Walking down the street in Phnom Penh isn’t really what those of us who grew up on Lucy and Leave it to Beaver re-runs imagine when we think to ourselves, mmmm, I think I’ll just take a little stroll down the street. You don’t just walk down the street in Cambodia’s capital city because that would imply that you’ll take a carefree little jaunt in a straight line.
No. No. No. Instead, you take some steps, you look around, and in the middle of the busiest tourist area near the Royal Palace and the National Museum, you can not walk down Sisowath Quay without being continuously approached, but in the nicest way, mind you.
“Tuk, Tuk? Tuk Tuk, Madame?” Where you going? I can take you there. Where are you going later? How about tomorrow? I could take you on a city tour?”
It is imperative that you smile and remain as pleasant as possible all the while continuing to say “No thanks” while one eye maintains an awareness of what your feet are doing to avoid stepping in dog shit or tripping over broken pavement or avoiding the wires dangling down, or slipping on the coconut husks that haven’t been picked up from the pile near the curb or the kind of slant in the pavement that the wrong shoes could translate into a broken arm.
“Tuk Tuk? Tuk Tuk, Madame?”
It doesn’t matter whether you have said “No” to the four tuk tuk drivers parked ahead of him and he’s seen and heard you decline, one after the other, the most ambitious soul will just keep asking as if maybe you just didn’t like the looks of the first three and that gives him hope beyond hope that you will change your mind because surely you will see that he is a superior being in comparison to them. Sometimes, even from a distance, far enough away without the use of binoculars or any other device, one will spot you and his arm will raise even though you are half a block away. “Tuk Tuk?” You have to admire the tenacity. It becomes a bit of a joke but only after you find yourself saying, like your father would have in your short-tempered way, “Jesus, if I wanted a tuk tuk, I think I’d just ask for one. Harumph!”
At night if you sit in one of the open air cafes along the main strip near the riverside, little children carting red plastic bins of photocopied books with titles like, First They Killed My Father, about the Pol Pot regime, will try and sell you a copy. If you are foolish enough to buy just one, a swarm of children materialize from the ether to try and sell you more and different titles as if they think the library in your mansion back home in America needs populating. Only when you are energetically resolved and steadfast in your “No” and they sense it, only then will they leave you alone if you have refused to buy their books, and bracelets and scarves.
“You’re mean. Do you see that I have no leg?” asked the little girl. Actually I hadn’t noticed. Looking down, wondering if that would have made a difference to me, thinking that yes, indeed, it would have.
You will always have to look both ways before you cross the street, not just once or twice as you would in any major urban centre in the world, but at least three times, and quickly, as if you’re playing a game of musical chairs with traffic. When you feel it is not safe, because it is definitely not safe, but let’s say then that when you determine that your chances of being killed by a scooter carrying a monk or a naked baby being held by its mother or a motorbike with two men balancing a refrigerator vertically between them, or one man balancing two double mattresses and a picture to be framed, or another with PVC tubing balanced on his shoulder like a trapeze, only then, when your chances are lesser, do you then take a deep breath, step out and keep moving, without ever looking behind you, and just having faith that Buddha is on your side and praying that Mercury is not in Retrograde that week.
You must step around vendors selling the most exotic array of fruit, step in between parked tuk tuks and other tourists holding maps and wandering like drunken zombies and Land Rovers parked half on/half off the sidewalk and you must get out of the way of the man pushing his cart of small fresh snails that are drying on racks propped at a 45 degree angle.
Nearing the end of my trip, I stayed in a neighborhood about 15 minutes away from the tourist area. I came out on the street one morning only to hear a loud crash. I looked across at what looked like a bank where it would appear half the ceiling had fallen down. A dubious construction or renovation project perhaps? All the people, an entire extended family, made their way out, en masse, from the shop next door as if they were tied together, wanting to see what all the ruckus was about. When they took it in, saw no casualties, they laughed and joked among themselves in a language that I couldn’t understand, probably Khmer, and then turned around and went back inside.
The smells that sometimes assault you are so pungent, a combination of pavement and sweat and shit and humanity and exhaust and dried fish and breezes off the Mekong, that they catch you off guard; I have never smelled anything as putrid as what would sometimes sneak up one nostril and race down and out the other side.
When you walk down the street with your money belt around your waist and your purse slung across your body, you feel as if you might as well be wearing a flashing neon sign: Bank of America, right here. Open. Discount. And you can’t help but think about the poor young tourist who was dragged to her death a few years back when gangs on scooters snatched her bag and she couldn’t untangle from it. When you have that thought, you change the position of your bag to the other shoulder, away from the street-side.
But, after all that, on an evening when you’re alone, and a little sick of your own company, you think, well, maybe I’ll just get a tuk tuk, for entertainment, to observe, to feel the breeze, and so you do, but not, of course, without negotiating the price first which is a comical exercise when the price is almost always just two bucks U.S.