A day in the life…

Saturday was a typical day in my life in Cambodia. A lot of the activities were not things I do on a regular basis, but it’s more about the rhythm and the ups and downs of life here. Hopefully, it gives a bit of an insight of what life here can be like.

Saturday started early, because I had a lot to do. It was pretty well planned, to the extent that you can plan anything here in Cambodia. I had to buy things for school camp, get my hair cut and then go to a supermarket to buy ingredients for a pasta salad I was making. In the evening, I was going on a boat ride to celebrate my 31st birthday.

The first things was to catch a PassApp to Phsar Orussey (Orussey Market). I left the house at 8:30 and arrived at the market at 9am. The market had been open for an hour, but stalls were still opening. Phsar Orussey is the size of a shopping mall, but consists of hundreds of approximately 2m x 2m stalls. Orussey Market sells pretty much everything, if you know where it is. It’s so easy to get lost in the labyrinth of stalls and find yourself going in circles.

I was here to buy glow sticks. I’d been given some fairly clear instructions. Find the seeds and the grains on the ground floor. Past that bit are two stalls that sell glow sticks. I felt hopeful. I thought it’d be (relatively) simple. (Actually, I wasn’t particularly naive about it. I’ve been here long enough…)

I circled the store; I found lights and light bulbs, toy stands, meat grinders, dry fish. It was hot and I was sweating. The alleyways were narrow, and there were men with trolleys carrying goods inside constantly passing through asking you to move out their way. Finally, I found the grains (there were about twenty stands), and it was the next section with the toys and party supplies that looked the most promising. I circled the stands peering in to see if I could see the tubes of glow sticks I was told they sell. No luck.

Eventually, I changed tactics. I brought up a picture on my phone and started asking “mean neh?” (មាន នេះ) or “Got these?” I was given vague directions each time. “Over there,” they would wave. I would go on and then ask someone else. Over there (but in the direction I came from). I was was ready to give up. (“No, Thomas, you are tenacious. You will do this.” I told myself again and again.) I found a stall with a child and a woman manning it. She saw the picture and shock her head. However, she then pointed at a stall diagonally opposite.

I went to the lady at the next stall, handed over my phone. She zoomed in on the picture. “How many?” She bent below her counter, rummaged a bit then handed over one tube of 50 glow sticks. I asked for four of those. Sweat was still dripping from my head. I was glad I wore black as it didn’t show too much. However, despite the tiredness, dehydration and general disgusting feeling, I felt successful.

My bounty.

I was just about outside of the market, when I saw a facebook message, “Hey, I heard you were picking up some glow sticks. Could you pick up a couple of hundred for primary too?” Back in I went.

Hot and thirsty, I thought I would go to a place to rehydrate. What is the coldest place in Phnom Penh? Starbucks. So I caught a PassApp there. I thought I would book my hair appointment online (usually I just walk in and it works out but I wanted things to be simple). I did it, but no message came saying the booking worked. That happened last time and it was fine. However, I had an hour to kill.

I wondered around the shops nearby (my hairdressers was in walking distance). I thought I would then go to the barber shop, when suddenly a couple approached me. They were Australian (judging by their accent), and asked, “do you speak English?” They explained they wanted to buy a camera memory card. I found some Khmer security guards to ask if there were any camera shops nearby (in very weird and convoluted Khmer…). They suggested IBC, which is a big book store that sells electronic products too. I agreed it was probably their best bet. It was only about 200 metres away. The only problem was, it was over the other side of one of Phnom Penh’s busiest and widest roads. I offered to help them cross it. The woman grabbed my arm at one point. However, they arrived safely through the welcoming doors of the shop. I tried not to feel too self-satisfied as I kept reminding myself, don’t be smug.

I returned to the barber shop. My appointment hadn’t gone through. I’d have to wait another 20 minutes. At this point it was midday. I’d have to get my haircut, go shopping, return home, cook the pasta salad and arrive in time for the boat. I told myself it would be fine.

The haircut experience was as per usual. I got a typically Khmer looking cut, but it was fine. I then walked to the nearest good supermarket, knowing there was an ATM on the way. I popped into the little room of ATMs and, knowing I’d have to do the shopping and pay for the boat hire and other costs, tried to withdraw $180. The ATM was painfully slow. It was a good three minutes from requesting the money until it returned my card. During this time, I did think, well nothing has gone too wrong yet today, so perhaps this is it. The card popped out. I waited for my cash to turn up. It didn’t. The machine just returned to the home screen. I used my other card and the other ATM to withdraw money. I just told myself, “This is a problem for tomorrow. I have no time to deal with it now.” (It turned out to be fine. No money has left the first account.)

I walked to the supermarket and found everything I needed. I ordered the PassApp. It was going fine. Other than not knowing whether I’d lost nearly $200 (which was tomorrow’s problem to sort out), this part was going smoothly. The PassApp driver knew what he was doing and was able to follow the map (not all drivers can actually read maps), so I could just relax and not have to give directions.

Twenty minutes into the journey I was in for a slight shock. A large machine on the top of a truck had spilt a ribbon of dark black oil over the road. At the junction, a motorbike slipped on the oil, and, with a sickening crunch, sent its passengers to the ground and their belongings across the road. A second motorbike, hoping to avoid the first, also skidded through the oil and crashed to the ground. It’s one of those moments when everything seems to pause. I expected to see broken limbs and blood. The sound and the suddenness in which everything happened suggested carnage. However, everyone got up and dusted themselves off. The PassApp trundled on, the driver only slowing down to tell one of the slightly injured men where their phone (“turosoab”) had ended up on the road.

A few junctions later, the PassApp stalled (this happens every journey). However, it wouldn’t start up again. I was definitely feeling the pressure of a lack of time. I just reminded myself that what would be would be and I’d have to deal with it as it happened. The PassApp driver pushed the vehicle to the side of the road. He tried rocking the rickshaw, moving it, wiggling the steering. Five minutes of this passed. Someone who manned a little tire-pumping stand at the side of the road helped the driver and the PassApp splutter into life again. We were back to trundling home.

I arrived home and got straight into action. I boiled the pasta; I washed and chopped the vegetables. I was sweating. I drank a ridiculous amount of milk as it was the only cold liquid I had that wasn’t for the boat party. The pasta salad was done and it looked good (even if I say so myself). I took a quick snap of it to send to friends.

I took a shower and got changed. It was when I was looking in the mirror that I realised what my barber had done. He had cut one arch above the ear a lot higher than the other. So much for the successful haircut part. (I really like the hairdresser too; we speak in Khmer and I enjoy it.)

I was in a rush to sort myself out and to dry off and get changed. One way to dry your hair quickly is to make use of the hot Cambodian air and use your fan as a hairdryer. I pulled my fan closer to me, whilst it was on. However, in the rush, I tugged too quickly. My finger pulled the cage of the fan forward and it hit the blade. Fortunately, the blade only skimmed my fingers, bruising the tips and slicing the middle finger slightly. It was a small injury, but it really hurt. Also, it bled quite a bit. I washed my finger, grabbed some tissues, collected the pasta salad and drinks and ordered another PassApp.

This tuk tuk driver seemed less sure about the map than the last; however, I was able to tell him “The riverfront near Wat Phnom”, which was straight forward. He did seem to go a strange route, straight through the busiest traffic spots. I still managed to arrive 30 minutes before the boat was booked, and just as some of my friends arrived too. Everyone arrived (after a few texts in jest about wanting to see the sunset not the sunrise) and we boarded the boat.

I think I pretty much switched off from then. I don’t actually remember seeing the sunset, only it got dark. I do remember having a really nice time with everyone and, of course, opportunities to have some fun with the very cute Khmer children who call me uncle.


A day like this is fairly typical. These are things that it made me realise about life here:

  • The smallest successes are big successes. Getting hold of the glow sticks was a major success. This is probably because…
  • Even the smallest task can be unexpectedly difficult.
  • Self-talk is quite important. Telling myself I was tenacious made me persevere and see the task through, even though I felt ready to faint in the heat and dizzy from the constant circles I had been walking.
  • I need to be willing to ask for help. Khmer people are friendly and helpful when they can be. If they don’t help, it’s usually because they are too shy.
  • Cambodia can be very unpredictable and chaotic. I think this can have either one of two effects: make you ridiculously stressed (like the poor Australian couple), or actually makes you less stressed. You realise that you are never really in control and that you deal with whatever problems when and how you can.
  • You devise a lot of coping strategies. Some of them your parents won’t approve of (not contacting the bank until the next day about missing money, for instance). But, you have learn to control your emotions in a situation and not let them control you (it doesn’t always work and of course, it sometimes gets too much for anyone).
  • Perseverance and tenacity are important. I see this in a lot of my friends here. However, I think if you are the type of person who has made it to living abroad in a country such as Cambodia, you tend to have some of those qualities anyway.

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