Phnom Phen – Part 1 of 4 – Taxi Ride I’ll Never Forget

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We had just set our bags down in our hotel room in Phnom Phen when the phone rang. Not expecting a call, the sound took a moment to register. Stacey and I looked at each other then back at the phone. “I wonder who’s calling us” I said realizing I should answer before it was too late to find out. I listened to the calm, soft voice and searched for comprehension through a thick Khmer accent. After enticing the man to repeat himself a few times, I got the gist of his English. Won was his name, or at least how I pronounced it. Later we the spelling to be “Nget Vannarith”, but decided it best we keep calling him Won.


Won was trying not to show it, but I could tell he was upset. Apparently he spent two hours at the airport holding up a sign with our names on it and we never showed. We had taken a ride with a driver from the hotel; that was also at the airport holding a sign for us. We didn’t even know we were getting picked up at all. I was actually attempting to buy a ticket for the taxi when Stacey noticed him. I knew we had a “private car” scheduled for the next day to take us to Phnom Phen, and evidently that’s who Won was.

He wasn’t getting my apology. I knew I didn’t do anything wrong, that it was a mix-up with the hotel, yet I shuffled through pages in my phrasebook looking for “sorry” in Khmer. No luck. My repetition and tone must have crossed the language barrier, because Won replied with a satisfactory “OK, OK, OK”. He was ready to put this behind us and get on with the tour.

Tour? Today? I didn’t know that was included, but had underestimated what we were getting for our money already, so I agreed to a one o’clock pickup. This gave us just barely enough time to eat and shower before heading back out into the blistering buzz of Phnom Phen. Won met us in the lobby. He was tall for a Cambodian, matching my height and his face was young. He stood clean and straight, with a button shirt and shiny shoes, but not too stiff. He looked comfortable. Stacey and I agreed Won would take us to the Killing Fields; a place I hadn’t heard of until I recently saw the movie sharing its name.

Even inside this tired, but maintained 1993 Toyota Camry it felt like royalty to role through the thick mess of people walking and talking in haphazard ways still so foreign to me. Through the windows I looked for a motorcycle carrying the most people; four, five, a family of six. I watched workers ride thirty feet up atop a wobbling, struggling truck overfilled with bags of rice. Considering the high possibility of a head on collision, I imagined the distance their bodies would fly from at such a speed. I imagined their pain and death, my thoughts then quickly shifting back to the Killing Fields.

I sat diagonally across from Won in the backseat. It was a place I could watch his face in the reflection of the rear view mirror as he battled mad traffic, like I would a flight attendants’ during turbulence. After a few more words about the pickup debacle, Won was pleasant and became interested in us. He tapped his fingers on the wheel in rhythm to MC Hammer’s “Hammer Time” playing on the radio; a fitting trip back in time.

“Where you come from?” Won asked with a smile and friendly glance. Being used to excited responses we’d encountered in Thailand , “ America we replied enthusiastically. There was an unexpected pause in conversation as the car bumped along.

“US bomb blow up my house. Kill five my family”, proclaimed Won.

His tone was flat, eyes fixed forward. I could see them clearly and there was no anger, just distance. Won was in his head and although the radio played and life screamed outside, everything was quiet. I felt my breaths shorten. I felt guilt. I felt sorrow. I hated war. In a matter of seconds I questioned everything; my country, humanity, who I was. All this happened before I was born and had nothing to do with me, but I felt like a taker of lives, there from my big country, with its weapons and influence and backpack filled with expensive cameras and clean clothes. Not that Won was waiting, but I wanted to say something and I couldn’t. I had no idea. I always have words and then I had none. Stacey and I met dumbfounded looks; the kind from a movie that we usually only imagine, because day in and day out life is much too normal and hardly ever strikes us genuinely speechless.

Won broke the silence. I don’t remember exactly what he said, my mind wasn’t ready. We conversed about other things, but my thoughts continued to wind. I looked at the American flag pillow tied to Won’s headrest. MC Hammer gave way to a new song by “The Killers”. We rode in an American edition Toyota and carried US currency that would feed our drivers family. Everything felt wrong, but OK. Related, but disconnected.

Talk fell back to Won’s family, but it was more comfortable this time. “I don’t hate America . I like America people. Just mad at your government, like mad at my government” he assured us.

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