Exhausted by our own malaise, we set out for the hotel fitness club at the River Palace Hotel in Phnom Penh. As we pulled back the door, the glass fogged with the heat of club, it was apparent the hotel sold memberships to the few locals who could afford them. It was packed with people and not a single machine available.
Refusing to let our crusade to exercise end there, I simply suggested we run outside. Leery at mention of it, Dan hesitated. “Let’s go,” I said as I pushed through the door and wandered out into the crowded street outside. As we set out, each strike of our feet sent a cloud of dust into the air covering our brightly colored, and by Cambodian standards bizarre, five-finger toe shoes.
The air was thick and dirty, and each breath felt as if it was filling our lungs with soot. The streets, which are busy enough during the day, truly come to life at night. Hundreds of scooters and cars swarmed us blocking our path along the edge of the old roadway.
Dozens of food carts lined the street. Some boasting chickens roasting on a spit others displayed their roasted fish dangling from a pole above the car. The strong smell of roasted meat collided with the musty smell of the dirty town to create an unappetizing stench. As the sun faded, more and more people flooded the streets. Young kids smiled and waved as they shouted hello from afar, their parents nodding and smiling in approval. Some people stopped and stared, other chuckled as we pass. It seems their reaction was not because we were out running, and it wasn’t solely because we are white, but it seemed to be the combination of both – a rare sight in Phnom Penh.
The heat was oppressive and the air still. The sweat ran down into our eyes and trickled down our necks. As we moved through the crowd, always aware of what’s around us, grit filled our mouths and the thicker particles of dirt inhaled with each breath crunched between our teeth.
Eventually, we reached one of the city’s main roundabouts where hundreds of cars and scooters moved like fish in a river, each parting for another as they moved slowly, but steadily through the congested roads. We turned and headed directly into traffic facing the chaos of Phnom Penh rushhour head on. At that moment, I felt strangely safe, overall unconcerned for my safety. Each car, scooter, tuk-tuk or person in the way held a polite air about them and generously moved aside.
As we returned to the hotel, we swiftly moved past fires lit alongside the road. The orange-tipped flames burning green at the base, and emitting a chemical that filled the air with the smell of burning rubber or plastic. With our hotel in sight we sprinted toward it. As we pulled open the giant glass doors shielding guests from the filthy world beyond, we were dirty – our lungs heavy with pollution, and bodies not invigorated by the workout instead felt worn and unhealthy. However, that’s life for thousands of people who call Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh home.