Phnom Penh Notes: Sweaty Jeans, Magic, and Black Smoke

After 7 movies, 4 made-for-TV dramas, 1 documentary, 2 Sudoku games, 1 confiscated Swiss army knife, 1 – $70 extra baggage weight charge, 5 airplane meals of chicken, chicken, and more sai mouan (chicken in Khmer), and 3 different planes, I am finally in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I believe I am the last of the Kiva Fellow 5 Class reporting for duty, but don’t quote me on that, and I just can’t believe I am here after all those months of jealousy and admiration from reading the other fellow’s blogs and notes from the field.

I arrived yesterday morning around 9am to the smile and hand shake of Vichet, one of the Kiva Coordinators at CREDIT – MFI, the MFI I will be working with starting Monday. It was comforting to find someone meeting me since I had not been to Cambodia before. We hopped in the car unfortunately without my bags, and we drove directly to CREDIT where I met some colleagues, and exchanged names, ages, job duties, and aspirations of language acquisition (Sopheap and I think may exchange Khmer lessons for Spanish lessons. We’ll see). They then dropped me off at the guesthouse I will call home for the next 2 weeks or until I find a place to really call home.

My impressions of Phnom Penh have shifted and taken on new shape over the past 24 hours. If I had sat down to write this early last night, you would have read about the potential trash problem in the city with plastic bottles, cans, food items, and other things strewn along the sides of most roads. You would have read about the oppressive heat and humidity, and slight unidentifiable smell in the air. You would have read about the traffic problems brought on by lack of basic infrastructure and city planning. You basically would have read a big, cranky, grouchy, western-centric story since I had not slept well in the plane, and the airline had lost my bags leaving me sweating in jeans. Have you ever experienced 95 degree weather with nearly 100 percent humidity in jeans? I don’t recommend it, and I can guarantee, if you ever are, you will be cranky too.

To my relief, I called the airport and my bags came later in the evening. And of course when I went to pick them up, they were the last two to pop out from behind the conveyor belt curtain at the airport. For some reason fate always seems to enjoy teasing you when you are grouchy in sweaty denim.

I lugged my bags up 2 flights of stairs, grabbed the coolest outfit I packed and got ready for a late dinner. I headed out down the street, and all of sudden the street turned into a magical place with twinkling lights, warm breezes, kids laughing and playing badminton, tuk-tuk drivers playing cards waiting for the next expat needing a ride, all with lightning lighting up the distant sky. Seriously, it was like some magical fairyland had swallowed the city I knew only a few grumpy hours early.

Somehow my new world morphed with simply a change of clothes and the reclamation of my personal items. Beyond morphing without notice, Cambodia is simply another world, another culture, and I have a lot to learn.

Some small, but important things I have noted so far that I need to get used to. The light switches are opposite here (or at least in my guesthouse). Up is off and down is on. Your normal walking pace will have you sweating after 5 paces, so slow is good. Despite wanting to crank the air conditioner on, it will make you sick so just give in and acclimate. The water, despite it looking really clean and clear, can still kill you. And if the water doesn’t kill you, crossing a major road on foot might since traffic laws are non-existent here (But really, there is no correct side of the road to drive on, and it is insane, than add an elephant or two). The moto drivers will always enjoy charging you a little extra so honed bargaining skills are needed. Lunch is between noon and 2pm for a reason, it is simply too darn hot to move. When a drop of cool water falls from the sky hitting you in the face, it means to find shelter fast since the streets are about to turn into rivers. And last, but certainly not least, when you are eating lunch in a lovely open-air café, and you see black smoke rising out of the Wat (Buddhist temple) next to you and you think it is a slightly smelly mid-afternoon incense ritual that you will learn about later, hold your breath because it is actually a body being cremated.

I learned the last one the hard way, and I am still trying to work the smell out of my memory.

I start with CREDIT-MFI on Monday, and I can’t wait to share with you further when I do.

phnom penh traffic

phnom penh traffic


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