The Meanderthals

‘Valuable guest’ back in the land of confusion

“Dear valuable guest,” began the tent card welcoming us to our hotel in room in Bangkok, a delightfully inelegant twist to the customary “Dear valued guest” that reflects the quaint honesty, faulty English translations and direct attitudes that prevail in Southeast Asia.

We are back in the land of smiles, tuk tuks, cheap, delicious (and, sometimes dicey) street food, and of wholesale, widespread, constant confusion. We’re prepared to routinely be told we are fatter and older (me), still beautiful and thin (Gabi) and that our Khmer is still quite good (it’s awful.)

Misdirection, misunderstandings and confusion reign here.

While having coffee with my friend Sarath on our first morning back in Phnom Penh, I mentioned that we needed to buy sim cards for our phones, and that we might want to take a look at some short-term lease apartments in the city. Moments later Sarath put down his coffee cup. “We go buy sim.” And off we went.

My friend Sarath, with his son Sethakar in Mondulkiri, Cambodia

My friend Sarath, with his son Sethakar in Mondulkiri, Cambodia

Packing into his Toyota Corolla, we headed off at his customary 10 mph to buy a sim and load up minutes on our phones. As is also his custom, he instantly began making phone calls as he eased from the curb. My Khmer comprehension is still good enough that I quickly realized he was talking to a realtor. He hung up.

“We go see apartment.”

Driving with Sarath is a bit like walking with a drunk blind guy. It’s a meandering, harmless and wildly amusing exercise that if performed at anything more than a snail’s pace would lead to at best a series of fender benders, at worst wholesale carnage on the streets of Phnom Penh. We zig zagged through the city while he blabbed on the phone, obviously lost, then pulled to the side of the street, nearly running over an old guy shouldering his pushcart out of the way.

Soon a young woman appeared at his window. Clad in a bright print dress, flip flops and floppy hat, she was astride a mountain bike. He rolled down the window. They chatted. “OK. We go now,” he said, and eased back into traffic following the woman, who turned out to be either his sister or his cousin, either a realtor or an investor, or something either both or none of the above. She expertly darted through traffic on her bike. Sarath cut across traffic and did his best to keep pace.

We held our breath and held on as a truck full of sand bags stopped short of broad siding us.

Welcome back to Cambodia.

Sarath’s quick and effective queries yielded a new home for the next two and a half months, though. It’s a gorgeous, brand new penthouse apartment in the city center overlooking the Toul Sleung genocide museum. We’ll have a great view of a not-so-great reminder of Phnom Penh’s grimmest days under the Khmer Rouge; in the lap of luxury overlooking the ultimate horror scene of Cambodian contemporary history.

In short, perfect.

We’re well aware that confusion is the norm here, that yes often means no, that if you ask five Cambodians the same question you’ll get five different answers, and that some things move alarmingly fast while others ridiculously slow. Life here takes getting used to, but it’s a good test of patience and unfailingly funny.

Yours truly with a bunch of young monks during a bike ride outside of Phnom Penh a couple of years ago.

Yours truly with a bunch of young monks during a bike ride outside of Phnom Penh a couple of years ago.

You can count on a head-scratching moment every day.

Here’s yesterday’s.

My pal Tony, a tuk tuk driver and former professional kick boxer (three bouts, all losses) asked me to accompany him to the prison with him yesterday afternoon. He is apparently working with a woman we know from the US who is working with a guy in prison here for some unknown duration, apparently convicted of some unknown offense. Tony told me he had gone to the prison a few days ago, had to hand over his phone and $3 to the police, but really had no idea what was expected of him, what he was supposed to do, and why he’d been asked to visit the prisoner.

Lost? Me too.

I had declined the trip to the hoosegow, so Tony went alone. A couple hours he was back, and tracked me down for help.

“Papa (a reflection of his inability to say my name, not to my age), police ask me for family book.”

Blank stare. On both our faces.

I bite.

“What’s a family book?” I ask.

“I don’t know.”

“Who asked for it?”


“Family book for who?”

“The prisoner.”

More blank stares.

Luck smiled upon me just then, as Sarath happened to call to make sure we hadn’t gotten run over while trying to cross Norodom Boulevard and that our plans to occupy the apartment were proceeding on schedule. I explained the “family book” conundrum and handed my phone to Tony so the two could discuss it in Khmer while keeping me out of the fray.

Moments later Tony handed my phone back. Sarath explained to me that a “family book” is the Cambodian version of birth certificate: proof of who’s who in a family in a country where fictitious identities are as common as rice. He also breathed welcome advice into my eager ears.

“Sometimes it not good idea to get involved. Sometimes Khmer think foreigner have answers to problems and questions. I don’t know what problem is, but not a good idea for you to get involved.”

So I’m not.

Besides, we’re moving into the apartment today, and I have to find a place to buy a blender and a toaster.

A “valuable customer” in this part of the world can only handle so much pressure.

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