So about once a day here in Phnom Penh I have a massive WTF moment. I’ve been catalouging them: a boy stabbing birds, Western beggars, my guesthouse posting a sign about not offering “the sex services,” and pretty much any occasion I open the Phnom Penh Post. Strange things, bizarre things that my Western brain can’t compartmentalize—where all there is to do is shrug, shake your head and say “What the fuck…”
Today’s WTF moment came as I was walking home. It was a mellow day, filled with writing and street food, and I was retiring early, walking down a dusty road lined with corrugated metal fences, behind which the humming of machinery had ceased for the day. Men still wearing their hardhats bicycled past; teenagers in school uniforms clustered at the street corners, eating grilled meats from street stalls.
Now, I’m familiar with street dogs and street cats and rats and mice and raccoons and squirrels—but WTF?! A street monkey? Phnom Penh isn’t the fucking jungle; it’s a city.
Where did the little guy comes from? Why wasn’t he in a zoo? Why was he just chilling there, riffling through a bag, trying to fish out a little food, sticking his red ass in the air as he repositioned? Why was no one doing anything? Why were they all going about their business like it was no big deal, perfectly normal for a hairy primate cousin to be out and about on a humid late afternoon?
I stood and watched him. I took a picture. A security guard down the road looked at me curiously—What’s this crazy white girl taking a picture of a monkey for?
The monkey tired of the plastic bag, threw it aside. He stretched his limbs and turned, looking into the traffic. He began to cross the street slowly, the same way I do, sensing out the rhythm of the road. He knew what he was doing. He was better at crossing the street than most tourists. The motobikes and tuk-tuks and cars slowed and swerved seamlessly around him—just another monkey cruising across the street.
Then he spotted me.
I still had my camera in my hands; maybe he was offended that I was taking pictures, objectifying him like an animal in a zoo. He gave me a real menacing look, bared his teeth slightly. He walked towards me.
Here I should clarify that I am 100% a city kid. I used to be afraid to swim in water I couldn’t see the bottom of. I’m easily impressed by the appearance of any stars whatsoever. Wildlife freaks me out about as much as uber urbanity freaks other people out. And everything is wildlife: from the geckos on the wall to the squeaks of bats. If it’s not a cat or dog, it’s probably got rabies and wants to eat you.
I thought of Greg, who I met bicycling breathlessly down a dirt road in Southern Italy. Greg was straight outta Queens, his speech peppered with more “yo”s than my own “hella”s. He’d just run into a herd of sheep in the road. He’d freaked—what were they doing? (“Probably grazing,” I offered.) Wildlife, fuck that. He hadn’t wasted any time in pedaling the other direction, and I immediately understood his panic.
And so the gangsta street monkey swaggered towards me. I moved slowly (“keep it cool, don’t ask scared, he can smell your fear”), stepping carefully, one foot at a time, in the opposite direction. When he disappeared between two parked cars, I walked briskly away, shaking my head and thinking, “What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck.”