Check out my latest Storehouse Photo Story, Cambodia Noir: Siem Riep in the Dark. It’s a look at some of Cambodia’s darker truths.
The shop is like a thousand others in Phnom Penh –
a wooden house on a dusty street,
With orange ice-boxes out front containing
bottled water, Coca Cola, cans of lychee juice
and ice you shouldn’t drink.
Individual sachets of instant coffee and shampoo
hang in connected plastic strips from wire-frame shelves,
and prawn chips in over-inflated packets
covered in Korean lettering adorn the door frame.
And there are two mangy dogs living here,
running around and biting at the ankles
of the lethargic, skeletal neighbourhood cows.
(The dogs don’t seem to be for sale but,
everything is for sale,
so that’s probably an illusion.)
As I wait for the seller,
in satin pajamas and a straw what,
to get my change, a small boy comes around the corner.
His bare feet stop in the dirty sand and,
for a moment,
he only stares.
Then he backs slowly away, and his eyes never leave mine until
he is gone around the corner.
And I wonder if, as he grows,
I will pass into the personal legend of his
so that one day he might say to his mother,
“Khnyom tcham boro-teh.”
(I remember a foreigner,)
“Khnyom tcham boro-teh,
big and tall, with a beard,
who used to come to our shop when I was young.
Is that right?”
And I hope the seller will reply,
“That’s right. You were so scared of him,
but he was always friendly.
And he wasn’t really very tall.”
Although, come to think of it,
I don’t mind if she leaves that last part out.
One of the things that is most striking about being a foreigner (and perhaps the only foreigner) driving a tuktuk in Phnom Penh is how much it feels like being something of a celebrity. Or at least, how I imagine that must feel. Barangs in Cambodia get a disproportionate amount of attention anyway, but this is something else. Several times per day, while I am making my way through traffic, minding my own business, I will notice someone look at me, look away, then do a double take and look back. (That moment, incidentally, never gets old!) More often than not, that double take turns into a look of concentration, as the other person tries to fit me into their world, and generally a smile. Often there is a thumbs up (mostly from other tuktuk drivers) and a grin. Sometimes people call out greetings. Occasionally, at a traffic light, or by the side of the road, someone will engage and have a short chat. And very rarely, I have received glares and apparent dislike – I presume because it seems I have taken a Cambodian person’s job.
The sense that I have become in some way publicly accessible is a two-edged sword. This is why I am here, after all: to build connections, to engage with people, to join the community. And the vast majority of reactions are positive, a reminder that people are willing to please and be pleased. On the other hand, at 7:00am, when I am dealing with heavy traffic on the main airport road, and I have not yet had a coffee, I sometimes wish people would just not see me.
I don’t know what all that means – maybe nothing. But it’s a part of the experience, and one I didn’t fully anticipate,
This is a poem I wrote after our first month in Phnom Penh. It was published to the Storehouse photo-story website, and the original post can be found here.
This is the heat
of waking in the morning
to the fan blowing tepid air across my back
while the sweat-stuck sheet clings to my chest.
This is the rumble of the heavy iron gate
each day as we leave the house
surrounded by old plastic bags and stray dogs and the gazes of children.
This is the taste of coffee, sitting in the car,
or the bite of dust
and the stink of exhaust and sulfur and shit and stagnant water,
and the emphysemic growl of the tuk-tuk.
This is children shouting at my daughter’s gated school.
This is people chattering outside my understanding,
and pointing and laughing
and nodding and smiling.
This is the pungent odour of fish sauce,
the comforting smell of French-fries,
the sweetness of mangoes, growing cloying
as the season
This is the lung-rattling roar, every quarter to midnight,
of an Air-Korea 767.
This is not knowing landmarks in a place
where they can’t read maps.
I was looking for a narrative
but I can’t find it
if it is
here at all.
This is just a
This is probably to be expected.