I live on Rue 420. You can get your sewing machine repaired next door. Two doors the other way: a police station. Across from the police station: a massage brothel. The miniskirt girls come out at night and ask the cops to knock mangoes off their tree. The cops use long basket-tipped bamboos. The girls bow and go back to their rubbings… Walk a little further: the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Between them all stand houses old and new, a few small and made of wood, a few shaded colonial villas, but most two or three floors of concrete. My landlord says, “My building very safe.” It takes six goddamn keys to get in. “If someone steal something, police come very fast. No problem. They look around, they write paper. Then they say, ‘Paper cost twenty dollar.’ You pay, they go. You lose two times.”
I watch it all from my little rooftop terrace. Looking across the city, cranes outnumber gold-spired temples. Very few of the new apartment and office towers are finished.
My block is bordered to the north by the wide shop-adorned Mao Tse Toung Boulevard. To the east is a cement-channelled river, putrefyingly black. Walk a little west, and from the back of their motorbike-rigged trailers, lounging figures whisper, “Tuk tuk? Tuk tuk?” Quick left, then a right. A few beer holes and noodle shops—watch out for cockroaches—and Maitreya’s dollar-a-dish vegetarian restaurant. Next, the sprawling tin-roofed hustle of Phsar Toul Tom Poung, or, the Russian Market. In the Vietnam-occupied 1980s, this is where Phnom Penh’s solely Soviet expat population did all of its shopping.
The rickety sheet metal and wood market is a jammed full of everything you could ever want to buy: fruit, house wares, jewellery, engine parts, silks, cosmetics, Buddhas, burnt CDs, and designer clothes leaked from Cambodia’s many sweat shops. There are benches to eat noodles, rice, soups, fried insects (intentionally and not), and stews of mysterious meats. Just watch your feet: shallow trenches of grey reeking water rush from the fly-infested quarter where they sell slabs of animal flesh. Splintered wood tables. No refrigeration.
During the day, foreigners flock to the market: it’s the best place for souvenirs. You hear them bargaining, mostly with European accents. “No. I pay 5000 riel. 5000!” The shop girl who speaks better English says, “I’m sorry. Six thousand is final price.” This goes on for some time. Eventually, the tourist storms off, empty-handed, unwilling to part with an extra twenty five cents.
At night, the shops close and the foreigners flee, but in the streets around the market, locals pack sidewalk stalls and beer gardens, laughing and drinking on their plastic stools. Every night, this one stall roasts an entire pig! If you see a rare white face, it’s probably an NGO world-saver or a soul-saving missionary. Or, it could be me, hunched over my notebook and noodles in the candlelight. Another blackout.
Back to my terrace, watching the night. Across the street: an open window where a thin dying man receives injections under a doctor’s flashlight.