A morning in Phnom Penh

It used to be that I was the first one up to get ready for an early departure for work. But the roles have now reversed, my wife now gets out of bed before me. She likes to take a moment in the morning to pray or meditate on a devotional before preparing herself for the day. It’s not much longer that I manage to grudgingly pull myself out of bed. 

Downstairs I find that my better half has already prepared the coffee for me. I’m spoiled and I know it. There are perks to being married to a schoolteacher that must be on campus early. Besides the coffee, for example, I get to save every single milk carton, toilet paper roll, egg carton, and anything else that could be used for crafts. Normal households have drawers for socks, we have one for numerous types of paper. Most people have shelves for books, ours display various crafts like owls made from pinecones, a complete solar system formed from water & paper towels, and an aluminum version of Olympians posing in their assorted athletic campaigns.  

While I’m still slurping down coffee and procrastinating getting ready, Jeanine heads out the door. From an app in her phone, she summons the “taxi”, a rickshaw vehicle which is basically a small 2-passenger box with a driver in front. Typically, the drivers don’t know a word of English and fortunately get directions from the app. Jeanine has memorized enough words in Khmer to offer warm greetings to the driver as she climbs into the back. The small vehicle can be heard clearly at least 50 meters down the road, among dozens of other traffic. Her taxi disappears in among fellow rickshaws, SUV motorists, trash trucks, and tons of motorbikes swarming around the bigger vehicles. 

Not long after, I head out myself. My commute experience is very different than Jeanine. Equipped with a full helmet and nerves of steel, I max the throttle of the 125cc motorbike (moto) down the road. The view from outside of the traffic is daunting when watching the vast sea of motos zipping in and around each other and other obstacles. It looks like chaos. How do people not constantly bump into each other or avoid the bike that turns onto the road while merging without looking? How do they dodge the one or two guys that take the shortcut and ride on the shoulder of the road against oncoming traffic?  

But once you’re in it, you see it. There is a flow, visible only when you are in the mix of things. Somehow you see a path that leads you around the one slow bike in the middle, or the pedestrian that blindly crosses the road whenever he chooses, or the car that decided to park in the lane because the driver fancied to buy a coffee from the vendor cart on the roadside in that particular spot. Still chaos but organized. It’s like watching a swarm of ants travel in and around an obstacle in their path. Nothing will stop us motorists from getting to where we need to go. 

Except red lights, that is. Sure, there are a few motorists that decide red lights are optional and have their share of near misses. The rest of us scramble in between cars, leaning around door mirrors, riding on the sidewalk, only to get to the front of the line so when light switches green, we can race on way again. 

The sides of the roads are lined with shops selling various items from clothing, food, cell phones, and motorbike parts. Every few streets you see an elaborate cart attached to a motorbike is parked enticing customers to buy from its bins of various vegetables or perhaps some raw beef handing on from the cart roof. Other carts carry clothing or caffeinated drinks overpowered by generous quantities of sugar. 

Still after one year here, I see something new every day, and love this experience more the longer we are here. 

Check out the ride!

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