One of the stand-out differences for me living over here has been the animals. Even dogs and cats are so different from what I’m used to seeing at home. And when you see a cow here in Cambodia you know you’re not, to use a well-known phrase, in Kansas anymore! The first thing I noticed in terms of animals here in Phnom Penh is that dogs are everywhere. Who knows if they have owners or not – but they are on every street: black scruffy ones, grey woolly ones, brown skinny ones, white yappy ones; mutts of every kind and variation imaginable. They roam freely and you can often hear them barking, but I have yet to hear of any one being bitten by them. They are simply part of the street furniture, and finding a street minus dog poo is a rare treasure! There is one dog in particular I want to tell you about. I have no idea what breed he is or what his name is but we early-morning teachers see him just about every day as we walk to school. He is grey with very strong, long, white whiskers at the front of his muzzle like a grizzled moustache. He has a stocky build, legs short in proportion to his body. A few houses down from the school there is a building site, which has great pile of sand out front edging onto the road, and this is his castle. He lies on top of this pile of sand, staring out at the world with a weary yet determined expression. That’s an old man dog. You can’t get any doggier than that dog right there. He’s seen everything, he’s done everything, he knows everything there is to know about being a dog. He’s quintessential.
From dogs my mind naturally turns towards cats. I’m a cat-lover myself, but the cats here are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Without exception they are skinny and straggly, even the ones kept as pets. This anorexia gives them a very unfortunate appearance – their eyes boggle out and it makes them look quite alien. I was surprised when a newly acquired acquaintance told me about hearing cats fight on their street – I had not heard any cat fights since arriving (though plenty of dog fights) and quite frankly I didn’t think any of them would have it in them! While we were in Kratie-town, wandering the streets looking for a place to have a few quiet beers, I remember we were frightened by something crossing the road heading directly for us. It was tiny, so no alarm there, but it was so entirely mangled and scrawny in appearance that it took us a long time to recognize it as a kitten. I thought at first sight that it was some kind of mutant rat. It mewed pathetically at us, I think begging for food, and became particularly attached to one of the volunteers, following her as she was walking, although it was tiny and couldn’t move very fast. It was affecting – this poor little thing fending for itself in the streets – and we had a hard time just leaving it there, but there really wasn’t any alternative. I have since heard of people adopting kittens straight off the street.
The cows are different too – they are creamy coloured with big floppy ears and great big humps between their shoulders. On my trips through the provinces I was surprised not to see that many horses. I thought there would be lots in the country to pull ploughs and carts. There were instead big black oxen like water buffalo that the people use when ploughing the rice fields and planting. I did see some horses and apart from having thicker legs they weren’t that different. The chickens are funny too – they are taller and stretched out looking. In the country they’re let free to wander around everywhere, and it’s cute to see the hens with their broods. Chickens in Phnom Penh are mostly sold live. You can see the chicken men riding around with great piles of live chickens on the backs of their motos, all strung together by their legs. It is an amazing sight.
Of course the elephant in the room, although not really animals per se, is the insect life over here. Mosquitoes naturally are everywhere. Do not leave home without a good quality insect repellent containing DEET. Having said this, be careful when buying extremely concentrated DEET products. Mine is only 30%, and if you forget you have it on your arms or hands and wipe any sensitive skin on your face, it will burn like anything. Even putting it on your arms and legs makes them feel hot. And DEET is a carcinogen so it isn’t good to over-expose yourself to it. In Phnom Penh there isn’t any malaria, so you don’t really need to worry about the mosquitoes at night, but watch out for the big ones during the daytime with white-striped legs – those ones are known to be carriers of dengue fever. Again, having said this, in the years this school has been taking volunteers, not one of them has contracted dengue fever. The mosquitoes are just the tip of the iceberg though – there are all sorts of weird and wonderful insects here. The most common are the cockroaches and crickets.
One night a few of us teachers were sitting around on the dining benches when one of the volunteers jumped up and said, “A bird just flew into the house!” “Where?!” We chorused. We hadn’t seen anything. So she walked over to where she had seen the ‘bird’ fly in and suddenly screamed as the thing flew off again. This time we all saw it. It was an enormous bug of some kind. After examining it closely, we ascertained that it was the freakiest grasshopper ever to flutter over the face of the earth. There were two male volunteers in the house so naturally it fell to them to try and dispose of the thing or somehow get it out of the house. It was very scary. Since then we have had two or three more enter the house and we are old hands, but I will never forget the first ‘bird’.
Finally, I must put in a mention for my favourite wildlife here in Phnom Penh – the geckoes. These little guys show up every night, adorning the walls, attracted to the insects the lights draw in. They are particularly welcome because they go for mosquitoes, but all in all they are seriously cute little dudes. I never get tired of spotting them.