Here is my first look at Cambodia.



March—May 1992

Welcome to Cambodia: Notes from March 1992
In Bangkok at 5:30 a.m., men dressed uncomfortably in business suits are waiting to board the Bangkok Airways flight to Phnom Penh. These men, who have beside them round middle-aged wives wearing silk dresses, are not United Nations officials. They are Cambodians who have lived overseas for some years, and they are now going home, some for a visit, some for good. The business suits seem to be the mandatory costume of returning Cambodian men.

One hour later, the heat blasts me as I step off the plane at Phnom Penh’s tiny airport. Instantly, I am hot and sticky. After passing through customs, I do not see any more suits. Now is the middle of Cambodia’s dry season and a business suit, even for a United Nations official, would be insufferably hot.

The paved two-lane road from Pochentong Airport into Phnom Penh is filled with cars, motorcycles, trucks, bicycle rickshaws, pony carts, oxcarts, bicycles, and pedestrians. In Cambodia, drivers must drive on the right-hand side of the road, as they do in the United States. But if you want to drive on the left, that’s fine too. In fact, people can drive any way they want; basically, there are no rules. For example, there are stop lights at a few major cross streets, but drivers stop only if they want to. If there is traffic entering the intersection and someone wants to go, he just goes—the other drivers stop for him or he stops suddenly for the other drivers.

Eventually, the chicken crosses the road.

Riding into town and later walking the streets, I am amazed by what even the most casual pedestrian sees:

• A man carrying three car tires around his middle as he drives his motorcycle. His fingertips barely reach the handle bars.
• A motorcycle that is so over-packed with dozens of live chickens hanging by their bound feet that the bike and driver look like one giant flying chicken.
• A tiny motorbike with six people on it. They are a family— father, mother, two kids, and a baby on the hip of each parent.
• A one-passenger bicycle rickshaw carrying an entire elementary school class. Other rickshaws carry a sheet of plate glass the size of a door, a load of bricks, a bed—you name it, they carry it.

The roads are so jammed that no one can go much faster than a bicycle rickshaw, which means that when people hit each other, they usually walk away from it. I’m told that outside the city however, with no limit to the number of passengers a bus or pickup truck can carry, or how fast it can travel, huge bloody traffic accidents occur when the overloaded and top-heavy vehicles hit something or overturn.

In this city of about a million people, many of the cars and trucks are white United Nations vehicles. Or they belong to an NGO, a non-governmental organization: CARE, Save the Children, Lutheran World Service, Church World Service, American Red Cross, Swiss Red Cross, Swedish Red Cross, American Friends Service Committee, Quaker Service Australia, World Vision, World Concern, World Family Hawaii, Handicap International, UNICEF… Even the Transcendental Meditation guru, the Maharishi, has an NGO in Phnom Penh.

Occasionally, I see huge white trucks that look like ships on wheels. These are the UN military personnel carriers designed for traveling over land mines: the mine explodes, the shrapnel deflects off the thick metal “keel” of the truck, and no one gets killed, at least in theory. Cambodia is notorious for its land mines and unknown millions of them are buried in unknown places waiting to go off. Every month about two hundred people—many of them children—take one wrong step and lose a limb or two. One in 237 Cambodians is missing a limb.

Along the downtown streets—jammed into nondescript three-story
concrete buildings—are shops, hotels, beauty parlors, travel agencies, banks, government buildings, restaurants, and movie theaters.
In the poshest sections of downtown are the beggars: widows with children and soldiers with crutches. The soldiers clearly were not riding in UN military personnel carriers when they crossed mine fields. With 40 percent of Cambodian households headed by women, widows with children seem to be the norm. Their husbands starved to death, stepped on land mines, died in battle, or were murdered.

Cambodia is the land of missing limbs and lonely hearts. Anyway, the beggars are tolerated, and even the shopkeepers sometimes give them handouts.

Clerks in the shops downtown earn twice the average per capita income of US $180 a year—they earn twenty thousand Cambodian riels, or about thirty American dollars a month, enough to buy dinner for two in one of the better restaurants in Phnom Penh. Cambodia, I gradually discover in different ways and over and over again, is one of the poorest countries in the world.

Past the shops of this surprisingly flat city, nicely laid out by the French in even blocks of numbered streets with an occasional roundabout, are the residential districts. In the residential districts are many large and elegant concrete and brick houses. Or, if they are not elegant now, they are probably being renovated. This is construction worker paradise. No street is too small or too settled not to have a Vietnamese-led construction crew at work. What’s the rush? With so many foreigners coming to town, landlords know they can rent a large house for three or four or even five thousand U.S. dollars a month. American dollars are the preferred currency, considered more stable than the fluctuating Cambodian riel. All of this means that most Cambodians can’t afford decent housing, that foreign governments and non-governmental organizations spend a large part of their budgets on housing and office space, and that a landlord can make in one month what a store clerk makes in eight years. These newly renovated buildings have electricity and air conditioning that may or may not function. When it is not functioning, the residents complain of roasting like baked chickens in their modern, airless concrete ovens.

Of course, not everyone lives in a residential neighborhood on the edge of renovation. Most people live in less upscale housing: a noisy, crowded tenement building; a dusty, deteriorating house; a thatched hut; a bicycle rickshaw; or a piece of cardboard laid flat on the sidewalk. People who camp out along the main streets are what the international community calls IDPs—“internally displaced persons.” That means there was recent fighting near their homes, and rather than be target practice for this year’s enemy, they have fled into the city. The UN estimates that there are 180,000 IDPs scattered throughout Cambodia.

There is an abundance of food in the markets and in the restaurants.

Restaurants of one sort or another are all over town. The restaurants are clean—if they weren’t, no one would eat in them. They have, however, their own standards of cleanliness. Most restaurants are open to the dusty roads, flies are everywhere, the kitchens are black, the utensils are greasy, the cooks smoke as they prepare the food, the tap water is not potable, and people don’t care much about washing their hands. The standards of cleanliness are such that, in the roadside restaurants, where I sometimes dine with the rickshaw drivers, everyone can drink from the same cup. When sharing a cup with my fellow diners, I find it useful to consider that the germ theory, like the Big Bang or creation theory, is just a theory and, as such, is open to debate. Nevertheless, some of the NGO people say that there is a relationship between the sanitary standards in Cambodia and the fact that 20 percent of the children never reach the age of five.

Unlike the Thais, the easygoing Cambodians do not use much chili, ginger, or garlic in their cooking. Here, the big spice is grease, and the fish, vegetable, egg, and meat dishes sold in the roadside restaurants are covered in it. Surprisingly, though, almost all restaurants sell Becks, Tiger, and Heineken beers, with a few stocking Miller Draft, all for the same price as the imported Coca-Cola.

The Cambodian people are clean as well. Many people bathe outdoors from a tap or basin because, one way or another, everyone here likes to look neat and clean. Bathing in the street, by the way, is not considered immodest as the bathers cover themselves with a kramaa, or wrap-around skirt. Modesty does not end at the bath, either—almost no one wears shorts and women do not expose anything above their calves. I’m told that many Cambodian women are so modest that they do not undress completely, ever.