Parallel U
pt. II

Number 40–Slice of Life

Amongst the many itinerant entrepreneurs who ply the streets of Phnom Penh are the knife sharpeners. They carry their shop on their shoulder in the form of a tiny bench which they sit on, to which their whetstone is attached. One such fellow had an ingenious method of testing the quality of his work. He used the knife, sight unseen, to shave the hair on the back of his neck; looked like he had been gotten hold of by the equivalent of a dyslexic barber.


The drivers of pedicabs, here referred to as cyclos, virtually never earn enough money to pay for a place to live; their income generally ranges between $30 and $40 per month. For safety and I imagine companionship they congregate at night. Sometimes as many as a hundred will be spread out over a block or two. Many sleep in the seats of their vehicles but the ones who have it together sleep in hammocks in which one side is attached to their vehicle while the other is tied to a building, usually on to a storefront’s accordion gate. They are always up and gone before the owners awake, otherwise they wouldn't take kindly to having their doors blocked.

Motorbike taxi drivers, here referred to as motodops, can earn as much as twice as much and sometimes enough to afford a place to stay. Many are relegated to sleeping on their bikes, which as you can imagine is quite problematical compared to sleeping on a cyclo. Sleeping attached to their vehicles is absolutely necessary to foil thieves. All are equipped with extra long and wide seats to accommodate as many passengers as possible; it’s an amazing sight seeing four or five people crammed onto a 100cc motorbike.

The seats are long enough to support their torsos and heads and their legs rest on the handlebars. A very narrow bed to say the least. I often marvel at their ability to stay put, not to mention get some decent zzz’s. That thought came to me not long ago as I was passing one getting his afternoon nap. I couldn’t resist looking back and sure enough he was falling off – of course he caught himself before he hit the ground. I had to assume I disturbed his equilibrium by coming too close as I passed by.


It is common practice in restaurants here to get your utensils served in a glass of hot water. This is a nice gesture considering the general state of hygiene; however, it’s a relatively empty one considering everything else, dishes, etc., are washed in unheated water. Can’t really say cold since, especially in hot season, it isn’t actually cold. They do all their dishwashing on the floor either in a squat position or sitting on a very tiny stool. Even when people do have hot water it’s only for showers; to my knowledge, not used for washing dishes. In spite of it all I don’t seem to have more stomach problems here than in the states.


Recently a troop of young westerners invaded one of my frequent drinking hangouts. At first I thought they might be from a conference or something of that ilk. It didn’t take long to realize they were teenagers; evidently part of an expat high school class. Some were drinking, it all felt pretty normal. I prefer an older crowd but I'm almost always the ambient fogey anyway. An older man asked one of the kids her age. When she replied 17 he got indignant and berated them for being in the bar. He must have been an American considering how morally outraged he became; Europeans are much more relaxed about the drinking thing. One of the bar girls, who started working there when she was 17 (and who by the way is still a virgin) said, “Why you say that? They can do what they like.” And why not?

However, there are places where they probably shouldn’t go; places where I don’t go; places where a moderately higher cost for drinks will get you a free blow job; if you want more you have to cough up. You can see – so I’m told – a line-up of guys carrying on normal conversations while getting sucked off. Not quite my preferred ambiance for that kind of activity. Those places are few though there are several stages between no-touching-the-staff and free head.

Any activity of a sexual nature has to be voluntary on the part of the girls. No matter how sleazy the job – even when it explicitly includes prostitution – if the owner abuses one or tries to force her to do something against her will, he could be in for a nasty time. One complaint and he'll be tossed in jail and have to pay a hefty bribe to get released. In a recent story, a bar owner tried to force his girlfriend to shag a friend. She went to the police, he had his place shut down for awhile and spent some time behind bars. The above mentioned blow-job bar is on a minor street and keeps a low profile, the same could not happen in a prominent touristy location. Though illegal, brothels are commonplace and obvious in some parts of town; however, laws are very selectively enforced in Cambodia. No complaint, no problem.


Small house lizards are commonplace sight here – at night in my outdoor living room there are always several in view – but only recently did I catch two in the act; copulation that is. They are not social animals. They do not cuddle. They do not hang around together. Anytime they come in proximity one will chase the other away, often with serious nipping if one doesn't back down quickly. It was fascinating therefore to see the process of them staying in close range. I happened to be watching when a male spotted an available female and started flicking his tail and making a strong high-pitched clicking sound. I'd heard the sound before but had no idea where it was coming from; what kind of animal could be making it. It totally mesmerized her; she stood stock still till he came around and hopped on.


People who own vehicles here tend to prefer ground floor apartments so they can just drive them in at night, and I'm not referring only to motorbikes. It's a jarringly incongruous sight to see a car parked in someone's living room. All the furniture is kept against the walls so nothing needs to get moved. This practice is facilitated by the city's architecture. Outside of single-family neighborhoods or major commercial or public buildings, nearly everything is designed as mixed use rowhouses.

Here they are more appropriately referred to as shophouses since the ground floor can also be used as a storefront. Standard width is 4 meters – about 13 1/2 feet – which leaves space for living rooms to double as garages. The primary reason for that dual use is that no vehicle can be left on the street unattended overnight. All over town you see klatches of vehicles – ones that can't be parked inside houses – being watched over by young guys who are paid to stay on the lookout all night. Even large new apartment buildings, which are usually no more than four stories, are generally divided up into 4 meter fronts, each sold separately. No vehicle I've ever owned could be parked inside a living room because they all leaked!


Cambodians are crazy about colored lights. They’ve got Wat Phnom, the city’s 14th century Wat, decorated with Christmas lights and would do the same to Angkor if they had the choice. Fortunately, they gave up that prerogative in exchange for international help in preserving the ruins. Young guys here, as opposed to those in America who like to soup up their cars or install loud mufflers or crushingly loud sound systems, decorate their vehicles with flashing pin lights and/or blue or red fluorescents under the running boards, etc. The most rad is when they turn their headlights into strobe lights. Seems a little nutty to blind drivers coming your way but this is Cambodia.