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Cambodia: Vignettes of Phnom Penh

February 4th, 2007

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA – I am going to skip ahead here, passing by the night with the street kids in Chiang Mai following the outreach volunteers and sex workers for the better part of the evening.

Later I will have to tell you the story of the 60+ year old expats and their younger Thai wives. I must preface that story with the comment that it is not the kind of relationship I would look for, but for the men and these couples it seems to work. (at right: evening on a Phnom Penh street)

Then there was the evening with the gay men who are working with the gay, transgendered, and male sex workers to promote HIV/AIDS awareness, testing, and the building of community.

But those stories are for later because I must skip ahead to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where I am sipping an espresso in what looks to be a gambling establishment. There are nice cars out front and a doorman with a metal detector who will check your weapon at the door. Last night on the way from the airport, on the back of a motorbike taxi, we passed a police checkpoint where everyone was getting pat-downs for guns. But weapons aren’t obviously prolific; I’ve seen more assault rifles in Europe than I have here. (at left: housing on farm land just outside the city)

The streets are wilder, louder, and more chaotic. I feel fortunate for having a primer in traffic management by running the moat road in Chiang Mai. Here you don’t even look for a gap in the vehicles, you just step out in the road and maintain a predictable pace as cars, trucks, motorbikes, tuk tuks, and cyclos weave around you. No one is going faster than 40km/hr and everyone expects drivers on the wrong side of the road or crossing traffic during red lights…you name the stateside traffic law and it’s broken once a minute here. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I get home; jaywalking will seem trivial and red lights…?

Tuk Tuk and moto drivers are aplenty. You can’t walk out of a restaurant, the guest house, or down the street without three or more saying ‘hello! you want tuk tuk? i take you!’ They will swarm you but they do so with smiles and some, seeing you turn down the last guy, will still ask but playfully.

There are the children. All ages. Last night I saw a baby, couldn’t even stand yet, set out for begging by some unseen parent. Often they bare foot, dirty, and wanting yum yum (food), muuuneeee (money), for school, pens, books…to live. There are the insistent, the reasonable, the silly and playful, and the pack of wolves. There’s a delicate balance though; as the customer, as the foreigner, as the adult you get a level of respect but if you get too familiar, allow that boundary to slip, these children will not hesitate to push. For what they want is your money, and they are well trained by experience. (at right: mindy getting mobbed by a pack of wolves)

Street-side food stalls are less common here than in Chiang Mai. Snacks, meat on a stick, whole chickens, fried grasshopper or cockroach are available but less common is the $0.60 meals. Here, in the poorer country, everything costs more. And US dollars are traded as much or more so than the local Riel. (at right: roast cockroach?)

Moto repair shops line the street, fixing flats, welding, you name it. Late at night children man the hand pump petrol stands. More simple versions are one liter glass pepsi bottles with fuel. Families bed down beneath mosquito netting beside their roadside shops. Dirt roads aren’t more than a block from the main drag. (at left: my moto driver getting a flat fixed at a roadside repair stand)

It’s flat here. Like pancake flat. On the outskirts of the city, dry paddy fields stretch across the land, palm and coconut trees lining the horizon. In the marshland of the Mekong river houses on stilts rise from patches of drier earth, rows of farmed plants are navigated by longboats.

The heat here is gentle but the sun is deceptively strong. Often a breeze blows in from the Mekong providing a cooling caress in the humidity; if it isn’t lost in the fumes and roar of the asphalt streets.

It’s rough. It’s ragged. It’s poor. But surficially it is gentle, it is welcoming, it is kind. Although, I feel, you have to be ready for it. Smiles are offered freely and the bigger the smile you give back the warmer the connection, the more genuine the response. (at right: outside Phnom Penh)

Oh, and attempting to speak Khmer? It’ll win you a good laugh, from the Khmer and yourself. I think I’m starting to enjoy making a fool of myself because I can’t speak a lick.

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