Anth in Phnom Penh

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Vom

Last Sunday a group of us went to Kompong Speu for the day. It was a cosy combination – my maid, Gim Lee; Mr B, Bec and Ben and their maid, Yim; plus Melissa (who’s house Yim also cleans). Yim is Gim Lee’s aunt and they had invited us all to visit their village in Kompong Speu. Preparations for the big day had been in place for many weeks. Both Yim and Gim Lee went to great pains to make sure that there was food that we liked and that we would be comfortable.

We drove up on Sunday morning in the car. After our joyrides in the back of the ute in Kompong Cham, Ben and Bec professed to be only too happy to spend the trip in the tray with a few beers, nestled among the esky, food, soy milk products and other assorted items that were being taken over. I was a bit worried about rain, but the weather just held for the one hour trip to Kompong Speu. I was feeling a bit weary after a late night experience at “The Rock” the evening before; quite possibly the most awful entertainment venue in town. I was grumpy and finding it difficult to drive and speak Khmer at the same time. Mr B took over the wheel and I got over my initial grumpiness after Gim Lee told me that she had got up at 5 am and had started preparing our lunch at 7am, which was the same time that Yim went to the market. Ow.

Yim's house

Everyone was in a bright mood, Yim kept on saying how happy she was that we were all going to her house and how that Andrew, Bec and Ben had helped so much and that she was so excited about them meeting her family. I didn’t fully understand the import of this until we arrived and I realised that she had been able to build a new house thanks to contributions from Mr B, B & B and others. The new house is made of wood, raised up on cement supports and literally towers over her old house which is a very small wooden shack, now used for preparation of food and storage. A new barbed wire fence spans her property. Yim showed us the inside of her new house and introduced us to her daughter, in a particularly Khmer matter of fact way “Joh goan sray khnom, goaut at sa’art” (This is my daughter, she is not beautiful”). Her house was immaculate and we immediately checked out all the photos of Yim when she was younger. She showed us her bedroom and we all spied the huge butchers knife wedged into the wooden slats of the wall, presumably kept there for protection.

Inside Yim's house

We were invited to sit on straw mats placed on bamboo slat beds underneath the house. I wanted to offer help but knew that any assistance would be refused, so instead we sat and watched all the activity. At this point there was mainly women and children assembled. I met Gim Lee’s mother and grandmother and a whole heap of cousins and aunts, whom I quickly confused. Ben had brought along boxes of “So Soya” products from the factory and so they were handed out to children and adults. We attempted to convey that some were for kids and that some were for adults but were somewhat unsuccessful, with Gim Lee’s yeay (grandmother) and other elderly women happily sipping on “So Soya for Kids” drinks.


Finally the food came out. We had arrived late for Khmer lunch and so I had an inkling that everyone must be starving. All the food was placed in our little space of honour and nobody else sat down. We asked others to join, in particular Yim, but they all refused. Often in Khmer functions people eat in shifts and we weren’t sure how much cutlery there was so after hesitating for a while we decided that we should dig in otherwise the others would never eat. It looked amazing spread out in front of us and was really yummy. Yim had made a big plate of Cha Bonlai (stir fried veggies) for me, they were hot and fresh. Mr B finally tired of our ineffectual attempts to get others to eat and started picking up plates heaped with food and placing them on the other slat bed where many of the women sat. He then cleaned his own plate, knife and fork himself with water from a huge urn and handed that over too. The women found this very strange and amusing behaviour and started laughingly calling him a “nayak bomra” (waiter or maid). As soon as the food had materialised some of the husbands also showed up on their motorbikes. As usual, I noticed that the women waited until the men had got some food before they began to eat. Finally most people had eaten something, all except for Yim. When pressed she said she wasn’t hungry. I shot back that I didn’t believe her, but she responded that she was so happy to have us all here that she didn’t need food.

Yim's family

Ben trying Betel nut. The drug of choice for elderly women in the provinces.

After we had eaten the grey sky finally turned a darker shade and it started to very seriously rain. Even though we were all well under the house, the rain was so hard and at such an angle that many of us were getting wet. We huddled in closer and the wind whipped through the space underneath the house. Gim Lee ran off with an umbrella, perhaps to secure her house which was in another part of the village. And after one failed attempt to locate her and take her in the car, we drove with Gim Lee’s yeay and mother to their house so that we could bring her back out of the rain. After much maneuvering through muddy narrow lanes we arrived at Gim Lee’s house. Both her mother and grandmother sat in the car and I realised that they did not know how to get out. I opened the door for them and we all jumped out into the shelter of the small overhanging on their hut. Gim Lee’s house was about the same size of Yim’s old house. She introduced me to one of her brothers who was there. Gim Lee had wanted to show me her house, but once there, she and her mother seemed embarrassed about how the house was “at sa’art” (not beautiful). It was made of wood and looked extremely cramped for 5 people. It seemed to be withstanding the pelting rain though, so that was something. Gim Lee looked lovely and happy in new clothes; bright pink and red shirt with a black skirt with pink hem. She has beautiful long straight black hair which she had up in a pony-tail. She sat down on the wooden step to the house and I noticed her grandmother fussing about how her skirt did not cover her knees as she sat. I get the impression that she likes living in Phnom Penh, although her grandmother told me several times how much she misses having Gim Lee at home.

Yim showing her family photos on the digital camera

Back at Yim’s house we decided that it was time to make a move home to Phnom Penh. Yim sent a cousin off to forage around her vegetable patch and come back with several pumpkins and unidentified Khmer vegetables for us to take. She also wanted to give us all the left over food, but we refused and insisted that her family keep it. It transpired that quite a few of her family quite liked the idea of a lift in the car so we offered to take everyone back to their houses. I watched shocked as two elderly women went straight to clamber into the back of the ute. I stopped them and insisted that they sit inside the car, but it took a lot of convincing. We drove off and for once I felt somewhat Khmer with the car filled with people both inside and in the back. After depositing most people home we still had a couple of stray passengers who wanted to go all the way to Phnom Penh, including one of Gim Lee’s younger cousins who works in a garment factory just outside of Phnom Penh.

We drove slowly back in peak hour traffic. It had been an amazingly fun, but also sobering day. I felt completely overwhelmed by Yim and Gim Lee’s kindness and hospitality, and also somewhat subdued by the differences in our living circumstances and the opportunities available to us. The longer I live here it seems the less I am actually spending time with Khmer people and being part of their lives. It is so easy to forget what it is like in the villages. As we drive back to Phnom Penh we witness an accident which epitomizes one of the more negative elements of Khmer society. A drunk driver causes an accident and then physically attacks the driver of the car which he rammed into. How can someone get away with such contemptuous, criminal behaviour? He was wearing an army uniform and was obviously influential and wealthy. It seems that that in Cambodia with the good, you also get the very bad.

Monday, August 07, 2006


A month ago I went to Ho Chi Minh City with a group of friends which I didn't blog about. Erik on the other hand did, here is a link to his post

It was a great trip, I hadn't been to Vietnam since 2002. I couldn't tell whether HCMC had changed and become bigger and more developed in the intervening period or whether my perspectives had changed. Probably both. After living in PP, one of the key things that struck me about the Hoch was the parks and the number of wide, green spaces in the inner city to hang out in. One of my nicest moments of the weekend, was picnicking in the park with Erik, Leah, Andrew and the kids and watching Arun's excitement about being able to run around on the grass.

HCMC is a lot bigger than PP, and the traffic was crazy, but in a slightly different way. Things went faster, but were more orderly. I got the impression that vehicles were at least somewhat likely to follow generally understood rules of road law. They certainly stopped at traffic lights too. Another thing that blew me away was how easy it was to get there! The first time I came from HCMC to PP, I seem to remember it taking an extremely long time. The road was terrible and the delay at the border was long. However, these days, leaving on our deluxe bus from PP it takes about 6.5 hours to get to HCMC and the crossing at the shiny, new border was smooth and fast!

I think the big thing about the weekend though was spending some time with my travel mates. Ben and Bec, as always, are a delight to be around and it was great to hang with Erik and Leah before they left Phnom Penh. It was a new experience to be travelling with children. But a fun one (from our perspective, where as soon as tears spring to the eyes, or a nappy needs changing we can hand the child back to its parents). All the best to Erik, Leah, Arun and Nahanni back in Minnesota. We are thinking of you and miss you all.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Road Rage

Last weekend we took my lovely, project funded pick-up truck out into the Provinces for a weekend ‘daleng’ to escape the increasingly suffocating Phnom Penh. Not that it’s that hot at the moment, it’s quite cool. The suffocation element came more from the rigmarole of work, eat, sleep, work…

We left midday Saturday and drove up to Kompong Cham. I am getting pretty used to driving in Cambodia by now and actually find that in some ways driving in Phnom Penh is less stressful than on the open road. In Phnom Penh, I tend to stay in second gear and slowly glide in whichever direction I want to go whilst a sea of motos and other vehicles make their ways around me. If I go slow and steady it seems that everything simply adjusts itself in my midst. Relatively simple. Outside of the capital though, it is another story. Heading towards Kompong Cham we were overtaken by a convoy of corpulent, black four-wheel drive Lexus’ being driven at obnoxiously high speeds. The standard 4WD driver seems to either drive painfully slow (as they are talking on their mobile phone) or dangerously fast. Perhaps to make up the time lost when talking on the phone these cars will at any given moment speed up and overtake any vehicle in their path, irrespective of oncoming traffic; foot flat on the accelerator and hand firmly on the horn. The car shook as the wave of black Lexus screamed past, racing to make an urgent karaoke appointment in Kompong Cham for Saturday night perhaps?

Despite our more timid speed, we made it to Kompong Cham in perfect time for sunset drinks and byo whisky by the Mekong, overlooking the Kompong Cham bridge. It seems that they are re-constructing the river front area, with flattened dirt lots where make-shift huts and people used to camp. The tiles were all pulled up along what used to be the promenade so we sat on plastic chairs in the dirt and took it all in.

wat nokor entrance

Perhaps we have been in Cambodia too long? gripped by the crossword at Wat Nokor...

It was a short weekend trip due to work commitments in PP so on Sunday we headed back home via some temples and wats. Our first stop was Wat Nokor which is a popular temple just out of Kompong Cham town. It’s a really interesting site, as it has a ruined Angkorian structure with a modern, active wat in the centre. You walk through the blackened stone entry-way created by the Angkorians and end up in a new, brightly painted wat filled with monks and begging children.

wat nokor inside

Our second stop was ‘Phnom Pro Teat Phnom Sray Teat’. This is not the more commonly visited ‘Man Mountain Female Mountain’, but a different complex which was further out of town on the road to Phnom Penh. We managed to find the two hills fairly easily but confounded the monks on top of the mountain by scrambling up the steep mountain-side rather than taking the conventional (and much more moderately sloped) staircase entrance. This was not really an act of informed choice, we simply hadn’t found the staircase given that it was down a dirt road, in front of a banana plantation. Stupid foreigners.

Phnom Pro Teat

On top of the hill was a small wat complex where the monks and nuns live and a temple. The temple was painted silver and had quite a few brightly coloured cement animals frolicking around it. We sat down to have a sip of water and an elderly nun told me that if we followed that path we would see an elephant. So we traipsed along the indicated path and there was a large, colourful, cement elephant. Interesting and random and probably not a place that a lot of foreigners visit.

the elephant

Our next stop was Tuk Cha, which is a huge dam area, which provides a popular picnicking and swimming spot for locals. Right near the dam is an area dotted with pre-Angkorian ruins, around 400 temples. Given that we were off the main road and that Tuk Cha was further west and also off the main road we decided to take the overland, scenic route. This might have been a good idea if our map had been a little more detailed. Very quickly we found ourselves cruising down dirt roads surrounded by beautiful, picturesque rice fields with the wet season rice at varying stages of growth. Ofcourse, we got lost. We tried asking for directions, but found the provincial Kompong Cham accent particularly difficult to decipher. After much to-ing and fro-ing, which enabled Bec to take a substantial number of rice paddy shots out the car window, we made it back onto the main road and eventually found Tuk Cha. It seemed our luck really had turned though, because as we pulled into a wooden, rest area overlooking the dam it started to rain. It was also getting rather late. Moods were starting to fray; I was already starting to tense up at the thought of the insanity that is Sunday afternoon traffic and Mr B had to do something approximating a 50 point turn to get the car turned around and onto a small bridge to exit. We made a cursory attempt to see the ruins, which were interesting although in a fairly dilapidated state. In the spirit of Wat Nokor, we spied one ruined, single roomed structure which had been converted into a modern house with the stone walls being used, reinforced by newer brick walls. A resourceful use of materials lying around, I suppose.

somewhere in Kompong Cham province

After a brief stop for snacks, we hit the road and after an hour or so we found ourselves in the thick of the dreaded Sunday afternoon congestion. It is times like this where you think that that you have seen the height of human stupidity and recklessness and then five minutes later someone else commits an even more spectacularly risky maneuver. We weren’t moving particularly fast and there wasn’t really much concern for our safety. We did see a lot of short calls with motos and other vehicles due to the short-sighted aggressiveness of many cars. I always seem to get this leg of the journey, perhaps because I am the more placid tempered. Mr B at times, can barely contain himself, sometimes reaching over and honking the horn at a particularly impudent vehicle whilst I am driving. My three passengers contented themselves with rolling down their windows and screaming out “Lop lop” (‘idiot’) at notably irresponsible vehicles as we cruised back into town.

It was a fun weekend, and I think everyone was glad to get out of town. It makes a huge difference to be able to drive and go wherever you want, although this does complicates matters when you don’t really know where you are going! Anyway! this post is dedicated to the Australian taxpayer. Ta for the car!