Phnom Penh: The Streets – Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom Penh: The Streets

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom Penh is a crazy city.

I came to this conclusion after Bec and I began walking randomly through the streets on our first morning there, and after turning down a side street found ourselves in the midst of a chaotic street market. The entire street was swamped with people, animals, and food, all protected from the harsh sun by dirty, barely-held-together umbrellas set up along the length of the road. Walking in a straight line through this hive of activity was impossible – simply walking through at all was a challenge; just when you thought you’d got yourself some space to stop and take it all in, a moped would toot at you to get out of the way, and somehow snake past without taking out all your toes. And the smells; whoa, the smells. We went from delightfully sucking in the fresh smell of jasmine, to battling not to dry-wretch as the stench of raw meat and rubbish lying out in the sun intruded on our senses.

Life in Phnom Penh is lived on the streets. Markets like this one are plentiful, turning whole roads into melting pots of food, clothing, money, and rubbish. Footpaths in the city are scarce, and when they do exist, they are typically covered with the merchandise of open-fronted shops; TVs and stereos, motorbikes and cars, anything you can think of spills out onto the street.

Some streets, streets in the heart of the city, don’t even have a road, let alone foot paths. You turn off a pot-holed, paved road and onto a dirt track that looks more at home in some poor shanty town, where toddlers naked from the waist down run through the dust.

One road has a line of barber stalls set up along its length; the high swivel chairs resting in the dirt in front of a mirror, men receiving hair cuts as cars, motorbikes, and tuk-tuks whiz past behind them. On more than one occasion we saw young kids, anywhere from 3-to-10 years old, simply dropping their dacks, whipping out their bits, and peeing out onto the road. And this was on Phnom Penh’s main road, running alongside the Mekong river.

As you walk the streets, you are constantly bombarded with requests to buy books or newspapers from locals with baskets of the reading material hanging from around their necks. But these sellers are not adults, or even teenagers. They are almost exclusively young kids, aged anywhere from 5 to 10. Barefoot, they travel up and down the main tourist strip well into the night, seemingly on their own, getting in amongst the outdoor diners that line the street. There may have been elder siblings or parents watching from a distance, but I didn’t notice them.

When one such young kid passed me with his basket of books; mostly travel guides and stories relating to the time of the Khmer Rouge’s dominance, I made the mistake of hesitating before saying no. And I’d only done that because I was sick of repeating the same combination of apologetically shaking my head and saying no.

“Hmmmmmm, no thanks.” I’d said cheerily.

The kid, aged maybe 7, pounced on my supposed indecision, running back to my side. “Mmmmmmmm, you buy book.”

“No thanks.”
“You buy book.”
“I said, no thanks.”
“I say, you buy book.”
“I said, no thanks.”
“I say, you buy book.”
“I said, no thanks.”
“I say, you buy book.”

We’d been walking along the street all this time, but now, I stopped and paused, before asking, “What else can you say?”

He turned and looked up at me, confusion crawling across his face. Perhaps 10 seconds went by before he finally replied.

“You buy book.”

These little kids selling their books to the street-side diners aren’t the only ones selling things. Prostitutes sit at tables with middle-aged, overweight white guys, smiling and laughing while the men run their hands up the girls’ thighs. Pimps on mopeds wait out on the street not too far away, keeping a close eye on the happenings. It got a little too much for Bec and me when, while we sat at an outside table at a decent bar/restaurant, a group of loud English guys started high-fiving each other at the sign of another young Cambodian girl approaching their table to sell her body.

But that’s how Phnom Penh is. Everything is on the streets, open and visible to all who take their feet across the city.

That’s if you can take your eyes off the traffic. The traffic is insane. Not in the way Bangkok traffic is, though. There, it is the sheer volume of cars, motorbikes, and other vehicles constantly filling the streets that cause anyone attempting to cross a road to have a near heart attack. In Phnom Penh, it is the way the traffic merges that gets the nerves going. It is almost exclusively motorbikes and tuk-tuks here, cars are a rarity.

Cambodians drive on the right side of the road. Now, let’s say you reach a T-intersection, and wish to turn left. Normally, you would wait until there was a break in the traffic in both directions, cross over the first lane going right, and then turn left. In Phnom Penh (and other parts of Cambodia, we would subsequently discover), you turn your motorbike sharply to the left, driving along the edge of the left side of the road, into the oncoming traffic, and, when the time suits, simply toot your horn to announce that you’re crossing over.

Bikes coming the other way must then swerve around you; whether or not you get cleaned up by the wave of bikes bearing down on you like a charging cavalry depends on making eye contact with those coming towards you. Then it’s a simple nod of the head in one direction or another to tell them which way to swerve. Similarly, if you have to go straight across a busy road, you simply ease your way out into the middle, tooting your horn, and forcing the oncoming traffic to stop. But somehow, we’d never seen an accident. Something like this would never work back home in Australia, but here, because everyone does it, and everyone knows that everyone does it, it works almost flawlessly. And with the heavy volume of traffic in the mornings and afternoons, doing it any other way simply wouldn’t work.

We found all this out when, with tired feet at the end of a long day walking around town, we flagged down a motorbike and arranged a price to take us back to our guesthouse. The two of us got onto the back of the tiny bike, me directly behind the driver, and Bec riding side saddle at the back.

Although we’d initially been a little hesitant to take a bike, rather than a more expensive tuk-tuk, after a few minutes dodging the traffic, we were both laughing with glee. It was brilliant fun.

Then we heard the crash of metal on metal, as a moped just off to our left failed to see the braking car in front of it, and slammed into its tail, the driver being thrown down onto the ashphalt.

“Oh, it’s not so fun any more.” Bec cried, gripping my shoulder just that little bit tighter.

But we made it home safely, and would take more motorbikes over the next few days, before we left the streets of Phnom Penh.

Traveler Article


Leave a Comment

Older comments on Phnom Penh: The Streets – Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Patricia Morrise
14 June 2010

Cambodia has many beautiful natural spots as well as interesting cultural sites and sights, both religious and secular.