I once heard the phrase, “The best way to learn about a local culture is by taking its public transportation.” I’d love to apply the sentiment to life in Cambodia, but I’m not sure the term “public transportation” translates equally between a Western culture and a culture based on the moto. Still, the phrase is significantly apt if tweaked to “The best way to learn about a local culture is by using its transportation.”
When you arrive in the Phnom Penh airport, you walk through a series of corridors that spits you out at the visa center. This express function is essentially a quick way for Cambodia to make a buck from its booming tourism industry. It takes only minutes (a quick form fill and a passport verification) to get either your tourism or “ordinary” (e-class) visa and be on your way. One last stop to get fingerprints taken (for what?) and, sans any form of security checkpoint, you’re free to go into one of the wildest places I’ve ever been.
When we arrived it was pouring rain–a downpour that Southeast Asia is famous for during its severe monsoon seasons. After being lured in by a local mobile provider (who failed to unlock my Verizon phone), and a moment getting all my other RM changed to Cambodian riel, Jason and I got into our first tuk tuk. Lang, who would be faithfully serving us as a day driver for the next couple of days, drove vehemently through the maddening streets. The tuk tuk is a motorized bike, a moto, with a four-wheel cart attached to the back. The tuk tuk provides basic coverage (keeping the rain, and potential thieving hands, out) to the passenger. It’s a bit slower than a bike on its own, but its the main mode of transportation in Cambodia.
There are tuk tuks everywhere. Drivers greet you with a full smile, saying “Tuk tuk?” The more aggressive drivers for the white person have learned fluent English (like our friend Lang) and know how to understand directions and make small talk. Tuk tuk drivers are on every corner and if you stand confused or hesitant for any half-second, you’re going to be asked for a ride. Rides are cheap at being between 2 and 5 dollars depending on time and distance. Haggling is encouraged. Tipping can occur. though is not required.
As first glances go, life in Phnom Penh is about zeroing in on the single experience, the relationships one forms and sustains, and the overall well-being of the community. As one of our tuk tuk drivers told us, Cambodia is the safest country in the world. Regardless of what you hear about crime in Cambodia, which I’m sure does exist, and regardless of what you hear about corruption, which I’m sure does exist as well, walking down a street in Phnom Penh will leave you feeling like you have an army of friends waiting to serve you. The tuk tuk driver is as respectful for the potential passenger as the potential passenger is for the potential tuk tuk.
Transportation in Phnom Penh is more than the tuk tuk. There are car cabs. There are moto dups–moto drivers who will drive you around from place to place without the attached cart. There are personal automobiles, vans, buses, and trucks full of garment workers.
Have you ever thought about a terrarium or eco-system? When you visualize these spaces, what comes to mind are living things all working in harmony together in a microcosmic universe. I took a video recently (that I haven’t been able to upload due to slow internet speeds) of all the traffic in Phnom Penh. While there is an intensity about it, there is also a harmony to it reminiscent of the above terrarium. While the written law does not exist, unspoken rules and relationships flourish and allow the dense populations and endless number of vehicles to co-exist smoothly.
There are many other elements of Phnom Penh I want to write about, but will have to wait, as it’s time to relocate from one hotel to another in Siam Reap. As always, drop me a line if you have ideas of comments! I haven’t been able to respond to any yet, but will hope to do so once I’m settled back in Phnom Penh in a couple of weeks.
Next steps: Siam Reap for one more day; then bus to Phnom Penh for a night; then van to Sihanoukville; then Kampot; then Kep; then Vietnam.