Phnom Penh Street Stories: Part OneJuly 23, 2012
For the past 3 years I have enjoyed cycling, strolling, relaxing in a tuk-tuk or riding pillion around the streets of Phnom Penh, gorging myself on the visual feast that surrounds me. Of course I am a little less wide-eyed now, but still, I see a new thing every day.
I have decided it would be interesting to take one street at a time, delve a little deeper and maybe talk to some people on the street and hear their stories. My boyfriend Makara often takes me around on a ‘darleang’ or ‘walk play’ on his moto, so we thought it would be a fun extension of this… a ride around with a little bit of street investigation as we went.
So we decided to start with one of PP’s most memorable and interesting streets -for me because of its contrast between shiny/new with lost/forgotten- and for Makara because it is a street where he remembers a transitional point in his own life here in Phnom Penh. The street is Samdech Sothearos.
Let’s start at the beginning of Sothearos and the turn off to ‘Soul Town’, a forlorn entrance to a huge KTV building.
Sadly, some disgusting men will feel free to take advantage of girls there whose souls I am sure were left somewhere far away from the entrance to this ironically named ‘Soul Town’. At this point I would advise watching ‘The Girls of Phnom Penh’ or ‘The Virginity Trade’ to hear the stories of some young women that end up trapped in places like this.
These films explain a side of Cambodia that I think everyone should be made aware of. I am not an NGO worker or an expert on prostitution or woman’s rights, neither am I naïve enough to think that I could go into ‘Soul Town’ and ‘save’ the girls there. However, I do hope that I have and will continue to make my own very small contribution to promote the independence of women in Cambodia.
Not ever as much as I would like to, but as it is pointed out in ‘The Virginity Trade’, it seems the problem lies with some men from Asia as well as the sex-pats from other countries refusing or casually dismissing women as humans.
Moving on from ‘Soul Town’ we hit what is well-known as ‘Wicker World’ where you can buy lots of furniture and other things made out of ….well rattan actually but ‘Wicker World’ has a better ring to it. For me this is the perfect example of why I like living in Phnom Penh. B&Q or Home-Base on an industrial estate in Essex brings out an almost phobic reaction in me.
I know it is a personal thing but furniture shops on industrial estates are pretty much Hell on Earth for me, however these rattan furniture shops bring a smile to my face with the big swinging chairs, or the wide circular chairs and woven lampshade balls amongst hula hoops and shoe-racks, all there out in the open without any garish lights or labeled aisles of goods.
Right next to the pretty damn ugly Russian Embassy annex (see above) is the beautiful Svay Propay Pagoda where Makara recollects his transition from being a monk to a working life.
‘I was a monk for about eleven years, from the age of 12. I left my home in Kandal Province and went to stay at Vichetaram Pagoda in Kien Svay. My brother was also there. We stayed there for five years. Then I moved to Wat Botum Pagoda in Phnom Penh and stayed there for six years. ‘
‘When I was a monk I woke up at 5.30 for ‘Joal Preah Vassar’ (Morning Prayer) and did chores like sweeping leaves or cleaning the Pagoda. Then we went to do ‘Bunbart’ which is where we went to collect the offerings from the lay people until around 10.30. At 10.30 we ate and then we could not eat after midday but we could have soft drinks or tea. We rested until around 2pm then we would study Bali or Sanskrit as well as general knowledge.
That was my routine for ten years. I could usually only visit my homeland once a year for Khmer New Year so when I was younger, especially when my brother went to another Pagoda for a year and I had no family with me, I felt lonely and home-sick sometimes.
When I was 23, I stayed with my brother at Svay Propey on Samdech Sothearos Pagoda but my life as a monk stopped when I got a job as a waiter at Yindiy Restaurant on St. 63.
I was nervous but excited going to work but as my English was not so good at first it was difficult to understand the foreigners and I felt embarrassed sometimes when I had to ask them to repeat their order.
A year later I went to work at Liquid on 278 and it was a difficult job – busy with long hours but my waiting/bar skills and English had improved so I felt more confident working there. The customers were mostly friendly especially when I learnt what the regular customers drank and the tips were quite good.
There are some places where the tips are shared fairly between the staff at the end of the night, so even if the salary is not so good the tips make that better. Where I work now at ‘Comme a La Maison’ the wages are slightly higher but none of the tips go to the staff, straight to the owner, which is unfair.
Also, we do not get any of the Cambodian public holidays off; not even Khmer New Year. Even if we wanted to go and vote we had to take PH (personal holiday) and make the time up by working our day off the next week.
In service jobs, some customers are rude but I just ignore them. I don’t let it bother me. There was only one time when I can remember feeling really angry. Once a man was very drunk and he accidentally left a big roll up of money on the chair when he left. I saw the money and I didn’t count it but I could see it was a lot because it was a big roll of $50s. I ran out the bar and managed to call to him.
I gave him the money back. He looked at me drunkenly and took it. Not even a ‘Thank You’. I felt really annoyed that night.
Before, the Pagoda used to be quite free about what time they would close the gates at night but suddenly it changed to a 9.30 close and this proved difficult. I would finish my shift at 1 or 2am and if my brother was not free with his tuk-tuk to give me a lift I would have to walk the short distance back.
Then I would have to climb the locked gates of the Pagoda and the monks on guard would call out ‘who’s that?’ but when I just said it was me it was Ok. I would sleep at 2.30 and wake to the sound of the morning prayers three hours later, although most of the time I would just go back to sleep because I was exhausted from my bar shift.
That’s when the transition from monk-hood to working life began for me and I drive past there often and sometimes meet my friends who are still staying there- I have happy memories from that place.
I also get my hair cut on Sothearos. I have always gone there because the barber is very good. His name is Thoun. When I asked him about his work as he cut my hair he told me.
“I have been cutting hair for more than ten years. I cut on average about ten guy’s hair a day. It’s 5000 riel a hair-cut. I open at 7.30 and close at 5.00. I moved to Phnom Penh 2 years ago, before that I cut hair in Svay Riang province. I don’t pay rent for the building but I share my profits with the landlord.”
Anna Spencer and Pen Makara
Tomorrow the journey continues north towards the famous ‘White Building’ plus Anna and Makara meet ‘the Eggman.’