Hopping off the short flight from Bangkok to Phnom Penh I was struck immediately by two things; the heat, and the chaos. 10 am and the city was throbbing with people, dust, and the motorbikes that most people use to travel around the city. At first, the traffic was nothing short of frightening. It seemed the only rule of the road was that there are no rules. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw a learner driver on the road the day after I arrived- I thought – what are they learning? The answer is not much – a local lady explained to me that to pass a driving test here you pay a bribe. If you don’t pay, you fail, if you do, you pass. Not that it makes a huge amount of difference – in Cambodia there are 500,000 registered vehicles and 1000 registered licenses. Nonetheless, there are a few unwritten laws – people are supposed to hoot as a warning that they are approaching from behind/about to run a red light. I make a mental note to buy a helmet.
Despite this feeling of confusion and fear I sensed there was something about this city I could grow to like; the chaos is fascinating as it is simultaneously overwhelming. I have the desire to make sense of everything, submerge myself and become part of that chaos.
After a few days settling into my apartment and having traveled to and from work a few times I began to feel more at home and started to be able to navigate the unlabelled and unpaved streets. (Also, I can now both spell and pronounce ‘Phnom Penh’, a feat of which I am perhaps disproportionately proud). Still finding the heat interrupting my sleep I often rose early. I noticed that many women awoke early as well, sometimes at around 5am to do their washing. As was explained to me by the family I rent the apartment from, the price of a washing machine is a significant financial investment. But rather than looking shabby or cutting corners, people simply wake up earlier to wash their clothes by hand, before heading out to do finish a full days work. This ethic was reiterated by my motor driver who explained to me that he is studying English at university but must spend every spare moment driving this motor-taxi so that he can support his mother and younger siblings.
These are just a few of a million different observations, feelings and thoughts that all come tumbling into your head when you are in a city as overwhelming as Phnom Penh.
On Thursday I will be heading out into the field to visit clients who have received loans from Kiva via the MFI I am working for. I can hardly wait to learn more about this beautiful country and the people who toil within it./>