Holiday in Cambodia

Picture of family.

A typical sight in Cambodia.

February 13, 2015
Day 211

I looked out of my taxi's window and took in the city. There were few cars and thousands of motorcycles. Lane markers meant nothing, but there was so much traffic, it was impossible to drive quickly or aggressively. Filth and poverty were all around me. Many foreigners, too. Like the locals, they drove motorcycles, and squeezed between other bikes whenever a tiny space opened. They wore shorts, muscle shirts and flip-flops in the sweltering heat. One motorcycle passenger leaned back and clenched the seat behind him. His hair was pulled into a bun behind his head. His driver wore a helmet, but he didn't. He looked happy as the breeze whipped against his unprotected face. This was Phnom Penh, the sprawling capital of Cambodia. It was my first day in Southeast Asia.

My taxi dropped me off at my hotel. The desk worker led me across the street to their “expansion building.” My room was on the top floor; I almost had to turn sideways to fit in the narrow staircase. On the second floor I cracked my head on the low ceiling. When we reached my room, the worker dropped a padlock into my hand and left me alone. I took a look at the room: ancient 12-inch TV set, filthy walls, shower that sprayed water all over the toilet and bathroom floor, rock-hard bed, screen window with no glass leading into the corridor, no windows to the outside world. Not that I minded any of this. It all simply served as a reminder that I was back in a developing country.

I left my stuff in my room, padlocked the door and took a walk around the city. The downtown streets were even more crowded than those near the airport. Shops where vendors hawked everything from food to bathroom cleaning supplies spilled onto the sidewalk and into the road. Motorcycles parked across the entirety of the sidewalk space that wasn't already taken up by the shops. The only place left to walk was on the streets, which of course were already filled with traffic.

Picture of Tom Selek.

Tom Selek.

After walking down the middle of the road for a few blocks, I reached the last street before the Mekong Riverfront. There were no traffic lights, stop signs or police officers directing traffic. The motorcycles came at me in a constant stream at about ten miles per hour, never speeding up or slowing down, and almost never with more than a few feet between them. The road was wide enough to fit ten motorcycles side by side, and it was nearly at capacity. If this were a game of Frogger, I would be on the last level before the machine ran out of memory and froze.

I looked at the other pedestrians, trying to figure out how to cross this thing. Appropriately, one man was wearing a t-shirt that explained how the country's sparse traffic lights worked: Green light: I can go, Yellow light: I can go, Red light: I still can go. That's when I realized the secret: In Cambodia, there are no rules. Whether you're in a car, on a motorcycle or on foot, you have to muscle your way across streets and into intersections, and count on everyone else to avoid you. I followed this plan, stepping into traffic and hoping it would part around me like the Read Sea. Miraculously, it worked.

I walked across the palm-lined grassy strip on the other side of the street and emerged on a wide pedestrian walkway. Surprisingly, only a few motorcycles were driving on it. Of course, there was still the horrible sound of ten thousand revving engines on the street next to me. Even so, this walkway was slightly more relaxed than the streets, with kids kicking a soccer ball and adults admiring the Mekong River from the comfort of plastic chairs. One huge, gaudy hotel was on the other side of the river, but otherwise, the far shore was undeveloped. I turned around and saw the sun setting behind the Veal Preah Man Temple and the Royal Palace, in a sky hazy from what I assumed was pollution. It was, dare I say, serene.

After walking around the riverfront for a bit, I successfully navigated the busiest street in town once again, and felt more at ease in this new environment. It was quite the change from Australia. For example, in Cambodia they drove on the right.

As I walked, a man sitting on the driver's seat of his three-wheeled motorcycle taxi called out to me. “Tuk tuk?” I ignored him and kept walking. He tried again: “Lady?” I was almost next to him now, and he made one last attempt at a sale: “Wanna get high?” As I continued onward, the men on the streets of Phnom Penh acquired a certain rhythm in their solicitations, always with some variant of the tuk-tuk-prostitute-marijuana theme. In fact, on the rare occasion I didn't get offered these three things, in precisely that order, I was tempted to belt out, “Hey, you forgot to offer me a lady!”

* * *
Picture of t-shirts.

Which do you prefer, “I heart Cambodia” or “No money, no honey”?

My German friend Martin was in town. We met at a street-side stall outside of my hotel for a couple of fifty-cent beers. Since leaving Wisconsin, Martin had done a lot of traveling through the US, South Africa, Australia and now Southeast Asia. We talked about his travels in more detail in a podcast that you can find here. After dinner we met up with David, another German who was staying at Martin's hostel, and walked to the night market. Angkor Wat t-shirts, elephant pants, necklaces and other cheap souvenirs were on sale from individual stalls. Bargaining was done like a zero-sum game. A dance performance was happening on a stage behind us. A mixture of locals and tourists looked on in delight, while everyone else ignored the show and shopped.

Sometime after midnight, six new guests arrived at the hostel. My girlfriend Katie, along with fellow teachers Randi, Morgan, Lori, Haisam and Natasha had just arrived in Cambodia, on their two-week holiday for Chinese New Year. It was great to see everyone again after spending the last two months in Australia. All of us, Martin included, already had our plans set for the next few days, starting with a bus to Siem Reap in the morning.

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