Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
My new apartment, the first home I’ve had in seven months, is about a quarter mile from where the king of Cambodia sleeps at night. It’s a rich neighborhood by any stretch. My rent is about $250 per month, which is more than the average Cambodian makes in a quarter. Yet outside it’s still full on culture.
One of the reasons I moved here is because the sidewalks are so alive. This neighborhood is particularly good for it. On the sidewalks outside my door a gang of nude, dirty, giggling children chase each other around. A boy with his rear hanging halfway out of his pants jumbles and runs around to the point of almost dancing. Kids kick a small soccer ball that seems to be elegantly folded from scrap paper.
During the day a crowd of people form a circle on my street and gamble with a deck of tiny blue playing cards. A man lies on his back huffing drugs from a plastic bag.
People sleep in hammocks at night and sometimes during the day. For the last few weeks there have been more hammocks than usual. I hear that many people came into town for the first water festival since 2010. They came in from the provinces – the country – and they’re either too poor or too sensical to spend money renting a guesthouse. The word is that they have stuck around. Hammocks appear almost anywhere that one can be hung.
Although there are definitely homeless people (or visitors) in my neighborhood, the street life is far more than just this.
Early in the morning, sometime around four am, my neighbor wakes up and stokes a fire in a small pit that she keeps on the sidewalk. During the day she cooks nuts in there. Another man dries fish and rice on the corner in the sun. The fish in a wide circular basket and the rice on tarps stretched out on the paving stones.
Moto drivers hang out all day on their motorcycles, elegantly balancing themselves across the frame. If it’s hot they’ll fall asleep: feet on the handle bars, back on the seat, hands creating a pillow under their heads.
The variety of ways that Cambodians can sleep in public is impressive. On the ground, on a moto, in a hammock. Last week we asked for a tuktuk around midnight. The driver poked his head inside the vehicle and woke up his whole family, including his five year old daughter. They scrambled out of the tuktuk, the little girl rubbing her eyes, and we got in. I felt like a huge asshole for waking her up.
On my street, late every night, a tribe of young boys briskly walk by banging sticks together to signal the arrival of soup. This happens every night, up and down the street, banging sticks to tell everyone to come out and get some soup.
At some point I’ll need to try the soup, but minor anxiety at the process of showing up clueless and languageless with only a few thousand Cambodian Real in my hand and a smile keeps me away. (Today I tried to ask for the bill in Khmer and the waitress brought me a draft beer instead).