Streets of Phnom Penh

I spent 18 months in Cambodia in the early 1990s working for the United Nations, a story told in my book, Cambodian Interlude, inside the UN's 1993 Election in Cambodia. (You can find the book on the Orchid Press home page.) In November of 2002, after an absence of nine years, I returned to Cambodia. Here you'll find 39 pictures of life as seen from the streets of the city. Below is a message for old UNTAC hands and people who have read Cambodian Interlude.

I visited Anchor Wat in 1993 when it was still a temple in the jungle. I understand that these days it's a well-managed tourist site.

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What follows is a draft of an "After word" to the next edition of Cambodian Interlude. (The publisher, by the way, has promised that the next edition will have proper pictures and that he will call the book by its original title, Cambodia and the Year of UNTAC.)

When I left Cambodia in August of 1993, I was a 40-year-old United Nations Volunteer who had just spent 18 months in a country that was, as far as I could tell, still at war. After I left Cambodia, the war ended with the gradual collapse of the Khmer Rouge, but Cambodia’s other problems were just beginning. With peace and a new government, whose election I was partially responsible for, the “legal government” cut down enough trees to permanently alter the country’s climate; the population exploded; and the government was, everyone believed, corrupt. Everyone I met when I returned to Cambodia in November of 2002 was filled with despair. How could there ever be any hope, they told me —elections were coming up, but the government would rig them.

But some things, as far as I could tell, have gotten better. At least now the fancier restaurants are filled with Cambodians instead of United Nations officials. And now there are hundreds of more restaurants—the Cambodian middle class is again alive and well. Indeed, four of the five old Cambodian friends I met now have cars, cell phones, and what we in the West call “disposable income.” None of them dreamed ten years ago that they would ever have such riches.

The country had changed so much that I hadn’t recognized a thing. To begin with, the airport has been totally re-modeled. Now it is world-class and air-conditioned. (When I left Cambodia in '93 the airport official had literally dragged my backpack to the plane—and in the process put a large hole in it!) On the way into town I didn't see one of the once-familiar ox-carts or pony-carts. But I saw a lot of sports utility vehicles, new cars, and motorcycles on roads that were now decently paved and lined with shade trees, and buildings that looked well maintained. Driving into town, one would hardly guess that this was still one of poorest countries in the world.

Unbelievable (to anyone who was in Cambodia during the United Nations 3-billion dollar election in 1993) but true, there are now traffic lights in Phnom Penh and, just as incredibly, the people stop at them.

Nevertheless, off the main roads, the side streets are still, on the whole, pot-holed messes filled with bicycles, motorcycles, cars, pedicabs, and the occasional pedestrian. These days at night you no longer see hordes of people sleeping along the main streets, although the city is still crowded and still poor. One night as an old friend was driving me home she pointed out the street lights that now line some of the main streets. "See," she said, "aren't they beautiful?"

On all the streets, there is still a huge over-supply of motorcycle taxi drivers. In Bangkok, where I’ve lived intermittently for the last twenty years, the motorcycle taxi drivers wear uniforms and usually they can’t stop and pick you up. You have to signal them and then they signal the man whose turn it is to take the next customer. In Cambodia, it’s every motorcycle taxi driver for himself. A few of them seem to have reserved parking places in front of certain businesses or hotels, but most simply seem to drive endlessly around. In Thailand the car-taxis drive endlessly around while in Cambodia the car-taxis are just for tourists.

To get around the city I usually walked. This amazed the Cambodians. As I walked, the motorcycle taxi drivers would, every few meters, ask me if I wanted a ride. Once I told one of them, "I'm walking, thank you."

"In Cambodia," he said truthfully and in the fluent English that at least some of them have learned in the last ten years, "nobody walks."

Nobody walks, so you’ll still see the pedicabs or motorcycle taxi drivers carrying a virtually unlimited number of people or goods along the pot-holed side streets and the manicured main streets of Phnom Penh. Nobody walks, although these days you will see a fair number of joggers and aerobic dancers in the parks in the early morning.

Walking in the city isn’t easy, but usually I enjoyed it. There are now far fewer beggars than there were ten years ago. Generally, anyone who isn’t a motorcycle taxi driver ignores you. There are too many tourists for the average Cambodian to be bothered with another strange face on the street.

Along the side streets residents still live half in the house and half on the street. Beside the road you’ll see people washing their clothes, drying rice, children playing; knee-high roadside restaurant tables filled with people eating noodles; pedicab and motorcycle taxi drivers (and their women) playing cards; beggars; and lots of people who have little or nothing to do.

When I was there I met Sovan, the heroine of Cambodian Interlude. She now has a master’s degree in management, is in the upper 5% of Cambodian incomes, has a nice car, a house, the works. She is still single, but a master’s degree has given her a lot more confidence. She says that her marital status may soon change.

My marital status has stayed the same as well. After I left Cambodia in '93, I stayed in Thailand for two years to write Cambodian Interlude. In 1995 I began a course in desktop publishing in Eugene, Oregon. That lead to teaching computer applications to university students until late 1999. For the last decade I've been traveling around the world, with no permanent base, taking pictures and making movies. Living this nomadic life is wonderful -- you just have to forget about anything normal. What a relief that Cambodia helped prepare me for that.

-- TR, Bangkok, January 2009

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