I come to you from a lovely cafe in Phnom Penh frequented by tourists, ex-pats and a few locals. It’s certainly a “Western-style” coffee place but, a girl’s got to have her indulgences (aka hazlenut soy lattes), right? Plus, it’s half the price of Starbucks with far nicer baristas.
My first week in Cambodia has been an adjustment but by no means do I mean that in a negative way. Things are completely and entirely backwards from what I’m used to back in Canada but, for some reason, that hasn’t tripped me up yet. This post is dedicated to my first impressions and things that I’ve noticed and thought about over the past week.
I suppose the first thing I should address is the weather, given at everyone in Winnipeg keeps telling me how cold it is there and that there’s snow on the ground. I love that it’s 40 degrees Celsius here. Yes, I get sweaty and, yes, I have two showers per day but that’s how Cambodians roll.
Speaking of the weather, Cambodians have interesting ways of dealing with the heat that I would have never guessed. First, all the young people wear jeans and t-shirts on a daily basis–did I mention it’s 40 degrees above? At first, I had no idea how or why they did it. Then I talked to the coordinator at CVF and she enlightened me: they do it to protect themselves from the sun and it makes them sweat more, which serves to cool them off. So, I’m trying to rock the Cambodian look and I’m wearing my jeans and a random t-shirt that I bought for $5 (which is a lot of money here) at the Western style mall.
Quick tangent! I’m not sure why, but many of the young people here wear Starbucks t-shirts. I don’t know why people are so fascinated with Starbucks in Phnom Penh, especially because there are none here, but it seems like a definite hot commodity. I’m tempted to buy one to go with my jeans…
Alright, back to it! Second, Phnom Penh-ians (I may have made that up) don’t walk anywhere, unless they’re small children walking home from school. For the most part, they ride bicycles and motos, sometimes tuk tuks and rarely cars. From my experience, walking more than two blocks will cause sweating from every single pore on my body, which isn’t horrible if it’s a breezier day. However, it usually isn’t very breezy so the locals create their own wind via their modes of transportation hence why riding a tuk tuk on a hot day is actually quite pleasant because of the wind rushing by. I appreciate their logic.
Now, for transportation, while I’m on the subject. I’d say a good 85% of people here drive motos, which are either dirt bike type things or scooters and another 5% ride bicycles. It’s really difficult to communicate what the traffic is like here with words. (**WARNING! PARENTAL DISCRETION IS ADVISED FOR THE FOLLOWING SENTENCE**) I suppose the most accurate term I can come up with is a clusterfuck. There are no rules, no stop signs, very, very few traffic lights and even fewer crosswalks. On a daily basis, I see people driving on the wrong side of the road and I even saw a giant work truck break down while trying to make it’s way across a very busy street. Motos squeezed through the tight spaces between cars so they could continue on their way. The workers in the truck just got out, started pushing it down the street (there’s nowhere to pull over) and nobody batted an eye.
I should also emphasize just how much people love their motos. They literally don’t walk anwhere unless they’re small kids (between 4 and 6 years old) who don’t know how to ride a bike yet. Maybe they don’t walk because there are no sidewalks, maybe there are no sidewalks because they don’t walk. In any case, I think it comes down to avoiding sweat. I had kind of a funny experience yesterday when I asked one of the staff members if I could use their laptop to try and upload something to Dropbox which he agreed to. However, the internet in the entire building went down at that moment and they couldn’t get it working again so he offered to show me where a nearby internet cafe was. I already knew there are several internet cafes right on my street but, when he said “Let’s take my moto, it’ll be faster”, I figured he knew of a really good one that was slightly further. I was all excited about my first ride on a moto and just starting to enjoy it when we pulled into a driveway. This internet cafe was less than a block away! What did we learn from this story? Phnom Penh-ians LOVE the crap out of their motos.
My experience has only been riding in tuk tuks so far (other than the aforementioned short-lived moto ride) and I would describe it as crowded. People in cars, motos, bikes and mobile food stands will be a foot from you sitting in your tuk tuk. I suppose fair skinned people are quite the novelty around here so I usually get some stares from people on motos and in cars. Some people signal, sort of and you need to deal with the constant fumes. I may need to take another leaf out of the book of Phnom Penh-ians and buy a SARS mask to wear while in transit.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: how in the world do you cross the street when there are no crosswalks or rules to the road?? Well, my friends, you just need to walk into traffic, a skill I’ve picked up quickly. Generally, the rules are: yield to cars and trucks, motos can steer around you, keep looking around and NEVER stop. Your job as a pedestrian is to just keep moving and be predictable. So, if you stop, you’ve just caused a traffic jam. Also, if you try to wait for traffic to stop or ease up to cross the street, even when crossing a tiny residential road, you’ll never, ever get across. I find this part of every day living amusing and I take pride in the fact that I crossed a main four-lane road yesterday during rush hour. There were about 10 motos surrounding me but, you just have to not panic and keep moving with the traffic flow. And I thought Quebec City was bad for j-walking.
I think the markets have been my biggest shock so far. On the one hand, there are so many delicious-looking fruits and veggies for sale, including dragonfruit and jackfruit which can be hard to come by in the Peg. On the other hand, all the meat just sits out, unrefridgerated with flies crawling on it and some of the fish continue to flop around in their containers. If that weren’t enough to make someone swear off meat, the smell of the markets will. I think the pungent odour probably comes from a stinky little fish that Cambodians like to eat called “prahok”. I’ve been told that locals think it smells similar to cheese–they think it stinks and they don’t like it.
Not only do the markets have veggies, fruit, sketchy meat/seafood and unpleasant odours. There’s also the fact that they’re incredibly crowded. With an interior market, the aisles are usually large enough for one person to walk comfortably but it gets a little squishy when you need to pass someone, which is often. Outdoor markets are usually more spacious but then you have to compete with the motos driving through. Actually, now that I think about it, I’ve also had to dodge motos in interior markets as well, which gets really tricky, especially considering that it’s a cultural faux pas to cross in front of a Cambodian (in case you were wondering, you’re expected to go behind them and only cross in front if you can’t avoid it).
One thing that I really don’t like about the markets is the aggressive selling techniques of the stall owners. I like to browse, look through things and think about things before I buy them. But, if I keep my eyes locked on something for more than three seconds, somebody is beside me trying to persuade me to buy it, even if I was just curious as to what a t-shirt had printed on it. When I try to walk away, they tell me they’ll give me a discount to try to convince me to buy something I never wanted in the first place. It gets tiring when this happens 10 times in the same trip.
Another tangent! A similar phenomenon occurs when trying to walk somewhere–anywhere–even if it’s just a couple blocks. Tuk tuk drivers and moto drivers (that I’m pretty sure are just people who own motos looking for some money, not people who actually do it for a living) CONSTANTLY wave and yell to try to pick you up. I understand they’re looking for work and they don’t make a lot of money anyway but it’s really annoying being constantly badgered by them when all I want is to enjoy a walk, swimming in my own thoughts and impressions.
Overall, markets were and remain an overwhelming experience for me. But they’re worth it for the fresh fruit and fried bananas. Nom nom nom.
Another thing that sticks out to me is the amount of animals around. The regulars are there: lots of dogs and a small handul of cats. Most people have dogs that they don’t train, that bark and howl at all hours of the night. I found out that few people have cats because many people here are allergic to them. Then there are the irregulars: litters of puppies roaming around, tons of geckos crawling up the walls and chicken families. There’s one particular chicken that lives nearby whose eggs hatched not long ago and it’s really cute to see the chicks follow their mama around.
As I’m sure you all know, I’m such a sucker for cute animals. However, I’m cognisant of the rabies risk here and, since I opted out of the ridiculously expensive shots, I’ve managed to stop myself from playing with a friendly-looking dogs or slinky kitty. But, as I was walking out of a particular clothing stand, there was a tiny white puppy on a leash that came up to me, flopped on it’s side and waited for tummy scratches. The only thing that could stop me from petting that little guy was if it were foaming at the mouth or trying to hurt me. But it wasn’t doing either of those things, it just wanted some love and I decided that giving this little girl some loving was worth the rabies risk (don’t ask about my logic on that one). So I scratched her tummy, her ears and pet her head. She loved every second of it and didn’t want me to leave, which she communicated by scratching at my legs and licking my feet. You know, I think I’m going to Google “when do symptoms of rabies start” when I’m done with this post…
Now, here are some other pictures of things that I’ve seen around. The first few are from the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as S-21. Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge converted the school into a place of pain and torture for his fellow Cambodians in the mid- to late-1970s. The Khmer Rouge photographed every single prisoner brought to S-21–both the volume of pictures and individual pictures are horrifying. The pictures afterwards are from various places around the city.
One last thought before I leave you again, fair Internets: there’s a lot of sand here and, somehow (and I don’t know how) most of it ends up in my sandals–the high quality ones I bought specifically for this trip. Thus, my feet are constantly dirty and I hate it. I can live with being greasy for awhile, sweaty for a time but I have no tolerance for dirty feet.
Well, that’s all for today, my Internets. I’ll bore you with my drabble again soon! And remember kids: always risk rabies for really cute puppies!