I arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia a little over a week ago, and was welcomed to the city with a blast of smothering heat the moment the plane door opened. Eager to set eyes on our home for the next three months, my fellow intern, Ross, and I hopped in a cab and set off for our hostel, my faced pressed to the window, taking in the many new and exciting sites. That short drive from the airport was a preview of the contrasts we now daily encounter—dilapidated buildings next to huge, beautiful French colonial inspired buildings, people picking through garbage for plastic bottles and pulling their finds behind them in a hand pull cart as a brand new Lexus SUV drives along next to them, makeshift barbershops (where men sit facing a broken shard of mirror hanging on the wall and get a shave) set up along the exterior walls of the Royal Palace, people selling petrol on the street from old water and coke bottles, and the occasional chicken running around on the sidewalk or perched on the back of a moto. This city is a city of extreme contrasts.
Our first few days were spent getting to know our new city. Among the many sights we took in were the Royal Palace, the National Museum, Wat Phnom, and Central Market (an indoor labyrinth of stalls selling everything one can imagine). We took a tuk tuk tour around the city to help orient ourselves, and in the process received our first real exposure to city traffic. The best way to describe it is organized chaos. There are very few traffic lights and stop signs, and they serve as more of a suggestion than a requirement (i.e. most people completely ignore them). Same goes for lanes and one way streets—they are rarely, if ever, adhered to. Being on the road is like being in a school of fish. All the cars, motos, tuk tuks, and bicycles cram in side by side, into the tightest space possible. You honk as you drive across an intersection to let others know you are coming, but everyone is doing the same thing, so it serves a rather limited purpose. It is like a perfectly choreographed dance. Walking here is just as crazy, if not worse. There are almost no crosswalks and people don’t yield to pedestrians. Traffic is a steady stream, so at some point you just have to take a deep breath, step out when you can, weave, and hope not to get hit. A bit unnerving, to say the least, and exactly what you tell children not to do.
Despite this, I have always believed that walking is the best way to get to know a city, so this past weekend, much to the confusion of the many tuk tuk and moto drivers I passed, I set out on a day long trek around the city. I spent hours wandering up and down the streets, soaking up the sights and sounds, and photographing the daily lives of its citizens. Among my favorite finds were the local markets. They are jam packed with people and full of life and color and smells (okay, some of the smells I could have done without). There are hundreds of vendors sitting on the ground under various low hanging tarps and cloths shielding them from the blazing sun, lining these very tight, narrow walkways, with all of their goods splayed out in front of them. The walkways are so narrow that they are meant for people to go single file almost, yet you are always passing people and making way for others to push or ride their motos and bikes down the cramped walkways. There were hundreds of vendors selling everything you can imagine, from flowers and fruits and vegetables, to still thrashing fish, to skinned chickens cozied up with live chickens right next to huge baskets of eggs, to meat hanging from hooks of these little makeshift stalls, to chicken feet and various other unidentifiable innards, to snails that people would pop in their mouth and eat as they walked around, to rice and any other edible ware you can imagine. As I ventured into the dark, cavernous interior of the pseudo-building structure (it too with low hanging cloth/plastic “ceilings”), there were people selling shoes and clothes and bags, and there were hair salons and people giving pedicures on stools. The juxtaposition of a huge mountain of undergarments next to a food stand with chicken feet, or people getting their hair washed and done right next to a fish seller, with live, smelly, flopping fish made for a memorable site. I loved walking around and taking pictures of the vivid colors and interesting characters.
This first week was a wonderful introduction to a vibrant city, and I can’t wait to explore it further in the coming weeks!