The Meanderthals

The sights and sounds of Phnom Penh

A half-naked child pokes the dirty sidewalk with a stick along Norodorm Street as her parents labor nearby to heat steaming pots of cockles they sell to passersby. In the distance behind them looms the towering presence of Nagaworld, with its gleaming towers and promise of air conditioned restaurants, hotel and casino.

An elephant stops by the side of the road, and its mahout (trainer) extracts a large plastic bag into which he scoops the impressive deposit the beast had just left on the street. He wraps it up neatly and places it curbside, apparently to be picked up along with the trash collection. The elephant waits patiently, then resumes its lumbering stroll to Wat Phnom when prodded by its handler.

Such are the contrasts of Phnom Penh, where people walk the streets from dawn to dusk collecting recyclables, street vendors sell everything from animal intestines to fruit drinks, and laborers build, clean and maintain properties while fully clothed, either in defiance of or seeking protection from the relentless sun above.

They start early here, taking advantage of the relative cool of the early mornings, and break for an hour or two in the early afternoon to escape the heat of the day.

Meanwhile, countless Lexus SUVs roll by motorbikes and tuk tuks, windows rolled up to retain every bit of air conditioned comfort against another steamy day in the city. The well- dressed children of politicians and business leaders strut outside pool halls and buy expensive clothes and electronics in the air conditioned mall, just steps from beggars with unspeakable disabilities work the streets in the pursuit of a few Riels.

Women trudge along with empty pushcarts in the morning, clutching in one of their hands an empty plastic bottle with a squeaky toy attached to the top. They squeeze the bottle from time to time, creating a sound that resembles a baby’s squeaky toy. It’s their signal for residents and shopkeepers to bring out their empty plastic bottles, which they’ll collect and turn into the recycling station for a meager living.

Bicycle peddlars are everywhere, and they sell a range of goods and foods from dusters and plastic wash bins, to drinks, to the Cambodian delicacy of embryonic eggs, which they promote with a recorded message that our limited language skills do not permit us to understand.

Phnom Penh is an overload of sights, sounds, smells and other sensations. It is beautiful, horrible, scary, peaceful, tumultuous, tranquil – all at once. Every day. All day.

Oddly, the street noise is not present for me. It doesn’t keep me awake at night, and it doesn’t distract or annoy me during the day, as it would in New York, London, San Francisco or Chicago. Even as we cross the streets, looking not one or two ways, but ALL ways in an attempt to avoid the motos, tuk tuks and cars who weave in all directions, there’s a strange logic to the city’s surging street ballet.

Near collisions are met with smiles, not extended middle fingers. A tuktuk driver cutting across traffic on the wrong side of the road is merely attempting to get to his desired street, and motorists steer around him and seem unfazed by the defiance of traffic laws.

A red light at an intersection creates an instant logjam of humanity. Truck drivers wait next to SUV drivers, and motorbikes flow around them to occupy every available square foot as they collectively wait for the light to change. Piles of goods several feet high are stacked on some motorbikes; on one we saw two guys carrying a plate of glass roughly eight feet tall, the man in the back holding it vertically, wedged against the driver’s back for stability.

Tuk tuk drivers edge forward, filling any available open space, and more motorbikes flow into the mix, sometimes rolling over sidewalks in search of a favorable position. Families – three or four people on a bike are common – wait amid the masses for a chance to resume their travels.

Tiny babies are often held by one arm on its mother’s laps, protected at the front by dad, and by the back by mom. I think of car seat laws in the States, and try to appreciate a culture in which transportation is a means of getting from one place to another, and where safety comes simply in the strong arms of a loving mother.

The light changes and everyone moves at once. There are no collisions, no furtive glances, no staredowns. They simply proceed.

We pass elaborate wedding venues adorned by hundreds of gorgeous flowers, streetside celebrations of nuptials to come. They appear randomly, sometimes on a major street, others on a smaller side street, and occupy sidewalks and sometimes parts of the streets themselves.

Getting around by tuk tuk can be a collective effort, particularly while our grasp of Khmer limits our ability to give directions. It’s getting better every day, and most drivers smile at our awkward attempts to explain exactly where “laik mooey roy, dtop mooey, khang kraowey Monivong” might be (street 111 back of Monivong Boulevard).

They often get lost, but they consistently appear determined to deliver their fares to the precise location requested. To do so they will often stop and ask other tuk tuk drivers, passersby or shop keepers for help. They’ll do U turns to correct their errors, and will drive back and forth along a street, studying the senseless and order-less street numbering system for a sign of the destination. Some drivers have refused to let us off and walk to find it ourselves. Must be a pride thing, or maybe just a sense of fairness or goodness among them.

And it’s all for $2.

So it goes in this city of great contrasts, where opportunity arrives in a chance to drive a tuk tuk seven days a week for 14 hours a day. It beats the rice fields of the countryside, where average daily income is about the same as one tuk tuk ride.

One comment

  • fbk

    Almost as if the hand-to-mouth existence makes driving in traffic a relative breeze, and an effort that is simply a matter of the day’s work. Especially loved the bit about the smile instead of the middle finger — we have so much to learn from other cultures, no?

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