About a week ago was the Khmer New Year. Most of the foreigners (aka expats) fled the country for holidays in cooler climates, and locals headed into the provinces to visit family over the holiday. I, on the other hand, opted to stay in Phnom Penh and work on my research project, furiously coding transcripts and trying (with tired eyes) to interpret my codes into a tangible story. I’m still working on making sense of the data and putting together my analysis, so I’m glad I stayed behind.
People here asked me what the city was like during the week everyone was gone. Honestly, I didn’t venture out too much because of my research, but I did go outside here and there. Simply put, it was hot and empty.
Firstly, it was hot. Of course, this is not an interesting observation; it is consistently in the 30s C / 80s-100s F. But that week was exceptionally hot – most days wavered between 39C / 102F to 40C / 104F (and that is not including the increased degrees for the “RealFeel” measurement). I hid in my bedroom with the aircon nonstop in order to avoid melting; going outside seemed extremely unappetizing.
Also, Phnom Penh was silent and empty. The quiet meant I could sleep longer into the morning, which I found rather pleasant. And the streets were free of parked cars and people; only a couple cars would be driving down the main roads, whereas normally it’s packed and congested traffic nonstop. The reduced number of people made it easier to walk down the streets because there was no competition for space.
Actually, this walking around on the street was short-lived. Whenever I tried wandering more aimlessly up and down the street, I would get some tuk-tuk drivers’ attention. Normally, this attention includes someone shouting, “Hey lady want a tuk-tuk ride?! Where are you going??”, trying hard to make a transaction. Over the New Year, though, the attention was more tuk-tuk drivers’ adamantly yelling for me to get back on the sidewalk and put my phone away. It seems that some people take the week’s emptiness as an opportunity to speed down empty streets recklessly. Also, someone mentioned that theft goes up in the New Year because people want nice things like smartphones and will ride down the street on their motorcycles to snatch your belongings if you’re too close to the street.
The tuk-tuk drivers weren’t asking to give me rides, they were just genuinely concerned about my wellbeing. Which was a strange change of pace for me, being used to politely declining constantly as I walk down the street.
Despite the emptiness, I did have a little bit of a social life. There may not have been very many things open or people around (every restaurant I like to go to was closed), but I had a few friends who stuck around as well, and we'd go out to enjoy each other’s company over cold beverages (Brown Coffee was open, of course).
One friend had a dangerous allergic reaction to some strange ingredient in a meal while in the city that week. I tried to help that friend find an EpiPen or some allergy help so that they could figure out what happened to them. Just to let you know: Cambodia doesn’t have EpiPens. Try all you might, you will not be able to successfully source EpiPens in this country (and if you magically can, I am going to guess it’ll cost a lot). Luckily, this friend went to an embassy and sourced an EpiPens that way, but otherwise was looking at having to go to a clinic for a stab of adrenaline if anything else happened. This medical mishap was alarming for me in some way. I wonder, if someone has a child who is allergic to some food, what do you do? If someone is deathly allergic to some kind of insect or surprise allergy (and is a baby?!), what happens? It reminded me how some things that work in countries like Australia and the US are far cries from how things work in countries like Cambodia.
Don’t get me wrong! Cambodia is progressing and evolving at lightning speed. There are so many developments happening here, even for the 3 months I’ve been here! And so much is happening that it’s very exciting to be here and watch it change and morph into a new kind of society. That said, I do miss the immediate healthcare of other places.