There’s something quite exotic about the streets of Phnom Penh, especially at night when I regularly get a sense of being inside a historical South East Asian novel, which I don’t ever recall reading. The closest I can think of is the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel which is set in 21st century India. The main streets are busy, crossed frequently with quiet laneways where people sit outside their houses in the dark alongside smelly canals lined with the city’s waste and various rubble, watching the world go by. Motos and tuk tuks putter past, dogs bark, children play and sellers continue to offer their various produce from sidecars, traybacks and wheelbarrows moving slowly through the streets. Just driving through the darkened streets on a rumbling old tuk tuk makes me wish I were a novelist. Alas that is not what I am!
Yesterday my colleague arrived at the house and carried my oversized case down the stairs on his shoulders, wrapped it in a big tarpaulin on the trayback of the work ute and drove me out of town, south-west towards Phnom Penh. My year-long mission is over and I have begun my journey home. My manager was returning from Phnom Penh so we did the regular halfway meet, swapping cars and drivers. Texts, emails, Facebook messages and phone calls have arrived steadily from people I am already missing, particularly little Dara who my housemate sent some previoulsy-unseen photographs of.
The driver from Kampong Cham is a guy I came to know well over the past year as we have driven hundreds of miles together, visiting patients, families, health centres and home based care nurses across the province. A little younger than me, he was born during the Pol Pot regime. His story has always touched me, probably because we were growing up simultaneously in parallel worlds. While I was riding bicycles, jumping on trampolines, going to swimming club, Brownies, birthday parties and decent schools, he was surrounded by Khmer Rouge soldiers and then labouring in the fields to ensure the family’s food security which was always a temporary guarantee. He is now married with a child and lives 4 hours drive from his young family. His wife spends the busy season at home in the rice fields and during the quiet season she leaves their infant at home with her parents and moves to Phnom Penh to work in a garment factory, earning $70 per month for her sacrifice. With MSF talking of closing their Cambodian program he is preparing to return to the family farm as the chances of re-employment are so low. The advantage of this probability is that he will get to spend time with his daughter who he currently only sees one weekend per month. His wife is talking about going to work in Malaysia as a factory worker, where she can earn more than is possible in Cambodia. He is a quietly spoken, smiley, fun and gentle guy who tells his story matter-of-factly with the odd comment such as “yes it is very difficult”. We said goodbye just outside of Skun on the red dusty highway, hugging in the shadow of a truck loaded sky-high with sacks tied metres above the cab, which threw dust at us as it chugged by at an arm’s length from us.
The Phnom Penh driver who took me the rest of the way to the city is a man I also know reasonably well. In his 50s, dressed in smartly ironed suits and spectacles and speaking excellent English, he gives an impression of being middle class. Spending most of my time in provincial Cambodia, only visiting Phnom Penh occasionally, it has also been easy to assume that Phnom Penh inhabitants are more urban and prosperous, which is certainly true of some individuals. Last time I was in a car with this driver, he stopped along the road to visit his sister in law briefly, who was not well. On that particular day we waited in the car during his five minute interlude. Yesterday I asked after her and he said she was still not well, unable to walk on her leg and not able to move the arm on the same side. Thinking it sounded like a stroke I asked what her doctor had said and he replied she had not seen the doctor because she had no money. As we were driving near her home I offered to stop in and visit her in case there was something I might be able to do to advise. He agreed.
We pulled into the side of the highway, along a parallel side road with a row of the usual elevated wooden houses where he told me his family all live as neighbours. His sister in law was sitting alone on her raised verandah with two bowls of food on the floor beside her. We kicked off our shoes and climbed the stairs to her. Blind and clearly suffering with acute arthritis in a number of joints, he explained to me that she had been blind since birth and had never married. Within a few moments a younger man climbed the stairs to join us, accompanied by a young boy of about 12yo. My colleague introduced them as a nephew and his son. This man and his older brother, also living in this row of houses, are also blind. Noone knows why certain members of the family have hereditary blindness. I asked how they obtain food and was told that the blind men are able to work in the rice fields!! The woman, immobilised now by her arthritis, stays at home alone and the children of the family – I met five of them, the eldest being the 12yo boy – keep an eye on her from the neighbouring houses while the adults are working. I wrote the names of some medicines that might help her if she can access them and gave a little money to assist her in affording them for a brief time. Their gratitude was as strong as my horror at their circumstances.
Across Cambodia these are the ordinary and everyday stories of people. Every time I see a trailer piled a storey high with cardboard or a motorbike framed in it’s entirety by bunches of bananas driving down the motorway, I realise that the amusement I am experiencing also has a story of persistent adversity behind it. Not one of the hundred or more people I have worked with and come to know in the past year is separated from this ubiquitous poverty. As a foreigner visiting the country, it is easy for the destitution and hunger surrounding us to be invisible to our first world eyes. We are not only regularly entertained by the staggering creativity so commonplace on the streets of Third World countries, but we also expect poverty to have a certain “look” which it doesn’t have. It has many faces and in my Cambodian experience it hides well behind handsome, well dressed young people in a country where half of the population are under 20 years old.
Writing my last blog from Cambodia for a couple of months (unless something extraordinary happens tomorrow), I sat on the mezzanine floor of a coffee shop sipping red wine, looking down a spiral staircase at the wealthy and mainly-Khmer customers on the marble floor below, their busy chatter echoing up to the chandeliers hanging parallel to my head over a decorative banister. I wish this level of prosperity for all Cambodians, that they may all sit at plush tables with their iPhones and iPads, sipping iced coffee and wine with their friends and family. Thanks to Tracy Chapman for entertaining me while I wrote – my current favourite croon from her is very appropriate to the topic, as Cambodia is the epitome of her Subcity.