Looking up in Phnom Penh.


Was looking up today as I walked around Phnom Penh. It wasn’t strictly wise, as pavements here are monstrous obstacle courses, tiled, slippery with rain, displaced by tree roots, used as cars and bike parking areas, they are often the final resting place of old wooden yellow house shrines and covered in dusty building detritus. No one walks on the pavements. The streets heave with activity, tuk tuks, motor bikes, big f… you sport utility vehicles (SUV’s, I’m personally not a fan of acronyms). Big black or silver SUV’s, tuks and millions of motor bikes driven by drivers who take the road rules and traffic lights as suggestions rather than rules of law. That attitude applies to building safety regulations. It horrifies me to see men welding with no eye or foot protection.

Anyway I was walking in mild heat under mostly grey sky. I knew it would rain soon, the air pressure was gathering gravitas. The juxtaposition of temple facades and modern edifices has a jarring quality in Phnom Penh given that planning permission is given willy nilly to the highest bidder and many of the modern building have a generic design quality to them. Yet many of the older buildings seemed festive today, verandahs sporting colourful bunting and brilliant scraps of blue sky carved into by elegant old roofs. The security guards lolling outside apartment gates, by mid morning have taken off their shoes and sleep propped against a wall, the heat and pressure increasing.

I guess my trust in my ability to navigate this treacherous terrain has improved. I walk with the rest of the population along the side of the roads, swivelling my head as I navigate to check for silent bikes, push carts of snacks and drinks, and motors of all descriptions. Navigating the air waves too with a dismissive wave of my right hand answering the incessant inquiry, “Tuk madam?” and the bewildering call, “Mobi?” Which translates as, “Does Madam want to take a motor bike to wherever she is going?” Rendered into the strange vernacular of the Khmer language, why use two or more syllables when one will do the trick?

It did rain, a gentle drumming on a blue roof, as I watched from a verandah the temple across the road darken from yellow to mustard and felt the air steam up into a sauna of heat. Thank the gods for iced water and shelter.