I packed light for my trip, because I heard what a breeze it is to buy everyday items at the local markets in Cambodia. After settling in at my guest house in Phnom Penh, I headed down to do just that at the nearby Phsar Toul Tom Poung Market, aka “Russian Market.” Why do they call it that, you ask? Apparently they don’t…
Even before I stepped outside of the entrance to my guest house, a handful of men eagerly shouted offers to drive me to my destination. I approached the driver of one of the motos parked adjacent to the building. His moto was new and shiny, so I assumed the driver probably knew his way around town.
“How much to Russian Market?”
“6,000 [riel]*. We go!” he replied, enthusiastically.
I jumped on the back of his moto. We crept to the street corner and paused awkwardly despite a clear road ahead.
“Do you know where Russian Market is?”
“Um Yes, yes, yes… This way?”
“Yes, South,” I responded, trusting that he knew his way around the city that was so new to me.
“Oooooh, okay, I take you there!” Vroooooooom and we’re off.
After 15 minutes of darting and dodging around traffic I became disoriented – still no sign of Russian Market. Admitting defeat at finding the destination, the driver pulled over to ask a nearby group of moto and tuk-tuk drivers. A bit of arguing in the native tongue, Khmer, was followed by boisterous laughter as one of the tuk-tuk drivers pointed in the opposite direction of where we were headed.
“I excuse! I go wrong way!” he exclaimed as he waved off the heckling men that clearly were entertained by our situation. The tallest one in the group joked that I should drive instead and let my moto driver sit behind me. Another man beckoned me to sit in his tuk-tuk so that he could take me to my destination. We promptly turned around and raced down the street again.
After another 5 minutes of dipping in and out of side roads and speeding up and down busy streets, we stopped to ask another local driver. Same response as before. This time we couldn’t help but laugh with him. I hoped Russian Market was at least somewhere between these last couple of pit stops.
After a few more minutes of bouncing around what seemed to be some of the more roughly-paved roads of Phnom Penh, I decided to play navigator using a tourist map and my new compass (thanks, Dad!). Picture me holding on for dear life on the back of a moto as we flew over potholes and snaked through traffic coming from all directions – all while juggling my navigation tools and trying to identify street names on store fronts.
For the record, I should never be allowed to be navigator. Ever. Some people have a knack for directions; I, on the other hand, have trouble finding my way through the supermarket. However, considering that I’m telling this story, let’s just assume that I directed us to the market with skill that even Marco Polo would envy. Let’s also assume that I have a photographic memory, sing with perfect pitch, and only date supermodels.
We finally arrived at the Russian Market and the driver and I laughed more about our unplanned adventure around town. As I reached for my wallet he dipped his head and asked, “Two dollars?”
“Two dollars?” I asked, incredulously. “You said $1.50 and even got us lost!”
“No lost, I give tour!” He joked, grinning from ear to ear. Too funny. “Fuel not cheap,” he added, apologetically.
Fuel isn’t cheap. Conversations with locals suggest that the price of gasoline here has risen by more than 65% over the past year, and drivers struggle to increase fares quickly enough to cover the cost. Factor in the rising cost of food and aggressive inflation and one quickly realizes how difficult it is to have financial security in a less developed country.
The profiles of the Kiva borrowers that I support flashed through my head as I began to realize the importance of empowering entrepreneurs to build efficient micro-enterprises. Extending loans through Kiva makes it possible for entrepreneurs such as this man to afford to keep motos well maintained, to purchase inventory in bulk, to acquire machinery that operates at higher yield… I feel proud to represent Kiva when I think about the impact on the developing world made by the Kiva community of staff, MFIs, lenders, supporters, and friends.
Even if I didn’t sympathize with his position, what is fifty-cents between strangers, if you can share a good laugh? I have never before laughed so hard at being lost – and I have been lost many times! Anyways, if you ever come to Cambodia, just remember that while it is easy to buy your daily necessities at markets, if you’re a newbie, it’s not always easy getting there!
* US Dollars are widely accepted as de facto currency in Cambodia, where the understood exchange rate is US$1 to 4,000 riel.