Posts Tagged 'phnom penh'



Vaguely Familiar Dude Reports on Phnom Penh Nightlife

shitty flickr photo, not going all undercover yet...

The pub is dark and grimy and does not smell like meat.

I look up the bar and down the bar. I turn to a red-faced old dude clutching a glass of beer. “Hey, there’s not a roast here, is there?”

He shakes his head long and slow.

It’s Sunday and we’re feeling indulgent—indulgent enough to have just spent two hours at the FCC rooftop, drinking happy hour drinks and staring into the maze of foot traffic on the riverside below, and indulgent enough to top it off with a massive $9 plate of meat and potatoes and veggies and Yorkshire pudding, all drenched in gravy and butter.

There’s Sunday Roasts all over this city, and I’ve been waiting for the week when I was in both the company and the mood for one. Which is tonight—a friend in from Vietnam, with money to burn and time to kill. But I have to remember where the supposed best one is. The Something Pub on Street 17something. Which is not this place.

The old dude takes a deep breath, then unleashes the knowledge: a string of roasts and reviews, both popular and personal, as well as directions to the nearest ones. It’s as though he’s been waiting for someone to ask.

They say that the sexpats are some of the most knowledgeable folks around—for whatever you think of them, they’ve been here the longest and know the city, the culture, the language the best. Whether or not it’s true, this dude is obviously the Roast Master.

He speaks for a few consecutive minutes. He doesn’t make eye contact once.

Which leaves me to survey the scene. I don’t go out much here—there’s not much other than bars and the vibe gets mega-seedy. So I feel like a bit of a voyeur, peeking into the other side: pool tables and bad rock music and men slouched in the corners, along the bar, and thin women—impossibly thin women, with sharp faces and short skirts—moving around them like hungry insects.

I see a dude at the end of the bar. He looks vaguely familiar—some kind of ambiguous Latino, in a Neurosis shirt, pulled-up white socks and black Vans, long metal dreads bound together by another dread, tied on a knot. Not a style the expats rock here—an Oakland breed. I eye him.

When Roast Master finishes his litany, I nod and thank him.

He still doesn’t look up from his beer.

We walk past Vaguely Familiar Dude. “Hey,” I call out, over heads and between shoulders, “you from the Bay?”

Glassy pupils pin at me. “Yeah.”

I nod. “I’ve seen you around. You’re friends with Georgina and Adam.”

A slow, sloppy recognition spills over his face. “Hey! I’ve seen you!”

The truth is, I’ve been seeing him for years—at shows and parties, across crowded rooms, one of those people permanently on the periphery of your life, fixtures of vague features and forgotten names, “the extras in the movie of me,” a friend once called them.

“What brings you here?” I ask. “Just traveling around?”

He nods. “Yeah, man, shit, just traveling. I been in Thailand and Laos, I met this dude—” slaps another guy on the shoulder, who grins bashfully—“at the airport, and we’ve just been cruisin.” He launches into a haphazard travelogue, rattling off an orderless list of places; there’s a slurry undercurrent moving beneath his words, an intonation of long nights and jig-saw days.

It’s like he’s been waiting for someone to ask.

“So, where’s the party at?” he asks me when he’s done.

“Ha!” I let a wry laugh burst out of me. “I’m the last person to ask. I’m grandma in this town.” Really, I’m grandma in every town, but I let it seem like it’s just Phnom Penh.

“You been here a long time or something?”

I shrug. “Well, I live here.”

He gives me a funny look. “You don’t go out none?”

“Not really, it’s…” I trail off. “Well, we gotta grab this roast before it runs out,” I motioned to my friend.

“What’s a roast?”

“It’s a British thing.” I shrug again. “Meat and potatoes.”

“Oh, right on. Well, fuckin cool seeing you.”

“For sure,” I smile. We turn to leave.

I glance back down the bar. Roast Master is a little redder, but still hasn’t moved.

**

We’re walking down the riverside again the next day, plastic bags of produce peeking out of my tote bag and tickling the back of my arm. At one of the restaurants, I see Vaguely Familiar Dude and his friend sitting in a pair of big wicker chairs.

We laugh. “What’s up, what’s up!” I say.

They look dim and yellow and worse for the wear—two pm but my guess is that this is breakfast. “How was your night?”

Vaguely Familiar Dude shakes his head. “Man, what’s up with this city?”

I smile. “What do you mean?”

“It’s like,” he looks back and forth, doesn’t bother to lower his voice, “it’s kinda trippy. Everywhere we went was just gross, man. Like, we’d sit down and bam!—hella girls would be all over us.”

I let another wry laugh come out of me. I’m not sure where it comes from, or what it’s supposed to mean. “Yeah, that’s kinda the jam here.” I don’t bother to lower my voice either.

We’d missed the roast the night before; by the time we arrived at the other pub, they’d sold out and most of the seats were empty. We ordered shepherd’s pies and talked lowly to each other, a wiry guy with blurred tattoos rolling a joint at the bar. We declined when he offered a toke, our friendly smiles mirroring his.

“So, like, everywhere?” Vaguely Familiar Dude asks.

“Kinda.” I tell him about the one spot I like, where a grumpy old Taiwanese dude with arguably the best vinyl collection in the country sits in a corner, plays weird records and scowls at people. “But sometimes there’s girls there too,” I add.

Vaguely Familiar Dude shakes his head. “It’s kinda trippy, man,” he repeats.

I don’t know him. Not really. But I’ve seen him for years, in shitty warehouses in shitty neighborhoods in our shitty hometown, and he doesn’t seem like the type to get skeezed out by nothing.

It was weird to me at first too, I want to say; I wanted to puke whenever I’d see those crispy old sexpats with their arms around skinny waists. But I’ve gotten used to it. It’s not that I don’t see it, but that it’s sunk into the background, become part of the visual noise of the city. I avoid it, but you can’t avoid it, and it doesn’t creep me out anymore. I take their roast recommendations.

But I don’t tell Vaguely Familiar Dude any of this. I’m not sure why. I’m embarrassed, in a funny way—that I’ve let it become normal.

He takes a handful of fries, smears them in ketchup and mashes them in his mouth. “You want one?” he asks from between the mush.

I smile. “Nah, I’m cool.”

5 Expat New Year’s Resolutions

New Year’s resolutions: I never make them.

In the States, they just annoy me. Invariably, in the first few weeks of January, the gym will be crowded with people stuffed into fresh Spandex, clutching water bottles and looking confused. They’ll clog the machines, fill the classes and then, by Valentine’s, all be gone. And I’ll think to myself—Why?

An exercise having your good intentions crushed by the reality of your laziness and an inherent disregard for your own welfare—what’s about that is fun?

But this year is different. Maybe it’s because the world is ending and all that, or maybe it’s because, here in Cambodia, the stakes are different: the consequences for poor life management are that much more dire. So, for the first time in years, I’ve made five New Year’s resolutions. They aren’t the self-care activities I know I’ll do—go running, eat my veggies, keep a clean apartment, go to meetings. But these resolutions offer a challenge. They’re all simple and totally attainable, but require the spending of a little more money in the face of cheaper alternatives. Which is one of my greatest spiritual challenges.

Here’s what they are, and how I’m faring:

1. A coconut a day

“No one in your generation gets thirsty,” my dad once remarked. “They get dehydrated.”

It’s funny cause it’s true—“this isn’t merely a dry mouth, this is a medical condition!” But you know what I’ve learned in Cambodia? There is actually is a difference between thirst and dehydration, and the latter is really fucking serious.

I’ll walk around the city. Because the weather is nice now and I’m not yet sick of it and I’m cheap, and motos and tuk-tuks add up (see below). I won’t feel thirsty, so I’ll forget to drink water. Then I’ll feel dizzy and nauseous, and think I need to eat. I’ll grab something at a food stall, but I’ll still feel crappy.

Finally it occurred to me: I need to hydrate.

Luckily, coconuts are cheap and plentiful here. Vita Coco, aka “hipster juice,” may be all the rage in the States right now, but the coconut juice is actually pretty important here. Coconuts provide a lot of electrolytes; they’re kind of like nature’s Gatorade, minus all the food coloring and sugar.

So: a coconut a day. So far I’ve missed one day.

2. Not taking motos

Without public buses or (haha) a metro system, the cheapest way to get around town without your own transport is taking motos. You ride on the back of them, and they’re driven by weathered men in busted rubber sandals who smile a lot but usually have no idea where you’re going. A ride costs about $1, while a tuk-tuk is around $1.50-$3, depending on your destination.

But Cambodia lacks a few things that keep motos from being an ideal form of transit. #1: No helmet laws for passengers. #2: No safety regulations on helmets sold here anyway, so most helmets aren’t much more than glorified pieces of tin foil. #3: Cambodia has one of the worst traffic-related death tolls in the region. Really. Heads are busted open on the regular. #4: On the back of a moto, you’re an easy target for bag-snathcers. #5: When someone snatches the bag of someone on a moto, their body is often dragged off the moto as well, creating the opportunity for hard-core injuries (ie: a friend smacked her head on the street, had brain swelling and lost her sense of taste). #6: Cambodia lacks modern health care facilities, and should you find yourself in need of emergency skull-stitching, you’ll need to be evacuated to Bangkok asap.

I’ve heard enough stories. I was already not taking motos at night, when people are drunker and drive faster. But I’ve resolved that it’s tuk-tuks all the way now.

I should be transparent, and admit that I’m working the Freegan version of road safety—I’ll still accept rides from friends on their motos. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but I rationalize it by saying my friends are better and more sober drivers than the moto dudes. (Yeah, it’s a lil flimsy…)

So far, I haven’t taken a ride on a single moto. Other than my friends’.

3. Buying real sunblock

You can tell if a commodity is only used by foreigners by how expensive it is. Valium: cheap. Dental floss: expensive. Bootleg DVDs: cheap. Sunblock: very expensive.

It’s been pointed out to me that sunblock is expensive in the States. That’s true, but it’s still a few dollars more expensive here. And $14 feels even more expensive when you’re living on $23/day.

So I’ve been buying this $3.30 Chinese sunblock. I went to the company’s website, and it seems more or less legit. But the sunblock feels weird, too thin and slimy, and it’s real hit or miss: sometimes it’ll work just fine, other times I’ll get burnt despite frequent reapplications.

It’s not so much the cancer I’m worried about as the aging (cause I’m vain, and as previously noted, have a less-than-stellar regard for my health and safety). But I’ve recently discovered that I’m in the early stages of getting what I call White Person Neck—you know, those deep, leathery creases old dudes have in the back of their necks. Ugh.

So I’ve resolved to bite the bullet and shell out the big bucks for the Nivea. Just, you know, as soon as I finish this last Kustie bottle…

4. Real health insurance

You can fib it a bit in some places, but as previously noted, the chances of accidents are high here, and the access to modern emergency care low. And, I’ve learned, once you’ve been in a destination for more than six months, World Nomads considers you a resident and not a traveler. So if you submit a $10,000 I-had-to-be-flown-to-Thailand bill, they’re probably gonna deny it.

So, in the interest of not bankrupting yourself or your relatives, you gotta go for the real deal. My Aetna estimate for just evacuation and hospitalization insurance was over $1200 for a year policy. Which sucks, but I suppose that’s what credit cards were made for, right?

I’ve got until April on my traveler’s insurance, so I haven’t crossed this bridge yet. But of all the resolutions, I’d argue that this is the most vital and, though also the most painfully expensive, the one I won’t cheat on.

5. Regular pedicures

Hahaha—no! It’s not a joke. This is a dirty fucking city—dust and trash and stagnant puddles of water/piss—and your feet get gnarly quick. Why do you think the Southeast Asians are so big on taking their shoes off in their houses? At the end of the day, my feet look like blackened gremlin claws.

The good news is that pedicures are cheap as shit here. You can go to the market and get a quick job with non-sanitized tools for a couple bucks. Or you can go somewhere niiiiice and clean and get the layers of grime scrubbed off for under $10.

I’m shooting for a minimum of two a month. This is probably my most fun resolution and because it involves primping and indulgence, one I’m more likely to keep. I mean, can you say no to these toes?

A Morning Ride Through The City

The morning is cold.

Well, not cold, but cool—breezy and clouded, which for here is Arctic. It’s 8am and I’m getting in a tuk-tuk a friend had arranged. He’s waiting outside of the French restaurant on the corner, holding a piece of paper with my name on it, and it reminds me of leaving an airport’s gates, all the men in cheap suits holding signs of tourists’ names, and how I’ve always kind of wanted to be one of the names, to be Arriving, instead of just wandering off with my too-heavy backpack towards the local bus.

I step in my ballet flats into the tuk-tuk, smoothe my blouse as I sit down. I hold the plastic file case, filed with copies of my resume, down in my lap. We start off.

My friend arranged for a tuk-tuk to take me to 10 different schools, where I’m going to drop off 10 resumes and hopefully get called back—a kind of carpet-bombing, I’m-out-money-and-a-need-a-quick-job technique. The tuk-tuk driver knows the route; he’s done it often, for foreigners like myself. Or not like myself—I imagine them younger, in nicer clothes, with a TEFL certificate on their resumes or at least some teaching experience.

We move through streets fresh with bustle: children in school uniforms, people in baby blue shirts driving their motorbikes to work, old men eating pork and rice at the food stalls. The monks are out, doing their barefoot rounds, and when they chant it sounds like bees buzzing.

Mornings are kind of magical in Phnom Penh—cool and alive, cleaner feeling, not yet bogged down in the heat or exhaustation. I don’t usually get to experience them, since they start at dawn; by the time I’m usually out of the house around 10am, it’s mid-afternoon by local standards, and the pork and rice stalls are shutting up shop.

And it’s cold this morning—the sun is hidden and there’s a cool breeze. It’s exciting, to feel chilly here, and I suddenly remember my dream: that I was somewhere cold and drizzly, like London, and that the air felt crisp on my cheeks, almost stinging to breathe. It’s funny—I’ve been homesick for fog, for foggy mornings, when the dense mist rushes past and the world feels quiet and still and small.

And it doesn’t feel that way this morning, but it feels close. Close-ish. There’s something almost Italian in the weather—the way the clouds sit in the sky, a feel to the air—crisp but twinged with exhaust—that reminds me, not of an ancient quarter, but of the industrial outskirts of a Italian town—Grottaglie, or that cheap hotel we stayed out way outside of Venice, with its gravely road and teenagers and 40-minute bus to the tourist canals and massive train station.

Which is ridiculous—there is absolutely nothing Italian about Phnom Penh. The smells are of fermented fish sauce and trash, steam buns instead of fresh-baked bread; the old women wear pajama suits instead of dresses, the men loose button-up shirts that hang off their sharp limbs, instead of sweaters over their big bellies and those old-school newsie caps. There’s a chaos to the street—welding shops and electric lights and women in face masks weaving between SUVs—that you wouldn’t find anywhere in Europe, even in Italy.

But there’s something in the morning that makes me nostalgic for something I can’t quite name, that reminds me of a place that isn’t quite here. We stop in front of schools—big broad buildings with mounted emblems and security guards, receptionists who take my resume disinterestedly—and I’m in and out in under 2 minutes, in most cases.

We crawl out of the city center—past gas stations and narrow pitted roads, shops with rows of potted plants—and I think of how big this city is, and how I only ever see a very small part of it. I watch, observe the sort of dance of it all that I can’t see when I’m walking in it, or snared in traffic, or sweating in the mid-day sun. And I’m kind of in awe, I realize. It occurs to me that I haven’t been in awe at all, this whole time—been so focused on not being fazed, being blasé and un-culture-shocked, that I haven’t just sat back and reveled in it.

I Skyped with a friend the day before, the familiar posters on the wall, flannel shirts and winter coats scattered across the room. I was telling him some ridiculous story—something about a chicken and a street dog and a hand-tractor full of staring eyes—and he laughed and said, “Yo, do you realize how cool that is? That you just get to be there, and have these experiences?”

And it didn’t strike me in that moment as naive; it didn’t strike me as something said by someone who hasn’t gotten to travel much, hasn’t ever left the Western world, someone who’s easily impressed by my stories, for whom even the mundane details of my daily life seem like adventure. His comment struck me in that moment as true.

I sit back in the tuk-tuk, as we bounce through the city, and I just watch. I smile. I don’t worry about being the Tough Traveler; I just let myself revel.

It’s 11am by the time I get back to my apartment. I pay the driver and step out of the tuk-tuk. The fresh breeze is gone; the clouds are heavy; the air is swampy.

The morning is gone and the spell is broken.

They’re Not Rat Turds, They’re Gecko Turds!

So, I’d been finding these on my terrace every morning:

Turds. Little fucking turds, a sprinkling of them. Festive, really, and one of the many reasons that sweeping one’s apartment is an activity that should occur on a daily basis (it doesn’t).

But I was willing to roll with it as long as the feces-confetti was contained to outer premises. I mean, there’s not a lot you can do about creatures crawling up on your balcony. The inside was where I drew the line.

But then finally, one morning, I walked into the kitchen, lit on the burner on my little camper stove, reached for some coffee and… they were there. Two little turds, right there on the counter.

I didn’t freak out, per se, but I was severely bummed. There’s a lot of “wildlife” that makes it into my life here, even in the city: ants and mosquitoes and insects and these fucking flying beetles that dive-bomb your face at night like miniature fighter jets. It’s why you get an apartment with screens on every single window (which I failed to do). It’s why I drew anti-ant chalk lines around every corner of every room, and why I finally forwent my eco-consciousness and purchased a can of Raid, which I now spray with zeal and frequency usually reserved for air freshenesr. Whatever, I’m adjusting—I’m from the Bay Area, and we don’t have this kind of shit there.

But we do have rodents: mice and rats. I’ve lived in houses and apartments with them, and they are no fucking fun. (An old boyfriend, living in one of Oakland’s more notorious punk houses, would sit up in the middle of the night and hiss like a cat when the rats in his room got too loud.) Putting out traps, removing the splattered bodies from the traps, opting for sticky paper, removing the little feet the desperate rats have tried to gnaw off in an attempt to escape—there’s no fun way to deal with them. And that morning, presented with two pristine specimens, I felt like I was looking upon two tiny calls to arms.

I scoured my kitchen, but couldn’t find any other evidence of them: no nibbled remains, no entry points. All my food was either in the fridge or in tightly sealed glass jars, and there were no holes in the walls or floors—the little fuckers would have had to crawl through window. It seemed rather dexterous, but possible.

After stalking around, eating my cereal, watering my plants and sweeping up the outside turds, I went down to the market to buy produce. There’s a soup stall I like, where massive metal bowls of different concoctions sit on cement blocks, above smoldering coals. I like the pumpkin fish soup, and it’s only 25 cents for serving, so I’m there all the time.

I was waiting amid the motorbikes and waving limbs of the other customers when I saw a friend walk by. We stood in the street, squinting and using our hands as sun visors, and chatted. I told her my story of woe.

She grinned. “I’ve got good news for you.”

I gave her a suspicious look.

“No, really. Was there a little white tip on the turds?”

“Yeah.”

She nodded. “They’re not rat turds. They’re gecko turds.”

“Thank God!” I exclaimed. Geckos are totally clean, they eat bugs, they make cute little squeaky noises (or big bellowing noises, if they’re larger) and they look damn cool, posted on the walls like those sticky toys we used to get from the quarter-prize machines.

I bought my soup, thanked my friend for yet another valuable insight, and trundled home to my apartment—NOT infested with rodents.

A small victory, but a victory nonetheless. Would rather, you know, they didn’t shit all over my counters and floors, but I’ll take what I can get.

A Christmas Miracle: Cambodian Yankee Doo Rag and Why Giving Is Better Than Receiving

So, remember that photo in the last post of the baby in a doo rag? Well, thanks to technology, a keen sense of irony and a friend willing to tote a shopping bag of presents back to the States of me, this was able to happen:

This is my youngest nephew Ethan, back in San Francisco, sporting the latest in Cambodian infant fashion. The photo appeared in my Inbox this morning. It was a nice Christmas treat, seeing as though the previous day’s attempt the Skype into Christmas Eve was foiled by a faulty wifi connection.

But how, you may wonder, did this fine piece of headwear reach young Ethan? The more savvy among you will know that Cambodia has a woeful postal system—as in, there basically isn’t one. There’s no mailmen; I’ve been told all the city’s PO Boxes are currently full; even so, you frequently receive other people’s letters in your PO Box, and vice versa; and, fun tidbit, private postal companies will only track packages until they reach Cambodia—at which point parcels enter a literal black hole and arrive 2 months later, at a rate of 50/50. While sending packages tends to be more successful than receiving them, you’ve still gotta go through a private company like DHL or UPS, whose rates for letters begin at $50.

So much finagling was done to bring Ethan this small slice of patriotism. Let’s retrace the journey together:

1. Meet up with a friend earlier this month at a “Christmas Village Craft Sale”—because it sounds like a hoot and what else are you up to on a Sunday afternoon? Pursue the array of shiny shit glittering under the pulse of epileptic lighting and mention, somewhat wistfully, how easy it’d be to buy presents for your nieces in a country where the pervading cultural aesthetic is akin to a 6-year-old girl’s brain on amphetamines. Your friend, who’s traveling to the States to spend Christmas with her boyfriend’s family, spontaneously offers to take a load of gifts with her and ship them from Seattle. Accept before she can change her mind.

2. Run around town finding small, light-weight gifts for people. For grown-ups, get boring, tasteful grown-up stuff, such as a krama scarf and a selection of Kampot peppers. For the kids, embrace the tacky: an Angry Birds t-shirt, glittery headbands, pink poofy hair clips. For the older kids—being your sister, and 18-year-old nephew—get ironic shit: t-shirts with nonsensical English words and an Apple logo, a cassette tape of Khmer pop, a bling kit (fake cellphone and gold chains used as offerings at altars). Chuckle to yourself, and consider the fact that you might be having more fun buying these presents than anyone could possibly have receiving them.

3. Wrapping: What’s cooler than gifts wrapped in newspaper? Gifts wrapped in Khmer newspaper. Khmer looks really cool, all squiggly and swirly; buy a stack of old papers at the market for 12 cents. Remember, once you get home and start wrapping, how much Cambodian newspapers like to publish pictures of dead bodies—motorbike accidents and murder victims. While perhaps the 18-year-old would find this culturally interesting, you figure this is not what a 2- or 6-year-old wants to see on Christmas morning. Carefully cut these photos out.

4. Hand off presents to Bel. Thank her profusely.

5. KEEP IT A SECRET! Holiday surprises are fun, and what’s more of a surprise than getting gifts from your daughter/sister/aunt from the anti-postal nethers of Southeast Asia? Well, a lot of things, but it’s still pretty cool. So do not mention any of this during your weekly Skype date with your parents.

6. Get up Christmas morning, which is Christmas Eve in California, and hurriedly make coffee and get on the computer and wait to connect to your family. The video will be out again, which is a major bummer, and you’ll spend 20 minutes trying to connect through FB video chat and iChat and AIM, but none of it will go through. Realize how much you were looking forward to seeing everyone. Cry.

But before you get off, your mom will tell you how a mysterious package arrived that morning. It had no return address, but they could see from the stamps that it was from Washington. They don’t know anyone in Washington. So they opened the package to try and figure out who it was supposed to go to—maybe it was sent to their address by accident—and they saw a bunch of little gifts, and they saw a card, and they thought—“Well, we’d better open the card to see who these are for.”

“And then we read the card, and it was from you!”

Smile. Your mom will say it was highlight of her day.

Then the connection will cut out.

So when you wake up the next morning, after a Christmas spent nursing another stomach flu, and see a pic of little smiley Ethan in his Cambodian Yankee chic, it’ll be pretty fucking sweet. It’ll be the highlight of your Christmas, and you’ll cry a little again—not because you feel far from home, like last time, but because you feel a little closer.

New China Paris Texas Snoop Leo Hair Cut: International Cambodian Man Style

Naysayers be damned. While Cambodians may not be able to travel as freely as other nationalities, there’s a lot of international influence here in Phnom Penh. Take style. Men’s hair styles, to be specific. You’ve got, of course, the regionally ubiquitous K-Pop hair, but it doesn’t stop there.

Behold: international stylings for men.

China in the front, Paris in the back. Or something.

Doo rag. Start em young, start em right.

Despite the advertising, you sadly cannot get cornrows at this salon.

Bieber Fever hasn’t quite hit here. We’re still on the Leo/1997 kick.

If anyone needs me, I’ll be getting my hair did.

Expatification: My First Week Goes Live

So remember what I was saying a few weeks back about y’all having to follow more links? I wasn’t lying.

I had two pieces about my first-week adjustments go live this week on Matador. The first, “How To Rock in Phnom Penh,” is about tromping off to the Dengue Fever show while I was recovering from a stomach flu, and sussing out the very peculiar social scene here. It’s also about realizing, “Holy shit, I’m here.”

The second, “How 12-Step Slogans Helped Me in Phnom Penh,” is a far dorkier account of using program tools to keep myself from totally using losing my cool. (Don’t mention specific programs, so Tradition 11 is safe and sound!)

It was weird to practice restraint and not post my first-week experiences immediately on my blog (sucker for the instant gratification). But it’s something I’ll be getting used to.

It’s also nice to have these go up this week, as I’ve been feeling monumentally frustrated with the freelance process. You know—you pour all this time and energy into pitches and submissions, and you think they’re pretty good, and at least half the ones you send never even earn responses. So it’s not even like you can figure out what you did poorly or how to improve. It can get really demoralizing.

But it’s all part of the game, part of the hustle, and besides—this is the path I chose. And I can always unchoose it, go back to waiting tables in the States. (Or not.) So, yeah, just nice to feel a little gratification is what’s otherwise been a dismal month in the life of a freelancer.

So read away, friends.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Phnom Penh

Note: The literary nerds among you will recognize this as a rip-off play on Wallace Steven’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

1. Lisa, American, 1.5 years:
“You get a lot of big egos,
people who think
they’re hot shit.
But you have to remember:
we’re all here cause
we can’t hack it out there”—
points outside,
beyond the street,
to the West—
“in the real world.”

2. Tommy, British, 6 years off-and-on
“Where else could I”—
hand tattoos and a missing eye—
“get a job teachin?”

3. Steven, American, 4 years
“This city’s a dangerous place
to have money
and a drinking problem.”

4. Kate, Australian, 7 months
“People do
what they can get away with:
drinking all day, sleeping
with prostitutes,
saying racist shit.”
Stirs margarita.
“This city reduces you
to what you really are.”

5. Sasha, American, 1 month
“I’ve never been anywhere
where I’ve felt so manic.”

6. Hank, American, 4 years
“In the time I’ve been here,
I’ve quit my job, no shit,
5 times. And each time,
whatever I’d lined up next
fell through. So”—
shrugs—“at a certain point, I just decided:
I’m gonna stay here
until I learn whatever lessons
I’m supposed to.”

7. Clare, American, 3 years
“It’s not that easy,
just picking up and leaving.
I have 19 employees, women
who depend on me
for their livelihoods.
But at the same time”—
looks out the tuk-tuk
at the street—
“I know I need to leave soon.
I can’t get stuck.”

8. Lisa (again)
“The thing about it is,
it all becomes normal.
You realize,
the guys sleeping with prostitutes—
they’re not all creepy and weird,
like you’d expect.
Most of them are totally normal.”
Surveys the bar
in one sweeping glance.
“I guess that’s the strangest thing:
how normal it all is.”

9. Boy in cafe, American accent, time unknown
“I can’t tell you
how many times it’s happened—
I go for an interview;
they ask me
to do a draft of a project;
they never call me back, but
they steal my ideas.”
Tosses pen across the table.
“They’re lazy
and sneaky
and can’t think for themselves.”

10. Martin, American, 6 years
“Whenever I get into that place,
you know,
when all of Cambodia
has got it wrong—
when no one knows how to drive
and every police officer is trying to get a bribe outta me—
that’s when I know I’ve got to sit down
and take a good long look
at me.”

11. Michelle, Australian, 3 years
“I tried.
Of course I tried.
But it’s hard to have Khmer friends
when you can’t tell them
you live with your boyfriend,
and they have be home
by 8 every night.”

12. Lisa (again)
“You totally just blew that guy off.
You do realize
that’s the last time
a white guy’s gonna hit on you
for a loooong time.”

13. Billy, British, 5 months
“There’s a lot of people like you,
moving here
cause it’s cheap
and they can do their art.
It’s not so different
from people moving to different cities
within a country
cause it’s cheaper and easier.”
Grins.
“I think it’s exciting.
Like Paris in the 20s.
Or something.”

Jogging Where Tanks Once Rolled

Aerobic dancing at Olympic Stadium

3pm, barefoot in the dim room, whirling fans and headphones on, staring at the screen. It’s my first trip back to the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, where I spent hours last spring, trolling through their archives of documentaries and newsreels and scanned photographs of the old Phnom Penh, before the war—which, it seems to me today, doesn’t look so different from the Phnom Penh outside the open-air terrace, just minus the new cars and sidewalks. Sometimes.

I’m back to refresh myself. I’m working on editing my second Glimpse piece. I wrote it over the summer and haven’t looked at it in months, so when I got Sarah’s comments, it all felt vague and faraway. I knew I needed something to kickstart me.

To be honest, I haven’t been thinking much about my project, or the Khmer Rouge, or any of it. Last time I’d arrived, it’d been on my mind constantly, a lens I saw everything through: everyone over 35 was a survivor. I couldn’t turn it off, and I’d hit the ground running, dove right in to the research and writing, the quest to understand.

And it’s not like I’ve forgotten all that—I can feel it, sitting there, off to the side and waiting, in the corner of the room when I can’t sleep at night—but my focus has been elsewhere. Getting an apartment. Buying all the crap I need—dishes and towels and non-neon-plastic chairs and Western bedsheets (really effing hard to find, btw). Reconnecting with the friends I’ve got left, and making new ones. Getting a phone and internet and finding a good laundry place and all that very unglamorous day-to-day stuff that’s part of life, part of living somewhere.

So I’ve pushed it all aside, knowing that it was waiting and that I’d come to it when I was ready (and, really, I’ve only been back two weeks). So it was with a little hesitation that I went to Bophana, took off my shoes and climbed the steps, climbed back in to The Reason I Came, and the thick-as-mud emotional difficulty of it all.

Most of the newsreels are in French, and I watch ones from the Thai refugee camps, 79-80; I watch the same newscaster in different suits, and fish out token words of French: “famine,” “guerre,” “mort.” Mostly I look at the faces, which are shell-shocked and gaunt.

I scroll down, down, down the list of archives, never-ending, thinking how long it would take someone to watch it all. I see “Rediscovered Propaganda Films” and click on it. There’s an English dubbed version, which is exciting. I watch and listen.

They show short films produced during the Khmer Rouge and narrate. They show staged shots from the camps, aerials of people like ants, carrying hoes and buckets, balanced on a stick over their shoulders, the way the soup ladies at the market do. They show close-ups of carefully selected workers smiling; they point out child workers and how to tell who was a New Person and who was an Old Person. They show clips of a poorly acted film Pol Pot directed, shortly before the regime fell—men reenact the defeat of Lon Nol’s army, twitching on the ground with arrows arranged around their bodies. The film was never made, and the shots I see now, in the dim viewing room, were assembled from found reels. I imagine them on a dirty floor somewhere, curled and brown.

The narrator points out inconsistencies: no one was supposed to have bourgeois personal items like watches or eyeglasses. But here’s Pol Pot, that smiling cult leader face, wearing a watch, and here’s Brother Number Three, wearing glasses, and here’s the regional leader Brother Number Two snubs, who’s later deemed a traitor and tortured and destroyed, along with his family. They freeze the frame on him, and he’s smiling, smiling.

This scene is at a party meeting; women with Soviet semi-automatic weapons march, and US artillery tanks roll past, left over from Lon Nol’s time. The setting looks vaguely familiar, and the narrator says: “The meeting took place in the otherwise empty Phnom Penh, at the Olympic Stadium.”

Holy shit, I think. Olympic Stadium is in the city center, near the guesthouse I stayed at when I arrived. Every dawn and dusk, they do aerobic dancing there, and people run and powerwalk and swing their limbs around; food vendors set up carts and plastic stools, and men play soccer in the dirt lot outside.

It’s my favorite place to go running in the city. In fact, I’m planning on going for a jog there tonight.

I squint at the screen and it’s all there: the steps I run, the contour of the stone tiers, the spires of the Royal Palace rising in the background. It’s newer and cleaner and nicer in the footage, but it’s the same place.

I don’t know what to do with that.

I walk back to my apartment with a funny little feeling in my stomach, like I’ve seen a ghost—like I’ve gotten up in the middle of night and everything familiar looks strange and different, and the thing that was sitting there waiting for me isn’t in the corner anymore but is moving across the room.

I put on my running shoes and spray some more mosquito repellent on, grab a water and go back downstairs, to the street to catch a motorbike over to the stadium.

It’s surreal when I get there. I walk past the rows of motorbikes and cars, the tuk-tuks covered in ads for the new Twilight movie. Teenage boys stare at me as I walk past their soccer game, say “Hello, hello!”

I walk beside the arena, which is locked and closed, my own face in the tinted windows. It was where the meeting had been, in the newsreel. I walk past where the shot of Pol Pot wearing a watch was, where Brother Number Two and Brother Number Three had trailed behind him, wearing eyeglasses and giving silent death sentences to smiling men.

A young boy carries a sack on his shoulder. He picks a plastic bottle out of the trash.

He walks closer to me, his eyes scouring the ground of recyclables.

I say hello, in Khmer, hand him my empty water bottle.

He smiles and puts it in his sack.

I say thank you, and walk towards the track, to jog where the tanks once rolled.

A Not Entirely Atypical Tuk-Tuk Ride Home

9pm so I give him a good stare down, check the eyes for red and glaze and drunkenness. I watch the way he walks to the tuk-tuk, parked a few feet away from where we’ve haggled the fare. He walks straight enough to drive straight, so I sigh and start to climb in.

“Ok,” he says, sitting down on the bike, “7000.”

I pause, my foot on step. “No, 6000,” repeating the fare we agreed to.

A grin. “Ok, ok, 6000.”

I sit and he sits. He throws a look back at me.

“You want to smoke weed?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“I don’t want to.”

“You no smoke weed?”

I smile and play it coy, “No, I’m a good girl.”

“Oh. I thought you were mafia.”

“Oh, really?”

“I see your tattoo, I thought you mafia.”

“No,” shake my head, “not mafia.”

He throws his helmet on. He doesn’t clip the chin strap.

We take off and turn the corner and it’s the usual questions: where did I make my tattoos? (USA) Is that where I’m from? (Yes) How many? (I don’t know) How much it cost? (A lot. But it should, it lasts forever.) Do I like them? (which is not a usual question and I smile: Yes.)

“But you no smoke weed?”

“No.”

“You no want to be happy?”

“I’m already happy.”

“But you be more happy.”

“Not if I smoke weed.”

“Oh, you smoke weed before?”

“Long time ago. When I was young. But I’m old now.” (Coy again, and I think how, broken language aside, it’s not so different from conversations I have with backpackers or college kids or, fuck it, my own peers, in bars or at shows—not entirely atypical.)

He speaks pretty good English and he’s driving straight enough and even knows where we’re going, so all things said, he’s a damn good tuk-tuk driver. We move through the pitted streets, slowly settling from their daily buzz—meat smoke thinning, piles of trash waiting for pick-up.

More questions, his eyes in the side mirrors more than on the road: How long will I be in Cambodia? (One year) What do I do for work? (smile: I’m a writer) I live in a guesthouse or apartment? (bigger smile: Guesthouse tonight, but tomorrow I move to an apartment) You live with roommate or alone? (another smile: Alone) Why alone? (I want to) I come live with you? (No) Why? (I want to live alone)

We approach the Orussey Market: lights and umbrellas and neon plastic stools and buses parked and smoke, still plenty of smoke billowing and twisting and rising into the night. I tell him the name of my guesthouse.

“Oh, you stay there alone?”

“Yes.”

“I come stay with you?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“I don’t want you to.”

“You no like boys?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You like girls?”

“I didn’t say that either.”

We pull up in front, parked motorbikes in the glow of the reception desk, long shadows of security guards sitting listless in plastic chairs. I pull out the bills and step out of the tuk-tuk, hand them to him.

He takes off his helmet. “Goodnight, madam.”

“Goodnight sir.”

“Sleep good.”

“You too.”


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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