Except for the boulevards, few drivers
recognize street names anyway
Long-time residents who can navigate Phnom Penh’s miserable traffic with assurance often fail to remember the names of the streets that they travel. (Farther down, more about names that bring me up short, and there is a pretty big hint above.)
By “long-time residents,” I include bicyclists and pedestrians as well as most of the numerous tuk-tuk operators and motodops who clog corners in search of passengers and then cruise our thoroughfares when they get lucky.
I frequently come upon tourists and transporters with heads together puzzling over laminated maps that seem to offer little help. An address is useless in most situations as is a business card in the wrong language. The local language may not be much help either.
The secret to getting where you want to go is to know landmarks — for example, a hospital, university, bridge or tower of a TV antenna. It helps to say the name in Khmer since the ability to understand foreign languages is, well, limited especially among older Cambodians. (Half of the population is under 15.)
It is because this is a country in which notoriously poor education often stops around the third grade that words written in a foreign language usually are beyond the ability of generally unskilled tuk-tuk drivers and motodops. Ditto for map reading. Taxi drivers may be more advanced — I never have spoken to one and so can’t say — but they are in an exceedingly small and rarely sought out minority.
Even foreigners and upwardly mobile Cambodians tend to know landmarks as opposed to street names.
A couple of weeks ago, a Khmer-American businessman who has lived in Phnom Penh for years was trying to describe the location of a restaurant he loves, but he was unable to say correctly which of two major boulevards he took to get there. He also doesn’t recall the name of a street one block from his apartment.
At the gym, the young adult Cambodians of the small elite class may mention an expensive restaurant where they dined or a club where they partied. When I ask where it is, there follows a series of incomprehensible gestures and embarrassed shrugs. Prompted with names I know such as the two-way numbered street (63) that is two blocks east of the gym’s street (51), I get blank looks. They are more likely to be able to give the name of the temple across from the gym than the gym’s address.
I think I understand the source of confusion and a lack of interest in street names: There has been a virtual epidemic of name changing in modern times. When the French were here, streets were rue this and rue that, and, as you see in the photos, the language lingers (including eau on the metal disks covering access to water mains). The Khmer Rouge also obliterated many street names. The Vietnamese added their own modifications.
In areas that have undergone extensive development, the French appellation is hard to find. I fortunately was able to scout out the examples within a short distance of each other where gentrification has been somewhat limited. The French influence is hardly rare, but it isn’t omnipresent either.
All streets are numbered, but in mysterious ways and not always expressed, skipping blocks (as in the gym anecdote above) and sometimes varying from “uptown” to “crosstown.” The six-lane divided Monivong Boulevard is No. 93 (recalling an early-20th century king), though I doubt even one out of 10 individuals traveling that divided roadway could tell you it also is 93. Less than half a block west, the next street running parallel is No. 71, and the next one to the east is No. 95. Makes a lot of sense, no?
(One of King Monivong’s several consorts lived with a cousin who gave birth to a son later known as the ruthless Pol Pot.)
Too, there are streets honoring wealthy Cambodians who have paid the government $100,000 to obtain an honorific, Oknha, which can be loosely translated as tycoon. Few are those who have heard of those men, always men, making the street identities eminently obscure.
Regarding house numbers, I know of a No. 43 one block to the left and another No. 43 one block to the right of my building on Street 322.
If Manhattanites still are disconcerted by having the old Sixth Avenue become Avenue of the Americas decades ago, one can imagine why many of Phnom Penh’s residents just give up.
As for names that invariably bring me up short, they honor long-gone royalty, foreign heads of states and nations that have poured money into Cambodia to curry favor. (It is hardly a revelation that geopolitics always trumps other nations’ bleeding hearts.)
The name of one major boulevard, Mao Tse Tung (spelled “Toung” here), can be counted on to get my attention whenever I am on it, and that is often. Then, there are Hanoi Road, Russian Federation Boulevard, Nehru and Charles de Gaulle and bridges that the populace refer to as the Japanese or Chinese spans.
One name that particularly baffles me is Sihanouk Boulevard. Another wide roadway also honors him, bearing his given name, Norodom. And the coastal city of Sihanoukville, once and still often called Kampong Som, also carries his name.
Prior to his death at the age of 89, Sihanouk was serially king, prince and king again (until he abdicated in 2004). Yet he was deeply flawed, and it surprises me that such a ruler should be so honored.
His excellent obituary in the Guardian does nothing to explain the honors:
Cambodia returned to something resembling normal life, with Sihanouk once again on the throne. But his country’s rehabilitation was terribly flawed, and until his abdication in 2004 he found himself presiding over a poor, corrupt and divided nation, ruled by a bizarre duopoly of enemies. Over the years he sometimes succeeded in using his power and influence to avert the worst. But this domineering, mischievous and hyperactive man was undoubtedly the part-author of his own and his country’s misfortunes.
Sihanouk managed to keep his country out of the conflict between the Americans and the Vietnamese for many years. But he must also bear some of the responsibility for the tragedies that then overtook Cambodia as it was drawn into the war, suffered from massive American bombing, and fell under Khmer Rouge rule.
They call this is the “Kingdom of Wonder.”