The Meanderthals

The Rules of the Road

Here’s a synopsis of the order of life in Phnom Pehn: there is none. There are lines painted on major roads to indicate traffic lanes, but they are largely ignored. There are traffic signals to keep tuk-tuks, motorbiles and Lexus SUVs from colliding and creating vehicular carnage at every intersection: red lights are routinely ignored, quickening the pulses of oncoming motorists and giving cops perched at the intersections something to do as they radio their counterparts at the next intersection with instructions on who to pull over and ticket.

There are prices on everything in markets, shops and street vendors, always in US dollars, sometimes in Cambodian Riel, but they are always, always, always negotiable. Proper stores seem to post prices that stick, but everyone else seems up for bargaining.

Beggars, tuk tuk drivers and interpid motorcycle drivers provide a steady stream of appeals to casual passersby: “You want tuk-tuk, sir?” “You need motorbike, madame?” “” Where you go today, sir?” And at night, the appeals take on other dimensions”: “You want smoke marijuana?” and other possibilities we wave off and keep moving.

It is hot, even in the mornings, and everyone covers their bodies to protect them from the searing sun. Long pants, long-sleeved shirts and even sport jackets are commonplace. We seem the only people in the city who are sweating in shorts and golf shirts, and as we patrol our new neighborhood we tower above the masses and stand out as two of the few foreigners around.

Yesterday I noticed two young women giggling at us as we blundered our way through questions about cell phones. I have no idea whether it was our clothes, our skin, or our failure to grasp local customs, but it left me feeling exposed, almost naked.

It is an odd, weird and somewhat uncomfortable position we’re in; a distinct role reversal. My cousin Brian summarized it in an email: makes you wonder what people new to US shores felt, not knowing the language or customs. I identify with immigrants and with those of different skin color and national origins who have stood out for generations in the US.

Our clumsy attempts at Khmer are met with good favor. We know how to ask “How are you?” “”What’s your name?””Where is the (insert one: restaurant, bathroom, street)?” Our pronunciations elicit grins, sometimes laughter, but the natives do their best to work with us and answer our questions without engaging too much. They seem to know we’ll soon slip into despair should the words come too fast or many.

“‘Ma’an?” I ask the woman at the Russian market as I finger an XXL silkshirt she is selling for $8. Her English might always surpass my Khmer, and she promises that she can change any US dollars, even $100.

Here the dollar is king, and with an absurdly devalued Riel it’s for good reason. It takes 4200 Riel to make a dollar, necessitating a fistful of tiny bills to pay for a $6 lunch. Far simpler to fork over a $20 and get ready to count the change.

It’s inexpensive here, but not so cheap as we’d read and heard. A tuk-tuk ride across town is $3, less than half of what it cost us for two cups of tooth-rottingly sweet coffee and a pair of tolerable pastries. Dinner last night was $8.50 for two plates of rice, noodles and shrimp, a huge bottle of mineral water and a fruit shake for Gabi. We spent as much buying batteries and suction cup hangers for our cramped room, where we needed something to hang our towels to dry after one of the 3-4 showers we will take daily.

We wonder how on this earth one could actually live on the stipend we’ll receive, and we are grateful to know that won’t be a problem for us. We will supplement our income so we can afford some comforts, notably air conditioning and high speed internet at home. Otherwise, we’ll live as the locals.

And in some respects, that will require a bit of an adjustment on our part.

Our guest house boasts “Western-style showers,” but I think that’s more a reference to the old Wild West of the US than contemporary stateside styles. It’s a hand-held shower head attached to a water heater bolted to the bathroom wall. Tiled throughout, it’s a one-room-fits-all-functions proposition, where the drain in the corner of the room next to the toilet allows shower water to head south. There is air conditioning, which we’re grateful for, and it works just fine. We also got the tv to work last night, and to our extreme pleasure we watched an excellent National Geographic special on how Angkor Wat was created. Seems as though the program director must have had us in mind last night.

There’s a brilliant blue sky outside, blistering sun, and a bazillion motorbikes blasting by, providing contrast to the saffron-robed monks who stroll the streets beneath parasols. It’s becoming too hot for most people, which explains why Cambodians start work at 7:30 a.m. at the latest and take a two-hour lunch break during the hottest part of the day.

It’s even too hot for the rats that came out last night, horrifying Gabi more than me, but reminding us that we are most definitely not in Kansas anymore.

Four days ago we were sitting in Java Sun Coffee Shop in Marblehead, sipping an iced latte with my daughter Kirsty and speculating what life would be like come the end of the week.

“Weird” is the word that keeps coming to mind for both of us, but not necessarily in a bad way. Everything – and I mean EVERY thing – is different, but that’s what we set out to find.

And I have to admit it: the anarchist in me appreciates the absence of rules.


  • Anonymous

    Reading every word, so glad that you are there as a couple and I’m waiting to hear more as you get settled. I have a feeling I’d be booking a flight home by now…. so I’m hanging in with you. xoxox RC

  • Francie

    I hear you guys. Talk about a cultural and physical SHIFT! The drain hole in the bathroom floor sounded familiar (throughout Latin America, for me, where the one-room facility was all the norm). Am hoping you won’t experience the plate-sized visiting cockroaches we lived with there! But it seems that nothing should surprise you at this point! And do think of the local four-footed vermin as part of the landscape — no avoiding them in those hot places! As for the zillions of mopeds, ubiquitous bargaining (this will become your friend as you settle in, and is common everywhere else in the world except the US!!), and searing sun …. this is where your sense of humor will carry you farther than about anything. Let the natives laugh! Laugh back! You aren’t anything except what you are — strangers in a strange land, at least for now. Soon, though, wise and tolerant visitors …We MISS you!!!fbk

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.