Posts Tagged 'phnom penh'



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.”

Arriving Back in My New Home: Anti-Culture Shock and A Broken Necklace

In the shower this morning, rinsing the dried sweat of night chills from my dehydrated, gasping body, I noticed it: my necklace was gone.

When I came out of the bathroom, I saw it there, tangled and delicate, next to the pillow, the sheets that had stayed miraculously white during my 2-day readjustment sickness. It wasn’t my favorite necklace, an innocuous dangle of silver that clung close to the skin. At some point over the years, it’d become my traveling necklace—I’d put it on one of the first days of a trip, then just leave it, forget about until I’d noticed myself absently fingering the chain, digging the tip of the winged heart under my nails.

I picked it up. The chain had broken.

I smiled. If this were a novel, it’d be a metaphor.

I arrived in Phnom Penh nearly a week ago—flew in, which I hadn’t done before, but even at the airport, that familiar smell of mildew and cooking rice, overripe fruit and a faint whiff of urine underlying it all. I took a taxi (when’s the next time I’ll be in a car?), and we rumbled over pitted roads exploded with smoking meat, food stalls, cell phone shops, baskets of fruit, motorbikes and bodies, bodies everywhere. It didn’t seem insane or lawless or overwhelming—it just felt really good.

I dumped my bags at the guesthouse—the first one I’d gone to, back in February, which made it feel like I was coming full circle—and went out for an early evening stroll. My feet knew the way, my feet remembered how to traverse the traffic, how to cross the street (slow and steady and smooth), my feet took me to the pharmacy and a corner market and a street stall where I sat on a plastic stool and ate soup for $1. I went down the block to the sticky rice stall; I bought bananas for the next morning. I bought a giant fucking coconut, and the little lady hacked it open with a machete and stuck a straw in it and I took my first sip and, after 4+ months of $3 Vita Coco, a long sigh was unleashed in me.

Which is all basically to say I’ve been experiencing an extreme and bizarre lack of culture shock. I had more culture shock entering Albania from Italy, or any time I’ve reentered the US after traveling. What is about this place? How did it come to feel like home, after only a couple months last Spring?

I’ve spent the last few days hitting up my favorite cafes and street stalls and going to meetings and jogging at Olympic Stadium and trolling the town for For Rent signs (and getting one of those requisite, paralyzing stomach flus that gives you chills in 90 degree weather, that leave you sleek and lean and mean after, ready to take over the town). And all the while, I’ve kind of been looking over my shoulder, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I’d expected my arrival back to be something like the final scene of The Graduate. All this effort and stress and energy and hullabaloo, goodbyes and good riddances, and then a month+ of traveling, cruising around the planet in the most unprepared and overpacked of fashions. I’d been kind of delaying it, you know, worried that I’d get back here and it’d be like that moment at the back of bus when Elaine looks over at Ben and he just stares forward and you see them both thinking—“Well now what the fuck?”

And I suppose there’s still time for that. Plenty of time, and I suppose there’ll be moments of that. But so far, all I’ve had is this feeling of being, not home, but somewhere close to home. I’d been doubting myself right up to the very end, right up till my Air Asia plane hit the tarmac. But more than ever, I keep having this feeling that I’ve made the right decision, that I’m in the right place.

I’m here. Really here. I’m not traveling anymore—just look at the necklace.


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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