Potholes to Phnom Penh

This morning our Ugandan housemate and I walked to the bus station through the Central Market (aka “the wild west”), giving way about as often as we were given way to by the hustling traffic.  A throng of waiting passengers were already at the bus station.  As we arrived our bedraggled looking bus pulled up so we boarded almost immediately.  We took a seat directly behind the driver and watched the world go by under the silky blue curtain with it’s silver tassles dangling across the top of the front window.  For 120km we bumped along the pothole-ridden road, arriving more than three hours later.  Various sized craters, some of which have been neatly filled with rocks  and stones to soften the blow to everyone’s tyres, dominate the road all the way.  When you’re not zigzagging around them, you’re jolting over them, at low speed the entire journey.  When the potholes are fewer on the other side of the road, that’s where you drive, so very often I found myself looking head-on at vehicles coming towards us.  But someone – not necessarily the person on the wrong side of the road – seems to always give way in time.

The entire journey is bustling with people busy with their particular enterprise.  Pigs and cows in wooden cages on the back of motorbikes driving alongside people walking with cane baskets upon their heads overflowing with various greenery from the fields.  Graders widening the road almost all of the way, miles of rock piles in rows waiting to be laid as highway, workmen with checked headscarves wrapped around their heads like balaclavas labouring with shovels and picks.  There were so many things to see that it was hard to absorb any single sight properly.

Singing about another city altogether, Art Garfunkel crooned through my earphones “to that tall skyline I come” just as Phnom Penh’s five or six skyscrapers came into view on the edge of the city.  Near the city the roads became even more chaotic, with trayback cars loaded high above the height of the cab with produce, a steel frame securing the produce into place and upwards of 20 people sitting on top of the frame.  It’s also common to see a single body sitting cross legged on the roof of a mini bus, or three cross-legged bodies across the width of vehicle rooftops.  The back doors of minibuses are held ajar by bicycles, motorbikes, filled sacks or passengers using the doorway for space.  A man saddled the seat of one motorbike as it hung out of the back end of a minibus, so that he was suspended perilously over the highway behind the vehicle carting him.

It was a successful day in Phnom Penh, with the purchase of a much-awaited camera and a much-needed hair cut and colour.  Before I bought my camera I used my iPhone to capture this banana-ised motorbike:

Phnom Penh 001

As always the poverty is disturbing and being a large city, Phnom Penh has it’s share of beggars.  A tiny thin woman with a baby pouched into a sarong tied diagonally around her shoulder and waist approached me as I was boarding a tuk-tuk to go home.  Arms outstretched and pointing to the sleeping baby, I initially shook my head but when she persisted I took $1000 Riel (25c) from my purse and gave it to her.  This prompted other beggars to the edge of my carriage and I had to wave them off.  Who am I to wave needy people away from me as I carry plastic bags filled with luxuries to my palatial accommodation?

Sitting in the middle of my own tuk-tuk carriage along the streets home, I passed other tuk-tuks overflowing with Cambodian passengers sharing the cost and questioned my existence and privilege.

3 thoughts on “Potholes to Phnom Penh

  1. Thanks Jen. The poverty is very confronting. Today outside the Genocide Museum a guy with a leg missing, and another with pretty much his whole face burnt off were begging to the tourists. I entered the museum for $2, then gave a measley few cents to each beggar, and felt troubled by it all day. Many other beggars too, in the streets around Central Market. It’s very upsetting to see people so desperate just to survive.


  2. Understandable that you want to help everyone. But just by being there you are working to improve the health and lives of the Cambodian people. THanks for keeping the blogs coming.


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