I am tourist. I have forgotten all the rules. I think it is a splendid idea to go for a walk, a walk after breakfast, a walk into the city centre of Phnom Penh to see the Royal Palace at 11.30 in the morning. Luckily I remember one rule, ‘dress appropriately’ so with T-shirt dress over long trousers, I stride into town.
Barely thirty minutes later, sweat running into my eyes causing temporary blindness, gagging at the smells (I had also forgotten that not all the smells in SE Asia are of the Frangipani variety), choking in the wake of exhaust fumes, my nervous system shot to pieces having crossed seven roads, I am informed that the palace is closed until 2pm.
I know the river is close, I know the river will have a breeze, rivers always have a breeze. Like Virginia McKenna in A Town Called Alice, I crawl in the direction of the only space without buildings…at last…the river!
Actually I possibly exaggerate a teensy weeny bit. Yes it’s hotter than hell, yes my eyes are stinging with the sweat dropping into them, but the smells aren’t nearly as bad as Bangkok nor the roads as polluted or as terrifying as Hanoi. I can almost manage to launch myself off the pavement and trust that everyone will go round me…almost.
The river is wonderful as is the road that runs alongside. Riverside reminds me of the corniche in Kuwait without the Starbucks, but rather old colonial buildings converted into, coffee shops, bars, massage parlours, tourist tat shops, ATMs, massage parlours, massage parlours, and more massage parlours. Street vendors and tuk tuks make up the rest of the population. The tuk tuks are relentless in touting for trade.
“Where you from?”
“You want tuk tuk?”
“You want to see the killing fields?”
I smile and shake my head, just in time remembering that a ‘thumbs up’ sign is tantamount to ‘fuck off’ in these parts, and offer instead the V for victory sign pressed against the side of the head by way of a greeting. It placates momentarily.
I find myself by an old temple…a really old temple and am instantly joined by yet another tuk tuk driver whose English is impeccable. He tells me this is the temple where people come to offer thanks for good heath. I give in; I haven’t yet located a cigarette shop in this urban jungle and am seriously concerned about my pedestrian health.
We negotiate. $20 later the deal is done. He will be my driver for the day. He will take me to the supermarket…think challenged corner shop, and then on to the killing fields and S21 with all points in between covered. Now $20 is a good five dollars over the asking price so he’s done well.
Two ‘supermarkets’ later (the first not being in possession of a single packet of L&M blue) we arrive back at the old temple and he stops next to another tuk tuk, Bwana (yes, really his name was Bwana) tells me the new tuk tuk driver is his brother and he will take me to the killing fields.
He may well have been, his brother that is, not that I could detect a solitary family resemblance, but a deal is a deal and I may be blonde but I am not entirely without my ‘I’m not thrilled with this situation’ sensors. I didn’t like the cut of his jib and quite frankly a deal, and for Bwana, a bloody good deal at that, is a deal.
I alight and hand over $2. Much concern and many words follow. I launch myself into the oncoming traffic as Bwana’s brother follows me up the road, offering the trip for $15, then $14 and finally $10. My tourist anorak stripped away I duck into a cafe on the corner, opposite the river, order an iced coffee and savour the breeze.
5 sets of street children (they like to work in pairs) offering everything from outstretched hands to postcards later, I am ready to head home. The killing fields will have to wait until tomorrow. I take the pretty route…possibly not intentionally but I am shade seeking and there is absolutely none on the main roads.
Thankfully my built in sat nav is still functioning. I find my hotel, strip off my sweat sodden clothes, turn the air con down to 21 degrees (27 is usually my preference), mentally admire daughter for living in this turkish bath for a year without aircon and decide that I have done quite enough for one day.
Tomorrow I will talk to the tuk tuk driver I met yesterday while in search of a pharmacy near the hotel. His pitch seems to be just outside the hotel and we will negotiate terms for a day of sightseeing.
I am not longer tourist, I no longer walk, only tourists walk, I surrender to the tuk tuks.