Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, is a unique place. Surprisingly safe and friendly for a city; cracked and burnt from that country’s dark history, fairly lawless and isolated until just a decade or so ago, I’ve often heard the international mix of vagabonds, opportunists, and malcontents as such: if you took the whole world and turned it on its side, then shook it, whatever fell out to the bottom would be in Phnom Penh.
But I also have a love affair with this story-book town, although I’ve had some of the best and worst times of my life there. And if I had to choose one place as the epicenter of all my memories, it would be the shady dive bar and flop house hotel, the Pickled Parrot.
The “Parrot” sits on the end of 104 Street, so close to the Riverside Quay that you could smell the earthy water if the wind is right. But walking down 104 Street, I can assure you that you won’t notice the smell, as your senses will be wholly occupied by something else – the bars. In fact, 104 is one of the dozen or so streets in Phnom Penh dedicated to the oldest profession on earth – and I ain’t talking about money lending. Phnom Penh is known for its small microneighborhoods of vibrant neon beer bars with scores of beautiful young ladies out front, ready to meet a tourist – and make some money. But the good thing is that, unlike Pattaya in Thailand, Angeles City in the Philippines, etc., Phnom Penh suffers this blight but isn’t defined by it.
Same too goes for the Pickled Parrot. As the lone restaurant and guest house (the hotel second floor and up is called the Tonle Sap Guest House but its really the same business), it stands woefully out of place. It’s sort of an oasis from the scene outside, as you’ll never run into riff-raff (except the customers, of course0, people trying to sell you anything, muggers or scammers (except for the customers, of course), etc. inside the Parrot.
Started by two Australians decades ago, it’s more of a sporting bar, with TVs on every wall showing cricket, rugby, Aussie rules, soccer, and anything other than what can be considered a good American sport. It’s also a big pool player’s hangout, with tournaments every week, teams that travel all over Asia to compete, and the best table in all of Cambodia, allegedly.
It’s open 24 hours a day, and you will actually find people in there round the clock, drinking, carrying on with their new street-wise paramour, or just passed out cold with their cigarette still burning.
Unfortunately, new owners came in years ago and first wanted to squeeze every buck from the place, raising prices, suffering the quality of food, cutting back on staff; and then, it fell into almost complete neglect. It used to be that the Parrot had a romantic yester-year Hemingway-esque charm, like you really felt you were IN and CONNECTED to the sketchy and wild Cambodian not-so-distant-past just by sitting there.
That’s not the case anymore, and the people who still go in there either don’t know any better or go in out of nostalgia, seeing if they could capture just a trace of the past aura.