Archive for December, 2008
Southeast Asia is a universe unto itself with customs, foods, sights, sounds, smells and ways of approaching the world that are vastly different from those in the West. From a western perspective, it’s all a bit quirky. When it comes to quirks, however, Cambodia takes the cake.
This may have a great deal to do with the Khmer Rouge. During the four year genocidal killing spree orchestrated by Pol Pot and his thugs from 1975 – 1979, the Khmer Rouge targeted all of Cambodia’s business people, intellectuals (defined as anyone with a seventh grade or higher education) and their families. Those intellectuals who weren’t murdered fled the country, most creating new lives elsewhere in the world creating a “smarts vacuum” in the country. In 1975, Pol Pot evacuated the capital city of Phnom Penh in order to start an agrarian collective society. While people starved and died in the country, Phnom Penh remained a ghost town for close to ten years. By 1985, Phnom Penh was barely repopulated, but this time with many farmers and uneducated rural people. Although new intellectuals have sprung up in the years since, Phnom Penh and its civil structure was essentially created by simple country folk so that, even though it’s a city with a population of 1,300,000, it has the feeling of a country town in many ways.
There are few rules and those that exist are disobeyed. People consistently drive the wrong way on the wrong side of the road. A crowd of twenty plus motorbikes waiting at a traffic light (what few there are) can “overrule” a red stop light by their sheer numbers. When enough of them “pile up” at a light, they’ll suddenly surge forward as a group so that the signal to stop and yield to cross traffic becomes a mere suggestion. In this and many other ways, Phnom Penh and Cambodia in general , has a “wild wild west” feel to it. This is true, in fact, of the entire country. In our conversations, Eric has cleverly compared the country to the book “Lord of the Flies,” where a number of children, isolated on an island take on adult roles as they attempt survival, but do so from the only vantage point they know: as children. The result of a nation where most of the adults act, in many ways, like big children is a land full of contradiction, dichotomy and absurdity … and I simply LOVE and embrace it.
The motorbike culture that exists throughout Southeast Asia is an intriguing phenomenon about which volumes can be written. The quirky and voluminous cargo hauled by these bikes are the subject of hundreds of thousands of photographs taken by both tourists and professional photographers. I know I’ve taken at least several hundred myself. If you’re as amused as I am by this topic, check out the book “Bikes of Burden” by Hans Kemp which contains over one hundred fifty hysterical photos of Asians toting weird or hyper-voluminous objects on their motorbikes, often contorting or cramping their bodies in the process.
As with most subjects, Cambodians have their own distinct twist on the motorbike culture. It’s rather common to observe Asians everywhere riding three adults to a motorbike. In fact, I’ve seen up to five adults per motorbike and even six people on a bike if one or two are children. Only in Cambodia, however, have I witnessed three people on a bike with a “live” IV drip. In the four times I observed this (all in Phnom Penh), there was a healthy driver in front, an injured person in in the middle and a third person riding in back holding the dripping IV high in the air for the injured person. The last time I saw this, the injured passenger was a dog!
Cambodians are incredibly efficient in their use of space when it comes to motor vehicles. Where westerners ride only one to two people in a tuk tuk or on a motorbike, as previously mentioned Cambodians will fit up to six per bike and I’ve observed ten people all crammed into one tuk tuk. On numerous occasions in Cambodia, I’ve observed passenger vans filled with about 13-14 people inside with an additional 14 riding on top. In South Cambodia, flat bed trailers pulled by a single motorbike transport up to 40 people at a time while open-air box trucks with lattice walls pack in numbers I can’t begin to count … all “standing room only.” While their methods seem maddening or at least hysterically extreme to me, I can only imagine how inefficient and wasteful our Western methods and ideas of personal space must seem to them.
Before there were motorbikes in Cambodia, there were regular bicycles (called “push bikes”). Although many Khmers have transitioned to the motorized version, there are a large number who have not, particularly in the more rural areas of the country. Frequently, I’ve seen friends traveling together, one with a push bike and one with a motorbike. Rather than travel at the slower pace of the push bike as we Westerners would likely expect, the Cambodians on the two different bikes have adopted a more efficient, albeit arguably less safe, solution: they simply hold hands and suddenly the rickety push bike can travel at 40 – 60 kilometers per hour.
Despite their ability to speed up the pace of a push bike, life in Cambodia is generally slow. An acute lack of employment opportunities for the unskilled and uneducated has created a napping culture. Many men in particular attempt to go into the “tuk tuk,” moto (a motorbike used as a taxi) or cyclo (a push bike used as a taxi) business, but unfortunately, there are not nearly enough tourists to provide sufficient business for all the various taxi drivers. As a result, most of the time these drivers are often napping in or on their respective mode of transport.
In addition to drivers, there are also an over-abundance of barbers compared to the amount of Cambodian hair needing to be cut. So the barbers are often found napping in their chairs as well. Interestingly, Khmer barbers don’t have indoor barber shops as we do in the West. Instead, they place their barber chairs on the sidewalk and hang a mirror on the nearest wall on telephone pole. Frequently, three or more barbers gather together placing their chairs in a line on one city block. Most of the time, the chairs are covered by a long stretch of tarp, but not always.
I don’t think that Cambodia’s napping culture is a indicative of a nation-wide lazy streak. To the contrary, most of these people work incredibly long hours; or more accurately, make themselves available to work over a great number of hours. Unfortunately, there just aren’t enough “takers,” so in the meantime, the unemployed nap … or chit chat. Frequently, I’ve observed many tuk tuk and motorbike drivers congregating together, waiting for customers and passing their time by holding a little party or or card game in a single tuk tuk. When a tourist finally shows up, everyone abandons the tuk tuk in mere seconds like a Chinese fire drill.
On the subject of sleeping, Cambodia also has its quirky twists that I haven’t seen elsewhere. I have observed some people (universally men) spending the night sleeping on their motorbikes or in their tuk-tuks and cyclos. Given the late hour (midnight to one in the morning), I think these instances are more than mere napping as I’ve observed through the day. I’ve also noticed men sawing logs inside hammocks rigged up in the backs of flatbed trucks. Another unusual but popular sleeping location seems to be outside guesthouses on hammock-like contraptions made of hard bamboo and draped with mosquito nets. Do Cambodian men sleep in these unusual places because it’s too hot inside their homes? Or is there not enough room inside? Perhaps, particularly in the cases of the men sleeping on the backs of their motorbikes or in hammocks on flat bed trucks, they are homeless and “inside” simply doesn’t exist.
At the opposite extreme from the societal nappers and outdoor sleepers are the wealthy people living in Cambodia, primarily Western expats and NGO employees. Most of these people drive big fancy SUVs. As with almost everything in Cambodia, however, there’s a twist. Khmer culture seems to have adopted the “more is more” approach so those SUVs and cars considered to be luxurious (primarily Lexus and Toyota) will generally have the make or model of the vehicle emblazoned in large gaudy letters on the vehicle’s side. “LEXUS” “LAND CRUISER” and “4-RUNNER” seem to be the most common.
Most Cambodians, however, don’t fall into the category of wealthy. At worst, they are missing limbs as a result of land mines and make their living begging in the streets. In general, most Cambodians get by, but scrape to do so. In addition to working as taxi drivers and barbers, some men work as trash collectors. You knew I would say it … Cambodians have their own way of doing even this. Instead of driving garbage trucks, Khmer garbage men push large wooden wheel-barrow type carts through the neighborhoods collecting trash by hand. Trash isn’t left in garbage cans as we busy Westerners do. Instead, the garbage man squeezes a squeaky toy as he roams around, alerting the neighborhood residents that he’s present and is collecting trash. At the sound of the squeaky toy, the neighborhood residents come running out of their home with their small plastic Wal-Mart type bags tied in a knot at the top and fling them into the trash-barrow.
Women make a living selling a variety of fruit, soup or other items to eat which they typically carry on large round bamboo baskets that resemble platters. Two platters hang from either side of a heavy duty piece of bamboo which serves as a yoke the woman fits behind her neck on her shoulders so that she can transport her fruit all over the city. The fruit is heavy causing the platters to bounce up and down from the yoke. When the women walk, they get in a stride which makes the platters bounce in a rhythm. To keep in that rhythm and stride, the women will start to bounce when they walk too so that they look like they’re doing some sort of chicken dance. It’s apparently in vogue for Cambodian women to wear pajamas at all hours of the day. Seeing a bunny patterned, pajama clad woman doing a chicken dance under the weight of a yoke balanced by full platters of fruit down the streets of Cambodia is a cheap laugh, but I’m a sucker for it every time.
Another thing that presses my giggle button are the Asianisms: misspellings, unintentional turns of phrase and misstatements that abound when Asians speak or write English. Of course, I realize that “Westernisms” (mistakes we Westerners make attempting to speak any of the languages of Southeast Asia) exist, but since I don’t know the languages well enough to recognize them, I content myself for the moment laughing at the Asians’ mistakes … good natured-ly of course.
The best ones in my book are so slight that you’ll probably think I’m hypercritical for noticing, much less laughing. Often, I think these are cases of “you had to be there.” My absolutely favorite is “thanks you.” Hardly any Cambodian I’ve met seems to be able to say “thank you” without adding an “s” to the word “thank.” It’s such a miniscule error, but it’s so cute, I giggle every time. Especially when they use it in response to “How are you?” answering in sing-songy fashion “Fine thanks you and you?” They clearly learn it in song-fashion much as American kids learn how to sing their “ABC’s.” Asians are big on luck and frequently like to wish people good luck. It almost always comes out “Good luck for you.” I just smile and say thank you, wishing “Good luck for you too.”
I love Cambodia’s countryside just as much as its cities; in fact, probably more so. Water is everywhere in rural Cambodia. Almost every house in the country has a small pond or creek in the front yard. Driving through the countryside, its common to see people fishing with large nets in the small creeks and ponds right in front of their houses. Water buffalo are submerged up to their necks, happy as they can be. The portion of front yard not filled with water is mostly made of dirt with the occasional small patch of grass.
Kids fly homemade kites and ride bikes (often two to a bike – the motorbike culture starts early!) while men gather together to play cards. Groups of motorbikes are parked in clumps near where the card-playing men gather, almost seeming to share their own social network and gossip of the latest trip or unusual cargo ferried. I can imagine them coming to life when no one is looking. “You should have seen me the other day!” a new Honda Wave announces to the group. “I was loaded down with over fifty ducks that I took to market.” “That’s nothing,” coughs an old, well-used Daelim. “Just last week I transported an entire suite of bedroom furniture stacked ten feet high all in one trip … and took my family of six to the river later that night.”
The other workhorses of the countryside, the cows and water buffalo, are everywhere. They’re tied to a tree, escorted by children to new grazing grounds or simply roaming free in the middle of the road on their random way to who knows where. All of them swish their tails to keep the mosquitos and flies at bay. Chickens and dogs keep the bovines company, roaming about wherever they wish; in the front yards and all over the roads.
The houses are set close to the road. Despite the acres and acres of land stretching behind them, they are built almost on top of one of another, as if land was a scarce resource. Each of the houses are raised on stilts, presumably to accommodate the flooding of the Tonle Sap lake during the rainy season. The front door is open on almost every house I see. I suspect that only two out of one hundred are air conditioned. Cambodian life appears to happen mainly outdoors rather than behind them. Front yards and doorways are always filled with people as are the “salons” in the front yard by the roadside, raised platforms on which the Cambodians sit and watch the world pass by. Some of the salons have hammocks so that the Khmers can catch a few zeds between traffic much as we might nod off for a quick catnap during a TV commercial.
I’m headed north to Siem Reap at the moment. As my bus, lumbers along through the charming Cambodian countryside, I’m soaking up the sights, wishing I was traveling via motorbike so I could engage all that I see rather than blowing on by, separated by glass windows and the inability to stop and explore a random dirt road. My bus driver is horn happy, warning the people and animals we pass that we’re coming through, but never slowing down. Whatever he’s honking at simply has to get out of the way. One dog is unlucky and fails to heed the bus’ warning. The crunch of its bones in the wheels sounds metallic; I would have sworn we ran over someone on a motorbike. It all makes me sick to my stomach.
For a while I can’t write anymore as the unfortunate dog lays claim to my thoughts. I find myself reflecting on the subject of attachment, a theme that’s come up repeatedly for me in Cambodia. In Phnom Penh, I had my braids taken out at what seemed to be a really upscale hair salon. My request was simple: take out my braids which had become loose and “fuzzy”, shampoo my hair and re-braid my hair. Somehow, during the shampoo process, my hair became one giant rats nest and the only solution was to cut … and cut and cut. When all was said and done, the front part of my hair was 8 inches shorter than the back. Given that it will take at least two years to grow back, I was not a happy camper. I was very attached to my long hair, apparently more vain about it than I was even aware.
On several other occasions, I lost two pairs of wonderfully thick and cushy Thorlo socks (I’m now down to 2 pair) and two pairs of undies to the “laundry monster,” while my favorite (and brand new) white tank top came back with unremovable blue stains. I’m living out of a single backpack (I’ve downsized even since I started this trip) so I don’t have many clothes with me (you might have noticed I’m always wearing the same thing in all my photos!) so the few that I have I’m quite attached to. Or I was.
One of the precepts of Buddhism is that attachment leads to suffering. Cambodia has taught me that first hand, highlighting attachments of which I was previously unaware. I’m still not happy about losing my clothes or huge chunks of my hair or about the dog being crunched by the bus. But life goes on. Cambodia puts it all in perspective.
The sun is setting on the rice paddies now. Flat fields of rice stretch far into the distance with tall palm trees scattered sparsely throughout reminding me of a beautiful but funny Dr. Suess landscape. I’m back to writing again, but I put away my laptop momentarily for the potty break at Skuon (also known as “Spiderville”) where I buy a fried tarantula for local girl just to watch her eat it. Incidentally, a big fat fried tarantula costs $0.50 or 2000 riel (pronounced “real”). Riel and US dollars are used interchangeably in Cambodia. It’s a world where anything goes … clearly.
At the girl’s encouragement, I end up joining her and eating a couple of the spider legs. Crunchy. Not bad. I concluded a while back that anything’s manageable when it’s fried. I’m reminded of my grandfather who’s favorite adage was always, “Try it. You’ll like it.” And I do … just like Cambodia.
You don’t have to munch down, but if you’d care to see someone really enjoying eating a tarantula … click here.
To enjoy more photos of Cambodia’s delightful quirky side, check out the “Photos of Her Adventure” page of my blog.1 comment
Three weeks ago, I celebrated my birthday surrounded by prostitutes. When I first arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I somehow managed to select a hotel that was smack in the middle of the red light district. Don’t ask me how I managed to miss the signs for the “69 Bar”, “Pussycat Bar” and “Red Fox” that were all on my block. I suppose I was just so intensely focused on finding accommodation that signs not reading “hotel” simply didn’t register in my brain.
As a result of my hotel selection, I lived, surrounded by the world’s oldest profession, for a couple weeks, although it remained behind closed doors and thus, a continued mystery to me. I have always been a curious soul and this was a world entirely different from any to which I’d been exposed before. I’ve made it my mission on this trip to reach beyond my comfort zone and to experience the real world, the whole world. My curiosity swelled. Who were the girls who worked in the bars? How did they get to be there? How did they feel about their jobs? Were they able to keep their souls intact while selling their bodies and, if so, how? I wanted to get beyond the movie stereotypes and find out.
For the past nine years, I’ve always thrown a birthday party for myself – the result of being perpetually single but loving to celebrate the day of my birth with friends. The more unusual the scene for the party, the better. On Thanksgiving day, a week before my birthday, I got the idea to host my 2008 party in one of the Cambodian go-go bars. I was born in 1969 so the “69 Bar” seemed an obvious choice (yes, yes – I know the name has nothing to do with a year). After eating my fill of turkey, I headed over to the 69 Bar with Eric to scope it out as the potential Ground Zero.
Khmer society is extremely conservative. I had heard that in Cambodian go-go bars, the girls were not topless as in strip clubs in the West but were fully clothed … which turned out to be true. Comically, even in the bars, if girls move in ways deemed too provocative, they can be arrested! The dichotomies of Cambodia continue to astound me and send me into constant fits of giggles.
Behind the doors, the 69 Bar couldn’t have been more different from the Western strip clubs I’d seen in the movies. In fact, I’ve come to learn that go-go bars are an entirely different animal from strip clubs altogether. Essentially, a go-go bar is simply a bar “stocked” with a large number of girls called “hostesses” who are available to go home if a customer wishes, but they’ll also just sit and talk, rub your neck, shoulders or back, play pool, dance or just hang out. Generally, there are no poles or stages with dancing girls. And other than the fact of about 30 Cambodian girls crammed into the long, narrow shot-gun building, 69 Bar didn’t really look so different from an ordinary bar.
The second Eric and I walked through the door, the girls screamed and yelled “hello” like a bunch of high school girls greeting one of their friends that they hadn’t seen all summer. We felt like celebrities. They escorted us to a table and took our drink orders. It seemed that the entire point in the bar was to lavish attention on customers; but that attention, at least in the bar area, stopped with shoulder, neck, back and hand massages. I got a neck and shoulder rub while I sat at the bar and I have to say it’s the best one I’ve had on my trip.
Sensing that Eric and I were together, the girls kept a respectful distance from him and focused their attentions on me. The interesting thing was, their attentions were of exactly the same sort as I received from Cambodian women all over the country. They were friendly and sisterly; there was nothing remotely sexual about it. I enjoyed talking with the girls and finding out what provinces they were from and how long they’d lived in Phnom Penh (most were from out in the country).
Instead of feeling like I was in a go-go bar, I felt like I was at a slumber party. The girls and I all danced together to goofy songs from the 70s and 80s. We created a mutual admiration society complimenting each other to no end: “You’re so beautiful!” “I love your hair!” “I love your smile!” “You have such pretty eyes!” “You’re a great dancer!” “What a pretty top you’re wearing!”
These girls were delightful, lovely, sweet young girls, just like I’d met all over Cambodia … and all over Southeast Asia for that matter. The irony wasn’t lost on me that these girls radiated a certain sweet innocence that felt to me very genuine and endearing.
I spent quite a bit of time talking to a girl named Sy who was my age. She told me about her daughter who lived in Siem Reap, four hours away from Phnom Penh. She missed her very much and didn’t get to see her as often as she’d like. The bar music was loud so I couldn’t understand her answer when I asked why her daughter lived away from her.
I had mentioned early on to Sy that I was scoping out her bar for my birthday party the following week. She later told me that she enjoyed making clothes and if I returned to the bar next week for my party, she would have a made a pretty top for me. She took my measurements by fitting her hands around my waist and rib cage. Although I felt she was sincere in her offer, I couldn’t imagine why this woman I’d only spent 20 minutes talking to would make me anything; much less an article of clothing. Regardless, Eric and I had enjoyed a lovely and interesting time at 69 Bar and I decided to return for my party there the next week.
In the meantime, I announced my birthday plans to half a dozen people I’d met through working with the kids at Stung Meanchey dump. Suddenly, I was no longer throwing my own party. The guys took over and decided that we would start at Bogie & Becall Bar for cake and then would have a progressive go-go bar party, hitting as many of the bars as possible, including 69 Bar.
So, I followed instructions and just showed up. Those sweethearts had specially ordered a cake for me that was both beautiful and delicious. A camera made of icing was “painted” on the cake and the inscription read: “Happy Birthday Beverly From the Dump Boys.” They brought out sparklers, sang Happy Birthday twice, toasted my health and sprayed me with fake snow. It was delightful and fun.
Then we started our go-go bar parade. We hit five different bars that night. There were some differences among them (one bar did actually have mirrors and poles and I enjoyed the strange but novel experience of being taught how to pole dance), but they were all generally the same. The girls were very sweet and sisterly to me and we danced all night long.
Half-way through the evening, our parade made it back to 69 Bar. Even though I hadn’t told Sy which night we would be coming back, true to her word, she was waiting with a pretty decorative box and bow for me. Inside was an absolutely stunning hand crocheted camisole top that she told me took her five days to make. I was already close to tears when she handed me a card. It was one of the most beautiful cards I’ve seen. The inside, written in English, read:
To sister Li (I go by “Li” in Cambodia instead of Beverly as it’s easier for people to pronounce) from Sy. Happy Birthday to you. I wish you a good luck, good life, good dreams, good love. When you come back [to] your country don’t forget me. I love you. Sy
A second note tucked into the card on loose paper, almost an after-thought, read:
“I don’t know why I want do present for you. But I hope you will like it. I am not have brother and sister. I have alone when I sat. I cry not who hear me. I want sister or brother but I don’t know when I has. [sic]”
I was absolutely floored and could scarcely speak several minutes. Like Sy, I don’t know why she felt compelled to make me a gift either, but we had obviously made a connection. Her note and her friendship were the best gifts I received on my birthday.
The evening was generally a lot of fun and I enjoyed thumbing my nose at social mores by holding my birthday party in that “off-color” environment. But more than that, as is often the case in my Southeast Asian experiences and adventures, I learned and experienced more than I set out to. Through my interaction with these kind-hearted women, I realized what I should have known all along: bar girls are real flesh and blood women who have hearts, hopes and dreams like the rest of us. I chose to get to know them rather than drawing a line to set us apart and my world is richer as a result. I not only had a fabulous and interesting birthday, I now have another sister.
To attend my birthday party via video, click here.1 comment
My two favorite things about exploring a country on motorbike are the access to the locals and the ability to be spontaneous. As they often do, these two elements came together one afternoon in South Cambodia for me and my traveling companions, Eric and Steve. We had motorbiked from the riverside town of Kampot to the sleepy seaside village of Kep. The funny thing about motorbiking is that even when you’re not looking for an adventure or possibly even trying to avoid one, the fact of being on a motorbike seems to bring the adventure to you.
In our revelry the night before, we’d all been a bit “overserved” and were feeling the ugly effects that next day. As a result, once we drove through Kep, I was ready to turn around and head back to Kampot without seeking out any local interaction … something I hardly ever do. But on this day, as many, the locals gave us no choice and I’m quite appreciative.
We pulled up to an intersection on a slow section of the main road. At the corner, some locals had erected some brightly colored tents and were holding a festive gathering of some kind. At first glance, it appeared to us to be a wedding. We slowed down at the corner and turned our bikes around. This seemed as good a place as any to make a U-turn to head back to Kampot. But the locals were having none of it.
An old man who looked a bit more impoverished than the standard Cambodian stood in the road and grabbed hold of my motorbike handlebars. At first he appeared to be begging for money, but on occasion he would also motion toward the party going on just forty feet away. Within minutes, some people emerged from the party and also grabbed onto our bikes, forcibly guiding them to the side of the road, indicating that we should park them among the other motorbikes and come into the party. I was exhausted and hung over, but even under those conditions, I couldn’t resist the invitation. So I allowed myself to be pulled from my bike and escorted into the party. The guys followed.
The three of us were given seats of honor at a central table and were doted on as if we were royalty. Each of the one hundred plus Cambodians at the party watched every move we made intently. One young woman in particular seemed to have appointed herself as being in charge of our comfort. She filled three glasses with orange soda and practically every time any of us even took a sip, would refill the glasses to the top again so that they never got remotely close to empty.
At one point, I stood up to take photos of the event and of the places of honor we’d been given, but our hostess apparently felt very strongly about orchestrating our experience and had me sit down. One older man who was also a self-appointed caretaker very much wanted his photo taken with Eric. Before allowing me to obey the woman’s instructions, the man grabbed Eric’s hand and had me take their photo. After that, I obediently sat in my seat.
The lovely lady who never told us her name gave us each a bowl of some of the best seafood/rice soup I’ve ever had. In the face of my puzzled look at the condiment tray, she jumped to my aid and prepared the soup for me adding a little of this, double of that, even taste-testing it to make sure it was just right. I felt like I had a concubine. In fact, after the events of that day, I’m seriously considering finding one.
After Eric, Steve and I had eaten our fill of soup and couldn’t take another sip of orange soda, we began to look up and take in our surroundings. Where was the wedding couple? Was this even a wedding we were attending. None of our hosts spoke a single word of English so we merely asked each other and tried to figure out the comical situation. We noticed a very old man standing behind a table with a microphone. People seemed to be approaching him with money that they put into a silver pot. I figured the donations were for the new bride and groom … wherever they were … and suggested to the guys that we should make a donation.
We each got out our money, but our hostess indicated that Eric and I should put ours away, tapping Steve’s intended donation instead. We interpreted that to me $5 (Steve’s donation) was enough. She guided Steve up to the “offering table” and guided him through dropping his donation in the bowl, but surprised us when also lead him to raise his hands to his forehead in prayer. Hmmm…
Then she returned to me and tapped my purse. Guess $5 wasn’t enough. I got out my original donation again and followed Steve’s lead, giving my homage and my donation. Eric did the same. Everyone was all smiles.
The three of us were headed back for our seats at the table when a strange thing happened. Our hosts grabbed each of us by the elbow and began, somewhat forcibly, walking us to the “exit.” Were we being given the bums’ rush?! Our hosts were smiling all the while, but we were definitely being escorted out. I headed back for my photo bag which was still at the table, but wasn’t permitted to walk back to the party. Instead, the bag was fetched for me and I was escorted to my motorbike as were each of the guys.
Just as we were about to take the hint and hop on, a nicely dressed couple appeared (the long missing wedding couple?) who seemed to be thanking us. I took a few photos of them, but apparently there was a limit. After snapping off six shots, my hosts took my camera from my hands, hung the strap on my shoulder and literally put me on my bike. Eric seemed to have managed a few photos before being put on his bike as well. Only Steve was permitted to linger. Our hostess seemed to have taken a shine to him and kept her arm so tightly wound around his, he probably had difficulty getting on his motorbike. The entire event from sweeping invitation to smiling, pushy dismissal probably lasted only about thirty minutes. I was stunned but laughing at how ludicrous the entire sequence was.
I had turned my bike around and was facing the road, ready to pull out and head back to Kampot when I encountered the icing on the cake of absurdity. A cargo van drove by that was literally packed to the point of overflowing with Cambodians. And in typical fashion of Cambodian efficiency, the van had been outfitted with a cargo carrier for the roof and in the carrier rode at least fourteen smiling and waving Cambodians. God, I love this country!
We found out later that the event we were swept into (and as quickly swept out of) was liking a party to celebrate someone’s new house. Someone familiar with local customs told us that people hold these parties to help raise funds to cover the expense of their new house. To have Westerners attend such an event significantly raises the status of the new house owners which is why we were ushered in so eagerly. Apparently, these parties are held on a rotational basis so we were given the boot to make room for others who might attend and make donations.
When we arrived back in Kampot, we came across what was a definitely a full-blown wedding. We were invited in for that as well, but we felt underdressed and concluded that enough adventure had found us that day. So we made it an early night.
Since I last wrote about the kids at Stung Meanchey dump, I’ve been out to see them several more times. Each time, Eric and I discover new kids who have great interest in photography and who we consider to be excellent candidates for our photo project. We always love to see the photos that they’ve come up with.
Some of the children are regularly there to get food when we come, while other children that we’ve seen and photographed before have never reappeared since. With each visit, we not only get to know the personalities of some of the “regulars,” but meet new children that we hadn’t previously encountered.
My name, Beverly, is universally difficult for Asians (and many other nationalities) to say so I’ve often taken on different nick-names in each country I’ve visited. In Cambodia, I’ve become Lee which seems to be the only syllable in my name that is easily pronounceable to non-English speakers. I was so attached to my Balinese name, Putu, I wish I had thought to give that name a test run before opting for Lee; but Lee it is now.
The kids that are regulars at the dump and with whom I’ve interacted before start shouting “Lee! Lee!” when they see me. There are so many of them and their names are as foreign to me as “Beverly” is to them that I’m only able to retain a few new names with each visit. I find it strange to have formed such strong attachments to these kids, to feel so connected to them and have feelings of love for them, but not to have a name that I associate with each one of these special people. Eventually, I hope I’ll be able to know and remember all of their names, but in the meantime, I just keep adding a few to my memory bank with each visit.
The last time we went to the dump, the group that organizes feeding runs for the kids also brought second hand clothes in addition to food that we passed out to the children and some of the adults. I was fascinated to observe that many of our cultural associations with color and clothing style don’t carry over here. For example, boys had no problem snatching up pink clothes. One was even happy to grab a skirt. I honestly don’t know if this is due to cultural differences (Perhaps Cambodians don’t associate pink with girls and blue with boys the way Americans do. For that matter, I’m not sure if that association is purely American or if all Westerners recognize those particular color affiliations) or if it has more to do with the severity of the kids’ poverty.
The clothing distribution process was a bit chaotic and some kids managed to end up with several articles of clothing while others got none. After all the clothes had been distributed, one of the unlucky boys who got nothing approached me to plead his case. I had nothing more to give him, but spotted a boy of similar size who had three items of clothing. The luckier boy spoke a little English and readily agreed to give a pair of jeans, in my opinion his best article, to the first boy. “We must share,” he said, struggling to find the exact words in English.
That afternoon, one little boy took quite a shine to Eric and followed him around for the duration of our visit while the one who got the jeans stuck closely to my side. “Eric’s boy” told Eric that he wanted to be his brother and Eric agreed. He didn’t let go of Eric’s hand for the rest of the afternoon. “My boy” whose name I never did master started calling me mother in the last ten minutes before we left. So many Cambodians, young and old, have proposed to Eric and I that we be their brother or sister that, were we to document them, our family tree would likely resemble those lovely African trees with branches spreading out in extreme horizontal patterns. As a result, we also have numerous Khmer nieces and nephews, but this was the first time that my family tree roots started stretching in a vertical direction. I apparently have a son now … and don’t even know his name.
After our second to last visit, we took two of the girls, Sopey and Sophy, to go get shoes. According to one of the organizers, Sopey had a foot infection and the knee-high rubber boots which were her only footwear didn’t allow the infection to breathe and heal. Sophy initially went along for the ride and to help translate, but also got into the shopping spirit and requested new shoes as well. At $6 a pair, we were happy to brighten both girls’ day. They were ecstatic about their new shoes and, at first, did not want to wear them immediately. They preferred to save them for a special occasion because they didn’t want to get them dirty. Unfortunately, part of life at the dump is that everything gets dirty so we encouraged them to go ahead and wear them now. Saving them for a special occasion would likely mean they never got worn (and would likely be sold) which would defeat the purpose of buying them.
On the way to buy the shoes, Sopey, our “star photographer,” continued to photograph like a paparazzi from the tuk tuk as we drove. She told us it was her third time to ever ride in a tuk tuk, yet she was far more fascinated with the camera in her hands. The past few times we’ve gone to the dump to visit, Sopey has not been there. We wonder what has happened to her and hope she’s okay.
On another recent visit, I walked farther back into the dump with Josh Haner, a visiting reporter/photographer for the New York Times whom I met and befriended on a previous trip to the dump. We trekked through the black smoke rising from the heaps of burning garbage back to the areas where the Stung Meanchey families live. We came across a woman who was washing and drying hundreds of brightly colored plastic bags that she had salvaged from the refuse. En route to talk to and photograph this woman, I stepped on what looked like solid ground only to have my foot sink about 8 inches into some hot black liquid that was immediately absorbed by my sock and shoe as though they were a sponge. I’m not sure if it was my imagination or not, but I could have sworn acid was slowly eating at my foot until I got home and showered, vigorously scrubbing my foot about half a dozen times.
Josh and I hiked up a mountain of refuse, carefully treading through an area Josh dubbed “the field of broken glass.” We carried bags of apples with us to give to the kids; apples always seem to be their favorite. In our excursion, we encountered more adults than children who were equally happy to receive an apple in the scorching heat. We got back to the dump entrance just as a new garbage truck was dumping its contents. The people, mostly adults but a few children as well, stood by waiting for the second the garbage had been dumped to start sifting to look for recyclables. The area where the people were working and waiting was dangerous. In addition to the big garbage trucks that pull in and out without much regard for who’s in the way, bulldozers work within feet of the garbage sifters, displacing and leveling the garbage. I felt like I needed an extra pair of eyes in the back of my head just to keep from getting run over. One woman saw my bag of apples and motioned a request I give her one as soon as she had finished searching the garbage. The second I handed out one, I was surrounded by about twenty to thirty hands. I jumped away as soon as I saw a break so that there would be some left for the children.
After leaving the main work area, I headed up to the children’s school to see the conditions there. Classes were not in session, yet about 7 kids hung out on the grounds. They showed me the three classrooms which are open air. Only a blackboard separates two classrooms which are both housed in the same building. I imagine that being able to hear the other classes going on would be very distracting to the students. The children eagerly demonstrated their English to me, showing me pictures of fruit and telling me the names in both Khmer and in English.
During the time since we initially came up with the idea of putting cameras in the hands of the kids, Eric and I have been researching the situation at Stung Meanchey and have come to learn of other groups helping the families and children at the dump in a variety of ways. We’ve set up a number of meetings to better educate ourselves about what’s currently being done and what is still needed in order to determine how best to effect our project and what to do with the funds raised from it.
In the course of one of these meetings, we learned that the land on which the dump is situated has become prime real estate and has been purchased by some Western developers. Accordingly, the government has plans to relocate the dump. The families living and working at the dump will be relocated too … but not to the new dump sight. They will be moved to an area called Udong where some will be provided houses via Habitat for Humanity. The plan sounds great, but no one can answer how these families will earn their living.
With all of this going on in the background, Eric and I made the tough decision to temporarily continue with our travels in Vietnam for the next 5 weeks, using that time to brainstorm about the photo project. We are tossing around many questions and ideas at the moment: What’s the best way to involve the families and the school in the project? Over what time periods should the children keep the cameras? Should we provide the children with any photography instruction or just take a “natural is best/ see what happens” approach? What are the best methods to minimize the risk of losing any cameras to theft or sale? These are just the tip of the iceberg. Additionally, we figure that traveling now will provide time to sort out these and many other questions.
In the meantime, the stories I’m writing in my blog are kind of “Cambodian flashbacks” so I can catch you up on the events that happened before Eric and I met the kids and experiences we’ve had since then. As I write this story, we are on a bus on the way to Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam. We plan to travel the length of Vietnam by motorbike for five weeks before returning to Cambodia. Upon our return, we will dive into the project with the kids for a month … and then I’ll be heading back home to the States to work on exhibiting their work.
If you would like to see a video of the children in their school as well as the trash sifters at work, click here.
So that’s the update. Now on with the stories …
To see more photos of the kids and their living conditions, click here.1 comment
(These events took place November 15, 2008)
The day after Eric and I drove from Kampot to Kep, Eric, Steve and I set out again on our motorbikes into the South Cambodian countryside, but this time in the opposite direction from Kep. I had heard that a boat ride from a small village called Takeo to a temple, Phnom Da, offered stunning views. Putting that rumor to the test was our intended goal for the day. As often happens when I travel, however, plans change and this day was no exception.
On the ride from Kampot toward Takeo, we felt like a celebrity parade since almost everyone we passed, children and adults alike, waved and hollered out hellos to us. We encountered and enjoyed the usual countryside sights and attractions … and some novel ones. At one point, I pulled over to the side of the road rather suddenly to take a picture. Steve pulled over behind me, but had difficulty stopping in time and his tires skidded in the gravel as he tried to keep from flying off his bike. A sweet old man who was standing by the roadside saw the whole scene and came over with a bucket of water. Speaking rapidly in Khmer, he poured water on each of Steve’s tires, smiling all the while. Steve acknowledged the man saying, “Thanks! I think my brakes need some cooling after that move.”
Then the man confused us all. He went from bike to bike pouring the water first on the back tire and then on the front, muttering words we couldn’t understand. At first I thought it was the Cambodian version of the man who washes your car windshield while you’re stopped at a red light and then requests payment for his unrequested services. This man, however, neither scrubbed our fenders clean nor asked for any remuneration. We all stood there, puzzled at the man’s gesture until Eric posited the most likely explanation: we had been given some kind of prayer or blessing for our safe travel. We all readily agreed and thanked the man for his thoughtfulness. Whether we were correct in our assumption or not, receiving or imagining such kind-hearted good will put a smile on all our faces as we set off again toward Takeo.
About forty-five minutes into our joyride, the skies that threatened earlier that morning opened up and rain poured down on us. We scrambled to the shop of a roadside vendor where we hastily purchased flimsy plastic ponchos no thicker than cheap garbage bags. We wrapped some around our camera gear and then each donned one. The boys were in yellow while I wore pink. We were instant anti-fashionistas.
As luck would have it, the minute we had protected ourselves from the rain, the skies dried up. They still looked dark and gloomy, though, almost as if daring us to try to continue toward our destination. We decided to explore a side road instead, rather than putting ourselves farther away from our dry rooms in Kampot.
We headed down a promising-looking dirt road that lead straight to a mountain. I had visions of us climbing to the top, something I’ve set as a goal for my trip, but have yet to actually do. Several hundred yards from the base of the mountain, however, was a barricade that said “STOP.” Worse, next to the barricade was a manned guard building.
Those of you who know me or who have been following my blog know how much I despise being told “no.” It’s not that I’m spoiled (at least I don’t think so). I just think the world should be full of “yeses.” No’s offend my relentlessly optimistic life outlook. When I encounter them, I either ignore them and plead ignorance if busted or try to sweet-talk my way around them so that they become “yeses” or at least “maybes,” which in my book are the same thing.
This situation did not seem to be one in which I could just ignore the “no” and head down the road so I grabbed my notes from my recent Khmer lesson with Seng-the-monk (I hadn’t committed to memory all the Cambodian he had taught me) and bounced over to the guardhouse with a big smile. “Hello. How are you?” I started. Blank stares. Hmmmm…. This wasn’t going well. “My name is Beverly,” I tried again. Still nothing. I looked over my shoulder, expecting the guys to chime in and help out, only to find that they were waiting on the motorbikes, leaving me alone in the quest to circumnavigate the stop sign.
I turned back to the guards, still smiling, and started pointing at the things I wanted to say using Seng’s notes which were written in English (or Latin as he liked to call it) as well as Khmer. I’m not sure what the turning point was, but the guards ultimately cut to the chase, recognizing that all my niceties were merely precursors to the fundamental question: can we please go around the barricade? The answer was yes (Ah! Sweet victory!), but not with our motorbikes. We would have to walk.
I have to admit that sometimes a quantified “yes” still sounds like “no” to me so I was disappointed and feeling a little defeated. I had already imagined returning to the guys and announcing that we had a big green light, giving them another opportunity to point out what a charmed life I lead (which had become the topic of much recent conversation … and which, although I’m not sure I believe entirely, I secretly love to hear). But “no motorbikes” still contained the dreaded “no” so I headed back with slumped shoulders to report the outcome.
Only Eric heard the “yes’ in the result and prodded Steve and I on to at least walk to the mountain and look around the bend in the road. I’ve come to admire and appreciate that trait in Eric. It’s benefited me on numerous occasions in the past month in which we’ve been traveling together. So we left our bikes at the gate and walked to the base of the mountain. En route, three local kids, two girls and a boy, started trailing us giving us the appearance of a tiny rag-tag parade. At one point, the smallest girl started walking beside me. It wasn’t long before she silently made eye contact with me, smiled and took my hand, never losing stride, as if we’d known each other a long time.
Our little group walked up to inspect a temple and discovered that the mountain behind it actually had a cave. Now it was Steve’s turn to push our group forward. His long-time fascination with caves propelled him to the entrance before Eric or I had time to blink. Eric cracked me up when he speculated, “You watch. He’ll discover some unknown killing cave.” The two of us scrambled up the steep rock behind him and squeezed ourselves through the narrow entrance into the cave, contorting ourselves into at least five different positions that would make Twister masters proud … or cringe. Our efforts were rewarded. The cave opened up into a vast and beautiful cavern. We could see rustic bamboo ladders leaning against rocks off in the distance. The cave cried out to be explored. But the way from the rock we stood on to reach those ladders looked extremely precarious.
While Steve was trying to plot the course, I looked around to make sure our little band of followers had made it through the narrow opening safely. I was concerned when I didn’t see them, immediately recalling a section in my guidebook advising about the many unexploded landmines that still plagued Cambodia. The guidebook warned, “Don’t go off the beaten path. (Too late for that one.) If little children will not go into an area, you shouldn’t either as there are likely landmines.” “Great,” I thought. Eric-the-mountain-goat had also disappeared, but farther forward into the cave where I was now convinced he was going to be blown to pieces.
My rising panic subsided as quickly as it had swept through my over-active imagination as I saw the little children beckoning to us from a ladder at another, much more easily accessed cave entrance. They had clearly been to this cave often and were now proposing with their smiling faces to become our miniature guides. Steve and I laughed at how difficult we had made the caving expedition as we re-contorted ourselves back through the narrow opening and around to the entrance the children were showing us … that came complete with ladder and clearly marked path straight into the heart of the cave.
With the kids’ help, Steve and I caught up with trailblazing Eric who was so far ahead of us, he’d had time to discover heretofore unknown continents. The children didn’t speak a word of English. I’m shocked at myself to look back and realize that I never asked their names or offered mine, but strangely names and languages didn’t seem to matter. We all knew we had a bond and every one of us basked in the warm glow of it. When they wanted to get our attention, they just clapped until we looked their way. Hand signals and hand-holding took care of any directional issues and smiles filled in the remaining gaps.
When I stopped to take photos, the kids were patient and waited for me to finish before heading deeper into the cave. They wanted to make sure I knew the way. In this way and many others, they demonstrated maturity beyond their young years. I was touched at their tenderness.
At one point the cave opened completely up to the sky and the water that came in had created a sort of indoor cave terrarium where many lush green plants were thriving. About one hundred feet high up ahead, we saw men working, harvesting or mining something. “How had they gotten there?” we wondered and began searching for ways to start ascending the cave rather than just making our way through it. Again, the kids came to our rescue and showed us the way.
At some time shortly before our ascent, two more boys had joined us. One was particularly young; he appeared to be about five years old. The older kids were mountain goats on par with Eric and easily scampered up the tricky, steep incline that required us to become pretzels again. The little boy, however, was too small and realized about half-way up that he had bit off more than he could chew, as the saying goes, and began to panic. Eric came to his rescue, lifting the small boy to safety with the rest of the group to a decent size landing about half-way up the cliff face, staving off the alligator tears that had welled up in his eyes and threatened to spill over.
Although the older kids could probably have climbed with ease to the top where the men worked, we now felt responsible for them, particularly the smallest, and opted not to climb any higher. So our group of eight spent the next forty-five minutes hanging out on the landing enjoying the views and playing games with the kids. Like 99% of Cambodian children, they loved having their pictures taken and posed eagerly, especially the youngest girl who never tired of hamming it up for the camera. At one point, I made a short video of Eric interacting with the kids. This particular girl kept tugging on my shirt wanting me to aim the camera at her. Thinking I was taking still photos, she’d pose, usually being silly and sticking her tongue out. She made me laugh every time.
Eric introduced them to his iPod giving them turns listening and controlling the volume. At this point, one of them uttered the only English we heard from them all day: “MP3.” Holy cow! How did this kid know what an MP3 was? Despite not growing up around electronics (we assume), they picked up on how to operate the gadget just as quickly as American kids would … and much more quickly than I did!
After about forty-five minutes, we were ready to climb down. The littlest boy was over his earlier fear and confidently grabbed Steve’s hand to escort him down. Eric stopped halfway and helped the other kids and me to get down. I noticed that the littlest boy scurried ahead stationing himself at the bottom and, following Eric’s example, offered a tiny helping hand to me and Steve as we made our way back down to the cave floor, bringing a huge smile to my face and tears to my eyes.
At the bottom, we discovered a rope swing that we had overlooked on our way up. The kids ran ahead and eagerly demonstrated for us, swinging from a rock pile to the cliff face where they would push off with their feet and swing back to the rock pile. Eric joined in the game, needing only a “triple dog dare” to prod him into action. I went for a ride as well. As I took a breath and grabbed the rope, I recalled a situation when my younger brother, then about eight years old, got stuck on a rope swing only about six feet up over a dried up creek. Our cousin, Barry, retrieved my poor scared brother at which John exclaimed, “Barry! You saved my life!” It’s been a family joke since.
I didn’t know it, but, with my lack of grace, I was about to give my brother some ammo to counter with … and Steve captured it all on film. Rather than kicking off the rock wall as everyone else had done, I kind of thudded into it, causing the rope to limp slowly back to the starting point instead of sailing energetically. I struggled to regain my footing once I returned to the rock pile and thought for a minute that I might be going for a second involuntary ride. Determined not to have to thank someone for “saving my life,” I made my foot stick and kind of toppled off the pile. I was grateful that I enjoy laughing at myself as well as for my safe landing.
The kids lead each of us by the hand out of the cave and back to the guard house. On the way, I started noticing the littlest boy holding out his hand and saying 500 in Khmer. The youngest girl soon picked it up too. One of the older children saw them and seemed to correct them or instruct them not to do it anymore. For a while after that, the two youngest kids repeated the request, but much more secretly. “I think they’re asking for money,” I told Eric and Steve. “Surely not,” they replied. The two kids became more and more blatant until we all three concluded that they were indeed asking for 500 riel, which is about $0.13.
We were disappointed. We had thoroughly enjoyed the kids’ company and were convinced that they had enjoyed playing with us just as much. To bring money into play just seemed to cheapen the day on some level. As we walked back, we three discussed both our perceptions of the situation as well as how we felt best about handling it. We ultimately concluded that begging had become an ingrained behavior among many Cambodian children as a result of their abject poverty and that we shouldn’t take the children’s request personally or allow it to tarnish the reality of what we knew we had shared with them. We decided that they had, in fact, acted as tour guides for us which is how we justified giving them the money. We later thought it an interesting commentary on ourselves and our perceptions of money that we felt we needed to “justify” it all and the entire exchange was the topic of much conversation that afternoon and evening.
Before we left, we got quite a laugh from the littlest boy (the one who’d gotten stuck on the climb up) when he hopped up on one of our motorbikes and, using the mirrors, began slicking his hair back. He was a fabulous piece of work! The kids were all thrilled when we gave them each 500 riel and we felt good about making them happy.
Shortly after we left the kids, we stopped at a roadside stand for some lunch. We also succumbed to the temptations of an ice cream vendor who happened by. He served us coconut ice cream that he cut with a knife from a block of the homemade stuff and impaled on two wooden skewers. It started to rain so we lingered on underneath the canopy of the lady vendor who fixed us lunch. Within thirty minutes, in true Cambodian style, she offered to let us stay at her house if we didn’t want to drive back to Kampot. She made light of the fact that she would move to her mother’s house for the night so we could have privacy, but noted that there was only one bed that all three of us would have to share if we stayed. We declined her generous offer, but were touched at her hospitality nonetheless.
We took another detour down a random dirt road on our way home and ended up in a tiny village of about one hundred people where one woman was particularly friendly. I got off my motorbike to talk to her, but she didn’t speak any English and I did not speak enough Khmer. We ended up smiling at each other and hugging while Steve snapped away with the camera. She and I started laughing and apparently it was contagious. For some reason, the entire village started laughing too. It was random and completely delightful. I really started laughing when she went to kiss me on my cheek, but instead ended up just pressing her teeth against it. That’s happened several times to me now that instead of kissing, Cambodians just press their faces next to my arm or cheek and don’t really do anything. Just one more reason not to take Seng-the-monk up on his not-so-subtle offer. I’m not really a fan of gumming.
Speaking of Seng, I received a text message from him that evening that said: “Sour sedey (hello) sister. How are you doing? Do you have dinner already? I miss you so much. Sister, I want to tell you. Maybe two or three month later (after I finish at Royal School and Administration) I’ll leave the monk as the same you (sic) and I’m working in a police and has to continue at University. I want to buy a motor(bike) for traveling but I have no money (it costs $1500 US) so I want you to help me. I think my sister has ability to help me. My family haven’t got ability to help me because they are farmers. Thank you sister. I wish you have a good luck and sweet dream!” I’m still in touch with Seng, but politely declined his offer to allow me to become his sugar mama.
The icing on the cake of this amazingly over-the-top day was the elephant. On our way back to Kampot, we came across a VERY large elephant lumbering down the road ridden by two Cambodian men. This was definitely not an elephant for tourists, but a true working elephant. The Cambodians were fascinated too it seemed for the elephant had a little parade of admirers, both children and adults following on bicycle and on foot. After all the events of the day, we could only stop and laugh.
Over dinner, as we reflected on the amazing day we’d experienced, Eric, Steve and I marveled at the delightful, big-hearted people of this country. In my opinion, the Khmer should usurp the “Land of Smiles” title from neighboring Thailand. In many ways, even after being in Cambodia for only a week, I love this country every bit as much as I love Bali, but I love them differently.
Cambodia is bittersweet in a way that Bali is not. In some ways, that makes it easier to love Bali. But I have a sense that my feelings for Cambodia run deeper because of its bittersweet nature. Within my lifetime, darling Cambodia has experienced genocide on a massive scale. Instead of being permanently scarred and defeated, however, surviving Cambodians, poor as they are, are delightfully happy to be alive. They know that things can be MUCH worse so they embrace their lives now. Their faces can barely contain their instant, broad and sincere smiles that spread beyond their lips and into their eyes. These amazing people simply radiate love and I am helpless but to love them back.
This is was the day that my love affair with Cambodia truly began. To see a video of this magical day, click here. To see more photos of Cambodia’s charming countryside, check out the “Photos of Her Adventure” page of my blog.1 comment
(These events took place November 14)
After 5 hours of the hellish bus ride from Phnom Penh, we finally arrived in Kampot. Anxious to be moving on our own terms, Eric and I immediately stashed our bags at a guesthouse, rented motorbikes and headed out to check out the countryside. We were expecting my friend Steve to arrive within a few hours so we made it a short jaunt to the seaside town of Kep, about 30 minutes away. On the way, I took photographs with my camera as well as my mind of all the sights I’ve come to recognize as common to the Cambodian countryside … people from five years of age to ninety leading their cows and water buffalo by rope to graze the grass along the roadside, pigs being transported in baskets on the backs of motorbikes presumably for slaughter, barefoot monks walking single file down gravel roads collecting alms, beyond beautiful neon green rice fields. Motorbikes either packed with families of five to six or piled ten feet high or wide with goods for sale or delivery whiz past us in both directions. Lovely young girls in their long, flowing navy blue skirts and neatly pressed white blouses gracefully pedal tall rickety bikes on their way to school; children wave and call hello to all the passersby. Chickens with a brood of fuzzy chicks dart in and out of the road daring drivers to literally “play chicken” with them while dogs snooze lazily snooze on the warm asphalt only bothering to raise their heads if a motorbike tire comes closer than a foot to their head. Motorbikes hitched to big flatbed trailers carry twenty plus locals; sort of a cross between a bus and a tuk tuk that reminds me of the hayrides I used to go on in the fall when I was a little girl … only without the hay.
When we arrived in Kep, we came upon a beach where women in dainty hats were hauling in crab traps filled with the day’s catch. Other locals waited on shore, eagerly grabbing up the choicest crabs for their evening meal. As in most places not frequented by foreigners, Eric and I were regarded with shy curiosity followed almost instantly by friendly inclusion. The ladies and I exchanged heartfelt compliments. “Your hair is beautiful!” “I love your smile.” “That hat looks terrific on you.” We became a mutual admiration society and they enjoyed posing for me as much as I enjoyed taking their portraits and showing them the photos. We all giggled together like schoolgirls. Before heading to the beach area, we watched a group of fishermen haul in what, at first, looked to be a promising catch, but which turned out to be disappointingly small.
We headed to the beach and discovered a Cambodian novelty: forty plus hammocks strung up in open-aired pavilions, three per building, that one could rent for an hour or more to nap or just enjoy a view of the beach at sunset. Although hammocks are known and used worldwide, they are not so popular anywhere as with the Khmer. Hammocks are a way of life with the Cambodians. They are not only used as swings, beds, napping spots, they are a sort of playpen/babysitter for babies and they take the place of chairs as well.
Eric and I adopted the “when in Rome” attitude and snagged two of them, eagerly anticipating a late afternoon snooze. We ended up talking instead, enjoying good conversation and a lovely sunset, swinging all the while in our comfy cocoons. Our entertainment cost us $0.50 each for an hour. We happily handed over $1 and headed back to Kampot to await the arrival of my friend, Steve.
To see more photos of Cambodia’s charming countryside, check out the “Photos of Her Adventure” page of my blog.3 comments
(These events took place November 14, 2008)
Although I enjoyed the environment of Phnom Penh, I was anxious to leave. The air pollution stirred up by all the people attending the water festival had seriously aggravated my cold. It felt as though I could actually touch the air I was breathing … or at least the dirt in it … and I couldn’t stay in Phnom Penh any longer.
So after the last day of the water festival, I headed south to Kampot, a small, river town in South Cambodia which lays claim to the best pepper in the world. During the time when Cambodia was a French colony, none of the best restaurants in Paris would be caught with ANYTHING but Kampot pepper on their tables. I tried some while I was in town and enjoyed it very much. It was a wonderful respite from the “pepper power” which passes for pepper in all other parts of Southeast Asia.
The bus ride from Phnom Penh to Kampot was comical, except for the faint of stomach. The roads were horrible. Sitting towards the back of the bus, I couldn’t see much of them, but presumed from all the bouncing we were doing that they were comprised of more potholes than smooth asphalt. Craning my neck for a better look, I realized that potholes weren’t the culprit. Instead, it seemed that the asphalt had been laid more like ribbon candy than flat pancakes. The suspension on the comically crappy bus exacerbated the jolts. The bouncing was so exaggerated I imagined I was riding in a cartoon bus which, viewed from outside, had four wheels all of immensely disproportionate sizes and none of them perfectly round, the way a child would draw them. In my cartoon image, the bus was very short and round and bounced happily along a roller coaster ribbon of a road.
Cartoons aside, the reality of experiencing the bus from the inside was no picnic. Although I appreciated the humor of the situation, I still got an awful headache from being jarred up and down in my not-so-cushiony seat and against the window on the occasions that were unfortunately more frequent than rare. One unlucky Cambodian guy across the isle was more affected in his stomach. He was seated in the aisle and between him and the window sat a white Western woman, keeping very much to herself as if the poor chap had cooties. His immediate need to use the window was apparently outweighed by his desire to impose on her highness. He was suddenly standing in the aisle and starting to clambor over his fellow countrymen in the row in front of him when he hurled projectile style straight into the lap, face and all over the body of the even more unfortunate Cambodian man who had been sitting in the seat directly in front of him … and directly across the aisle from Eric and me.
Although it must have been over in a fraction of a second, the whole incident seemed to happen in slow motion. For quite a while afterwards, Eric and I continued to marvel about any number of aspects of the situation. In the first place, the most unfortunate man who received the lapful (and faceful!) of vomit didn’t freak out, scream, gag, or hurl as just about any Westerner I know would. Instead, without uttering a single word, he calmly remained in his seat, (even while the poor young guy was still climbing across him trying to access the window), removed a tissue from his pocket and solemnly began brushing himself off. We couldn’t help but notice that the contents of the boy’s stomach were almost pure rice which seemed to instantly dry and brush easily off of the man’s face and his navy colored pants. We laughed to ourselves that perhaps the man wouldn’t have been so calm if he’d received a faceful of typical Western breakfast. (I think I mentioned in another blog entry that Eric and I both have dark, sarcastic senses of humor.)
We had been told when we purchased our bus tickets that the trip took two to three hours so we were surprised when, after two hours of travel, the bus pulled over for a snack stop and potty break. “Why stop when we were so close?” we wondered. As on many occasions during my travels, I just had to suspend my curiosity and “wait and see” on account of language barriers. That day was no exception. So after a small break, we hopped back on board the bus and continued bouncing down the road for another two hours.
I laughed hysterically when the bus turned off of the asphalt road and onto a dirt road … but continued moving at the same speed. We were on the dirt road for over an hour. At times, the bus slowed down to less than 1 mph as it waded through ditches and gullies (I don’t suppose you can call them potholes if they’re in a dirt road, can you?) that would swallow … well … even a bus. As we turned onto the asphalt again, I began seeing signs for Kep, an oceanside town that was well out of the way of Kampot. Had we missed our stop? Perhaps the “break spot” was also the stop for Kampot and we had accidentally traveled too far. We began asking around. A snooty, but apparently knowledgeable, foreigner looked down her nose while she indulgently informed us in all seriousness that the roads along the direct route to Kampot were bad so we were traveling the long way around through Kep to get to our destination. Ha! These were GOOD roads???!!!1 comment
(These events took place November 8 – 14, 2008)
I hadn’t planned on going to Cambodia at this point in my trip. And I certainly hadn’t planned to spend extensive time there. But a friend gave me a Cambodian guidebook which I leafed through on the long bus ride from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and I was hooked. The country’s small size, the upcoming Bon Om Tuk water festival and the magnificent temples of Angkor seemed like a great place to fill the two weeks my visiting friend, Steve, had allotted for Southeast Asia. So on November 8, after four days in Bangkok, we headed east … and I’m so glad we did.
When I arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capitol city, I was coming down with a very bad cold. I’m not entirely sure that it wasn’t caused, or at least exacerbated, by all the air pollution in Bangkok which adversely affects many people. At any rate, I decided to hole up in Phnom Penh for a few days to regain my health (also a great opportunity to catch up on my blog which seems to always be lagging behind my experiences these days) while Steve ventured up North to Siem Reap to check out the temples. I figured I’d get to the temples after he had headed home.
After spending a couple days in bed resting up, I ventured out on the first day of the Bon Om Tuk water festival which commemorates the end of rainy season. During rainy season, the Tonle Sap river reverses its normal direction and flows from south to north flooding the area surrounding Tonle Sap Lake. In November, the river returns to its normal flow and the lake recedes, leaving an abundance of fish and fertile soil in its wake. This abundance is celebrated during the Bon Om Tuk festival. The main event during the festival are boat races on the Tonle Sap river which fronts Phnom Penh. Each province in the country enters at least four boats in the races. A number of provinces enter many more than that.
The boats vary in length, some seating up to 78 people. Typically the crew are men although I did notice that a group of women fielded a boat this year. (Go girls!) The boats are made by the villages and many are elaborately painted with dragon eyes to “steer the boat to victory” and bright beautiful colors which I’m sure have some symbolism to the villagers. I noticed that many of the boats contained elaborate offerings (presumably to Buddha) on their bows. The offerings included flowers, fruit, incense, cigarettes and even bottled water and fruit juice.
During the first two days of the festival, many time trial races are held to narrow all the contenders down to the final two or three boats that compete on the last day of Bon Om Tuk. Khmers come from all over the country to enjoy the festival and to cheer on their village’s boat. I was anxious to join them.
I had been advised by several sources that Phnom Penh was a dangerous place, harboring thieves in practically every alleyway. My guidebook actually had a section that began, “If you happen to become a victim of an armed robbery….” Couchsurfers warned festival goers not to even take a cellphone or wear a watch, much less take money or a camera, because it would undoubtedly be snatched. Some even suggested that travelers stay away from the festival entirely. I was dubious about these claims, but left my camera, watch and cellphone back in my hotel room just in case on that first day. I stuffed a $5 and a couple $1s in my bra and headed down to the river.
I peered over the shoulders of the Cambodians perched on the wall overlooking the river and all the racing action. I was the only Westerner I could see which I found very surprising. Some friendly Khmer men invited me to join them, anxious to practice their English, and made space for me on the wall. As luck would have it, a few minutes later a bald-headed nun in her white robes approached me and asked for a donation. Not one to turn down requests from religious figures, I blushed as I dug a sweaty $1 bill out of my bra and handed it over. Thankfully, no one else seemed to think anything of it and nodded approval at my donation.
Now I have to acknowledge that Cambodia, and Phnom Penh in particular, does feel a bit more “rough and tumble” than the other countries I’ve visited thus far. In addition to eating the odd parts of pork, beef and chicken which would be rejected as inedible back home, they also eat snake on a stick, fried tarantulas and about four or five additional types of fried insects than I ever saw on offer in Thailand. (Incidentally, I’ve eaten the snake and the tarantula legs … not bad.) It’s illegal for a Cambodian cell phone store to sell a SIM card (the card that connects your mobile phone to a network making the phone useable) to a foreigner so SIM cards must be bought on the black market. Interestingly, however, once bought, any phone vendor is permitted legally to recharge phone credits for foreigners. The air in Phnom Penh is horribly polluted with dust and smoke to the point that many of its Khmer residents wear face masks to keep it out of their lungs.
Traffic in Phnom Penh is comical. Road signs and even stop lights (when they exist, which is rare) are only mere suggestions as people will drive into oncoming traffic on the wrong side of the road. When this happens, there’s no horn-blowing or road rage as we would experience in the West. In the same way that a river flows around a rock in its path, Cambodians merely adjust and drive around the person headed the wrong way without a second glance. It’s normal here. Driving with headlights on during the day is illegal (still can’t figure that one out), but it’s no problem (at least legally), and even quite common, for people to drive at night without headlights on. And if you hit them, you’re at fault! Although there are many near collisions, I have yet to see a single accident. [Take a trip with me through Phnom Penh. Click here for a short video of what it's like to ride on a motorbike here.]
Despite all these quirks and foibles, however, I have not only found Phnom Penh to be completely safe, (I ultimately pranced around the festival with my entire set of camera gear, my watch, my phone and my purse – none of which was touched), but incredibly charming as well. So I must respectfully disagree entirely with my guidebook and the local Couchsurfers who issued such dire warnings. And it’s not as though I was hanging out in the best areas of town either.
Somehow, I ended up booking a hotel room smack in the middle of PP’s red light district. How could I not have noticed the “Pussycat Bar,” “Bar 69,” “Beaver Bar” or any other similarly named haunts on the block when I selected my hotel? I guess that just goes to show how narrowly focused I was when I was seeking accommodation close to the riverfront that had WiFi (one of my few perks that’s a must when I can get it). Nonetheless, it worked out just fine … and, needless to say, I met some interesting and very nice (or at least friendly) people.
Speaking of interesting people, I got together the evening after the first day of the festival with a group of Couchsurfers (www.couchsurfing.com: – an international online travel enthusiast group) to share info about the festival and try to organize some group outings. It was at that gathering that I met Eric Anderson who has since become my travel partner. Eric and I spent the evening swapping travel stories (he’s been traveling solo around the world for just over a year now), chatting about all the things we loved about the countries we’d visited, people we’d met and fascinating customs we’d encountered. I appreciated what a positive attitude he had about travel. (Surprisingly, far too many western travelers I encounter spend the majority of their time bitching about how things “just aren’t like home.” My response, at least internally, is always: “Duh! You’re NOT AT home! And if you can’t enjoy where you are, then go BACK home.” Of course, I suspect these same people would be unhappy anywhere. I prefer to simply avoid these people. Thankfully, Eric was completely the opposite and a delightful breath of fresh air.) He’s a former cop/detective from Salt Lake City, Utah and I’ve come to know him as an adventurous, intelligent, can-do guy with a sarcastic sense of humor that mirrors my own. In addition to these attributes, he’s a self-proclaimed All American fly catcher (Mr. Miagi would be proud). I’m hoping this skill can cross over into mosquito territory as well but, so far, alas. Keep working on it, Eric!
At one point, to escape from an extremely obnoxious drunk guy who’d joined our table, Eric and I excused ourselves to go sit on the river bank and watch the beautifully lit floats parading by in honor of the water festival. To see a short video of these beautifully lit boats, click here. We kept noticing ferry boats coming and going, docking just in front of where we were seated and then departing for, we assumed, the other side of the river.
Like the chicken that crossed that proverbial road, I wanted to see what was on the other side so, on a whim, we caught one of the ferries to the opposite riverbank, roamed the dark streets on the opposite side and stumbled into a carnival. On the way into the carnival, we passed a large, makeshift tent where at least sixty plus people were sleeping, fully clothed, packed in together like sardines. I took a closer look and realized that all the sleeping people were all men. At first I was baffled as to why all these men were sleeping here until I put it together that they must be the crews from the boats for the races. The next day, Eric and I discovered that hundreds (maybe even thousands) of families who had traveled from all over Cambodia to Phnom Penh for the festival were sleeping, crowded together like the boat crews, in the public area at the main temple. They had no tents or tarps, but simply packed in next to each other under the temple eaves. I assure you that not an inch of space was wasted. The apparent lack of need for any personal space in Southeast Asia still amazes me.
In my own country, I have no problem walking by a carnival game without giving it a second glance (or even an entire carnival for that matter). In other countries, however, I can’t resist playing. I think it has less to do with the game itself than with the interaction playing the game allows me to have with the locals. Many of the vendors whose target market are tourists speak some English, but they’re so desperate for money that it’s often difficult to get beyond being a potential sale to have a genuine interaction with them. Few of the other working locals whose livelihood doesn’t depend on tourists have much incentive to learn to speak English so it isn’t widely spoken. And although I’ve learned some basics in the languages of each of the countries I’ve visited, it’s generally not enough to have a complete, satisfying conversation, much less an extensive one. So I look for opportunities to connect with the locals in ways that go beyond words. Carnival games happen to be one venues I’ve added to my “bag-o-tricks.”
I’ve attended carnivals now in each of the three countries I’ve visited (Bali, Indonesia, Thailand and now Cambodia). My impression is that the carnival workers in each of the countries don’t see many Westerners in their everyday lives. They see even fewer crossing into “their world” and participating in the goings on there. So each time I played a game at one of these carnivals, many of the locals and carnival workers gathered around to watch.
Eric and I played two games that evening. In the first game, no one spoke a word of English but we managed to figure out that in exchange for 500 real (about $0.13) we got to choose 5 pieces of paper on which numbers were written. The goal was to match the numbers we drew to numbers on a board that coordinated with various bank notes. A match meant we won some money. Naturally, none of our numbers matched, but in the five minutes (or less) that it took to play the game, about fifteen locals had gathered around to watch and laugh with us.
We passed another gambling game and were invited to play but passed in favor of the good ol’ “toss-a-dart-at-a-balloon” game. I got lucky and nailed a balloon and was free to choose my prize. I chose a box of cookies that I opened and shared with the game operators and the other locals who gathered to watch us play (sharing food is a another method I use to interact and have fun with non-English speaking locals). While munching on a cookie, Rinrithie, a carnival worker operating the dart game, asked, utterly perplexed, “Why did you come to this side of the river?” We were amused and could only laugh and answer, “To see what was here.”
Cambodians are exceptionally friendly people. They love making connections, especially with foreigners. Rinrithie wasn’t the first one to ask me for an email address or phone number after such minimal interaction. One girl sold Eric and I a beer and we shared a few smiles while we sat the the table, drinking our beers and people watching. She didn’t speak much English, but she kept coming up to me, hugging me and smiling. Eric and I both marveled when she asked for my phone number. We thought, “There’s no way she’s going to call. She doesn’t speak enough English to have a phone conversation.” It seemed to us she just wanted to be able to keep the connection even after we parted ways. Cambodians are like that. Their enormous hearts are the main reason Cambodia is running away with mine.
While I enjoyed the seeing the long boats with large crews during the day and the lighted floats cruising the river at night, Bon Om Tuk itself wasn’t the grand photo opp that I had anticipated (although I think Bali spoiled me in that department). So I spent much of the days during the three-day water festival roaming the streets and markets with Eric just taking in the daily life of Phnom Penh and acquainting myself with Cambodia. That’s how we happened to meet Seng.
One afternoon while wandering PP’s streets, I caught sight of a monk sitting on a bench in a temple compound wearing his glasses and reading a newspaper. Monks in their saffron robes are always a magnet for my camera lens and this one particularly so. Before I could raise my camera though, he looked up, made eye contact with me and motioned for me to come talk with him.
I’m fascinated with monks, priests and nuns of any religion. Being raised in the Catholic church probably laid the groundwork for that particular intrigue. I also enjoy studying different religions and, undoubtedly influenced by my recent travels, am especially curious to learn more about Buddhism and Hinduism. For these reasons, I couldn’t resist an apparently intellectual monk beckoning me for a visit. The young monk (29) introduced himself to me as Seng. He spoke English well, but I wasn’t always certain that he understood everything I said. He had a very pleasant demeanor, very calm and self-assured and we chatted for quite a while about his life, his goals and dreams and the monkhood.
In the Buddhist culture, many boys join the monastery temporarily to get an education. After their education is complete, they disrobe and rejoin society as regular lay people. This was Seng’s plan. He told me that he had been a monk since he was thirteen years old. His family were farmers and couldn’t afford to educate him so he became a monk. He’s currently attending university where he’s studying to be a lawyer. He has two more years of school before he graduates at which time he’ll leave the monastery. He dreams of becoming an attorney and a soldier. I thought his interest in joining the military a peculiar choice after having lived a monastic life for thirteen years, but when I questioned him, he saw nothing odd or incongruous about it.
I enjoyed our discussion and when he invited Eric and me to join him in his house, we eagerly accepted. He offered us tea and I was surprised when he handed the glass directly to me as I had read that monks are not supposed to touch women which includes hand things directly to them or accepting things directly from their hands. Perhaps it was different in Cambodia, I thought. Eric I were both astonished when, on numerous occasions, Seng would give me a playful punch in the arm after I made a joke or laughed at one of his. The punching soon yielded to flicking. Was this monk actually FLIRTING with me??? Holy cow!
As dusk settled in and my stomach started to rumble for dinner, I began making the overtures toward our departure, but Seng would have none of it. He poured more tea for me and Eric so we agreed to stay for one more glass. I was amused that, as the dusk turned to dark, Seng did not turn on any lights in the house so for the last thirty minutes of our visit, the three of us sat in the dark talking to each other. I expressed an interest in learning to speak Khmer and Seng professed to being a language teacher. So we made a plan to meet again the following day for a language lesson. Seng shook both of our hands before we left. Very interesting. “I think the monk has a crush on you,” Eric teased me as we walked away. Very interesting indeed.
Before we left the temple compound, a groundskeeper offered to show us the temple interior. We accepted and the kind man not only unlocked the doors with us, but walked us through step by step how to pray Buddhist-style. It was quite similar to method the Balinese Hindus employ, lighting incense, holding pressed palms to the forehead. He even lead us in prayer in Khmer. We were touched at his kindness and left donations before making our way to our respective hotels.
The next day, Eric and I returned for our language lesson. I had brought one of my fine art photographs to give Seng as a thank you gift for the instruction. He had gifts for us as well … five photographs of himself at various stages during his monkhood including his ordination and several more recent photos during a ceremony at Angkor Wat. He gave us a two hour language lesson and I must admit he’s an excellent teacher. He had a clearly laid-out plan and was very patient. After teaching us a few words and phrases, he would go back and quiz us. When we would answer correctly, he would get very excited and say “YES!” It was all quite cute and charming. The long glances and flicking from the previous day continued and Eric teased me about being the teacher’s pet. It was clear that Seng was flirting with me, but it all felt strangely innocent and naive (like the way a third grade boy my flirt with his teacher).
Seng began to question us about our travel plans. At the time, we were planning to head to South Cambodia together for a few days after which Eric was planning to continue his travels to Vietnam. I was going to return to Phnom Penh and then spend more time traveling in Cambodia. It seemed that Seng was trying to ascertain whether Eric and I had any romantic ties when he probed, “So Eric travels alone to Vietnam?” “Yes,” we answered. He floored me with his retort: “Then Beverly comes back here alone and can stay with me!” I was so surprised, I couldn’t stop myself from exclaiming, “Seng! You’re a monk! You’re not supposed to talk that way!”
He laughed then and so did we, but I refrained from giving him a hug before leaving so as not to encourage any ideas he might be entertaining. I didn’t find any of the things he said or did to be offensive. To the contrary, they were amusing and flattering, but they were equally shocking to me given his clerical status. Perhaps his stated intentions of leaving the monkhood after completing his education influenced his less-than-”monkly” attitudes. And I do understand that it’s not terribly uncommon for monks to be “deflowered” by curious Western women. Perhaps Seng was aware of this too. I have no idea, but I can definitely say that this particular monk is one flower who will remain in the garden, at least as far as this Western girl is concerned.2 comments