Some of every day in Phnom Penh is spent in a tuk tuk with my colleagues. A few regular drivers have become firm friends through shared amusement at each other’s little ways and our limited common language. My fellow expatriates and I are currently holding a photographic competition, each of us preparing to show our best ten snapshots of Cambodian traffic scenes. We regularly interrupt each other to point out astonishing scenes, often annoyed that cameras were not at the ready or excited if we manage to capture a shot, occasionally noticed by a quizzical local wondering what the fuss is about. Today I was out and about during work hours in the city’s Central Market area which is a hive of side and back alleys bustling with people living in crowded spaces alongside each other. The narrow labyrinthine lanes serve as a continuous open air kitchen-bathroom-dining and living room. A nursing activity I oversee takes place out of a service provided from a little old den-like apartment hidden away inside one such block.
A tuk tuk can wend through these narrow corridors if everyone makes room, which of course they do because making room out of tight spaces is a skill cultivated from infancy in Cambodia. Purring into the lane, an old man sits in his doorway at the top of a narrow wooden ladder about six feet above ground level watching the world go by. A young woman squats at a concrete slab pouring water over a plastic bowl of still-squirming fish a few doorsteps from another young woman chopping what was very recently a pig into fresh steaks with a large machete. Men sit on plastic chairs at a metal fold-out table playing cards, glancing sideways to watch the tuk tuk navigate carefully past them and their row of tightly parked motorbikes. A rusty step-through bicycle, a cane basket filled with baked sweet potatoes balanced on the carrier, leans against a plank of wood acting as a stand, in the middle of the alley. We park behind it and wait. Soon enough the seller, dressed in floral pyjamas and a wide-brimmed sunhat, emerges from an entranceway to move her bike and let us through. We pull over again to wait for a moto-sidecar mobile restaurant parked too close to centre-lane for us to get past. Someone calls out and the driver appears, pushing his vehicle further to the side.
Depositing me at the door, Tuk Tuk agrees to return for me in a couple of hours and I disappear inside the dark little room where so much goes on out of sight, providing medical assistance and social support to some of Phnom Penh’s poorest. Two hours later I am done and Tuk Tuk is waiting at the door as promised. We purr back out of the lane and as we round the corner, across the road from us is the entranceway into another alley darkened by afternoon shadows, where the silhouette of a woman with a bamboo pole balanced across her shoulders, pots of takeaway food for sale hanging parallel to her from each end, walks towards us. The next alley we pass swallows a woman pulling a trash cart overloaded with massive rice sacks bulging with recyclable cans and plastic bottles.
Slowing in traffic at a busy corner I notice a dignified elderly man in spectacles, trouser suit and narrow-brimmed straw Pendleton hat who has stopped his bicycle to wrap his checked scarf around his neck a couple more times. As we inch closer to him, I realise through the throngs of motorbikes, he is sitting on a bright pink step-through child’s bicycle that is too small for him and has a cushioned pink seat on the carrier. Three girls in school uniform not more than 14 years old pull up behind him, sharing a moto that one of them is in charge of – nothing too out of the ordinary. Workmen carry their hardware – ladders, paint pots, doorframes, mirrors – on their motorbikes. Whole families or bags of rice or a television, any combination of valuables can fit on a motorbike if you need it to.
I ask Tuk Tuk if he knows the hotel where I am attending a workshop tomorrow? It’s just around the corner so he makes a dog leg through traffic and drives past, agreeing to pick me up there tomorrow. Around the next corner he turns into traffic on the wrong lane and pulls up beside another tuk tuk who moves over as soon as he gets a chance to move forward, making room for us! Holding my expensive iPhone in hopes of a photo opportunity, a young woman with a tiny baby tied to her body with a checked scarf crouched in the gutter makes eye contact with me.
I take a photograph of my shoes on the floor of the tuk tuk and jot a few notes for the blog I want to write, about an ordinary tuk tuk ride on another ordinary Phnom Penh day.