From the balcony of my dorm I can watch the progress of five-story cement facades criss-crossed by sapling scaffolding. Construction workers double as trapeze artists along the roofs.
Saturday, December 22, 2012
Phnom Penh is being built at my doorstep.
Saws, wood sanders and hammers are the white noise of our alleyway, tucked into the southern tip of the city. The alley is near what was once a small lake. The lake is gone, recently drained, filled and built over. On Western maps the lake still exists, they have not yet caught up with the rate of construction.
Phnom Penh used to be referred to as the “Pearl of Asia.” The Vietnam (or American) War and the Khmer Rouge have dulled its luster. The city is caught in the in between: dilapidated colonial grandeur, glitzy new skyscrapers and the low-storied growth of a developing nation. Construction sites are everywhere.
Craning over the balcony I can make out the alley’s carpentry shop below the coconut palm. Men and women crouch over elaborately carved wood furniture, heavy bed boards and boxy chairs. I pass the carpenters on my search for motos and tuk-tuks at the alley’s mouth. Often I see the smallest of puppies playing in the sawdust.
Our dorm is set amidst apartments, primarily two story hastily constructed structures with exposed cement and jutting wire crossbeams. The most active apartment is directly across from us, five stories and set with curved balconies that would not be out of place at a 70’s style movie theater. In the early evening shirtless men spend long hours on these balconies, in between the hanging laundry. They talk on their phones or lean over and watch the alley below.
In the alleyway, children, ages one to twelve, play. The kids congregate on a parked tuk-tuk, or pedal wobbly tricycles, or shoot at each other with plastic gold automatics. When I leave the dorm I am greeted with a chorus of “Hello” “Hello” “Hello.”
Farther down the alley, is a warren of slum dwellings – narrow alleys and lopsided structures. I have found tucked into a corner, a neighborhood temple that looks like just another cement construction until you get up close and peer through the grate and find Buddhist murals.
Outside our dorm there are two hole-in-the wall hair salons (quite literally). I have spent an hour in one watching my roommate have her hair teased and sprayed and curled. And I have submitted to heavy amounts of purple eye shadow and half inch lashes for the occasion of a wedding.
There are house fronts up and down the alley that double as storefronts. On tables they sell everything from pre-wrapped sandwiches, to coconuts, to bottles of soy sauce, to whole glistening fishes beset by flies. A few stalls compress stalks of sugarcane, mixing limes in the juice and serving it in plastic bags with a straw – a Khmer to-go mug.
Food carts meander by at unpredictable hours hawking buns, bananas wrapped in sticky rice, and most commonly – salted and roasted eggs on a stick. The man driving the cart plays a recording on-loop. “Eggs delicious eggs – they are hot, they are nice, they are delicious.” Even the singsong voice sounds heat-wearied.
In the evening when the sun dips behind the new construction, the street fills with families and neighbors dragging circles of plastic chairs into the road. The men go shirtless and the small children pant-less. It is not uncommon for small boys to run down the streets completely bare.
Our alley is a workspace, a playground, a communal living room. By late evening though, the dust settled, the neighbors retreat into their homes and the on-and-off electricity. Grates are pulled down and locked. The symphony of a growing city – the saws and sanders – ceases.
I like to stand on the balcony at this time – ignoring the hum of mosquitos, taking in the fleeting quiet, the slight breeze.
And then clattering into the night a lone man walks down the now deserted alleyway. He carries two sticks in his hands and plays out a beat of taps - a delivery boy for the midnight snack attacks of the neighborhood. Soup, noodles, dumplings – all of these he will seek out and deliver for a fee. He disappears into the gloom of the alley, his tapping following in his wake. Rat-ta-tat-tat, Rat-ta-tat-tat.