There must be some rules, but they are unclear through direct observation. The motorbikes are everywhere, swarming round cars, overtaking, undertaking, riding on pavements and dirt tracks, clearly the primary choice of travel for the majority. It’s anyone’s guess what will turn up on one: a driver and passenger are common, but equally three passengers are not unusual, and babies in arms abound. Helmets, despite a recent government drive, are clearly optional.
Bags of rice, timber, chairs and a six foot window frame raise no eyebrows: and that’s just for starters. There is virtually nothing that you can’t cut a motorbike in half and weld the front end to: refrigerated trailers, flatbed trailers and, of course, the innumerable tuktuks, whose states of decrepitude are equalled only by the optimism with which they are ridden at speed through the smallest gap in traffic.
Around these insect like ‘motos’ run the cars, which fall clearly into two distinct types: the ancient and the aspirational. Clapped out or pimped up. I spend half an hour riding behind a Toyota Camry in a dusty red held together more with hope than cohesion, whilst Range Rovers and Audis overtook on the straights. The relatively recent affluence of a lucky few is worn on the sleeve in a country where the average earning still hovers somewhere significantly less than two dollars a day and labour movements to improve conditions and pay are strictly controlled and repressed.
The sight of the vans taking garment workers to the gargantuan factories says it all: i lost count at thirty bodies as they rushed past in dust clouds. Thirty people all stood up, and the recent accident where eighteen of them died came as no surprise. The garment factories themselves exist in a grey space: often owned by regional conglomerates that subcontract and shuffle clarity to give maximum flexibility to the supply chains of premium value western High Streets and Fifth Avenue. The cost of consumption written in blood all too often, repressed with batons and rifles at worst.
King of the road are the trucks: often filthy, but sometimes gleaming with chrome and airbrushed, multicoloured artwork. They barrel along as the backbone of the pack: everything revolving around them.
Traffic is nominally restricted to one side of the road, but that distinction is far from permanent: both directions claim an ownership of the flow and both lights and horn are used not in anger, but to claim space as you push through.
This sight is common: a truck veers out with no indication of intent to overtake a tuktuk. Simultaneously a car is overtaking it, with two others lathed to the rear fender in the hope of following. Seizing the moment, several bikes veer around the inside to take the racing line through, whilst others go wide and encircle the pack. Traffic the other way, meanwhile, swerves and hoots, or, on occasion, everyone grinds to a shuddering halt to extricate themselves.
I put the fact that i witnessed no accidents down to the fact that average velocity is twenty miles an hour: it’s hard to go fast. Indeed, my fifty kilometre first journey took over two hours to complete.
At night, the scene transforms: lights are a bonus, but not something to be counted on. One lorry i see has no rear lights and one feeble headlight still functioning, and is probably considered safe for that single light. Many bikes have no lights at all, and i’m struck by the sheer terror i would feel in that context. Perhaps i lack a certain spirit of adventure.
Cambodia shows two faces to the world: a tourist veneer of hotels, bars and shops, where you pay in dollars and revive under the aircon, then, everywhere around it, the everyday reality of the street. My first and lasting impression if of the filth: there is rubbish everywhere, from the city centre of Phnom Penh to the backwater thousand year old temples of the Angkorian dynasty: plastic, discarded food, metal, paper, strewn through fields, in trees, piled high in the street.
I say this not in judgement, just an observation of the clearest sign of difference between what i’m used to and where i am now. Nobody bats an eyelid: it’s simply a fact of life.
Harder to see are the children scouring this rubbish for anything that could be remotely valuable: plastic, aluminium cans, anything that can be crushed, packed, resold. It’s more an indictment of my privileged western upbringing that i gag at the smell from some of these trash piles, the piles that these children scavenge, but it’s a scene i find hard to rationalise.
Later in the week, i travel by boat down a river, through a fishing village: here again the stench is overpowering, and the sight of rubbish laid deep on the shoreline is depressing and damning at the same time. Somehow it transforms what would be a picture of poverty to to a picture of carelessness, an unfair judgement i realise, but i share it nonetheless. In my cultural lexicon, littering the street is a sign of not caring, of abusing the investment in society made by your neighbours and friends. It’s culturally discouraged and a clear sign of dereliction of responsibility. But i assume it’s different here: my cultural norms don’t apply, and yet i filter the street scene through that mesh.
I stand in the sunshine, sketching the ruins of a thousand year old temple. Trees push through the stones, the hydraulic pressure forcing huge rocks apart, making for a picturesque picture of decay and collapse. To my side, children play underneath a tree: i’m not sure what they are, but they are collecting nuts of some sort, gathering handfuls. One child repeatedly throws her sandal into the canopy to dislodge more of this bounty until the inevitable happens and it lodges up there, stuck in a high branch. They laugh and giggle until the most adventurous girl climbs up the high bough and stats jumping and down, dislodging not just the footwear, but a deluge of new treats to be swept up in eager arms.
She glances at me and laughs and the joy of it all, in the sunshine.
An hour earlier she had been begging me for money: ‘buy something please’, she called, gesturing at a stand with bottles of water. ‘Give me a dollar’, she pleaded, both of us knowing that a dollar here was almost a days wage. When i declined, the said ‘why, why, why’ repeatedly, and kept this up for fifteen minutes.
It was a very different child, a different role being played before me now.
The ethics of charity are complex: i can afford to give her a dollar. But i don’t. Even the local guides now discourage it: by giving money to children, it’s possible that they are encouraged to skip school, indeed, likely that they are exploited by parents to do this kind of work. Later, in the capital city, i saw a man (a father, an employer?) briefing two very young children, sending them off to ‘work’ with a bucket of nuts each and a few dollars for change, sternly talking to them both before sending them out to the tourist bars to sell their wares.
Who am i to judge? Who am i to say if they love of a father is different when he exploits his children for gain, when the economic reality is so skewed. If a family can raise five or ten dollars in an evening, is that bad or good?
Logic tells me that i’m better off donating to a charity if i want to do something: my local guide in the fishing village tells me not to give money at the orphanage, but rather take food, as the teachers may steal the money (he stresses that, as everywhere, some people are good, some bad, but his message is clear). There is corruption here, and inequality beyond that i’ve seen before.
Riding a tuktuk someone night, two motorbikes come in, lights turned off, clearly intent on robbing me. It’s a known risk: whilst violent crime is rare, petty theft, particularly against obvious tourists, is common. This is an expected tactic: they ride up, right next to the tuktuk, one on the left wheel, one of the right. Both looking at my bag, held firmly between my knees, both sizing me up. I look at both in the eyes: i’m not afraid, there is no malice or intent there, i could easily push either off their bikes from this position and from the simple physics that i tower over both of them.
The driver notices and jinks the wheel, causing them to turn off, and they disappear, hoping perhaps for an easier bag to snatch. The driver grins at me: clearly a daily event. Many of the tuktuks have wire mesh around the back and sides for this very reason and i make a mental note to choose them in future. But how do a feel about those men?
Entirely ambivalent: to be robbed in the UK would be an affront, an insult as well as injury, but here i am less clear. I cannot deny that i have so much more than them. I have worked hard for what i have, for sure, but no harder than some of them i suspect. I am simply blessed by history, geography and opportunity. Is it right to steal? Of course not, but the hundred dollars in my wallet surely would make a month go more easily. I chalk it to experience and move on.
Overwhelmingly, my time in Cambodia has felt dreamlike: displaced from my world, and yet not of this one. I am a visitor and observer, but hugely insulated and isolated from almost everything. I visit this reality: i do not live it.
I am lucky: the coffee i buy at the airport costs four dollars. i think nothing of it.
When we play our parts in the play, our roles are fixed: tourist and beggar, rich and poor. As i caught the eye of the girl as she jumped from the tree, we both smiled and played two different parts, a shared moment, a shared understanding. Perhaps i’m other thinking it, but it was probably my most authentic moment there.
Travel changes us: it forces our perspective wide open. We are not better people for visiting other cultures, but we are at least open to the idea of exploring new realities. I am still far from clear on what is fair in this context: the old lady begging me for a dollar was the hardest moment. Simple respect made me question what i should do. If she were in London i would give up my seat on the train, i would offer to carry a bag for her. So why here, when i have so much more, when i am so privileged, do i do nothing. Why do i apply different ethical standards when it’s only my geographical location that has changed?
Perhaps it comes over as the pathetic hand wringing of the middle class tourist, but for me these moments are sense making, these are the times we actually think about what is right and fair, and whatever course of action we take, the act of thought is always valuable. It’s how we learn and how we change.