Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Apartment Hunting in Phnom Penh

About six weeks after I arrived in Phnom Penh near the end of 2001 I was determined to get my own apartment. Guest houses are fine for a few days but a combination of teaching and thus needing a place to keep things together, a private space to bring home a companion, the ability to make my own coffee in the morning and thus greet the day at my leisure, and maybe most important, a spot for my hammock, required my own space.

Wandering around near the Old Market, I spotted an expat having noodle soup at a local restaurant and thought it was worth checking it out. Those were ancient times when we expats were few and far between – there are ten times as many westerners in Cambodia now than back then – and I was new to the place and tended to trust an eatery if there was another foreigner there. After soup he showed me his place. By the way, the restaurant, at the corner of Streets 13 and 110, is still going strong.

As I remember, he was paying $120 for a clean, really nice, partly furnished place in the area. It was one of those places with tiles half way up the wall. It looks kinda silly, but is a lot easier to keep clean. That rent level was way above my means as I was just starting work and tight with cash. He mentioned a place he’d seen for $50 a month that he’d rejected for being too funky. I checked it out: it was as he’d described it, but I easily adapt to funky so figured I could handle it for the 4 months or so I’d be around.

The apartment had a red and white tiled floor that was commonly used back in the sixties when the place was built. The great thing about ceramic tiles is they never loose their structural integrity; that is, with the exception of a few chips here or there, they’re just as solid after fifty years of use as the day the were laid in place. The same, however, cannot be said of their decorative aspect as the colors can be worn off to ugliness after a couple of decades and they can become discolored in many ways. Still, for fifty bucks a month for a full flat I wasn’t complaining.  

The place was barely furnished, a few plastic chairs, a bed and two or three pieces of hardly usable old wooden furniture. The one thing a landlord will provide, if nothing else, is a sleeping arrangement of some sort. It already had a wooden bed so he provided a mattress, pillows and a sheet. The sheet was pure polyester which my skin reacts to with abhorrence so my first task the next day was to find something to sleep on with a little cotton in it. The mattress was very cheap and lost its shape with a soft space conforming to my body after only two nights so not very comfortable, but once again for the price I had to take it as it came.

The apartment was very strangely designed with the public stairway in between the kitchen/bath area and the rest of the living space with two lockable doors to the two areas. I hesitated a bit because of that but figured since I was on the third floor with only one apartment above me, there wouldn’t be many people going through my space. What I didn’t account for was that I’d essentially be going through other people’s apartments. My oversight became especially clear when I’d escort an overnight companion down the stairs in the morning with everybody lolling around in the midst of their wake up routine staring at us. We were like a two-person parade. If it hadn’t been that the gate to the outside was locked I could’ve let her go by herself, thus avoiding some embarrassment. It’s much better in my mind to have easy access to outside, especially if you’re up high and have to walk down and up lots of stairs twice when anybody visits. Don’t forget, ceilings are so high here that three floors here is equivalent to 5 floors in the states.

Having the gate locked didn’t stop me from being ripped off, obviously an inside job. When I told others in the building that I was living alone they were very surprised since all of the other flats were occupied by at least two families. At any rate there were lots of people with access within the gate. It wasn’t very secure to begin with, since the lock only went through two relatively small steel eyelets and it was a snap for the thief to pry one open. The landlord responded by buying very big eyelets and having them welded shut.

So the first question regarding renting an apartment is access from the outside. Many places in the city require you to go through the owner’s first floor apartment to get to yours and they’ll never give you a key. That’s okay if you don’t care about your privacy and if you’re typically in bed early. But if you’re out till the wee hours nearly every night and have to bang on the door and wake the owner to get in, well, it just wouldn’t work out very well for me.

After I returned from my annual trip to the states, I needed once again to find an apartment. This time I had the help of a friend’s Khmer wife. Commissions are always paid in those circumstances, so helping you isn’t a selfless act. First she took me to a flat that had been converted into small windowless rooms, each with a bathroom, which were partitioned off rather than built with walls that went to the ceiling. Great privacy there. For that they wanted $40 month. Obviously unacceptable.

They also had a larger room with a small window that was set up for air-conditioning. Take this one, she urges me. I don’t like air-con I respond. That’s okay, don’t turn it on. Well now, it doesn’t work that way since if it’s set up for air-con you pretty much have to use it. Air-conditioning requires that you be able to seal the room off from the outside. It had one small window, not enough to provide much natural ventilation, so without manufactured cold air it’d be a hot, stale, airless room. For an apartment to be survivable - if not necessarily comfortable - in very hot weather without air-con there has to be cross ventilation so breezes can blow through and dissipate accumulated heat.

Next she shows me a place that was perfect for my needs: full flat also close to the Old Market, second floor, good cross ventilation, easy private access, eighty bucks a month. It was on Street 17 which is only a block long so had limited traffic. The floors were recent so not grotesquely ugly like the first place and some wicker furniture was included. I asked for ceiling fans and they were happy to oblige. If a landlord thinks you’ll be around for a while and are trustworthy, you can make a lot of requests when you move in. Some people like wind blowing in their faces, like being in front of a small fan. I far prefer those big ceiling fans since they provide a lot of air movement without making you feel you’re in a wind tunnel, besides being a lot quieter, especially at low speed.

Just a couple of months ago I was offered an apartment next door to that one for $120 month so rents haven’t changed all that much if you’re dealing with Khmer prices. If you are new to the scene, thus not aware of true rent levels, and dealing with a landlord who knows how to relate to expats, you’ll be asked to pay a lot more.

The only deficiency of the place was the tiny kitchen area. Even in newer apartments, kitchens are often designed almost as an afterthought. I was not into cooking at the time - my food preparation limited to tuna sandwiches and such - so that wasn’t a problem for me. Khmers will prepare meals squatting down in the living room so adequate kitchen space generally isn’t important to them. They also have a strange habit of locating their refrigerators in their living rooms, why that is, I really can’t fathom.

That place worked out well for two years but when I returned from my annual trek the second year, I settled in to listen to the BBC in the early evening and had to turn the volume way up to hear it, thus the one drawback to natural ventilation: sounds can enter as well as air. Traffic noise was only a small part of it. Mostly it was screeching kids and boisterous adults having a good time along with multiple blaring TV’s and stereos.

Over the two years I’d been in the apartment I’d visited people who lived in top floor apartments that were half outdoors so included lots of space for plants and also some that were in quiet places, so it felt like time to move again. I mentioned my quest for one of those quiet airy places to a friend and he said there was one exactly to my wishes next door to him. It was perfect: second floor, big outdoor spaces in front and back which eventually accommodated about eighty potted plants and end of an alley so very quiet as you might expect. It also had no taller buildings around it so offered distant views and even fireworks from the river. They got me a small fridge, ceiling fans and hot water, all for $140 month.

It had an unusual set up for the toilet and shower facilities as they were in separate rooms. That I really appreciated since I always have fungus growing between my toes here in the tropics and having to walk in shower water every time I have to pee is not good for the toe rot challenge.

They also cut a window into the bedroom, which had been set up for air-conditioning and thus had only one small window on one side, for cross-ventilation. With no other buildings around, except on the south side, the air could move right through without hindrance and it could get very breezy. Cross ventilation doesn’t make a space cooler than ambient temperature, it only provides for no-cost air movement and keeps the place from being a heat sink. My friend didn’t stay long in his place next door to mine since the length of his apartment faced south, was open to the sun and was very hot. Mine, looking north, was much more comfortable. Thus I learned preferred orientation from being in that apartment. It’s best to face north since the sun comes from the south about eight months a year and the remaining four months – May to August - are often cloudy. Next best is facing east because the morning sun is much cooler than afternoon sun. Orientation makes a very big difference for comfort when not air-conditioned and in electric cost when it is artificially cooled.

I did get a shock from my first electric bill: $25. The previous apartment I’d paid only four bucks a month. I am very frugal with power, always turning off lights, fans and computer when not using them and don’t use fans much, preferring to sweat except in extreme heat. I didn’t believe the small fridge and hot water could add that much. Oddly enough there was a meter in the apartment as well as the one the electric company read, and I checked and saw I wasn’t using anywhere near that much juice. Meanwhile a friend who lived next door who was a snowbird and had just returned from Canada had a bill for $80 when his bill normally came in around $35. Thinking something underhanded might be going on he hired an electrician to trace the wiring and sure enough someone had tapped into our lines, and subsequently my bill went down to $9.

Which brings up electric bills. I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve never been overcharged on electricity in the four apartments I’ve rented in the city. I’ve always paid the exact bill. Many landlords will pad the bill and charge you 1100 or 1200 riels per kilowatt hour when they pay only 650 riels. One friend got his first bill in a new apartment that was twice what he’d ever paid before so he balked. He asked to see the bill, the landlord said, No bill, just pay. He didn’t stay there long. Everybody in Phnom Penh pays the same 650 riel rate, if you’re being charged more you’re getting ripped off. Actually, the rate is less for people who use very small amounts of power.

After 5 1/2 half years there I was encountering financial problems and by then it was used only as a second home, my primary home being in Kampot. In addition, there was construction happening all around and my outdoor space which had previously been in the eyes of only a few neighbors was now in view of dozens of windows with more happening all the time. It was, in other words, becoming like a fishbowl. I reluctantly gave it up and for a couple of months I bounced around between hotel rooms and a place a friend offered me on a temporary basis. I was still spending 8 or 10 days a month in the capital and couldn’t stand not having my own space, so once again started looking for an apartment. BTW, that apartment is now renting for $200, so not that big a change after 5 1/2 years.

Sometimes, when looking for a place, you’ll see a for rent sign, but that generally means it’s located on a busy street. Otherwise unless you’re really good at the language, you’re going to need local help. The exceptions being if a friend knows of a vacancy or if you’ve got lots of money to spend for a place that caters to westerners. If you don’t have a Khmer friend to help, then one of your best bets is a moto or tuk-tuk driver. They know lots of people and get around a lot. If you don’t know one as a friend, then you go to the general area you want to live in and ask one of the guys who works the area.

My moto friend first took me to a smallish but acceptable space except for being a fishbowl apartment with lots of people around who would always know your business. For that they were asking $100 month, which was a bit much for what you were getting. The second one he showed me, also for a hundred bucks, was a small apartment in back of the owner’s house. That required going through a gate and passing by two noisy little dogs as well as the owner’s possibly prying eyes. Not for me.

The third one turned out to be perfect. It too was $100 but a full flat. It’s third floor but I look at it as good exercise. It’s not a pretty place having one of those ugly old red and white checked floors. The kitchen is small and not easy to use and it was barely furnished: two plastic chairs, a tiny fridge and a sleeping pad which is just thick enough to make sleeping tolerable but not thick enough to not feel my bones touching the hard floor. As soon as I have the dough, I’ll buy a cheap bed and a thin pad to augment the one I already have. Anyway, for my needs, cheap is better than nice.

The best thing is the location and access. It’s on Street 13 right close to the museum so it’s near everything I need to do in the city and the access is perfect.  In the previous apartment the motodops and everybody who was interested was aware of every visitor to my place. You don’t realize what’s happening when you don’t know the language, but local men frequently bad mouth girls visiting foreigners, especially when they are old farts like myself. Khmers are tolerant enough to not interfere in other’s lives but that doesn’t mean they don’t verbally harass the girls.

What makes access at the new place perfect is the small alley that serves my building also serves two other buildings. I just have to bring a visitor one time. After that, unless the locals that hang around the entrance are very astute and observant, they have no idea who’s coming to my place. Also being on the top floor, it once had a big outdoor space facing the street. That was later filled in, thus there’s a lot more privacy than if it’d remained outdoor space. Today, that’s better for my needs. The motodop friend said, Offer him ninety, but it was so right for me and cheap enough at $100 that I didn’t have the heart to bargain.

Good luck apartment hunting.