Tag Archives: tuk-tuk

Phnom Penh Traffic Part Nine: Tuk-Tuk

Please note that this is the last in the Phnom Penh Traffic Series, so it’s a bit spoiler-y if you haven’t read anything else here before. If you do want to read the series, Part One can be found here, while the central Phnom Penh Traffic Page is here.

Sam hadn’t taken it well.
“Now? We’re just hitting it big!
You’re in pretty deep.
And you think Narith is the kinda guy you can just fuck around with?”
“I booked my flight already.
I’m out this afternoon.”
Sam stared at him without blinking,
arms at his sides,
colour coming back to his cheeks,
and Jack firmed his grip on his beer bottle
very slightly.
But then Sam turned
and walked out without a word.

Now the tuk-tuk is clearing the intersection onto Russian Federation Boulevard
and joining a new traffic jam.
In front of them is another tuk-tuk
with a poster-ad on the back
for a Christian NGO,
sporting bible verses
and a photograph of a smiling soulful Cambodian child
in a white cotton shirt with a starched and folded collar.
They trundle slowly along the wide road,
passing minivans and SUVs on the left,
while streams of motos on the right pass them in turn.
A small boy on the back of one looks at Jack as he passes,
and Jack feels like he is being measured
and made to fit into the boy’s world.
A few adults glance his way
but he sees their eyes
flick
to the suitcase on the seat by his side
and dismiss him.

They pass petrol stations and road-side shops
filled with bottled drinks
and an old woman
sitting by two big orange ice-boxes
and a display stand
hung with plastic raincoats.
A low breeze runs through the tuk-tuk
and he lifts his arms from his sides to let the air pass through his shirt.
Then they pull to a stop
at a red light
beneath a rotating billboard
advertising cameras
worth six months of a Cambodian wage.

In the intersection, a police-officer stands
and waves his baton importantly,
directing traffic to go where it will go
whether he waves or not.

Jack realises there is someone standing by the tuk-tuk
and jumps.
It is a girl,
perhaps six years old,
or four. Or eight.
Who can tell?
Her yellow blouse is faded but
as yet
untorn.
Her palms are pressed together
and she murmurs,
inaudible beneath the growl and sputter of engines.
Jack stares at her
blinking.
You’re better not giving to beggars,
they told him.
Especially kids.
They have to give it to their bosses anyway.
After a moment she turns away.

“Wait a second,” he says suddenly, surprising himself,
and she is there again.
He hurriedly digs for his wallet
and pulls out the first note he finds,
a twenty.
Her eyes go wide as he pushes it at her
but she plucks it from his fingers
and is gone.

Jack glances up and sees the driver’s dark eyes on him in the mirror.
After a moment, he looks away.

The lights change,
and the traffic rolls ahead.
Jack wonders if she will keep the money
or lose it
or just buy glue.

The child with the white starched collar
stares at him from the tuk-tuk ahead,
smiling,
never moving.

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Celebrity and a Tuk-Tuk

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,