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First Impressions of Phnom Penh

First off, it is never cold.  Not that it is hot all the time, mind you. It does get warm, and always seems to be balmy, especially in the afternoon, but when I look outside and see dark, gray clouds, I expect that it is cold.  Not in Phnom Penh.

We arrived in Cambodia two weeks ago today. Had I written this email a week ago, I would have talked about the incessant, driving rain & thunderstorms that pounded our roof the first few nights.  Thinking this was normal, I put off trying to take any pictures of the far off lightning, something I’ve wanted to try to photograph for a long time. Then, on the fourth night here, I got out the tripod and ran up to the rooftop balcony. Of course, I couldn’t get the $10 Cairo tripod to work, and we could visibly see the wall of rain racing towards us. Thinking that I will have ample opportunities, I packed up and ran downstairs just before the rain came crashing in.  It hasn’t rained at night since.

The first thing one notices about Phnom Penh is the numerous motorcycles on the road, which Cambodians call “motos.” These motos, with wheels slightly thicker than those of a mountain bike, take over the street as the main mode of transportation because, well, it’s cheap. They out number every vehicle on the road.  There are more than half a million motos in Phnom Penh, a city with a population of just over 2 million people. When you consider that the average moto has 2.3 people on it, pretty much everyone in town is riding a moto. And when cars stop at a light, the motos fill in every gap, as they inch their way closer towards their destination, sometimes taking to the sidewalks to overtake other motos. And because it is the main form of transportation, it is not unlikely to see three or four people on a moto.  People take care of business on the back of a moto as well. For moto passengers, cell phone calls are the norm. Some of the stranger things colleagues have seen on the backs of motos: reading the paper, holding up an IV bag and breastfeeding (not all at the same time, mind you).   It also seems as if Cambodians are constantly prepping for surgery, since many wear surgical masks while riding around town.  However, with the number of motos and diesel cars on the road, Ronit is starting to think the surgical mask isn’t such a bad idea.

We primarily get around on a tuk-tuk, a 4 to 8 passenger (depending on the passengers) open-air cart pulled by a moto. Our driver, Mr. Ham, picks us up at home and drops us at the embassy, and then takes us home in the evenings. Once the nanny gets settled, we’ll have Mr. Ham take her and Shai to play groups around town as well. His name is pronounced “Haam,” but speaking of ham, there is certainly plenty of swine to be found in Cambodia.  As proof, one area of Ronit’s project is working with pig farmers here and trying to improve their relationship with the government. It is strange, having so much pig around when we were coming from Egypt where there were no pigs at all.  I try not to make too many comparisons to our Cairo life.  Foreign Service officers who have been at this for a while will tell you there is always a special place in your heart for your first post.  So it is hard not to make comparisons. For example, in Cairo, when you have to cross the street, you do a quick, Frogger-like dart and dash to avoid oncoming, speeding cars. In Phnom Penh, you creep out into the street like cold molasses, and as long as you keep a constant pace, the motos will all go around you. In Cairo, there are only a few pubs in the entire city, and a handful of stores selling alcohol.  In Phnom Penh, ever grocery store will have a good selection of booze.  There is a wine boutique down the street from our house. There is a whole guide dedicated to drinking that comes out monthly. And the store two blocks over sells vodka by the box. It’s a French product (go figure), but someone must have thought there was a market for that here.

But despite the crazy motos, the periodic rain, the pigs and yes, even the boxed vodka, this seems like a very comfortable place to spend two years.  The food is great, plentiful and cheap. There seems to be lots to see outside of Phnom Penh, and fabulous travel opportunities to Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Singapore and a host of other countries that Air Asia services. And there seems to be a vibrant and active expat community all trying to create a little niche for themselves.  We love our new house. Our neighbors have a rooster, so Shai would like a BB Gun for Chanukah.  But we have plenty of space to run around and there is a spare bedroom, so just give us like a week’s notice before you get here. We hope to hear from you soon!

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