The Meanderthals

Two dollars, an umbrella and a smile

Having lived in Phnom Penh for a few months now, there are certain things I’ve discovered are important to have at all times.

It’s quite simple really. Two dollars (for a tuktuk), an umbrella (in case you can’t find a tuktuk) and a smile (for everyone).

If you’ve got those, you can pretty much get around anywhere.

A few simple phrases are also helpful so you can give an address and directions to a tuktuk driver, order food and be friendly. We’ve found that every time we say something in Khmer to a local (even if it’s only Ot tay, akun to a tuktuk driver (No, thank you), people beam and tell us how well we speak Khmer (oh, come on!)

In some cases, though, it can be rather amusing to not speak the language. Skip and I recently found ourselves in a restaurant in Chinatown in Ho Chi Minh City where not a lick of English was spoken or understood and we looked at one another helplessly and burst out laughing. We ended up pointing to pictures on a menu and also ordering what we thought was a scallion pancake when the enterprising young waitress brought us a dish of scallions from the kitchen (It was).

During rainy season in Cambodia, an umbrella is a very useful tool but waterproof shoes are also pretty essential once the torrents of water start pouring from the sky with the pace of a rushing passenger train. I’d packed a pair of Teva water shoes from home, thinking I might use them if we went boating or travelled to an ocean or river, but I wear them constantly every time the heavens open. There have been many times we’ve had to haul up our trousers and wade, almost knee-deep in water, to reach our destination, when we discover the true value of those waterproof shoes.

I’m also rarely caught going anywhere without my pockets stuffed with tissues (another very essential item). There are plenty of places with western toilets, but don’t count on them having paper as a bathroom accessory. And there are also many with that jolly old hole in the floor where paper is not even given a moment’s thought. We were recently at lunch with the executive director of my organization and noticed he was carrying a copy of the Daily Cambodian newspaper. He duly informed us that it was not due to his thirst for news; it was as a safety measure to use in local toilets.

There are some obvious things that one might generally carry around – sunscreen for the blazing sun, insect repellant for the pesky bugs and sunglasses. And, of course, a camera is a very essential tool as I’m always seeing something that I want to capture on film – whether it’s a doe-eyed child looking at me from the next moto, the sign reading “Massage 24/24” or the umbrella-bearing monks who walked by me earlier today and are now featured in this blog..

But there are other things which don’t fit into the material category which are essential items in this part of the world.

A sense of humour. There are many times Skip and I look at one another in amazement when things pop up that we’re not expecting to find. The can of Raid on the shelf behind the therapist giving me a foot massage. The man who remarked loudly to Skip when he walked toward him in a shopping mall “Oh! Good body!” and then proceeded to feel the muscles in his arms. The waitress at the Chinese Noodle House who constantly brings us pork dumplings after she insist there’s no meat in them.

Patience. As we’ve mentioned before, nothing really happens on time (except for cross country buses which are, surprisingly, very punctual). For me, it’s a bit of a challenge as I’m somewhat fanatical about punctuality, and we’ve shown up for meetings only to discover they’re not starting at the allocated time (or at all), waited for lunch dates who have rolled in late and discovered shops or restaurant closed “just because”. Even our local movie theatre, The Flicks, starts the movie only once everyone is settled down and has ordered (and received) their beer and French fries.

Compassion. It’s hard not to have compassion in a city where everyone tries so hard and most people come from backgrounds with almost nothing of their own. I had lunch this week with a delightful  41-year-old Cambodian woman I met at a Toastmasters meeting who told me her father and brother had been executed by the Khmer Rouge and her mother had raised her and her three siblings by selling food in the market.  And SamOn, our tuktuk driver, remarks almost daily that we are the only customers he’s had that day.  And the Australian woman who owns our local cake store pointed out the very young and gentle girls she rescued from the sex trade to train and work in her shop.

Perspective. As with “compassion”, we struggle sometimes getting a sense of perspective since we have so much and everyone has so little. However we also hear stories about Buddhism and acceptance and that the Cambodian mentality doesn’t focus on “why me” or “poor me” in the way we might in the west.  And there’s nothing like hearing and reading stories of survival to give us a sense of appreciation and gratitude for those benefits we possess – as well as a desire to do more.

So, in the meantime, as we plod along this path, we’ll continue to learn and to adjust and to absorb all of the life that goes on around us.

And we’ll make sure to carry two dollars and an umbrella.

The smile comes naturally.



    I continue to enjoy reading everything you’ve been posting. Two dollars, an umbrella and a smile and most things you’ve written about your new surroundings have made me pause to think about the things that help me get by, here in the States. Prayers are coming across the miles to the two of you this morning (that’s one thing). Back in the homeland, it’s Halloween. Your two dollars would get me some yummy treats; an umbrella, part of a Mary Poppins costume and the smile . . . we all know, nothing sweeter! Love, Terri

  • Liz

    Those "jolly old holes" are the ONLY physiological way for humans to eliminate their body waste. The porcelain throne has led to a growth industry in diapers, incontinence, colon and prostate treatments. I ALWAYS squat, and this means CLIMBING up onto a Western john. I feel a lot more stable at floor level, and since there is no seat to sit on they are more hygenic.

  • Given how people in North America are so driven to be organized in order to fill every second of their waking day doing something "productive," it often comes as a shock when visiting other parts of the world where another dynamic is at work with a much different pace. The initial reaction is typically the opposite of a sense of humour, patience, compassion, and perspective. It can easily ruin a trip.I have found that if you "go with the flow," you are a lot less stressed and have a much better chance of enjoying yourself. After all, most problems tourists encounter are quite trivial and can be easily dealt with. They are often the basis for humorous stories that you’ll relate for years to come.

  • Francie

    THIS was a prize! A wonderful post! Every word … fbk

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