Sonder in the City

Phnom Penh is a city where the depravity of a man’s soul can find solace and companionship. It will sucker punch you in the balls when you are not looking then nurse you in its arms while feeding you cheap rum. These are the stories of some of the people who inhabit and shape that anarchic city.

Imagine Phnom Penh, if you will, as a medieval city slingshot into the 21st century. Tuk-Tuks speed through the streets like modern day chariots as peasants scavenge through the rubbish looking for a meal. Prime minister and Dictator Hun Sen sits at the top of a table on an iron throne ruling with hammer and sickle in his “Peace Palace” as it has been so ironically dubbed. Surrounded by his royal knights, his Oknhas, he make supercilious plans, carving up his homeland to be sold to the highest bidder “Dredge the sand in Koh Kong for the Singaporeans, give the Chinese the Cardamoms we have already deforested it, The Northeast? That’s for the Vietnamese” He orders. They sit back, drink expensive whiskey from cheap glasses and talk about the good old Khmer Rouge days. They laugh in the face of their wealth, laugh at the poverty of their people and how easily it has been to control them. “Stupid peasants!” they remark snorting like pigs. Outside the Peace Palace clouds of dust blow off the desert that used to be Boueng Kak lake and intermingles with the torrent of traffic. The city grows every day as the oligarchy sells more of it off to developers. Foreign investors crowd the city washing their money and leaving the dirt behind for the poor to scavenge. Large billion dollar apartment blocks loom over corrugated iron shanty towns exhibiting the wide expanse of riches that reaches between wealth and poverty.

Along the riverside a young homeless girl huddles like a scared animal against a concrete chair upon which her mother is sleeping. She’s wrapped in a torn American flag as she sucks her thumb and watches life pass around her. The late night carousers pass through drunk and laughing, paying no attention to her. She sees her future laid out for her under the neon red street signs that stretch for miles perpendicular to the riverside promenade. Hundreds of young peasant girls dwell on these streets trying to make money from the cash cows that fly into the country to see them.

Amidst the crowds that throng the riverside during the cool hour of the setting sun, a young foreign couple walk hand in hand. They discuss the travels they’ve had together and the travels they will have, all the months spent planning and saving and waiting have led up to these couple of months that will truly define them as people. They discuss the day of culture that they’ve just had, the horror of the Killings fields and Toul Sleng prison, a single tear dropped from underneath her Ray Ban sunglasses at the sight of the killing tree, where the executioners bashed kids heads off the jagged bark and flung them into the mass graves “and how nice the Tuk-Tuk driver was” she exclaimed “the people over here are truly lovely”. They smile and elate as they get lost in the city wandering and becoming beguiled by beautiful pagodas and old local markets “seeing the real Phnom Penh” they told themselves. The light fades from the sky and in the hot muggy night as they grow tired and begin to look for some where to eat and have a cheap beer. Following the crowds hoping to find a good clean place to eat they ended up on St. 136, the street of poorly shaped foreigners, neon red lights and destitute girls in miniskirts shaking their asses to make some money. The girls face wrinkles up in disgust as her boyfriend’s cock hardens at the sight of these girls, “let’s get out of here” she snaps, “oh yes, yes of course honey, this place is horrible” he compliantly agrees and turns off in another direction, tucking his erect phallus between his legs. To their horror, the next parallel street is the same and the next one after that and the next one after that. Maze-like confusion and panic sets in and sweat starts rolling down the girls face with anger and disgust. She gives in and out of stubbornness they storm up a lady bar strewn street in the hope of finding her way away from them. Her face is white and focused on the end of the street, like a horse with blinkers on, determined to get out of there with her innocence still intact. About halfway up the street a cherubic local girl with long sleek black hair wearing denim short shorts and a black V-neck that left little to the imagination walked her silver heels out in to the street to meet them, “hellooo handsome” she called to the man with a smile “you want to come drink with me? It very hot tonight”, “ehhhmmmm n,n,n,n, no, thank you” he managed to stammer in reply. The bar-girl was quite persistent as bar girls are, trying to lock them in conversation and stop them as they tried to storm by, “WE DON’T WANT TO FUCKING DRINK WITH YOU” the foreign girl screamed in obvious frustration. Taken aback by the foreign girl the bar girl looked at her “what’s wrong with you? You come to my city to see my city right? Maybe this not the place you come to see but this the city that I see every day” she calmly speaks and turns her heels and leaves back to the entrance of her bar. As the couple turn off the street and back on to the riverside promenade the woman strides with her arms folded and red faced, feeling ashamed of herself and her actions. She dares not look at her boyfriend afraid he might see the ignorance and naivety that is painted across her face.

Embarrassed by her explosion of anger towards the foreign girl she stands, taking a minute to smoke a cigarette outside before walking back in through the black tinted doors of the bar. She watches the crowds pass by in front of her, men turn their heads to gawk at her angelic beauty all dressed up in whores clothing, like a forbidden fruit that shouldn’t be touched but is ready to be peeled back for the right amount of money. As she tries to avert her eyes from the eyes of the men she catches sight of something peculiar, something that she hadn’t been accustomed to seeing in her world. A young university girl wearing a navy blue skirt and white blouse stands staring at her, she wonders why she is watching her, and did she see her argument with the foreign girl? What is she doing here, in a place like this and decides to approach her,“What are you doing here sister? This no place for you, better go home and study” she tells the university girl who without a word, lowers her head and leaves.

The angelic girl in whores clothing watches the University girl leave and fixes her face in a small pink plastic mirror before making that walk back through those black tinted doors. Later on in a 15 dollar hotel room with no windows, this same 40 kilo girl undresses, being watched by an overweight basilisk of a man who is lying prostrated on his squeaky mattress, waiting for his pleasure to come nearer. He heaves his mighty weight on top of her and puts his dick inside, she thinks of her mother at her farm in her village, she thinks of the Chinese money-lenders and her mother’s gambling addiction, she thinks of her son who she left behind. The basilisk humps and gyrates as much as he possibly can, straddling the girl, fumbling, trying to support his enormous weight. A tear drops from his eye as he realizes this will be the happiest he will be all day and as soon as he comes and this girl leaves, his dark well of loneliness will only grow deeper. He holds off, trying to preserve this moment, humping her, trying to hump his sadness out of him trying to fill the deep hole inside of him, harder and harder he fucks her, punishing the girl for his mistakes until he finally finds his release and blows. When it’s all done and dusted he pays the girl and after a quick shower she leaves him, she walks back through the dark night to the bar, where she will have to find one more customer for the night to make it worth her while.

Jesus Christ himself strides past a petrol pumps watching as this pantomime plays out, his small Asian concubine in billowing pink silk follows 10 steps behind. Even he cannot fathom the anarchy of this city, how every little want or need is so readily available; it takes hold of him and breaks him. He cannot watch the spectacle anymore without taking part; he cannot help anymore for its help himself that he needs, he has been beaten as he watches the city bleed from every artery. Now he knows he is only the shadow of what he once was, for now he knows that within him, the devil has found residence.

A man rolls down Monivong Boulevard on a filth encrusted makeshift skateboard. He has shoes on his hands that prevent the blisters becoming more painful as he drags himself along on his stomach. Honking and coughing out toxic fumes in his face, the traffic zooms around him, barely missing him. He thinks about the past and the life he used to live. He thinks of his wife that was raped and killed in front of him. He thinks of the landmine that took his legs as he tried to escape to Thailand. He stops thinking. He shakes the memories from his mind like a dream that never happened at all. As he reaches Phsar Thmei (central market) he sees the food vendors looking his way, they give him alms and he accepts it smiling. This is his life now and he lives on, that is the Buddhist way.

Beads of sweat drip from her forehead as she pushes her food cart through the sun beaten streets. “Shells! One tin for 2500 riel” crackles the loudspeaker from her cart informing everybody in the area of her trade. It’s midday in the city and she wears a sun cap, long clothes and gloves to protect herself from the sun. School children and university students run to her to buy some of her salty spicy snacks. She spots one of the girls about the same age as her, looking cool in her white school shirt and blue skirt. She watches her enviously as she serves her some shells. Envies her life, envies the friends that swarm around her, and envies the clothes she wears but most of all she envies her future. She watches her as she walks away and thinks of all of the opportunities that girl will have compared to her. She wishes she could run beside her, share snacks and study with her as they become friends. She wonders why she is different; she wonders will her life ever change; she wonders and sometimes that’s enough.

Back to the riverside promenade, daytime. “Hey sir, you want tuk-tuk?” he barks at a passing tourist as he lies reclined in the back of his tuk-tuk. When the tourist ignores him he whispers “weed, marijuana, coke, ice” under his breath but the tourist just flicks his hand in ignorance and continues with the other dozen tuk-tuk drivers that are lined up, applying the same technique and hoping for different results. He lights a cigarette and tries to friendly coerce tourists to take his tuk-tuk with jokes and posters of where he can take people. He just wants a two dollar fare that will do him for the day, just two dollars and he’ll be happy, he can go drink rice wine with his friends and forget his woes for the night. It was the quiet season in the city, the time when very little tourists come to the city and fares were few and far between. His rough hands show his age and the lack of a ring on his finger shows his loneliness. He had had a fiancé once but when they went to the fortune teller the fortune teller foretold of one of them dying young if they married and so they decided it wasn’t right to get married like that. He truly loved his tuk-tuk and his job, it was great being able to meet international people, speak with them and occasionally drink with them but the money was tough and his drinking habits were even tougher. He paid 50 dollars a month for an apartment that he lived in with his nephews but he rarely stayed in it, it was too far out of town and he was usually too drunk to drive that far. His drinking had cost him girlfriends and numerous phones that were stolen as he lay asleep in his tuk-tuk. But it helped him forget about the meaninglessness of his life, he was there to be there and until he died that’s what he was going to do, he had no ambitions to do anything else, and he didn’t have the ability he told himself. He sat brooding on all of this, his morale drowning in his thoughts when suddenly a young foreign man and his girlfriend approached him and asked did he do tours to the Killing fields and Toul Sleng prison that he had been recommended to them by their hostel owner,“Yeah no problem” He tells them, his spirit lifting significantly “usually 15 dollars but for you I do for 12”. The foreign couple thank him and he cracks jokes to lighten their mood as they hop in to the tuk-tuk. After the tour he sits down to share bottles of rice wine and laugh with his friends “drink don’t get drunk, drink for what?” they say jubilantly letting themselves go, taking it day by day, building nothing but breaking nothing either, just being, laughing at the futility of life.

The open roofed truck rumbles and groans as it bounces down the littered streets. On the outskirts of Phnom Penh the morning fog lifts as this beast of a machine picks up scores of women in hats and long clothes. They are squished tight in the back of it, transported like timid animals. A middle aged woman squats in a corner with her teenage daughter. Her stomach rumbles as loud as the truck from hunger. With only a small bowl of rice to split between her and her daughter; she sacrificed her portion to see her daughter grow. She brushes her daughters long black hair behind her ear and gives her a loving smile. The girl smiles back and clutches’ a small ragged doll to her chest, her only friend and only possession in the world. The woman looks at her daughter and wishes she could have given her a better life, to have more opportunities, but she can’t, she would have graciously sold her body to make her daughter’s life better, it wouldn’t have been that bad, but now she is too old and too ugly. She shivers at the thought of how soon it will be an option for her daughter and how she doesn’t know which life she would rather choose for her. They are choked in a cloud of red dust as the truck squeals to a halt outside the garment factory. It looms over her like a concrete behemoth blocking out the sun as she approaches it. The bars in its windows make it look not unlike a prison. She thinks of the 7 years she has spent coming to this place every day, she thinks of every protest that ends in bloodshed, she thinks of spending another 12 hours in this stuffy hell house completing monotonous tasks of repetition for some people in a far off country that she knew she would never visit. She didn’t know how much the clothes were being sold for in these countries but she knew that they were too expensive for her to buy. If only the conditions were a bit better, if only she got paid a little bit more money, she didn’t want to die of fatigue in this place, she didn’t want to orphan her daughter and leave her like so many of the hopeless on the streets, being able to do nothing but accept their fate.

In the shade of a Champa tree a young university student sits and studies. She listens to her favourite Khmer singer serenade her through her earphones and quietly sings along. The park she sits in is green and verdant, a favourite hang-out place for university students who come to relax with their friends or study. Dust blows from a nearby construction site and distracts her. She looks up to see the billion dollar Vannatac building shading the park. The enormous glass building built for the pomp elite of Phnom Penh to shop in, all of the big shops were in there, Hugo Boss, Armani, Gucci. She day-dreams of one day being rich enough to go in there, she sees herself walking through its glass doors wearing black sunglasses, a black dress and a white hat, oh how white her skin would be, she smiles as she thinks about it, it is this dream she’s studying so hard for isn’t it? She looks around the park seeing the happy smiles of the people and the cleanliness of the park.  A feeling of deep calm enters her body, she feels so lucky, so happy, so privileged to be in that place and to be able to study, to have parents with money that care about her, she knows that in Cambodia if you don’t have money you don’t have anything, that is why she wants to have a lot when she’s older. She sees the happiness money gives people and she wants that happiness. Awakened from her day-dream she feels the air of a presence behind her and when she looks around she sees a legless man lying on his stomach begging for money. She sees the smile on his face and kindness in his eyes and hands him 500 riel, not much to her but it might mean a lot to him. He thanks her and leaves happily pushing himself along down the street. She watches him leave in wonder “he seems happy even though he has nothing” she thinks to herself, “How can somebody with no money be happy”. Perplexed she tries to comprehend it and spends the next couple of days taking time wander around and look at the people of her city, the street vendors, the tuk tuk drivers, the homeless people, the factory workers, the prostitutes. She studied them and saw the enduring pain etched across their faces, she questioned why things are this way and why can’t they be better. She became saddened by her thoughts only finding more questions where she thought she would find answers. It saddened her so much she became distraught and it started to affect her studies, she couldn’t concentrate on them, and she couldn’t see the point of study as the sadness consumed her. Her teacher knew her to be a bright student and noted the decline in her marks. Concerned she kept her behind one day and questioned her about it. Unable to hold her silence any longer she spilled everything to the trusted teacher, weeping and breaking down in front of her. The teacher unfazed by this composedly sat the student down and talked to her “I came back to Phnom Penh in 1985” the teacher began to tell her “when I arrived from Kampong Cham province I knew nothing except farming, we were so poor all we had was the few possessions we carried with us. I was only 15 years old and I remember the cruelty of the Khmer Rouge. How scared we were as we sneaked back into the city, it was only my mother and me, my father had been killed and I don’t remember him. The city was still half empty, most of the roads were dirt and there were few shops. But I worked hard; I sold rice and vegetables from our farm in Kampong Cham during the day and studied at night. I became a teacher and watched this city grow over the last 30 years. How far we have come in the last 30 years from what we were, it is miraculous, but the next 30 years belong to you, the next generation who will inherit our lands and our culture, it will be up to you to build it again into the beautiful place it once was”. As the girl listened to her teacher she stopped crying, she listened and realized that her teacher was right, the next generation is hers and it is up to people like her that is well educated to right the wrongs that have been committed. The girl thanked her teacher and excused herself and from that day on her main goal wasn’t to be rich and shop in the Vattanac building but to help her people, the Khmer people who need her help so much.


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