The streets of Phnom Penh

The best way to know a city is to walk her streets.

Immediately evident in Phnom Penh is the number of cars and trucks on the road in comparison to other Asian cities were the Moto tends to be king. The roads are definitely indicative of the divide between rich and poor. The affluent in the air-conditioned comfort of their brand new Hummers, 4WD and SUVs fly by while a naked toddler shits in the gutter, parents nowhere in sight.

For those lacking their own ride, Phnom Penh offers a number of different ways to join the procession.

There is the Moto. Scooters of all makes and models, and in varying states of health, are everywhere. They are fast, cheap (2000 riel gets you anywhere in the city) and dangerous. By law, it is compulsory for the driver to wear a helmet but in practice this rarely happens. Passengers are almost never seen helmeted and many opt to ride side-saddle.

The Tuk Tuk is the most commonly used Phnom Penh taxi. An enclosed trailer hitched behind a motorbike, they seat between one and eight depending on your concern for personal space. The preferred means of transportation for families and foreigners is quite a pleasant way to travel.

Cyclos and taxis are also seen here and there. Having been in a car before I haven’t bothered with a taxi but a journey via cyclo is well worthwhile. It is a tricycle with an enclosed seat set in front of the rider, which says, “Sure you need to get from A to B, but why not enjoy the ride?”

Finally, there is the tried and true method of treading the streets by foot. In Phnom Penh, this is actually quite exhausting. There is the heat, humidity and (because it is the wet season) the mud. Furthermore, the fact the roads are not as crowded as other Asian cities (that I have visited) actually makes it more dangerous: motorists have a greater opportunity to take shortcuts, so they act more unpredictably. To avoid death or dismemberment you have to look right, left, up and down at all times while in the vicinity of a road. However, the most energy is expended refusing the never-ending advances of enterprising Tuk Tuk and Moto drivers.

Irrespective of the time, day or location, the following scenario plays over and over:

One or more (doubtlessly) wealthy westerners approach an intersection; leave a shop or restaurant; or god forbid stops to look around.

Tuk, Tuk driver(s): You want Tuk Tuk?
Wealthy westerner: Te, aw kohn
Multiple Moto drivers: Moto?
Wealthy westerners: Te, aw kohn

Next intersection, repeat.

Of course there are a number a variations to this scenario. By the river, in central Phnom Penh where there is more tourist action.

One or more (doubtlessly) wealthy westerners approach an intersection; leave a shop or restaurant; or god forbid stops to look around.

Tuk, Tuk driver(s): You want Tuk Tuk?
Wealthy westerner: Te, aw kohn
Tuk Tuk driver 1 (to western male): You want smoke?
Wealthy western male: Te, aw kohn
Multiple Moto drivers: Moto?
Wealthy westerners: Te, aw kohn

Next intersection, repeat.

Or finally:

One or more (doubtlessly) wealthy westerners stand in the middle of an intersection looking lost. The heavens open unleashing a downpour of biblical proportions.

Wealthy westerner: Tuk, Tuk?
[Silence]
Wealthy westerner: Moto?
[Silence]

Next intersection, repeat.

From my experience of the above scenarios I have managed to cobble together a couple of fundamental principals for the streets of Phnom Penh:

a) Tuk Tuk and Moto drivers are by no means hard to find on the streets of Phnom Penh (unless you actually need to get somewhere)
b) If you are going to learn one Khmer phrase it should be “Te, aw kohn.”

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3 Responses

  1. Pat Nowak says:

    Rees,
    just been reading all of your stories from Cambodia, KEEP THEM COMING!! You have a fucking brilliant way of using words to create a picture where the audience can almost feel like they were there!! love it! take care bro

  2. kev says:

    hey rees. what was going on in this one? bit of a ‘lisa episode’.
    bring back joel.

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