First Impressions

Two motor cycles and a lot of other stuff in a truck, with people on top...

It's poor, it's underdeveloped compared to any standards, there's kids begging and the poverty is striking. But they're friendly, they seem curious, they like to make contact and their smile is contagious.

They were also easy to photograph. Either a friendly smile, a big laugh, a wave or a shy looking away, but never an objection. They actually seemed to like the attention.

A lot of the people seem to literally live on the streets. I'm not sure if they have homes or live in one of the slum areas I saw, and just venture out to the city during the day, but they eat, pee, play, sleep, get their hair cut and dry their clothes on the streets, as some of the photos show (see the album 'Phnom Penh 2009', on the main page, for more photos of this trip). In fact, I caught them sleeping everywhere. On trucks, on benches, in tuk tuks, on seats at a funeral, they clearly like to sleep. My kind of people.

The street life is in your face. It makes parts of Phnom Penh a very lively mess, especially around the market area.

Knowing a little bit of the history of Cambodia and the horrors that went on there - first by the Americans, then by Pol Pot slaughtering his own people - the resilience of the people seems amazing.

I don't want to romanticise it though. Life there is harsh. They might smile and some might seem genuinely happy with the little they have, a few days isn't enough to get a sense of what these people are thinking or feeling or how they experience their daily life. Think it's safe to assume that everyone would prefer a normal house over a slum, and a clean bed over a bench in the park.

A tip I got from another traveller worked out quite well: the street kids begging. In stead of giving them money - which is either spent wrong or possibly given to other people for whom they work - I bought a big bag of candy, and we just handed that out whenever the occasion arose. And it works, they leave you alone after that, with a happy face, stuffed with the candy.

I also handed out money to disabled, landmine victims and other unfortunates, but you quickly realise it's impossible. They keep coming. It's one of the nasty aspects of these places: the confrontation with your own luck, the fact you have and they don't, and how to deal with that if they rub that almost literally in your face, with missing limbs, in wheelchairs and with other deformities. I haven't found a convincing way yet for myself. I give some, I reject some, but it still lingers in the back of my mind without a resolution, because there is none. This is the way it is, this is their life. You visit, you leave. Most you get out of it is the feeling of being lucky and a sense of admiration for this nation and its people.

Another striking thing, of which some Cambodian artists make fun themselves in paintings I saw, is the number of people they carry around on trucks, buses and motorbikes. Five people on one motor cycle wasn't an exception, and some seem to carry their whole material existence on their motor cycle. Furniture, stoves, bags, appliances, hardware, tools, you name it, you can find someone driving around with it, stacked, stuffed or folded onto a bike or truck, usually with people on top, as shown in the snippet photo.

The weather was so so. It was the rain season, and the first few days we had on and off drizzle and a grey sky. Dry enough between the drizzle to walk around though. The place is also quite windy, and as sandy and dusty as Siem Reap. Completely flat land, no mountains, so the wind can do its thing undisturbed, bit like The Netherlands, where a day without wind is quite rare.

Otherwise, apart from observing the life going on, there's really not much to do in Phnom Penh. There's a few sites to visit and there's some nice restaurants and cafes around the river area, but that's about it. My initial guess that a few days would be enough turned out to be true.

I did enjoy it though. Not sure if I will return there soon, but I think it was a worth while trip.

See the album 'Phnom Penh 2009', on the main page, for more photos of this trip.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II with Canon EF 70-200mm f/4.0 IS

Phnom Penh, Cambodia - 2 August 2009