I read Vagabonding By Rolf Potts when I first got into Cambodia and his message really resonated with me. Travel for me is not so much about ticking things off a list as ‘completed’ but the whole experience of being in an unfamiliar place – meeting the locals, learning about local culture and history, eating local food as well as merely soaking in the surroundings.
Fully experiencing Cambodia was a little challenging because I struggled to meet any locals that spoke English. There were less than 3 people with whom I could have a conversation with that lasted beyond ‘tuk tuk’, ‘have you been to killing fields’, ‘please buy’. On a solo adventure in Phnom Penh, as I walked out of a café heading across to walk along the Mekong River, I heard the usual, ‘would you like tuk tuk lady?’, I ignored this, then I heard it coming from someone else and I ignored it, then it is followed up by ‘those are cool dreadlocks’. I look up in shock trying to find the voice that had uttered those words. It was coming from a Cambodian-man driving his Tuk Tuk across the road. I lifted my head smiled, stopped and with a look of confusion, I said thanks. I guess he took this a queue that I was engaged and stopped his tuk tuk for a chat. He introduced himself as Klo, and explained that he had lived in the Bronx in the US for about 20years. He also felt the need to mentioned that he had dated a black girl and that is why he was familiar with black hairstyles and knew about dreadlocks, braids, weaves and the hair prep process. I guess my face was asking the questions my mouth felt would be too impolite to articulate.
He explained that he had lived in the Bronx for 20 years and had recently returned to Cambodia four years prior. As we talked he invited me into his tuk tuk to sit and talk. The curious cat in me wanted to jump in but I guess the rest of my body screamed ‘stranger danger’ because he then reassured me that it was a free chat and he would not take me anywhere – he then took the key out of the tuk tuk and placed it on his seat. I was grateful to find someone who could explain some of the things I had seen and who could answer my questions in English.
He then spoke to me about the political system in the country which is partly communism with some hints of democracy. The country has a lot of Chinese influence followed closely by Russian influence which can be denoted by the Russian Market and Chinese buildings all over the city. He shared his frustrations about the country which has not invested in its infrastructure as you see children begging with their parents in the streets instead of being at school, the fact that there is no proper rubbish disposal system, the frustration about the monks who rip off tourists and locals by placing beads into their hands which they automatically have to pay for, the fact that there is a sex trade that facilitates and provides minors to tourists who prefer ‘younger girls’.
As we sat and talked a couple of tourists were led to Klo by a local man. The tourists asked Klo what he had, his response was did not have anything but he could provide a translation. They wanted to buy marijuana, the guy that had brought them over then took them to sit in another tuk tuk to complete the transaction, however they seemed not to agree on price and so they walked off. Klo explained that a lot of tourists come to this area to buy drugs and most of the tuk tuk drivers on this strip would have a supply or can direct you to a person who does. He said that although it is illegal, people caught with the drugs are just given a slap on the wrist.
He made comparisons between Cambodia and the US in that the US has poor people, middle class and an upper class where Cambodia only has poor and rich. He talked about how he did not like the education system as someone could go to university and graduate but unless they had connections, because unemployment is so high, they could end up working as a waiter/waitress in a restaurant.
In spite of all the challenges that Cambodia has, he was happy to be in a place he felt he belonged. He spoke about some of his challenges in the US, where the rest of his family still live-but I did not want to pry too much so I just left it at that.
We sat there and talked for over 4hours straight. He then offered to take me around, off the tourist track the following day… I have to admit I was intrigued. I had planned to go visit the Kings Palace after a cooking class at a local restaurant the following day, but figured I would get more from hanging out with Klo and so he agreed to meet him after the class. The cooking class was cancelled but as he did not have a phone, I went to wait for him at the restaurant. It felt like I was waiting on a date who was running late. I was nervous but hella excited at the same time. He apologised that he was late and we were off exploring.
Apart from the White Building, there was nothing else I had in mind therefore he worked out a route for us. The White Building was build in 1963 as a symbol of modernisation in Cambodia to house mid-income tenants. Tenants fled away in the 1970s during the Cambodian Genocide and after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 the building was reoccupied by former tenants and squatters. The building declined in value and status and became more synonymous with poverty, drug use and prostitution. It is derelict in parts and the government wanted to demolish and redevelop it as it has been rendered unsafe but this has been greatly protested by both locals and other foreign interests who say it is a reminder of their history. Klo, was not only surprised that I knew the place, but that I wanted to go there. As there were a lot of artists that had lived there the walls are tattooed with graffiti and images full of colour and hope. He drove in front of the building where we also saw many make shift stalls. As we drove past without slowing down much I figured that we were not going to stop or go in. But I got to see the whole block up close. Not far from it is a club which is owned by the prime minister and his son. Turns out that there is a restriction on clubbing in Cambodia, therefore the city only has about 10-20 clubs.
We went to Diamond Island which was so called, as it was historically a swamp, but it was redeveloped in the early 2000s into residential and commercial area. We drove to some building sites of some luxury apartments that were being developed and less than 300m off the sites along the bank of the river were some boats where people lived. We got out of the tuk tuk and he walked me down to the boats, we bought some water and he told me how the settlement had come to be. Afterwards we just drove around to different parts of the city and showed me some government houses, some abandoned housing and shared different stories of life in Cambodia since his return.
Afterwards, he took me on a bit of a local food tour where he introduced me to different local streetfoods within the city. It was such a great afternoon I did not realise that it was late, my cousin would have finished work and would be wondering where I was so late in the day. So he drove me back to my cousin’s. That experience is still in my top 5 Asian adventures of all time.