The Meanderthals

The pulse of Phnom Penh

Meanderthalic musings on a steamy Sunday morning from the land of incredible contrasts.


First, though, Happy Birthday to my dear daughter Emme, whom I spoke with this morning (yesterday afternoon, her time) in LA. It is difficult for me to believe you are truly 22, my dear. One of us is getting old.


Today started for me at 5:30, when I was awakened by the faint pleadings of a pushcart street vendor. I couldn’t make out a word and thus don’t know what she was selling. Probably grilled eggs, which are ubiquitous here and sold in two styles: eggs as we know them (kinda), and embryonic eggs, which are partially developed ducks still in the shell after 20 days of incubation.


Pass the salt, please.


Riding on a tuk tuk back from dinner last night, I was struck by the number of people who scratch out a living selling just about everything on just about every street corner.


I’ll start  with the “weed guy”, as I now call him, who holds court on a highly-trafficked street corner on Sisowath Quay near the riverfront, selling pot and, as I learned last night, just about everything else. I usually walk by with Gabi with me, and he normally approaches with a smile and mutters under his breath, “You want smoke?” and flashed me a bag of either Thai-grade pot or oregano, I know not which.


I smile, thank him and pass him by.


Last night, however, he walked with me, perhaps sensing a sale. “I know you,” he said breezily, my persistent rebukes over the past three weeks apparently having made some sort of impression.


He flashed a baggie. I shook my head.


“My body is a temple,” I joked. Big mistake


 “You want fun?” he asked.


“I’m having fun.” I responded..


“You want woman?” he asked.


“I have a woman,” I replied, missing Gabi terribly as I hustled off towards the night market to lose myself in a crowd of people a foot shorter than me. She is away on a trip with her NGO, so I had a solo Saturday night in Phnom Penh.


“I wait here. You come back,” he promised. He’s just one of thousands selling something, it occurred to me as I ducked beneath a restaurant’s awning.


Most street corners have stands set up with two-liter bottles of gasoline for sale. Coke and Pepsi bottles, recycled with low-octane tuk tuk juice. Cheap, cheap, as they say here.


Kids along the riverfront aggressively hawk tourists, landing on them with the intensity of the flies that hover about the markets here. They sell books, mostly, photocopied knockoffs conveniently (for them) covered in plastic wrap to conceal the poor print quality.


One pre-teen male with a Shaquille O’Neal-sized faked diamond earring was selling magazines emblazoned with “Not for Sale” on it. He was unabashed about his commercial arrogance when I questioned him about it.


There are beggars along the waterfront, too, many disfigured by genetic misfortune or landmines. Either is possible and both are widespread.


It’s the kids who are most difficult to look past, their outstretched hands before pleading faces with sad eyes, many of them put up to the task by parents or other handlers who use the waifs as a means of income. It is strongly encouraged to not give to them, and restaurant owners and shopkeepers routinely urge them along as they harass customers, sometimes physically.


I counted six vendors selling coconuts on one street as I rode along Sisowath Quay back to Sihanouk, and to our guest house. There were no buyers, but the vendors were very much open for business at 10 p.m.


The streets are non-stop supermarket aisles from early in the morning till late at night.


Plastic kitchen goods, woven baskets, brooms made of reeds, every imaginable animal part deep fried or wok fried with noodles. Fruit shakes and fresh-squeezed juices, the aforementioned duck and chicken eggs. Baguettes (which, interestingly enough are delicious, partly made with rice flour, which makes them very light) filled with gawd knows what.


Women tote long poles over their shoulders, one end carrying steaming pots of food, the other a basket full of plates, forks and spoons. Given the warnings about the risks of buying street food (the prevalence of hepatitis itself a deterrent and the fact that I am just now getting over a week’s experience with a bacterial infestation), I cannot imagine ordering dinner streetside.


Pushcart vendors sell drinks. Others trudge endlessly along, squeaky toy in one hand as they pull or push carts full of recyclables, announcing their presence with a periodic squeeze of the toy. Sometimes they use just the squeaky part, attaching it to an empty bottle of dish washing liquid, which when squeezed works just as well.


These are inventive and persistent people.


One of the most popular pushcart is the “cockle” vendor. Rattan baskets full of the tiny mollusks bathed in pungent herbs either steam or smoke over a charcoal-fired barbecue. Passersby simply tuck into the mountain with their hands, extracting the tiny cooked animals with toothpicks and dumping the shells on the streets.


The vendors whip out a broom from time to time and sweep up the carnage, thus keeping the traffic flowing and business booming.


And no, I’ve not had the urge just yet. I’m taking my chances with the restaurants, some of which aren’t probably much different than any of the streetside eateries.


It’s a bit overwhelming to leave from a restaurant and steel yourself for the barrage of tuk tuk drivers looking for a fare. “Daal laing” seems to do the best trick, which means “I’m just walking casually…” Sometimes there are so many it is impossible to answer them all, and one is forced into silence. It feels wrong to ignore them altogether, but as little as a smile and slight nod only encourages them.


So it is in this city of contrast and contradictions, where the sidewalks are also parking lots for motorbikes, where any flat surface becomes a handy spot for a post-lunch nap, and where men routinely answer the call of nature by pulling to the side of the road and emptying their bladders against the closest available wall.


And as I rode in the tuk tuk last night on a gorgeous Phnom Penh evening – the wall of the Royal Palace to my left, with its ornate architecture and stately presence; a battery of street people to my right, hawking wares and napping in hammocks strung between two trees – I felt an eerie comfort in the unevenness of it all.


Am I becoming accustomed to life here, with all its harsh incongruities? Is that possible, after only three weeks?


None of the locals seems affected by the chaos, the uncertainty, the relentless exposure that impoverished human beings seem to have here.


Perhaps, like the tuk tuk drivers who offer help to a fellow driver who has lost his way or cannot find a destination, they all look after each other in a symbiotic co-existence of peacefulness that a Westerner like me simply cannot comprehend.


At least not yet. But I’m working on it.


In the distance I hear the faint squeak of an approaching recycling cart vendor as Sunday continues, another day in this pulsating city of countless heartbeats.



  • fbk

    A city of contrasts indeed — more like a city of unending humanity busily scratching out a living. But I’m most intrigued by your comments about the people and their attitudes towards one another. Can it really be true that they simply accept each other’s needs and make way? This, for a Westerner, is difficult, as you’ve noted. When the chips are down, are they selfless in the midst of impending conflict? As, when one driver scoots in front of another? You note the absence of the ubiquitous Western middle finger gesture — if I read you right, street life in this city is far more live-and-let-live? Or … Tell more about this ….

  • sweldon5688

    I love to read your reports on this new life you are living. It’s like visiting w/o leaving my easy chair, which right now is on the front porch of Tom’s sister’s in Portland, ME. And by the sounds of it, I may be too faint of stomach for the real thing!! It’s a beautiful sunny day here today and kicking back after yesterday’s beach wedding at Old Orchard Beach is the perfect activity. I may venture out to the amazing Artists Supply Warehouse for some inspiration shortly and I will think of you on your Tim tuk dodging street vendors when I get to the section of bamboo papers from Asia. Of course, I will also think about partially developed baby ducks and lose my mojo for creativity!!!! So be it……I’ll survive.

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