What a place to disappear. And I mean really disappear.
Something like eight hours on a plane was a good start. Far enough away but only overnight, with an early morning change of planes in Singapore. Beyond that, the only reason for choosing this place was that I knew little about it—and no-one here knew anything about me.
Me—I’m all the clichés. Marriage ended after 34 years, at least half of them good. Mother of grown children now too busy to care. Limited career stunted by time away, having and raising those same kids. Suddenly although not unexpectedly living alone. My to-do lists fractured. And the realisation that much of what I thought was my life had now evaporated around me, leaving only the crusty high-water marks of ordinary middle-class, suburban life.
With no-one to care if I was gone, why shouldn’t I go?
An office colleague had shown me photos from her package tour of Vietnam and Cambodia. The few pics of her standing in front of Angkor Wat caught my attention—the largest religious building in the history of the world, she had been told. So I wasn’t just going to disappear. I had enough curiosity left to plan to see Angkor Wat on the way. So I bought a return ticket for a one-way trip.
The best plane trip is dull. On-time boarding, an empty seat next to me as a highlight, routine safety routine, rote announcements “from the flight deck,” bland food, snoring neighbour, random movies, faultless connecting flight, same process again, “preparing the cabin for landing,” “Welcome to Pochentong International Airport.”
My first introduction to Cambodian life was the cadre of uniformed officialdom, each of the dozen or so members of which had to examine, handle, stamp or verify my passport. Visa purchased, suitcase collected, customs cleared, I was launched into the over-enthusiastic embrace of the city, represented by the many taxi, moto, tuk-tuk drivers seeking to offer their service.
But the thing that hit me first was the air. It wasn’t merely hot, it was liquid, pungent, grasping. Tropical humidity mixed with exhaust, smoke, dust, cooking smells, rotting fruit skins and the sweaty crowd of people. Somewhere, without noticing it immediately, I crossed a line. I had been in an air-conditioned airport, then I was on a crazy, crowded, noisy, smelly street front.
The crowd pushed toward us as I exited behind another group of foreigners. There was a barrier allowing space to step out of the door but the presence of two security guards had more to do with its effect than the structure itself. And where their bodies could not go, the drivers’ eyes, faces, voices offered their clamorous appeals.
As the forecourt of an international airport, there were a few signs in English but nothing else familiar. The faces could have been friendly, angry, desperate or all three. Their words were sounds and nothing more. Even the few English words that I recognised seemed wrenched and twisted from any context that would give them meaning, sounding as strange as I felt. It was not me in a foreign country, it was a foreign me in a new country.
Fishing in my pocket, I paused for a moment, allowing the bulk of the crowd and its attentions to focus on the group in front of me. Jill from work had given me the name of a guesthouse in the city. Angkor Bright: “twelve dollars a night, near Central Market, close to the major tourist sites, reasonably safe, reasonably clean”—so she had said. A driver was waiting to the side, holding a full-face motorbike helmet under his arm and impassively watching the chaos surrounding the larger group of tourists. I caught his attention and held up the piece of paper I had retrieved from my pocket. He frowned, then shook his head.
“Angkor Bright?” I asked, as if by chance he would know all the small guesthouses that dotted the city—or at least this one. “Near Central Market.”
“Tuk-tuk?” I added self-consciously but thankful for Jill’s brief tuition.
“Central Market, OK,” he replied, seizing on the familiar name and just as quickly grabbing my suitcase and heading off across the crowded roadway.
I almost called out in surprise before I realised I had arranged my transport and he would soon be loading my luggage into the small motorbike trailer in which I would be travelling. I started after him, straining to keep him in sight as he wove through the people, parked vehicles and moving traffic.
Now out in the direct sunlight, the heat was even more oppressive. Though still early in the day, the asphalt of the roadways and parking lots was already radiating heat up at me. I fought my way through the heat, the crowd, the traffic, keeping “my driver” in sight by virtue of the bright-red helmet he had put back on his head at the same time as taking my suitcase.
By the time I arrived at his vehicle—sweating, puffing, feeling my night on a plane and limited sleep catching up with me quickly in this environment—my suitcase was placed on one seat and he motioned for me to take my place in the forward-facing red vinyl seat opposite. “OK?” he offered.
“OK,” I replied with an attempt at a smile. I wiped my forehead on my long sleeve. I closed my eyes for a moment, heard the small motor-bike engine rev into life and we began to move.
Jill had “warned” me about the traffic. But nothing—no descriptions, no photos, nothing—could have prepared me for this.
The main road from the airport to the city was a living, gasping, juddering thing. Flanked by giant billboards shouting cigarettes, mobile phones and beer, the artery itself pulsed with machines, people, animals. Large and expensive cars moved like floating islands. Heavily laden trucks made their own course through the confusion, simply expecting everything else to move out of the way. Here and there were occasional ox carts, pony carts, cyclos and bicycles but most common were the motos, small motorbikes and scooters filling every available space, often carrying multiple passengers or unwieldy loads. Large household furniture, a live pig, dozens of cane baskets, a stack of coloured plastic chairs, a market-stall load of feather dusters.
At a first glance—and that was only taken quickly because of the fumes, exhaust, dust, grit that immediately found my eyes—it looked like chaos. Still feeling the motion of the overnight plane journey, I almost wondered if we were really driving or simply being swept along by the tide of traffic. A staccato of vehicle horns at every pitch punctuated our progress.
Ensconced in his helmet and focused on weaving his way through the traffic current, my driver was out of contact. I was alone, gripping the handrail tightly. The haze, the heat, the exhaust swirled around me but in the interludes in which we picked up speed I felt some cool from the breeze. Not knowing where or how far we were going, I could only watch as this frenetic new kind of life somehow flowed around me, yet left us untouched. In my little carriage with its driver, I could imagine myself a minor dignitary—but knew I was in control of nothing.
At one point, the inbound traffic bottlenecked around some kind of celebration or party, with tables and a stack of speakers set out onto the roadway. In turn, our side of the road spilled over into the oncoming traffic. A burst of sound—distorted, urgent, unknown but at least recognisable as music—overwhelmed everything else around me for just a moment as we motored past.
As we slowed, I smelled food vendors on the roadside outside the gates of a university campus, then a red light finally brought our stream of traffic to a stop, although the motos continued to edge their way forward through the crowd of other halted vehicles. Before the light was green, the mass was moving again, now even more congealed.
We turned left, somehow flowing through the competing traffic streams, and travelled along a wider, clearer boulevard, flanked by buildings so pretentiously grand as to have to be government ministry buildings, as some of their signs confirmed. Some were still under construction, festooned with a spider web of intricate but unconvincing bamboo scaffolding high above the ground. But turning back into the heart of the city, the traffic again coalesced and we moved slower through these narrow streets, a slow blur of shops, workshops and smaller offices.
I eventually saw ahead the yellow concrete dome I recognised from the photos as Central Market. Its colonial architecture sheltered the hive of commerce below and formed a large roundabout that was perpetually choked with the multiform traffic of the city. We joined the circle, edging among the growing morning heat, the fug of humid exhaust and the beep-beep of moto horns.
Then we stopped. In the middle of the roadway. And the traffic continued to move around us.
The driver stepped off the motorbike seat of the vehicle, took of his helmet and turned to me. “Angkor Bright, OK?” he asked.
“Yes . . .” I began, looking around to see if I could see any recognisable signs but the only recognisable words were only electronics brands.
“You wait, OK,” he ordered and stepped through the traffic toward the attendants at what I recognised as a moto parking lot, where he entered into an animated conversation, which involved pointing in various directions.
The traffic continued to flow around me. The growl of a truck in low gear, the high-pitched whine of a badly tuned motor scooter, the incessant beep-beep of moto horns, beat-driven music from a car stereo. The sights, sounds, smells, people washed passed me. I felt tired, strange, alone, old. I closed my eyes and waited, still gripping the vehicle’s handrail but surprised by my trust in this unknown driver and his perilous choice of parking.
A minute later, my driver was back. “OK,” he said simply, swinging back onto the machine, putting on his helmet and kick-starting the motorbike engine in a single, practiced movement, before I could respond.
We edged our way around another almost-complete circuit of the large concrete dome before exiting into a side street, along a block I almost recognised as a multi-storey glass-fronted shopping complex, around another corner, before turning right and straight away u-turning across however many lanes of traffic managed to squeeze themselves along this side street. Half-bouncing onto the footpath, we came to rest under a large rain tree.
My driver pulled his helmet off, laughed almost to himself and pointed to the building we were in front of. “Angkor Bright, OK.”
I climbed out of the tuk-tuk onto the uneven paving of the footpath, surveying the street, the building, the dome of the market just a block or so back along this street. The driver unloaded my bag and said,
Prepared for this moment, I had some foreign American dollars in my pocket and I found the correct notes.
“OK,” he said as I handed the notes to him. “You want to see city—palace-pagoda-river-markets? I wait here in morning what time? OK?”
I was surprised by his question. I hadn’t thought much about what I would do next. Angkor Wat was a few hundred kilometres away, although it appeared on a hundred flags, signs, photos I could see from where I stood. Jill had mentioned that I could get almost any pills or medicines—prescription or otherwise—at any pharmacy or market for just a few dollars. But not yet—and I hadn’t thought beyond that task.
Head spinning, tiredness dragging at me, sounds and smells assaulting me, I suggested a usual mid-morning time and left him, heaving my suitcase across the footpath to the front door of the guesthouse.
“OK, I wait here,” I heard him say before starting his machine and launching back into the traffic. I was alone again.
Welcome to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. No longer just Jill’s random photos, a dot on the map, the unknown city in which I had chosen to disappear.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4652