As I laced up my gym shoes for the first time in Cambodia, I couldn’t help it – all I could think about was a run one year ago through Athens, Greece. It was our first run in Europe, first of many as it turns out, but it is the one that stands out as similar to running in Cambodia because of how dang hot it was that morning. I remember setting out towards the Acropolis thinking how cliche and wonderful it was going to be to see the Acropolis at the break of dawn, however by the time we reached the hill’s summit I was too hot, tired, and sweaty to care. However, despite the sweltering heat, running through many European cities and now Siem Reap has shown me that it can be a great way to know the city better, feel more a part of the city, and see some really interesting parts of daily life. Here are some of the funny and interesting things I have seen while running in Cambodia. Oh and speaking of funny and interesting I am sure that is exactly how each Khmer person I pass thinks of the crazy barang girl who sweats her brains out each morning for some unfathomable reason.
Running in Siem Reap is a bit like running an obstacle course, where the obstacles continuously change. On one of my first morning jogs I was finally comfortable enough with the bends, curves, and intersections of the river path to zone out during longer stretches of sidewalk. Suddenly, I was ankle deep in sand. I came out of my heat induced daze to find myself standing at the start of a huge pile of sand that had literally been dumped on one of the main sidewalks in town. Two small children were driving plastic trucks over it, around it, and through it. They were having a wonderful time as sand flew into the street and spread along the sidewalk, not an adult in sight nor any clue as to the purpose or use for the sand. It was the best urban sandbox I have ever come upon. The next day every speck of sand was gone.
My favorite route doesn’t have sidewalks, instead I run on the road with the trucks, cars, bikes, and motos and those walking to school, work, or to visit a neighbor. However, I do feel perfectly safe, as Cambodians build their shops and homes right up to the side of the road. People are always standing, sitting, or selling on the roadside and make more than enough room as I jog past. I started to run this route daily though because I became interested in a school bus that a group of Khmer men were dismantling on the side of the road. Day 1: I watched them pull up in the bus and take off the doors and take out the steering wheel as they all piled out. Day 2: the bus lost its windows, engine, and other internal parts. Day 3: They began to take crowbars and sledge hammers to the top and sides of the bus. Day 4: The bus was nothing but a metal base on wheels. Day 5: All that remained was a heap of scrap metal on the side of the road. The group of men were standing around it looking proud while one worker was sawing the metal pieces into smaller portions. All of this happened as traffic flew past inches away, and the whole ordeal did not catch a single second glance from a single person but me.
Every morning there is an old woman who practices her English. Inside of her one room clapboard homes she sits in the doorway while the television blares simple phrases loud enough for neighbors five houses down to hear. Each morning I get to hear a sentence or two of her English lesson, and I often wander if she is simply repeating the phrases or actually knows the meaning of the words; I am still wandering. However, one morning as I passed by I heard, “They are going to have a baby soon,” in a man’s British accent play from the television and float out onto the street. The old woman repeated the phrase with the same gusto as the video instructor, and as I was going by she turned to see me jogging by. She yelled out, “They are going to have a baby soon.” Her Khmer accent skipped the s, fumbled the v, and forgot the th altogether, but the smile on her face was contagious and while I didn’t have the breath or time to repeat it back to her I managed a quick laugh and a wave. She practically fell off her chair as she feverishly returned the wave and gave, “they are going to have a baby soon,” one more emphatic shout.
During my dad’s visit to Siem Reap I made him run one morning with me. I shouldn’t say made – I asked and he agreed. He described my route out of town like this, “I felt like I was running with, around, and from cars, bikes, motorbikes, trucks, people, and dogs.” He said it with laughter in his voice, but it was no joke – that is exactly what running in Cambodia is like.
Ben and I went on a run in mid-May earlier than usual – earlier because while we are both up by 6:30AM every morning, neither one of us usually gets it together to go running until 7:30AM. Regardless, it was earlier, and all of the monks were on their way to a wat (pagoda) for the day. We passed many of them in their orange robes, shaved heads, and bare feet, each one we passed without much notice until as we ran through the Raffles garden and a young monk gave us the thumbs-up. It not only gave me the energy to run faster and farther the rest of the way but made me smile for the rest of the day.
When I run along the riverside in the evening men sit, crouched low on the sidewalk playing cards, checkers, and dice. The sidewalk is not large concrete squares as it is in the United States but red concrete cut into small squares and then laid down in the shape of flowers, larger squares, and other shapes. In many places these small squares are marked with black and white chalk to show the different places on a checker board. The men then sit over these makeshift boards and play their games until the sunsets. The ingenuity and simplicity in these nightly games always makes me smile. What makes me smile more, is how as I pass, they all stop just for a second and say, “hello lady.”