My last day in Cambodia and the country turns on the heat for me as the thermometer reaches 45C in Pnomh Penh. Combined with sweltering humidity I feel a bit like a roast dinner in a steam oven, cooking slowly and wetly.
In a bid to beat the heat, days start early here. From 5.30am the cafes are pulling up their shutters. Moto drivers stretch and scratch by their vehicles and sleepy eyed women are laying out their wares in the market: shiny green limes, pale pink lychees, the vibrant cerise of dragon fruit, the yellow green bananas and olden pineapples.
By 7am the day is in full swing. The cafes are filled with men, eating soup or drinking sweet coffee, their backs to the road watching the TV that is inevitably blaring away in a corner. Monks, one behind the other like a string of saffron, are walking the roads for breakfast and alms, offering sing song prayers of thanks and good health to those that oblige.
The children on the morning shift at school are pressed clean in white and navy, walking or cycling to class. In the market the women are chopping the heads of the fish and swatting away the flies, calling to each other, laughing and bartering. Street vendors with long bamboo canes balanced over their shoulders, finely balanced on each side, are walking and shouting up their business in the busy streets.
By mid morning the heat is cranking up the volume. In the dusty northern fields, wiry farmers follow scrawny oxen behind the plough, dust rising in eddies behind them. Chickens, long legged and delicate, scratch in the dirt and a cockerel gives a half hearted crow. In the river, men and women walk along behind fishing nets, shoulder deep in yellow water that is as tepid as a bath.
Scooters packed with people and goods buzz along the streets; one has the bodies of four pigs strapped sideways alongside the driver, their trotters bouncing forlornly as the bike bumps along the road. Four policemen squeeze on one bike; a young family, three children and their parents squashed close together, pass by and wave and smile.
At lunchtime the heat is unmanageable. Even the moto drivers have given up their tout for business and are parked under trees and lying across the back of the tuk tuk searching for sleep. The never ending traffic slows and stutters. Skeletal Brahmin cows, their skin the colour and texture of pebbles washed white by the sea seek whatever shade they can find.
A small breeze picks up and by mid afternoon the clouds are gathering, bruised blue black in the sky. A sharp breeze rises, dust spins into my eyes and sticks to my sweaty arms. My t-shirt is ringed with damp and dirt. One fat drop announces the rain storm the city has been waiting for and soon we’re engulfed in a deluge.
The streets become rivers; young children swim and splash and narrowly miss the wheels of scooters that splash by. Two young boys dance on a roof, hands in the air with joy. Almost as soon as it’s begun, it’s over again. The air has cooled a little but the humidity rises.
Finally the sun heads towards the horizon and the temperature becomes bearable. Workers start their commute home. The city is filled with the horns of a thousand scooters, bikes and the occasional shiny NGO-owned Lexus. Pedestrians and vehicles cross and turn and swoop and glide like partners in a chaotic but choreographed dance.
Along the river front, courting teenagers cruise up and down in the sunset light, the girls sitting side saddle on the scooters. In a park a group of shirtless men, shiny sweat sheened brown, play volleyball. Shopkeepers swing in hammocks, farmers rest on raised platforms and chat, a young mother washes a plump baby in a wide lipped earthenware jug.
The bars open and young girls in high heels perch on the arms of chairs. Beside them, old white men with the gleam of sweat on their pink heads, drink beer and pontificate. The restaurants and cafes fill. Men drink pitchers of beer and eat rice and noodles and wave their chopsticks around as they talk. Women sip ice coffee and tea and look cool in their silk or cotton pyjama suits.
By 10.30pm most are in bed; the heat is almost bearable. I lie spread eagled on my bed, under the fan, dreaming of winter.