Memoirs of a Grizzled Expat (2)May 22, 2012
My immediate concern on arriving in Phnom Penh was to find accommodation. I’d already identified a guesthouse in Lonely Planet and booked a room. The original site is now a series of comfortable apartments popular with expats including prominent members of the K440 forum. Back in 2005 it was a little more humble…
Thanks to my prior research I found a place to stay. Given my budgetary constraints it is necessary to do this since I will inevitably be staying in a run-down areas and I want to give myself a fighting chance of not being robbed or sleeping in a brothel – believe me, you can’t assume anything.
It had what I wanted – a bed, a fan, running water within half a kilometre in a building that hadn’t had a lick of paint in thirty years. It’s another place that appears to be run exclusively by teenage girls, and I can see why; the nightly rate I’m paying is the equivalent of two cups of coffee – imagine that in London!
I had to slam the door to shut it and the window fell out (I caught it). The lock’s a bit dicky but then if you lean on the wall it’ll cave in so the door is a lesser issue. When I found the toilet I noted that an inspired graffiti artist had named it the ‘mosquito breeding facility’.
So long as you avoid the john around the hours of dawn and dusk you give yourself that fighting chance, and for me that’s what it’s all about in this part of the world. Sure, for an extra couple of bucks you can get poofy standards of health and safety but then you’d miss all the unique charm of this city. I’m a great believer in finding that middle way – at least until I’m robbed or succumb to amoebic dysentery.
Another early observation is a topic that continues to occupy the minds of newbies and long-termers to this day – traffic…
I’ve been in India, Nepal, Thailand and Laos and in each country I’ve been shocked at what appears to be a complete absence of traffic discipline. However it is here in Cambodia where it really is literally absent.
Drive on the left or right? Give Way? Stop or slow down at a junction? Slow down if a pedestrian is crossing in front of you? Turn you lights on when it’s dark? Nah. Every day I spend maybe ten minutes on the balcony near my room looking down that the street life below, including a cross roads.
Every day I’ve seen a traffic accident – nothing serious, and fortunately at the moment there aren’t too many cars in the country; I’d say two wheels outnumber four wheels by a factor of at least fifty to one. The number of children who have told me of the death of a parent or elder brother in a motorbike accident has been quite noticeable.
For all that what strikes me most is the way that driving on the roads in Cambodia is quite an existential experience. By that I mean that with no rules to follow and subconsciously know that others are following, every minor decision has to be consciously considered, weighing up the unique situation in the moment.
Do I slow down at this junction? Speed up? Give way? Weave my way through? Each decision has to be thought through without precedent and without hesitation. The one mistake you make could be your last.
I’m glad nobody bothers with poncy helmets though. On my sixth and final night in Phnom Penh I saw a taxi – four wheels, ‘taxi’ written on the side, the lot. In a world of cyclos (sort of backward rickshaws with the cyclist behind the passengers) and motos, the recent appearance of the first tuk-tuks is causing ruptions; a taxi is way futuristic.
Still can’t work out the origin of the term ‘taxi girls’ for hookers though. That same evening I was caught up in my first accident. The rider of a moto coming towards us was distracted by his mobile and stopped in the centre of the crowded highway. My knee slammed into his wheel and I reacted by throwing out my arm to maintain balance which was hit by a car passing behind. No harm done though. Pedestrians and passengers get to have an existential experience every minute too.
The only things that have changed since those observations is that tuk-tuks are no longer new phenomena but well-established and notorious, and there are probably more than ten times the number of cars on the roads; watch out – one of them is mine.
In the next instalments I’ll be focusing on my early observations and encounters with the Cambodian people in Phnom Penh.