Life’s contrasts, Cambodian-style

Cool shower. Hot air. Heat wins.

Dead calm night air at 3 a.m.. Squawking gecko outside my window. Score one for the gecko.

Gorgeous young woman and tiny child kneel by the side of the road. Woman makes eye contact and smiles while baby cries, squirms and crumples into her arms for reasons unknown. Lasting impression goes to the child, whose wails remain long after the image has faded.

Such are the contrasts in Phnom Penh, a city of extremes. There are spirit-lifting highs and soul-shattering lows; sensual, numbing, alarming, reassuming, unsettling, reaffirming…so it goes. The awkward ballet of life here is a constant fishbowl of human joy, sorrow, suffering, exhultation and stark realities which, even after nearly a year of immersion, routinely leave us humbled by the enormity of it all.

Some choose to ignore it, to set themselves apart from it by signing long leases to expensive villas locked behind iron gates set in tall, thick walls. They emerge into the air conditioned comfort of a chauffer-driven SUV, head off to work and disappear into an air conditioned building. At the end of the day, they go home, and either consume a meal prepared by their resident chef or head to one of the tony places the capital has to offer – Malis, Topaz, La Residence, Ocean – to celebrate their success with a chilled bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and dine among like-minded and similiary adorned countrymen. The next day, they repeat the performance, entitled guests reaping all the benefits of living lavishly and cheaply in Cambodia but completely missing the point in the process.

We have come to resent these interlopers, these “rich westerners” who consume and exploit, do their share of giving but usually don’t make the effort to make a Cambodian friend, to eat at an local occasional restaurant and, God forbid, make an honest attempt to learn the language of those who truly have a right to live here. We have come to recoil from the presence of these people as we would to someone carrying a contagious disease.

In or out. Part of or separate from. Black or white. There is no part-time to experiencing life; as the saying goes, there’s either doing or not doing. Trying doesn’t rate.

Reading this over, I realize how bitter I sound, how snootily, well, engaged, I seem, though I’m hardly part of the Cambodian fabric. By Cambodian standards we might seem part of this western set; well off, armed with tons of choices and options and an ATM card with plenty of gas in the tank.

“Sometime I feel resent,” said a young friend of a friend who’d come to dinner at our house not long ago. “Why do you have everything, and I have nothing? It make me feel unhappy and wonder why I unlucky.” He said this with a customary grin as he reached for more chicken, happy to fill his stomach courtesy of someone obviously more fortunate than he.

We choose to straddle the fence between life as a westerner and an authentic existence as a Cambodian resident, albeit a guest. We walk the streets after dark, dine in tiny roadside eateries with plastic chairs and dubious food handling training. We learn and speak the language – quite badly, to the constant amusement of people we meet – and belly up to the counter at the Russian Market to eat noodles and spring rolls, plunking down our $2 for the privilege. We tend to eat more, take more space, and sweat more – a lot more. We stand out, and we earn more than our share of stares from people who wonder what the hell two people like us are doing in in the pig intestine aisle at the local market.

Such a lifestyle comes requires a commitment and comes with a price, and so be it. It’s the way we choose to live our life, even if it means a periodic dose of dysentery, discomfort or challenge.

We want to feel it all – to be open, available, and willing to try new things as we chase an elusive understanding of our new home. And that means being open and exposed on occasion.

It starts by strolling this city, taking the time to watch, listen and observe. Making the effort yields incredible results, in terms of human experience, and I ignore the sweat rolling down the backs of my legs as we carry on.

Here, an old woman in traditional dress, a krama draped around her shaved head, extends a wrinkled, filthy palm toward a stranger in hopes of a few riel. There, a child stares in wonder at the specter of a baraing striding by with broad shoulders, greying hair and impossibly white skin, sweat-soaked in gym shorts and tank top on his nightly stroll through the city.

On Street 240, a group of young boys stand in a circle, jabbering at each other as they do their best to keep a shuttlecock airborne as long as possible. They chide each other when one fails and extol their athletic ability when they manage a particularly skillful kick. Across the street, several women outside the Kantha Bopha children’s clinic squat on the sidewalk, their gas cookstoves encased in cardboard boxes as they prepare the evening’s meal for their family. Later, they’ll sleep on this sidewalk, sullen, distanced guardians of their loved ones who, with luck, are receiving care in the free hospital nearby.

Across the street from a bank of western-style restaurants offering everything from nachos to steaks, traditional Khmer food to middle eastern fare, a group of street vendors huddle beaneath fluorescent light, gas-fired woks casting plumes of smoke into the sultry night air as they stir fry noodles, vegetables and what look like half-cooked animal organs. Once cooked, the food is spooned into one of the countless styrofoam and plastic vessels that will hold the customer’s dinner while they carry it to a waiting motorbike or to the side of the road. There, they’ll squat contentedly and for an impossible length of time, consuming the meal with a disposable pair of chopsticks which, like the styrofoam container, will be unceremoniously dumpled in the gutter once the meal is over.

Steps away from the heat and light of the street vendors’ carts, a man dismounts his motorbike, strolls to the wall behind the vendors and begins to pee against the stucco.

The odd juxtaposition of bathroom break to food preparation appalls our western senses but is simply part of the natural flow of life in the city to the locals.

Intake, outflow. Pain, suffering. Food, hunger. Old, young. Live, die.

In the park at the end of the street, the daily carnival of human activity is reaching its apex. Trendily-clad aerobics instructors lead classes of young women and middle-aged moms through complicatedly choreographed routines, their gyrations in step with the ear-splitting techno music that fills the air from enormous speakers set up throughout the park. Nearby, three naked children curl up on filthy mats spread beneath a statue of an enormous golden Phoenix. It is dinner time, yet they sleep, defying the heat, the noise, and, likely, the familiar gnawing of hunger in their tiny bellies.

Tuk tuk drivers line the side of the road, perched on the open-air vehicles and watching the young girls strut their stuff in their favorite aerobics class while the drivers wait, hoping for a fare. Next to them, the smoothly-paved lanes of Sothearos Boulevard coddle the expensive tires of Lexus SUVs whose drivers are shielded from view by heavily tinted glass. They roll on slowly, separate and seemingly unaware of the collection of sweat-soaked humanity just outside their air-conditioned luxury.

A middle-aged man on crutches approaches diners entering a Japanese restaurant, where they’ll buy imported fish tastefully draped across tiny mountains of rice. One pant leg dangles emptily as the disabled man walks, and it sways back and forth, occasionally becoming wrapped around one of his crutches as he begs. Inside, a stunningly beautiful Cambodian waitress in white silk blouse and red silk floor-length skirt greets two new customers. She turns after seating them, and the low back of her blouse reveals a series of angry red welts, the product of traditional health care wherein a loved one “coins” or scratches the skin, ostensibly to bring oxygen to the ailing body to speed healing.

Not long ago we had dinner with a couple of expats who’ve lived here for many years. They were friendly, helpful and very knowledgeable, and the evening was going great until we took our leave and headed áway from the restaurant to walk the 10 blocks to our home.

“You shouldn’t walk after dark. It’s not safe,” said the woman, pointing out that their driver had been waiting patiently for them during our two-hour dinner to drive them the four blocks to their villa.

“I know many people who have been attacked,” she added, with an air of superiority akin to a wine connoisseur revealing the mysteries of a vintage cabernet to a wine-in-a-box afficianado. Informing the newbies, she was, and that’s the last time we have had dinner with them.

Her way is not our way, and her opinions do not mirror ours. She sees Cambodia in a light that seems incongruous, from the perch of a lifestyle is too separate, too distanced, to removed from the stunning contrasts of this fascinating place.

Besides, we simply prefer to walk.

      One comment

      • marie buckley

        Great post. Great points. Keep these coming. Miss you both!

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