Parallel U
pt. I

Number 14–Miserable People and Street Life

Update on the fate of the burned out rooftop squatter village. They won't be able to return to their rooftop after all; it seems that the fire damaged the concrete of the roof. Instead the city has purchased a plot of land about 6 miles out of town near the airport where each family will be given 1000 sq ft to build their shantys on. They paid $140,000 for the land and NGO's (Non Governmental Organizations) are providing the necessary infrastructure.

Now $140,000 might not seem like much – a plebian house on a small lot in Portland – but it's big money here. The entire budget for a nation of 12 million people – 60% of which is supplied by the international community – which includes all levels of government from the commune to the national level and all phases of government – transportation, education, health, everything – comes to a little more than one billion dollars. In contrast, just the city of Portland, with half a million people, spends 2 billion a year. One hundred forty grand here is probably equivalent to a hundred times as much in Portland.

In Portland, there are 50 people who've been asking the city for a place to camp out. Under a bridge, in the least desireable places, through the dark, damp, dreary months, they don't care. All those homeless people ask for is a place to pitch their tents, yet the city acts as if they were demanding individual McMansions complete with servants. Tent cities are ugly, we're told, as if having people sleep on the street is somehow less ugly. The city just can't afford to help them, we’re told, besides there's no place where middle class, consumer class sensibilities won't be offended by actually having to witness their funky homes. Nothing like seeing how far miserable people can be ground into the dirt.

Sixteen thousand Cambodians (including a large proportion of children) have died from UXO's – mines and unexploded bombs – in the past couple of decades, and another thousand are slated to be blown to bits before the country is cleaned up. However, when the Cambodian government asks the US to cough up a little more to clean up a dangerous mess which the US is substantially responsible for creating we plead poverty. Well I don't know what we plead or what lame excuse we use but we don't come up with the bucks. A tiny portion of Bush's increased military spending could save a thousand lives, but what the hell, they're not Americans, they're just miserable peasants. There was a benefit concert in the neighborhood a while back; its purpose translated into English, to help Cambodia's miserable people.


About a month ago construction equipment came to street 13 and started tearing it up in the process of rebuilding the street. I was a little surprised. While it's true that some spots were in pretty bad shape, you know, more pothole than pavement, still most of it was paved and by that mere fact, far superior to nearby streets that are dirt and rubble. However, it's a wide street, has two important public markets located on it within 5 blocks and is relatively close to the street that runs along the riverfront that's narrow and congested. Still, I wouldn't have considered it a priority, of course I also think that half of what Portland spends on streets is also wasted.

At any rate, they tore the street up and quickly little streams formed, rivulets in the mud, so to speak. The storm/graywater drains were clogged with debris causing the overflow. They went ahead anyway laying the sand layer for a new street, which is a totally futile gesture – can't pave when there's a stream running down the middle of the street. The landlord said they broke an important water main, they were a Cambodian company and inexperienced – work stopped until the drains could be cleaned and the main repaired.

Phnom Penh has a dual system where sewage is sent to septic tanks for each building while graywater is mixed with storm water and sent directly to the river or lakes. Actually I consider that to be an excellent idea. In the US more than 90% of all waste water that is sent to sewage treatment plants is simply wash water. You don’t need to send bathwater to a treatment plant, but separating the systems would require dual piping, an expensive proposition in the US.

Meanwhile the kids sure loved it, a giant sand box. I counted about 50 kids one night, it was a great sand playground for a while. Unfortunately, people kept driving on it, packing it down and spreading the moisture. Concurrently about 80% of my block's property owners continued their habit of sweeping the sidewalk litter into the street until it became very liberally peppered with trash. I'm curious to see what happens to the stuff once the street is paved again. It'll probably get swept into the storm/graywater drains which is what caused the streams in the first place.

After a couple of weeks city crews came by to dig out the drains. Wow was that fun to watch, grown men crawling into these big pipes and digging out by hand big mounds of this awful black slimy mixture of dirt – of course there's dirt and dust everywhere – food waste, and sidewalk trash.

However none of that had an impact on the night market on my block. There are ten vendors doing confections from tapioca, egg custards and fruit, or fruit shakes made of fruit(obviously), sugar cane syrup, sweetened condensed filled milk(filled with palm oil), a raw egg and ice. They just continued to set up amongst the streams, piles of sand, trash, etcetera. Most of PP is very quiet by 10 pm, just people sounds, but my street always has activity past midnight. I'm just a block from the Old Market, a two acre warren of single story sheds which has attracted an adjacent night market of fried fish and other prepared foods as well as the market on my block.

On March 23, in the midst of all the construction and assorted mess, people came by and set up a little christmas tree complete with flashing lights in the middle of the street, and put big speakers on the sidewalk, practically right below my front porch. Music started about 9 but must've had a bad wire or connection because the sound kept cutting out. When it was on it was at the absolute limit of the speakers, and by inference my ears. I'd had the experience before when I visited a provincial town at Chinese New Year – an ear shattering experience until 1:30 am – so I sorta knew what to expect.

I wasn't too surprised when they came back on Saturday night, Friday being such a dud. Got their trip together, kept it up past 1am. Lot's of people, including little kids, dancing to a mixture of Khmer pop/traditional or Khmer techno with just an occasional American song thrown in.

Hate to rain on anyone's party but it was painful, a full distortion speaker blowout. I stopped by Sunday at the landlord's. Kinda loud, I say, unhealthy for the eardrums. Yes, old people don't like it. Can you ask them to turn it down. No, they get angry, want to fight. Not off, just down. No, they will hate me. He went on to tell me that one time the police asked them to turn it down and got reprimanded for it. Even Hun Sen has intervened, saying it's Khmer tradition, everyone has the right to dance and listen to loud music in the run up to Khmer New Year.

Khmer New Year? But that's not until April 14 to 16. What could it mean? Little did I know.. Sunday night, there was that old christmas tree again. No. No. It can't be. Not every night. I didn't think I could handle it, but I was only there for another six weeks, I couldn't move. Ah, but a miracle happened, they were asked to turn it down and did. Starting Sunday before last it's only been very loud – rather than the limit of my endurance – but not so loud it totally drowns out the happy sounds of the partyers. So we're on day 10, only sixteen more to go.


There's no commerce involved, the purveyors of the music charge no admission, have nothing to sell, it's just for fun and goes on all over the city, all over the country for that matter, for four weeks. At least the speakers were facing the other side of the street. Not so lucky with the canopy that was set up on the sidewalk two days later on Sunday afternoon. All over the city, for weddings, funerals and whatnot, people block big sections of sidewalk or a whole street in some situations with these temporary canopies. Neighboring storefronts have to close and are just out of luck for a few hours. The one across my street served more than a hundred diners and had their big loudspeaker pointed right at my porch.

There was a eulogy, then some traditional Khmer music, sounds quite gamelon-like, then a comedy routine complete with laugh track, then more Khmer music. This went on for about five hours, loud enough to be nearly as disturbing as the dance music. The loudspeaker, of course was pointed outwards, rather than towards their guests. Why they thought I and the rest of the block wanted to have their event overwhelm all other sounds, is beyond me. At least I got an hour between when the funeral ended and the new year music began.