Anth in Phnom Penh

Friday, May 06, 2005

Life in PP

Rice plot near Takeo town: this is the sort of thing I go look at when not in the office! The water is from a nearby irrigation channel which was built by the project.

This post is actually taken out of a letter I wrote after being in Phnom Penh for 2 weeks. I am posting some of it as it gives a bit of a feeling of my initial impressions of this place.

It's Friday afternoon after my second day at work and I am fresh from a session at a nearby internet cafe. I am striding down Sihanouk Avenue a big smile on my face. I am oblivious to the peak hour traffic which wends its way around me. Still beaming, I look up to see a cyclo driver patiently cycling beside me trying to attract my attention (my distraction is such that I have no idea for how long he has been shadowing me). I shake my head and dip back into my thoughts. On the phone, I was asked whether I am having a good time here. I am definitely having fun. Phnom Penh is a fascinating and multi-faceted city. I love the dirt, narrow alleys with overhanging bouganvillias on high fences and the small community feel of my neighborhood. I get a kick out of going to the many markets and using my crappy Khmer to bargain. I like this town for it's extremes and excesses, yet this is also something that repells me; the huge mansions, Lexus four-wheel drives with tinted glass to hide the identities of their powerful passengers, the fat, middle-aged white men with young Khmer girls in their laps and the raggedy clothed kids that look up at me with wide-eyes and cry 'nyam, nyam'.

My image of Phnom Pehn was even more challenged by my two day trip to Takeo and Kandal, two provinces to the south of the city. It was definitely an interesting trip. My first trek out into 'real Cambodia' (ie anywhere that isn't PP) since arriving. A driver took me out of PP in one of work's gleaming white four-wheel drives through the dusty, bumpy roads. Despite a few sporadic downpours in the city the rainy season hasn't come yet and so the country is incredibly dry. It is not a sunburnt reddy brown like Australia; instead, muted tones of light dust and faded green palm trees break up the wide humid expanses. Last time I was out here Cambodia was in the middle of a drought and things were extremely desperate. To my eye not a lot has changed. Paddy fields are alternated with small, poor villages filled with life and people. I felt very incongruous in my big, white car.

Turning my attention back to PP peak hour, I place my life in the hands of a system which has a facade of utter chaos (I like to tell myself it is a facade, perhaps the hideously high road toll says otherwise). I walk unstopping across a major intersection and ignore the waves of traffic bearing down on me. I see bare barang elbows and knees, holding camers snapping shots of the independance monument; Khmer's in cars and on motos piled high and stuffed full of people and things. It's not uncommon to see entire families of 5 on the one moto.

I make it to my house. My haven of comfort and safety. Our guard swings our big corrugated iron gate open for me and I step into my front yard. Our guard has a gold tooth, is lovely and always helps us around the house. It is an on-going battle to properly pronounce his name. My housemates and myself are in complete disagreement about his age. I am finding it very difficult to guage age here, many middle-aged people look so much older. Perhaps a result of such a terrible history?

We are very proud of our yard. It is made up of red paving and a grassy patch with lots of plants, a papaya and a longan tree around the edges. The front of the house has a thatched roof overhanging with small pot plants dangling down attached by wire. We have invested in two huge, comfy chairs (perfectly designed for curling up in, feet tucked up) and a small, rattan coffee table to sit outside under the straw awning.

After a lukewarm G&T in our front garden (our fridge instructions are all in Chinese and consequentlywe are having trouble with some basic operations). We bade goodnight to Severith and take motos to 'Elsewhere'. I hop off the moto from my side-saddle position and walk through the front gates into another world. In those several seconds of entry I experience one of those moments where everything seems to slow down and you notice random things that stick with you. I catch a flash of Andrew's very cool $2 USD new shirt from Psar Thmay, Stew's moto helmet slung carelessly from his fingertips; I am wearing green thongs and my fringe has gone all curly from the humidity. As we walk, in front of us unfolds a beautifully plush garden with electro, deep beats reverberating, somehow, from every shrub, palm and blade of grass. There is a pool and an elegant, colonial/asian style stone house dominating the background. I am confronted with a rather disarming atmosphere of privilege.

I sip my $3USD Mohito and discuss with Krishni and Stew our thoughts and perceptions of PP. This is a night where I am going to spend around $USD20 which is equivalent to two weeks wages for a teacher, policeman or low-level government worker. I am really going to have to resolve how I feel about these things. Meanwhile, free vodka shots are being laid out across the bar and people have stripped off and are playing in the pool. I stay out till past 4am.