Cambodia is a project of sensory overload. It’s Tuesday morning, 6am. The sun naturally rises at six each morning along with every other living creature. Barking dogs and gekkos (yes, barking gekkos), birds, humans, motor-powered humans. I’m sitting on the front veranda of our downtown Phnom Penh villa, listening, smelling, watching, feeling. Today is our third full day here and I’m still barely accustomed to the sensory stimulation.
The best way to experience the city’s assault on the senses is on the back of a tuk tuk. The tuk tuk (also our terrifying and thrilling ride from the airport at midnight) is a motor-powered wagon of sorts that’s narrow enough to fit between the occasional cruising Land Rover and the sidewalk. It’s just big enough to squeeze two seats of Americans, squished three to a seat, grasping the silver side poles for dear life as we careen through red lights, swerve to miss the mobs of other motorbikes, tuk tuks and pedestrians.
From the tuk tuk, you chug past row after row of motorbike repair shops along the main street with drills and oily pieces and parts dangling from the ceiling. The delicate dance of tuk tuk-motorbike-vehicle traffic on the congested streets. Cambodians lounging at sidewalk cafes and narrow grocery stalls in tanks and flip flops. Or playing soccer with found objects that skitter nicely. Little children waving and shouting, “Heh’loh!” “How are youu?” as you walk by. Parades of tangerine-robed monks, average age 12, as they scurry through the streets or past us along the stairs to Wat Phnom.
The smells. Freshly smoked, salty fish dangling off a motor-powered street car, gasoline from the rampaging hoards of mopeds and vehicles. Savory garbage and raw sewage. Jasmine flowers that tease you for a brief second as you whir by luscious foliage.
From the veranda, the distant thumping of a drum keeping a dissonant beat from another jangle of festive music, growl of a motorbike firing up, slow and steady clanging of a hammer hitting metal, a muffled Cambodian voice announcing his wares from his street cart.
Tastes of freshly boiled noodles from a random street-corner cafe where the owner spoke excellent English and generously invited us in for breakfast. Bottles of strange fruit juices from the local corner store: water chestnut with sugar cane; starfruit; passionfruit. Heaping plates of water buffalo with lemongrass at the official Welcome Dinner along the Tonle Sap River.
The feeling of sunburned skin pelted with warm monsoon rain that starts to pour from the dark night sky with malice. Air so thick it feels like you could just rub it right into your skin like lotion. The almost-cool tiles on bare soles as you step inside another gold-gilded pagoda.
Cool breeze from the riding on the back of the tuk tuk–probably the only breeze you’ll feel during the day.