Stillness, personal boundaries and moments in Cambodia

Collecting weird scenes, funny moments and odd bits of life in Phnom Penh to pass along for your edification, reflection and digestion:

I gave myself the gift of stillness at 5 this morning…sat on the balcony steps as stars dotted the early morning sky over Phnom Penh, the droning voices of monks beginning the daily Pchum Ben (festival of the ancestors) chants from nearby Wat Lanka. A gentle breeze rippled the leaves on the trees which surround our balcony as bats circled, wrapping up their nightly feast of all things flying before heading to roost at sunrise. Down the road from us, someone began playing gentle Khmer music, probably to go with their daily exercise ritual. Early morning is such a magical time in Phnom Penh.

My buddy Tony, tuk tuk driver extraordinaire, when he picked me up to give me a ride to dinner one night last week: “Neak chu?” (You sick?) Me: “Tic tic.” (A little.) He put his hand on my arm. “Oh, kdow.” (Oh. You’re hot.) Then he touched my neck, reached down my shirt and felt the sweat. “Oh. Kdow nah.” (Oh, you’re very hot.) Where else on earth could could a straight westerner get felt up by another guy and not be a bit put off. Don’t answer that, Paul Goldman.

One of the highlights of my day is coming home and opening the steel gate to our house. The twin toddler girls hear the gate and run to the screened door in the landlord’s first-floor apartment and we proceed with our daily hide and seek, run and scream cultural exchange between the two tiny Khmer girls and the Big Baraing who laughs at them. Their smiles and glee are absolutely priceless.

First no rain, now too much. The drought in northern Cambodia has turned to floods as heavy rains have the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers both overflowing their banks. Last year it was too little rain to grow rice in my buddy Sarath’s fields; this year his crop is threatened by floods. The Year of the Rat, he says, has not been a good one for him thus far. His photos on Facebook and the grim look on his face tell volumes.

Conversation overheard in a coffee shop Thursday between a French guy and Cambodian waiter:

FG: “I would like a crossaint.”
Waiter (in English): “Sorry”?”
FG: “Un croissant, s’il vous plait.”
Waiter (in Khmer): “Ksait?” (newspaper?)
FG (icily): “Croissant.”
Waiter: “Sorry?”
FG: Gets up and walks to display case and points.
Waiter: “Kdow, roo traccheak?” (hot or cold?)
FG: “Yes”.

Last week’s show stopper was that our intrepid partner in this week’s media training program – the Cambodian Club of Journalists – suddenly lacked the time and capacity to help us by inviting journalists to attend and participating as moderator and speakers for the 2.5-day program, as had been agreed upon. Several hours later, accompanied by a pledge of $600 to help them with “administrative” costs, they’re back on board, having conveniently rediscovered both the capacity and will to do what they’d promised two months ago as eager volunteers. We consider ourselves having been shaken down, my Cambodian colleagues with a characteristic smile, me with a grimace. Oh, Cambodia (#1).

Some thoughtful soul had the sense of humor and presence of mind to put the banana offering to the Buddha next to the condom display at UCare Pharmacy. Struck me as one of the funniest things ever and the staff behind the counter watched me warily when I snorted out a laugh.

Kids here are born with otherworldly senses of balance. An 18-month year old perched, upright, between parents on a speeding motorbike. A two-year-old clinging to his mother’s back as she weaves along a crowded street on her bicycle. Four and five year-olds walking on a six-inch-wide railing 20 feet off the ground as a nearby pagoda. It’s a nation of natural gymnasts.

It’s also a nation of natural musicians, as I am constantly struck by the musical talents and eagerness to perform. Streetside, impromptu singing is widespread, music stores selling everything from guitars and amps to synthesizers and drum sets are everywhere. Karaoke seems the national pastime, and some of the guys actually go to sing. 

Talking with Sarath about the omnipresence of concealed weapons in Cambodia (they are everywhere, I am told by extremely reliable sources), he confessed that until fairly recently he was the proud owner of his personal weapon of choice: an AK47 with 1000 rounds of ammunition that he kept handy to thwart would-be robbers. He abandoned the idea sometime ago, burying the assault rifle (and, presumably) the ammo in the ground to rot away. Oh, Cambodia (#2).

It’s tough not to be alarmed by the ubiquitous Cambodian mannequins and not just because they invariably sport sequined gowns of garish colors and designs – often with side slits to one’s armpits – but because of their horrifyingly muscular faces. They resemble 70s-era East German female athletes…think a really feminine Sylvester Stallone – a cross between The Rock and Grace Williams.. Oh, Cambodia (#3).

Only a Cambodian woman could pull off wearing an ensemble like this at 8 a.m. on a Saturday and still look beautiful: brilliant, billowing red and white polka dot pajama trousers and a two-tone orange golf shirt. You wear that in the States, you’re getting a visit from social services.

Note to kindly (and apparently hard of hearing) elderly neighbor: I really won’t mind if, for a change, tomorrow morning at 4:30 you do not turn your radio up to full volume to hear the broadcast monk’s chanting followed by local news and chat. Really, I’ll manage without. Once, it was amusing and quaint. Now I’m thinking of trowing mangoes at you in response to the auditory assault.

Update on the recent bad run of crime I’ve been witness to: last week while riding a tuk tuk with our friend Reth on the way to lunch, a motorbike rider zoomed up on the right side and ripped the gold necklace from her neck. It was a gift from her sister, a token of good luck to help Reth on the road to recovery after having been sick for a month. She is devastated; I am disgusted. Enough!

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