American Megan Lee Smith is in Cambodia on a Rotary Peace Fellow scholarship, volunteering with UNICEF to support the inclusion of people with disabilities in Cambodian society as part of the Governance for Child Rights programme. This week, she spoke to Harriet Fitch Little about the best – and most accessible – spots in the city that she has discovered as a wheelchair user
Aeon Mall has very good access. The way they’ve laid it out is accessible. It’s very good with bathrooms. It’s built by a Japanese company, and at all the government conferences regarding the national disability policy, they’re there as an example of a business incorporating access into their model. The only problem is the cinema. You can get all the way up to the cinema but then there are stairs going to the seats. I went there with a friend one time thinking it was going to be fully accessible – that’s what the ticket seller said – then I got inside and there was this poor skinny little guy, he looked about 12, who said: ‘OK, now I carry you.’ He didn’t, my friend did. I think I would have killed him.'
I love to be in motorbike country because some places have ramps, not for wheelchairs, but for their motos. Yay for accidental universal design! I’m very surprised at how accessible the bars are generally. Not all of them, but particularly down Bassac Lane – there’s a lot to choose from and they’re all on the same alleyway floor. Hangar 44, the motorcycle bar, is good. I grew up in Harley Davidson country back in the States, so it felt like a bit of home with the bikes and the men with beards. I know my chair can get in there and there are good martinis. They have lower tables where you can talk and drink with friends, a lot better than spending your night craning your neck. I could get into the loo as well, which is remarkable – a lot of the times you can get into the bar but not the loo, so you just have to hold it and hope for the best.
Transportation really affects your life. I was always having difficulty figuring out who could take me home or to various meetings, and tuk-tuk drivers would avoid eye contact with me like we were on a bad date or something because it was so much work getting me in and out. So I couldn’t explore the city, I couldn’t explore the cultural sites, and it was affecting my reliability at work – if the one guy who’d take me wasn’t available then I’d be stuck. The accessible tuk-tuk was designed with Ian [Jones, of House Boutique Hotel] with help from an Engineers Without Borders team, and a local guy who knew all the tuk-tuk manufacturers. They got together and built one within a month. It’s really incredible and beautiful to ride in. I’m my own self-contained entity and I don’t need to worry about sending more men to the chiropractor.
House Boutique Hotel
I couldn’t find a flat here for my five-month contract. There were a couple that were doable, but some landlords told me flat out that they wouldn’t rent it to me because I was in a wheelchair and a woman, while a couple of others I visited had the rent magically increased from when I inquired about it to when I arrived for the viewing. House Boutique Hotel is great. Most of the other rooms that are accessible are in places like Sofitel, which there is no way I could afford. Here it’s fully accessible – rolling into the hotel and then rolling into my room. In the bathroom there are handrails near the toilet, which just makes everything so much easier, and a plastic chair in the shower. Having a fully accessible place to live is a novelty and there is nothing like being able to access your bed and take a shower.
Russian Market is pretty accessible. Well, relatively so. You can get into the various levels if you go down the street parallel to the street with the vegetable and fruits. It’s designed as a cascade of steps inside the Russian Market – there are levels that change as you go up the street. I wouldn’t be able to get up the steps inside, but I can go into each level from the outside. I like it because it reminds you of a Turkish bazaar – there’s so much stuff around you and so many smells. It’s a lot more compact than Central Market, which is more accessible, but I like Russian Market more because it’s cosy and interesting to navigate the rows. You have a lot of people that are willing to move their whole stall to accommodate you. Cambodian people, while they are reserved, they do help you.