Phnom Penh Pet PeevesAugust 27, 2011
Many people arrive on these shores and feel instantly enamored by the place, and as they settle in are often ‘rosy-eyed’ and forgiving towards any unfamiliar customs or behavior they encounter.
It is only far later, when everything becomes commonplace and life a daily dirge that the things you formerly turned a blind eye to become an irritation. For instance, there are many rubbish-pickers trawling the streets with their gunny-sacks and carts where I live. Initially I felt plenty of sympathy for them, and still do to an extent. Every now and again we’ll get a cart lady in to buy all our recyclables as that’s what everyone does. At the same time, a few of them steal stuff and rip off car mirrors or whatever, and others just rip open your garbage bags and leave a mess all over the sidewalk, so they can be an annoyance.
Monks are great for adding a splash of color to drab suburban scenarios; something many photographers have exploited over the decades. But Westerners, I feel, often naively associate Buddhist monks with the Christian monks or priests in their home countries who are generally folks who’ve have decided to do that stuff indefinitely as a vocation, and while there are abbots and clergymen within the Cambodian Buddhist community who have been there for many years, most of the monks you see around town are just young guys doing a short stint. I’m not raising this point in a wholly negative way, and I’m sure many benefit from their time in the monkhood, I’m just trying to contrast it with the life-long career aspect of the Christian equivalent. In any case, about five-hundred young monks attend a development college near my house, so I just don’t really find them all that interesting or unusual anymore, and I guess it’s a hell of a lot better than having five-hundred freshy boys going there.
Next, everyone who has lived here for a while has probably got to stage where they get rather bothered about certain things. At first I didn’t seem to notice garbage and filth on the street; maybe it was the more central neighborhoods I lived in, but now it really pisses me off.
For example, I’ve got a big yard in front of my apartment, and various people wander in and out every day, which is no big deal; they are all there for legitimate reasons – neighbors, relations, people visiting the café next door. The problem is that an awful lot of them throw garbage all over the place. This can range from plastic bags to drinks, bottles, pips, crab/ egg/ cockle-shells to various other crap which is spread around like it’s an attractive accoutrement to my bare yard.
Parts of the street are clean, but some close neighbors just throw everything in one festering heap that is never quite gone. Sweeping stuff off the curb is also popular, like it’s going to disappear or something. Actually, it does disappear – down the nearest drain so it blocks all the sewers and leaves the whole area under a meter of water come monsoon time. Even in restaurants, people commonly chuck used tissues or empty drinks cans on the floor, which is no big deal as the staff will clean it up, but you’d most likely get thrown out for doing that in the West.
There also seems to be little consideration for other people’s convenience or access. Cars parallel-parked one meter out from the curb are normal, others parked right across the sidewalk so tight that you have to walk on the road to get past are even more common, that is if there isn’t some stall with a rusty spike at the exact level of a barang’s temple jutting out from it, just to get you out of your complacent mood and keep you on your toes. In addition, I’ve often had problems just trying to get in the door of various shops or businesses because there are so many motorbikes packed around the entrance. “This is a great idea for a business. Let’s make the place completely inaccessible and then we can scratch our nads when the rent is due. ’’
Still, it often kind of works out somehow and if it starts bothering you, you can always get someone else to do a lot of the dreary stuff for you, or simply get the hell out of dodge for a while. Taking a break often works, a short holiday abroad or a trip back home will often do the trick. It’s worth remembering too that the negative feelings about Cambodia are often temporary, and come and go in phases. It’s never going to be perfect here, and who wants it to be anyway; that would spoil much of the country’s appeal.