Slowing things down in Phnom Penh

Trip Start Nov 06, 2006
Trip End Jun 15, 2007

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The sidewalks in Phnom Penh are an impenetrable tangle of roadside gasoline stops, fruit stands, workers washing restaurant dishes in dirty brown water, and row upon row of parked motorcycles. It's a hopeless cause, so we walk on the side of the street instead, either walking with our backs to traffic, blissfully unaware of the trucks and cars missing us withing inches, or head on, with tensed shoulders and nails digging into our palms as we watch buses and motorbikes continually careen toward us then zag away at the last possible moment. This is by far the least walkable city we've visited yet.

Everywhere there are "massage" businesses, ranging from simple wooden shacks to multi-story meccas of gleaming steel and glass, all of them dedicated to the profession of prostitution. A friend here thought he could escape the sexual aspect by visiting a "foot massage" business and was quickly proven wrong.

We discover that the line between local and foreigner is much stronger here. At a number of hole-in-the-wall restaurants, we see people eat at the tables, but the wait staff and management won't let us order - even after we've asked for and received a menu! This may not be such a bad thing. The Cambodians eat nearly anything that moves, slithers, or skitters - cockroaches, live slugs, even tarantulas, legs, thorax, and all.

After a fun evening with a few new Cambodian friends from our guesthouse, we stop by an outdoor venue to eat and listen to music performed by blind karaoke singers. The curry we order has a delicious flavor. As I'm digging around with my chopsticks I pull out an intact chicken's foot, which I quickly drop back in. The next piece I fish out is a bony section of neck, so I set down the chopsticks, tear off another piece of crusty baguette, and sop up some of the curry instead. Todd, who likes liver, pops a deep burgundy-colored square into his mouth only to find that it's some sort of gelatinous substance that is definitely not tofu. Turns out he's just choked down a nice chunk of curdled pig's blood.

The experience of dining becomes more and more of an adventure. On several nights, we dine at Khmer restaurants that feature live performers who moan and wail super-slow ballads to the accompaniment of pre-set electronic salsa and rhumba beats played on a keyboard. While I'm squirming in my seat from the musical torture, the performers groan away with stoic intensity and the Cambodians surrounding us seem to love it.

We spend a sobering afternoon witnessing the horrifying pictures and displays at Tuol Sleng Museum. Also known as S-21 prison, this former detention center was where anti-Pol Pot rebels and their families were taken for interrogation through hideous sessions of torture and brutality before they were shipped off for execution in the infamous killing fields. I ask myself how this level of human degradation can ever occur, and no answer comes to mind. It's an emotional and exhausting visit. Back outside the walls and coils of barbed wire fence, I look around at the people here from the generation before me and realize that they lived this horror for years and that it was happening during my lifetime. This is not some faceless, distant past, but instead an unbelievable series of events that had an incredibly stultifying effect on this city and its people.

Many here still barely survive by ekeing out a living doing whatever they can. We begin to freely hand out spare change to the countless beggars, for whom there is no support network in place. A man with no legs pulls himself along the ground to our table, gently holds up his hands, then smiles kindly and quietly thanks us when we hand him a small bill. This happens countless times each day.

Unlike in other places we've been, we spend little time at tourist sites, and as each day passes our pace slows and the scope of our activity lessens.

Through an e-mail contact with a mutual friend from Boulder, we meet up with Bill, an insightful and inspirational creative powerhouse who is living in Phnom Penh for six months. The combination of meetings, readings, talks, and dinners with him, the indescribable complexity of this city, the tension and history in the air, all mix to create a powerful experience of this place. There are a lot of new unknowns for us ahead, but I leave here feeling less of a tourist and more like I've finally begun the actual journey.
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