Anth in Phnom Penh

Thursday, June 09, 2005

A trip to the Takeo office

scene of the Takeo shoe incident

On a quick viewing, Takeo leaves the newly arrived visitor with an impression of a dusty, forgotten backwater. A long time ago it was probably quite a charming provincial centre with all the trappings of French architecture and monuments that are accorded such a town. These days I don't think one could even honestly describe the buildings as holding a faded charm. Many are decrepit, crumbling shells filled with refuse and riddled with bullet holes; aging signs of destruction being worn away by neglect and the elements. Yet, somehow this depressing list of characteristics come together to be somewhat the opposite. The burnt out, shot out central edifice is now used as a market and is surrounded by worn, dark skinned Khmer swathed in checked materials, who sit and swat flies away from their limpened produce. The administrative buildings that checker the middle of town are either totally beyond use or just manageable. Many are covered in wild, verdant green bushes adding bundles of colour to the yellow and blue faded French walls and roofs.

I step out into the main roundabout in town, which is anchored by a large, red Angkorian modelled structure (rather reminiscent of the Independance Monument, except on a smaller scale). Immediately, I attract attention. It is nearing the end of siesta, yet still very hot. What is that barang srei doing? Where is she going? Does she need a moto? I am innundated with curious looks and offers of transport. A dude from the AQIP office cruises by, stops and pats the back of his moto seat. I decline and offer the implausible and bizarre explanation (to Khmer ears) that I want to walk. He smiles, shrugs and motos away.

I revel in my 20 minutes of freedom before having to return to work and potter a little further away so I can take a photo of the Independance-Monument-like structure. It is at this point that my new white sandals completely fall apart. Not just one strap breaks, but somehow two unconnected pieces of synthetic material (no leather for this animal loving girl) break at the same time. Crap. I limp over to a stone snake statue in the centre of a traffic island and inspect the damage. Pretty bad. But then, what does one expect for $3 at Psar Orsay? I throw off the other shoe and carrying my sandals in my hand I pad gingerly across the road; read broken crusts of asphalt and hardened dirt. If I hadn't attracted attention before, I certainly have now. At the entrance of my guesthouse the owners are chilling out still in siesta mode (some people seem to manage this all day). The lady owner is in a hamock and speaks to me in Khmer. I guess that she says something like "Why are you walking around barefoot in the heat of the day you silly foreign woman?" I attempt to say my shoe has broken but am flustered and forget the word for broken. I manage some muttered, incomprehensible words followed by a flow of embarassed words in english (equally incomprehensible to this woman). I escape upstairs.

Up in my room it takes five or so minutes to apply safety pins into the flimsy synthetic and secure the straps back in place. It will work, but I am not sure for how long. I smile wryly to myself. Working with limited resources was a key part of the selection criteria for this job and what better example then fixing shoddy footware in rural Cambodia with 2 safety pins? I walk downstairs and the owner, still in her hammock, calls me over. I lift my big toe to display the safety pin underneath. She makes a noise of displeasure and kicks of her shoes. "Use mine" She emphatically points at her shoes to back up the Khmer words.

I love it. How often in Australia would someone offer their shoes to a complete stranger without even a thought?

Ferry crossing at Neak Loeun: I am sitting beside my driver, in air-conditioned comfort inside one of works elephantine white 4WDs.


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