky garbage on the street, but the inevitable steel security gate seems to keep at bay the smells, rubbish and, for the most part, rats. We are told that cockroaches are ubiquitous, cornerstones to urban living in Phnom Penh. We haven’t seen any cockroaches yet, though the guys at the table next to us at dinner last night were enthusiastically munching on something with crunchy carapaces and lots of spiny legs. Just sayin’…
Most apartments come furnished. In a two-bedroom flat you can expect bedrooms with a queen-sized bed, an armoire for clothes, air conditioner, fluorescent light and maybe a bedside table. Living rooms come with a Cambodian-sized sofa – usually wicker with cushions – which means there will be no lazy Saturday afternoons stretched out on the couch watching the Sox beat the Blue Jays, a couple of matching armchairs, a tv table and a TV. There is usually a small table and four chairs, and occasionally a random chair, table or other oddity within – i.e., the pool table. You just don’t know what to expect.
If the joint is unfurnished – like the one in the pole position for our search so far – you sign the lease, pay the rent and security deposit then get ready to go furniture shopping with your landlord to outfit the place.
There are a few important considerations to keep in mind when searching for apartments, some similar to the west, others require unique approaches to real estate searches for a couple from Massachusetts.
Picking a landlord is as important as picking your friends, as they set the tone for security, cleanliness and responsiveness as things break and generally get weird at any point. Many are omnipresent, typically living on the ground floor and renting out units above them as income-producing properties. Bottom line: you want someone who is nice, available, and used to renting to foreigners.
Unshaded west-facing apartments will roast its inhabitants and must be avoided at all costs. Our program director’s place has a wall you could literally fry an egg on in the afternoon, which might be an appealing means of creating cooking for those truly on a budget and seeing to limit their propane use.
Negotiating the lease means not only the rent, but the duration of the lease and whether electricity, cable, internet, water and trash collection is included. It’s a careful balance of quid pro quo, and we’re told that a fistful of cash works wonders to win the negotiation battle.
My predecessor at CRRT showed up at her would-be home to meet with her landlord, and armed with cash for three months rent and security was able to get a considerable concession from what they were asking each month. Oh yeah, and they threw in water and trash collection, too. Adding amenities depends on the place and whom you ask. Some apartments include high speed internet and the above stuff, but they tend to charge for it in the monthly rent. Electricity tends to be expensive, and running air conditioners round the clock can add a couple hundred dollars to rent in a hurry.
Internet seems to be widely available, though having it installed is either “simple, just a matter of paying $50 and it’s a couple of days” (one real estate guy we’ve worked with) or “incredibly confusing and difficult” (my predecessor at CRRT).
Like just about everything else in Phnom Penh, all bets are off, nothing is as it seems, and the end result is a crapshoot when it comes to the apartment hunting game.