The Meanderthals

One year here, and what’ve I learned?

Capping a week in which life in Cambodia pushed me to the edge – for the first time giving me serious cause to wonder what the hell I am doing here – balance was restored by seven middle-aged Cambodian women in a tuk tuk.

Troubles started  first thing Tuesday morning with the realization that my cherished mountain bike was one of four that had been boosted from our apartment courtyard overnight. Somehow, someone(s?) scaled the 10-foot fence in front of our house and lifted the bikes over the steel spikes and off to gawd knows where.

That led to a passive aggressive “tenants meeting” with our landlord a day later which yielded little by way of helpful security enhancements (one brilliant suggestion was to lock the gate at 11 p.m. with a second lock and not provide anyone else a key) until the niceties were set aside the accusations began that our “constant flood of visitors” was probably the cause of the thefts. Therefore the whole bloody thing was probably my fault to begin with.

That charming experience was followed by a complete functional and interpersonal meltdown at the non-government organization where I work. Accompanied by all sorts of associated drama and confusion that’s typical in Cambodia, by mid-day the histrionics had left me drained, hot, tired and fed up with just about everything Cambodian.

But it all changed when my tuk tuk driver stopped at a red light on Monivong Boulevard alongside another tuk tuk loaded with women. 

One of them grinned at me, exposing a brilliant gold tooth. Her eyes glistened. “Hello!” she boomed, reaching across to offer me a plastic bag full of some noxious-looking liquid with a plastic straw protruding from the top: “Neak jawng nyam bai?” (You want something to drink?)

Here’s the thing about Cambodian red lights: they have a half-life of Strontium-90, and so I knew I had plenty of time to engage with this lot. So I launched into some dialog, my pidgin Khmer notwithstanding.

As we bantered back and forth the woman’s tuk tuk mates giggled, gestured and jabbered away in Khmer much too fast for this baraing’s brain to follow. So I tried the basics.

“Ottay, orkun. Nyam bai howie,” (No, thanks. I’ve already eaten), said, turning down her offer of a slug of what looked like watered-down coconut milk with ants floating in it.

I asked her where they were going. To Steung Treng Province, she said, beaming, and as she spoke I realized what that meant.

They were headed back from the city to the province’s intense heat, limited water supply, no health care and no sanitation. To a life of desperate poverty, endless cycles of struggle and extremely limited opportunity. More challenges, pitfalls and obstacles than I’d see in 20 lifetimes. And circumstances that I simply would not understand.

Yet, somehow, this kind soul’s priority was to offer a stranger a sip of her drink at a busy intersection

And it was a reminder of why we are here.

It’s to help the people of Cambodia.

Nearly a year has passed since we arrived in Phnom Penh, hot, sweaty and more than a bit apprehensive about our new life in Southeast Asia. True to the axiom, this dog has learned a few new tricks from people who lack education, travel experience and anything vaguely resembling a global perspective. Which makes them perfect teachers for the important things in life.

Among them:

Grace and dignity are defined not by what you know, have or do, but how you live, act and relate. The charm and casual honor of tuk tuk drivers here would make for a wonderful textbook on business ethics for western CEOs. Example: Our dear friend and driver Som On sheepishly approached Gabi the other day to return 15,000 riel (about $4) that she inadvertently over paid him. The buddhist principle of accumulated experiences guides the actions of many here. It’s a model worth following.

Openness is good. “You look fat today,” “What is that mark on your face?” and “How much money do you make at your job?” are not meant as intrusions on personal space but merely an attempt to secure the answer to a question that might be on their minds. In the west we think such questions but keep them to ourselves; here, it’s open season on how much you earn, whether you’re pregnant or just fat and why my hair has suddenly sprung matching patches of white on either side of my head. And you know what? It feels great. These are new rules, yes, but it adds a lot of clarity to life. 

Real fun is in the simple things. Kids play “kick the sandal,” a makeshift game similar to soccer in which the ball is substituted by a volunteer’s sandal. Rules are the same and the enthusiasm level would rival a World cup finals match. Shuttlecock’s big, too, in which a bunch of guys show up at a park with a 2,000-riel (50 cents) plastic shuttlecock and proceed to see how long they can keep the thing airborne by kicking slapping and swatting at it, all the while chiding each other, laughing and generally carrying on. 

Togetherness is king. Last weekend we hosted a terrific group of people for dinner at our house: tuk tuk drivers Tony and Mr. Key, Tony’s wife, Paolla, our wonderful friend (and soon departing for the US) Meghan and Eva Thorne, a consultant from Dorchester who was here to consult with the NGO for which I volunteer. We laughed, ate Khmer food (I think I’m getting some of these dishes down) and drank a bunch of Angkor beer, chull-mooeying and sokapheap l’aahing (“cheers” and “good health”) well into the night. Language challenges be damned, we all learned a few things about each other, solidified some bridges across the cultural void and ended the evening with full bellies, warm hearts and incredible memories.

It’s so easy to get along. Here, a smile opens a door as well as a heart. A handshake is heartfelt, if not sometimes a little awkward. A look in the eye may be glancing, but it’s penetrating for that one moment of connection between human beings. An effort to speak Khmer is a sure way to turn the most taciturn Cambodian into a new friend in a hurry, usually accompanied with the compliment, “Oh, che niyay Khmer l’aah!” (“Oh, you speak Khmer well!”)

Life has its own course. We are all along for the ride but there are a number of things you can count on: the arrival of the two seasons (wet and dry); the annual change of direction by the mighty Tonle Sap river (switches from south to north to north to south after the rainy season so the annual waters can fill the enormous Tonle Sap lake); and corruption in the police and government. All of these facts of Cambodian life are taken in stride. The tuk tuk driver who always carries a cheap plastic raincoat to don during monsoon season smilingly forks over 8,000 riels ($2) when an underpaid cop pulls him over to shake him down for some beer money. Cambodians truly do not sweat the small stuff, and they’re keenly aware that most of life’s challenges are insignificant.

Fruit is a national treasure. Want to make a friend in Cambodia? Give them some fruit. Mangoes drop like sweet green bombs from the skies during mango season and are quickly harvested, peeled, ground, blended and eaten, often with an unhealthy dose of “ambal chia mui mateh” (salt and chilies) that sets the mouth on fire and, probably, raises blood pressure a few points over the long haul. Jackfruit and durian compete for the honor of the country’s ugliest and smelliest fruit, dragon fruit claims top honors for completely lacking taste but with value for its high water content, and the countless species of bananas all play a role in the Cambodian diet. Mangosteens, oranges, rambutans, lychee, pineapples, papaya, coconut, longan, soursop, passionfruit – they’re all ubiquitous, cheap and delicious.

Find fun, friends and great food at local markets. About 10 minutes’ walk from our house, there’s a neighborhood market we have affectionately labeled “stinky market” for obvious reasons. By about noon the smell of raw meat hanging in the hot sun, fish left over from the morning’s shopping and rapidly decomposing fruits and vegetables is enough to turn off many shoppers in the hunt for something yummy for dinner. We go early in the morning and have become regulars enough to win smiles when we approach our favorite “banlai” (vegetable) or “playchuh” (fruit) vendors. Recently I gave the young woman selling us vegetables a 2,000 riel (50 cent) tip and she was speechless. Literally didn’t know what to do.

Yeah, we’ve learned a lot in a year but we’re very aware that we have yet to scratch the surface of this complex, compelling and fascinating place. Our language skills are progressing, but the truth is we often still have absolutely no clue what’s going on around us.

Then again, sometimes it’s made clear to us in simple ways.

Take the three little girls on a street corner who smiled and said “hello” to me in perfect English while I was out walking this evening. One of them, at perhaps 6 the oldest, stuck out her hand and said, “How are you?” I stopped, shook each tiny hand, and we exchanged names, smiles and a few words. And I was on my way.

The dirt, smells and heat of the city seemed to fade away as I walked along, my spirits lifted by three tiny souls who simply wanted to speak a language they don’t know with a big baraing man, sweaty and white, and in doing so forge a link across barriers of language, culture and age with one tiny gesture.


  • fbk

    Those last two paragraphs said it all, mate.

  • Suzie Weldon

    Fabulous Sunday morning read, Skip, my man. I always feel like I’ve visited Cambodia after one of your posts. Excellently described.

  • nicwill99

    Dear Gabi. I came across your blog when searching on Phnom Phen. I loved Cambodia when we visited a few years ago. Decided to come back to PP on my own this time on my way back from Paris Air Show. I’m looking for locals to have a coffee or a glass of wine with in the week of 27 June. Drop me an email if that might be possible.Love the blog!Best regardsNicole Williamson – from Sydney

  • Dom

    Brought a wonderful smile to my dial, Skip. You’ve nailed it. I can relate to your days, right down to the bone. Clearly we need a beer together soon!Cheers, Dom

  • Lui

    loved this article. sooo true. ive been here in PP three years and it has opened my eyes to a lot of things. mostly about living simply and enjoying life’s simple pleasures. I love watching Khmers, its like they find joy in everything they do. They don’t have much in our eyes, but really they have everything to be happy about…Cheers to a really insightful blog!

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