Life in Phnom Penh seems to start unfailingly around 7 a.m., two hours after what somehow has become my routine wake-up time.
Sitting in the apartment that we’ll occupy probably for no more than six months, I hear construction starting on the house 10 floors below me in the neighboring lot. I can see tuk-tuks gathering on street corners, hear Buddhist chants and notice other sounds of life, including birds, rising in volume. Later this morning, the city’s inescapable energy is sure to peak.
(One reason for expecting to move is that the apartment we had to grab was merely acceptable and available following our arrival here on Dec. 3. Two weeks in a basic hotel was quite enough, and the building is well situated in an area with a concentration of ex-pats, upscale coffee shops and, heaven help me, a Burger King that soon will open. There goes the neighborhood.
(But I expect that the open kitchen with its two-burner electric stovetop, bath with pink tiles, master bedroom with bubblegum-pink sheets, lukewarm water in the shower and fluorescent lighting will prove to be too much to bear for an extended period — that and a bigger reason that I’ll detail toward the end of this post. One attraction is the rooftop pool, however.
(For the $1,000 a month we’re spending on a furnished 2BR, how can I complain? Well, you’ll see.)
Since I spent three weeks here in March, I have encountered a few surprises.
One very important one has been a renewed burst of large-scale demonstrations against the government, which has clung to power since 1979. The opposition contends that national elections in July were rigged, and now striking garment workers plus villagers whose land has been grabbed have joined the protests.
Update: Not long after this post was published, I am sorry to report that the protests have turned deadly. It is impossible to know what will be the result.
In any case, I think it is prudent for me to avoid commenting further on the political situation, which is receiving just a modest amount of international press coverage in contrast to the current focus on Thailand, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Ukraine and other countries where the West has more at stake than here.
As for other surprises, because of my access to higher building floors than in my visit last March, I now can see a band of pollution enshrouding the skyline.
Although I previously was aware of the volume of gasoline-gulping traffic, dusty roads and wood fires, I had managed to overlook how much pollution was being created. For me, I think the levels are manageable. Resorting to a mask such as those commonly seen here is not out of the question on my long walks.
A minor concern is how little decaf coffee is available — virtually none in the coffee houses (among them Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf) where I had planned to spend time reading and making connections. I have unearthed so far only one brand of decaf in the three large supermarkets that cater to Westerners. That brand is Lavazza, and I, who enthusiastically has experimented with various whole beans in the past, has discovered that the ground product is pretty good at $5.50 to a dollar or more, depending on the store.
Among the several pleasant surprises are the two organic food markets a couple of blocks from home with a terrific range of lettuces; a new store the size of Zabar’s with lots of food and other products from home; a sale price for my gym annual membership two days after I had failed to sign up; only a day’s minor intestinal issues after indulging in street food and no problems thereafter no matter where or what I eat; the decent quality of my $1.50 haircut; and widespread acceptance of the Visa card that I wisely obtained before leaving New York to avoid foreign transaction fees. (Forget about American Express here.)
Since we are above the Equator and there is a version of winter, I didn’t expect the weather to be so much less suffocating than it was in March. At night, temperatures have rarely reached as high as 70 and normally don’t top around 85 daytimes. Nice!
Despite the nice surprises, among others not shown, I should mention how unhappy I am with Citibank. It would not allow me to change my residence online, instead requiring me to have the U.S. embassy here notarize my one-sentence letter and then snail-mail the thing to the bank. The government’s mail system is, to put it charitably, unreliable. So I used a service (EMS) that is cheaper than DHL or FedEx costing $30 for the letter. The embassy also levies a charge: $50. So, $80 to change my address, and no one could assure me that the mail service I used is 100 percent dependable.
Settling in has proved to be more consuming that I naively expected. It has ranged from scouting out apartment possibilities on foot in our desired neighborhood to shopping for a second TV, all-in-one printer, bathroom towels, coffee maker and a variety of apartment essentials.
Although we moved here with just two big suitcases and two backpacks each, I had managed sentimentally to wedge in a beat-up one-cup coffee maker that I purchased for my office at the Treasury Department in 1995 and used daily. But it died in a puff of smoke when plugged into a 220-volt outlet.
I should have known better, since the same thing had happened to our fancy rice cooker, also squeezed into our baggage. But the old electric toothbrush and new computers worked fine before those failed attempts, so I unthinkingly learned nothing from experience. I suspect it won’t be for the last time.
Another apartment issue centers on the units one floor above us. It turns out that the rental manager “forgot” to mention that the three apartments on our side of the building were being combined and that it meant demolishing them down to the exterior walls and sub flooring. The noise is so deafening that we literally have to shout at the top of our lungs to hear each other. Think jackhammers and drills. It seems most other residents aren’t home during the day.
Except of course for the ongoing public protests, Lin says that no one complains in Cambodia. Balderdash!
I complained about the clamor on three days and finally got the building manager to hear the racket for himself. He took one step into our unit, uttered an “oh” of understanding and promptly offered us the use of his son’s apartment four floors below until Jan. 10, when the student returns home. He also said that the cacophony should continue for no more than a week and that we could break our lease; we may resort to that measure if the rental market opens up, as I think it will, this month.
(Driven from my own home, I am writing this now in the kid’s unit, where the sound is about the same as the rumble of a subway train approaching a station in New York — very loud and barely tolerable.)
Next on my agenda is to figure out how I achieve some of the goals that I have set for myself and mentioned in earlier posts. Aside from some sort of productive work, I plan to spend time learning more Cambodian than the vocabulary that I have managed to retain informally to date and concentrate on acquiring friends.
I also aim to write here regularly with much less focus on my life and much more on Cambodia, its populace and matters that catch my interest, as well as, I hope, yours.
The journey that started with my flight here in March has been long and arduous, but my resolve to relocate never was shaken. Now that I have landed here, I remain committed to continuing my adventure in Cambodia while keeping a close eye on the political situation.
To one and all, a very Happy New Year!