After the long holiday weekend, Phnom Penh’s boulevards are once again packed with traffic, making getting around the capital an exhilarating if not frustrating experience.
With many Cambodians gone from the city over the weekend to visit their home provinces and honor their ancestors for Pchum Ben, the Festival of Dead, the capital’s streets were eerily empty.
It was during this lull in the freneticism of the streets, which are normally crowded with all shapes and sizes of vehicles moving in various degrees of speed and coming in from all directions, that a group of foreigners sat around gabbing in a restaurant after lunch.
There was usual banter about Cambodian politics, history and the efficiency of civil servants. I griped about how an overzealous maid ruined the elastic on my undies. Of course, after I complain about this sweet, hard-working woman, I always berate myself. I never had a maid before I came to Cambodia, and I likely will not have such helpers as maids, guards and drivers after I leave.
The discussion turned to the holiday and the absence of many of the motos, cyclos, minivans, Land Cruisers and Camrys that usually make Phnom Penh’s streets not so easily traversed.
What a joy it was to get around, remarked one of the group, adding offhandedly that there was a lot to be said for emptying the city.
We all got some enjoyment at that one until we realized when one of the times was that Phnom Penh was devoid of traffic. The joking soon turned to uncomfortable laughter and was quickly forgotten as talk turned to the latest pirated computer software, movies and music CDs in the markets.
But upon further reflection as I pedaled my bicycle about the city, riding along with—and against—the flow of the traffic, I found happiness in seeing everything from motos carrying families of five to speeding luxury four-wheelers.
The vitality expressed by this maddening mixture of modes of transport is far preferable to a recap of the days during the past three decades that the only traffic on the streets was maybe tanks, foot soldiers or worse yet, nothing at all.