Published: October 7th 2011October 3rd 2011
The mass exodus to Phnom Penh from the outlying areas of Cambodia after the Pchum Ben holiday was over was definitely a sight to see. My own journey back to the city began with an hour-long ride from Kep to Kampot on the back of a motorbike, all the while being pelted and soaked with thunderous pouring rain. And as was right on par for this crazy Cambodian course, not more than 5 minutes into my trip the bike sputtered to a complete stop as it frustratingly yet amusingly ran out of gas. With an exasperated smile on my face I stood staring at the cow on the road next to me and silently said ‘Seriously?’ Seriously. The livestock appeared unaffected by my wearisome yet typical predicament, although politely listened anyway to my silent frustrations while I came to the inevitable conclusion that it was time to get off of the bike.
So I walked along side said bike in the pouring rain while the moto driver pushed it to the nearest makeshift stand on the side of the road where he could purchase a Pepsi bottle full of fuel to get us up and running once again. Once we
Two people in the driver's seat!
In my shared taxi back to Phnom Penh the driver shared his seat with someone- crazy.
made our way back onto the main road it was definitely one wet and bumpy ride to Kampot. One dip in the road actually sent my feet flying in the air resulting in the loss of one flip-flop. I was extremely grateful at this moment that I had learned how to say ‘stop!’ in Khmer and shouted this repeatedly while emphatically showing the driver my shoeless foot. Upon realizing what had happened, he turned around and drove backwards into the solid oncoming traffic and thankfully we were able to safely retrieve my muddy sandal from the chaotic roadside.
As I rode on the back of the bike for the remainder of the trip to Kampot, I stared in amazement at the spectacle of madness and traffic around me. Every once in a while I have a moment like this one where I look around at the surreal landscape surrounding me and wonder how on earth I ended up there. I pondered in amazement how this little ‘ol gal from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada found herself to be all alone in this wild and bizarre situation on the rural and rugged Cambodia roads. I slowly realized that a series of decisions
made by me and me alone had resulted in my landing myself in this exact spot amongst the countless people making their way back to Phnom Penh. There was no one else to give credit to and no one else to blame. This was apparently my life now and it was very much a life of my making.
Once I arrived in Kampot and before I even stepped my muddy foot off of the motorbike I had a swarm of locals in my face begging me to choose their share taxi to head to Phnom Penh. I opted for the taxi option as opposed to the bus because it takes literally about half the time to get to the city this way. The shared taxi was a little more expensive, but I was tired and wanted to get as quickly and as effortlessly as possible to the Cambodian apartment that I unbelievably for the moment now call home .
When the taxi finally set off for Phnom Penh there were a total of 7 people in this regular-sized sedan. There would actually have been eight people in the vehicle had I not opted (like a spoiled foreigner) to
pay a little extra in order to have the front passenger seat all to myself. The taxi driver unbelievably even shared his own seat with one of the passengers while he drove to Phnom Penh, all the while sitting half in the centre console on top of the emergency brake. The ridiculousness of being in a situation where I, a passenger, had a seat all to myself while the driver did not was not lost on me. Observing this ludicrous spectacle, I could not deny how spoiled I was accustomed to being (as Westerners in general are I think) and have to admit I was a tad bit ashamed of my pampered lifestyle while in the face of those who get by with so much less.
Or perhaps my perspective after being in South East Asia for some time has been somewhat skewed and my actually wanting a passenger seat all to myself isn’t really all that much of an extravagant of thing to want. I’m not sure where I should stand on this one to tell you the truth and find myself quite confused on the matter. The truly ironic and thought-provoking reality is that the extremely squished
Out of gas
5 minutes after leaving Kep my toto driver ran out of gas. This is him pushing it with my backpack to get the Pepsi bottle of gas!
Khmer people that I was travelling with in this taxi were in fact the pampered ones in their country, enjoying an enclosed and air-conditioned vehicle ride while many of their fellow countrymen travelled standing on trailers and hanging from vans. I guess we all find ourselves someplace different on the quality of life spectrum, and in this particular scenario I happened to fall on the very wealthy end of it. Bring me to the Four Seasons in California on the other hand and I will surely find myself bumped to the extreme opposite end of that spectrum of wealth. Although now that I think of it, an environment in which I am considered amongst the ‘less fortunate’ is also concerning in and of itself.
I am absolutely in no way attempting to promote a communist agenda here, however, it is troubling to say the least that many people can live in complete extravagance while other people can barely survive. I’m reminded of a quote by the civil rights guru Mahatma Ghandi in which he urged others to ‘live simply so that others can simply live.’ Perhaps my wanting my own seat in an air conditioned taxi is in fact
Trip back to Phnom Penh
The highways were filled with vans like these with people hanging off of the back...sides...roof- you name it!
too much to ask when others don’t even have access to the bare necessities such as clean drinking water or basic health care. I don’t know what the answer is to this dilemma or what level of social responsibility people as a whole should hold in regards to taking care of the people around them. It’s a complex issue that I struggle with often and a topic for discussion for sure that certainly won’t and can’t be resolved here.
When I arrived in Phnom Penh I had to grab a moto driver to take me to my apartment, since there was apparently no door-to-door service offered in the shared taxi. I probably looked like I had just set foot in Phnom Penh for the first time seeing as how I was sporting my backpack when I got out of the cab. Once riding on the back of the motorbike, I politely pointed out to the driver that he was going the wrong way. He laughed a laugh that told me that he was amused by the idea of this ‘barang’ (local term for foreigner) thinking she could give him directions, but that he was willing to humour me anyway.
I am happy to report that ultimately I think I had the last laugh seeing as how I proceeded to give him step-by-step directions in Khmer that led us precisely to my front door. As I got off the bike and paid him his fair I admittedly noted with satisfaction that I was now the one acting and feeling a little smug .
Communicating with locals is actually quite difficult here, so I’ve been focusing as much attention as I can while in Cambodia on learning the local Khmer language. I feel like I’m constantly pestering the staff at Aziza’s Place to tell me how to say things and help me build up my self-made notebook of Khmer words and phrases. One amusing translation that I’ve learned recently is that the commonly used term here for ‘time to eat’ is ‘Nyum Bai’, which literally translates into ‘time to eat rice.’ This really helped to explain some of the challenges my rice allergy has caused since being here and also some of the perplexed looks I get from locals when I tell them I can’t eat this Asian dietary staple.
I’m finding learning Khmer to be a rewarding yet
The lovely people who live below me use this pot fired by wood/charcoal on the patio all the time to cook. There is actually a major deforestation problem as a result of how many locals do this.
daunting task. English is not common amongst many of the locals and if I want to communicate at all, it’s on me (as it should be) to learn the language that the people around me speak. I try so often to talk to the locals, and they also to me, but so much of our conversational content frustratingly gets lost in translation. So I’m very excited to report that I’ve recently connected with a local woman that teaches conversational Khmer and I start my very first lesson with her this week. I’m hoping that this will propel my Khmer language abilities from sad little two word sentences into some actual basic conservation.
Although the Khmer language’s applicability around the world is admittedly quite limited, I have this persistent nagging voice that tells me that even after my volunteer stint is finished in Cambodia, my time in this country in general will not be done. Come mid-November it might be time for me to leave, but I can’t help feeling that my life’s path will bring me back here again at some point in time. The wise teachings of Ghandi also stated that the future depends on what we do
in the present. Perhaps by learning some of the local language and investing more of myself in this country I will lay some stepping stones that will one day help to lead me back to a country that I seem to appreciate and adore so much.
I’ve also had some interesting, empowering and at times humbling experiences commuting around Phnom Penh. I mostly ride my shiny new (well- old actually but spray painted shiny and new) bicycle and this has been an incredibly challenging lesson in Cambodian road rules to say the least. I always joked that there were no rules in traffic out here, but I’m finding that this in fact turns out not to be the case. Or maybe what exist in terms of rules would be more accurately referred to as etiquette or guidelines for travel safety, as opposed to hard and fast instructions to be followed by the commuting masses.
It seems to boil down to two extremely simple yet important points when it comes to navigating the considerably chaotic roads of Phnom Penh. The first is that at no time do you ever make any sudden movements. This means no hitting the brakes,
no sudden turns and no sudden changing of lanes. The second rule is that you only pay attention to what is in front of you and let the people behind you worry about you and everyone else in front of them. One person told me that they don’t even use the rear view mirrors on their motorbike because what’s behind them does not matter. And the amazing thing is is that this seemingly suicidal system of commuting actually does appear to work. It’s taken me a while to trust the risky nature of it all, but now that I do I’m amazed at how smoothly (for the most part) the zillions of bikes and vehicles on the road can make their way safely using this seemingly frenzied system.
The other thing to keep in mind while on the roads is that no one assumes that they will maintain a consistent speed as they would in say North America for example. People may be coming at you full speed ahead, however not only are they prepared for you to turn in front of them at any given time, they actually expect it and are used to hitting the breaks and
No escaping the crazy karaoke...
I thought that by skipping the bus ride I could escape the crazy loud Khmer karaoke videos...but no- amazingly the taxi had it as well!! So nuts.
even stopping in the middle of the road to accommodate others that suddenly appear in their path. It’s a crazy feeling to stick my arm out indicating that I’m going a certain direction and then proceed to ride across four lanes of packed traffic with no apparent space for me while simply trusting that everyone will slow down and swerve around me as needed. And thankfully, so far anyway, they always have.
Seeing as how traffic lights are also almost completely lacking here, people simply bully their way through intersections and traffic circles. I’ve noticed that there seems to be strength in numbers in these sorts of situations. At the risk of making myself sound like I’m about 5 years old, I’ll mention that this reminds me of when I first learned how to cross the street in Asia. My strategy was to ‘piggyback’ a local and weave my way through the traffic with them to get safely to the other side. When it comes to bicycles, vehicles and motorbikes- at the intersections if enough people accumulate at the same time waiting to get through then they seem to have more power in asserting themselves into and halting the
intersecting traffic. Sometimes my pride kicks in and tells me that I shouldn’t need a group to latch onto to get across the intersection, and then common sense quickly and smartly takes over and tells me to get over myself and to get safely through the pandemonium of traffic in whatever way I can.
As with many of my experiences out here, I’m finding that the skills I’m learning in one area are applicable and transferring to many other areas as well. Developing and using the skills needed to make my way through the mayhem of Cambodian traffic seem to be a microcosm of the rest of my life out here, basically demonstrating the skills I need to get through my days in general. It takes confidence, trust, courage and a willingness to take risks in order to successfully navigate your way through the streets of Phnom Penh, which are in fact many of the same traits necessary to navigate your way through life as well. It seems that a fundamental core set of attributes and skills exist that we need to acquire, and after we have accomplished that we are equipped to handle almost anything that comes our
Prime Minister DiCaprio
I thought this was so insanely funny...Leo's lit up with spot lights and all larger than life looking like he's the leader of Cambodia. Turns out it's a barber shop. Or Bar Ber according to the sign ;)
I will admit that I’m starting to feel some pride in the way that I can get in there in traffic with the locals, on a bicycle no less and make my way around the streets of Phnom Penh. I find myself often wishing that a little magical birdie was following me around with a video camera so that I could later marvel at all the tricky situations that I managed to successfully get myself through. It’s an empowering experience that I think someone would probably have to go through themselves to fully appreciate.
I also took a moto home recently from my treasured and favourite supermarket after getting groceries that included my carrying in addition to my groceries- a mop, a broom and a bucket. Oddly enough it felt like I was getting into Cambodian culture a bit they way I had myself loaded up on a bike with large and awkward items while also being so comfortable that I no longer even needed to hold on. Learning step by step, or ‘rean moy moy’, I seem to be finding a way to adjust to my surroundings and am even actually managing to really enjoy the
Meta House Hip Hop
I went to an amazing place called Meta House with an open air cinema on the top floor showing documentaries and then life performances and music after downstairs. Way cool.
process. I still maintain that Phnom Penh is an incredible and fascinating city and continue to be incredibly grateful that I took a path that brought be here to experience and enjoy all this city has to offer. I have no doubt that the remainder of my time here will continue to be filled with adventure, passion and bliss.
There are more photos below