Being surrounded by humans who live so differently from me or anyone I’ve met on my 39 rides around the Sun creates a feeling of detachment. Nothing connects me, a Serbian-South African with a strong Western influence, to any one individual who belongs to what’s left of the Khmer nation after those dimwits killed half of the population roughly forty years ago. Our habits have absolutely no common ground. Our appearances are on opposite sides of the human spectrum. I eat pap or bread as a staple, depending on whether I’m in the Balkans or in Zumaland. Cambodians eat rice as a staple. When I’m angry, I unleash centuries of accumulated fury and all Hell breaks loose. When the Cambodians are angry, which is already rare in itself, they turn around and calmly walk away.
When we’re on the street, they see me, but they mainly choose to ignore me, probably because I’m as weird to them as they are to me. It’s a comical situation, more than anything else, really. Thanks to my innate instincts, I’m able to catch the occasional curious female glance – the sort of look only women exchange between themselves –
Well, that’s all. No other real human interaction. This is why I’m able to exist in a transparent thought bubble like in 80s cartoons and make observations to myself. Let’s now hop aboard the 80s bubble together and find out what makes this fascinating land so Bollywoodesque.
4) The Fake Phone Shops
The below picture isn’t an illustration – it is the actual phone shop with accompanying material: selling counter, merchant, bar chairs, parasols, motorbike parked inside the shop, customer, Buddhist good luck signs written in hanzi whose purpose is to catch an observant Chinese ass demanding some kissing.
I’ll have to distance myself from any prejudice like the good human I intend to be and say that I don’t have any proof that these phones are fake, however their prices and the proximity of Louis Vuitton Land suggest a possible connection. After all, I’ve seen Zara clothes “Made in Cambodia” on wobbly fashion racks on the side of the road opposite Occheuteal Beach and we all know that Thailand has entire stores with under-the-counter branded items from local factories, so I don’t see why this system wouldn’t also be valid for these phones one can find in stores across the street from Snookyville Central Market. Perhaps the phones are “fake” because they don’t physically belong to the Western manufacturer as a result of abuse of authority of a factory employee, but perhaps they were plain stolen from the conveyor belt and somehow made their way to shops everywhere in Asia. A short study conducted five minutes ago showed that the inscriptions on iPhones bought at the “fake store” in Sihanoukville fully match the inscriptions on original Steve Jobs products bought in the actual United States.
Anyhow – fake or not, these shops are precious sources of quality status symbol equipment such as Xiaomi and iPhone, for a cost I’d describe as more than fair. For instance, the best husband in the world bought a sparkling new iPhone 6 in November 2016 in Phnom Penh, used it like he was Secretary-General of the UN, and it still works impeccably 8 months later. I don’t remember exactly how much it was, but I do know it was under 280$ (not Zimbabwean!) at the time. Prices in Sihanoukville are more affordable than in the capital, but in Kampot you’re jumping into an abyss – they will go a further 40$ down the Trump scale. So if you’re thinking of heading to Cambodia, don’t get a new phone before your trip. Here, you’ll find not only phones, but all kinds of technical equipment: DSLR cameras, drones, external HDDs, earphones (yes, even Dre’s Beats), flash memory, power banks, etc. It all works and it’s all at a bargain.
2) Slumhead Beauty
We arrived to Sihanoukville in March 2017, and Google streetview pix from January ’14 tell us that the town changed a lot over the course of only three years. This would explain so many unfinished buildings scattered practically everywhere, from the town centre to remote areas close to Otres II Beach, which is about 15 km away. Our house is atop a small hill which overlooks the town and sits right next to a giga-busy road connecting Snooky to none other than His Imperial Majesty, the one and only Phnom Penh, the most beautiful ugly city on Earth. Now why am I describing my hood? Because it’s important to mention that there’s a shit ton of construction sites around my crib, and make-do shacks made from unidentified materials, built for workers who temporarily live on site.
This is where it gets bollywoodesque.
Think that, someplace along the long Khmer history path, women increasingly began holding a more important position in the famiry and in the difficult but rewarding monthly bonanza competition otherwise known as breadwinning. As a result, in 2017, approximately half of the construction workforce in this country is female. Baffling. Those women are women just like the rest of us and they need to buy mascara, take selfies, put nail polish etc. Our protagonist Slumhead Beauty does all that of course, but with style. Slumhead Beauty lives in a cardboard box, works on a construction site, regularly feeds her cat and washes her hair using a hose in the middle of the giga-busy road which leads to the capital city.
I knew no one would believe me so here is proof.
5) 1001 Business Owners
Similarly to how Slumhead Beauty doesn’t care the slightest bit about how the world sees her outdoor hygiene habits, shop owners in Cambodia ran out of fucks to give about what their customers might think of the fact that their drooling baby or aging grandmother, or both, are sitting on the floor right in the middle of the shop, minding their own business, eating noodles or, in the case of the drooling baby, candles from the obligatory Buddha altar. The mere scene screams Kusturica, even though I know I’m far from both the Artist Formerly Known as Emir and the Balkan Peninsula. Soon, other young members of the household will arrive and they’ll look at you with their big eyes, not saying a word, continuing to stare long after you’ve exhausted your range of boochie-boochie cheek pinches.
A few glimpses around the shop will quickly tell you that this entire family lives on the very same spot their business occupies. If you’ve been around long enough, it will become clear to you that the majority of the residents of this town lives exactly like this – inside the shops that they own. Whole families and accompanying family businesses, all under one single roof.
And they are the lucky ones: https://youtu.be/w2hz5abpJak
As we already know from fake phone places and motorbikes parked inside their establishment, this country doesn’t pay too much attention to the border between shop territory and the street. Let us now walk together to a typical Khmer street and find out which other limits Cambodians break in their everyday life. Here, put these plastic flip-flops on, it’s the most practical type of footgear for hiking on piles of trash and liquid trash. First, we see a restaurant and a bike repair shop one next to another. The restaurant has no running water, so an indoor kitchen is pointless. Yes indeed, who could spend all that time working inside in these temperatures? With this air humidity? That would be foolish. Dishes belonging to the restaurant are being washed and dried right on the pavement, allowing them to absorb exotic scents from the oncoming traffic in the process. The bike repair guy swings by, wiping sweat off his forehead, adding more dirt to the life-threatening mixture on the restaurant’s drying racks. At least three dogs idle around both shops, taking turns in licking their own butts, licking other dogs’ butts, and sniffing their territory, which includes the restaurant dishes.
After this picture, it becomes increasingly easier to endure other Cambodian oddities –
1) Dr Dara and His Bridge
Where to begin? Everything about my encounter with Dr Som Dara has been as hilarious as his name. Those of you who saw “Full Metal Jacket” are certainly familiar with how “dollar” is pronounced in this part of the world, which is something like darra. That’s coincidentally also the doctor’s surname. Anyway, I was suspecting high blood pressure at the time, so I wanted to check if I had reasons to worry, even though I’m not a 72-year old with Winston Churchill habits.
Expat Bible movetocambodia.com recommended Dr Dara so I phoned him and had a nice engaging conversation about my symptoms. I suggested an appointment timeslot, unaware of what awaits me literally around the corner. Another coincidence, that’s where he was living – not more than 1km down the hill from my house. Great – let’s go! The doctor gave us directions in which he mentioned passing over a bridge and continuing 50m down the road. “You will see the sign with my name on it just after the bridge”.
We followed his directions very closely, but found ourselves going much further down the initial road and finally even taking a big turn towards the sea docks. We phoned him. He said we were way too far. “You have to go back and drive for ten minutes” – the doctor instructed in perfect English. We went back and drove for ten minutes, exactly as he explained. He’s a doctor, after all, not a shady seller of instant baldness cures. There was no sign of anything resembling a bridge anywhere. Just the same dusty road we started on. We phoned him again, of course. After another tiresome dialogue with lots of useless descriptions of bridges, I carefully searched for canals, streams, industrial pipes, anything pointing to water. Nothing. After that, another close examination which didn’t even expose an upwards curve, or anything indicating a different structure. The big avenue was straight like Marlon Brando. Wooden planks over a miniature torrent? Not a chance. Cambodian cities don’t have addresses. Even express courier delivery here doesn’t operate on the basis of street numbers. So yes, there was no other way to find the office but to follow directions or to phone. Again. “Yes, yes, wait for me, I’m coming.”
We were still going over the same terrain looking for the same bridge when we saw the doctor arrive on his scooter: “You were lucky I had time to come and show you the way! Why didn’t you ask someone for directions?”
We did, doctor Dara, we did. Of course that everyone told us “no have” since they didn’t understand what we were asking, and continued watching soapies on their smartphones. Naturally, showing them a picture of the glorious Széchenyi Bridge in Budapest (my own Eurocentric example of a bridge, above) also didn’t help, and really, how could it?
How could it, when the bridge we’ve been overlooking was this:
In case you didn’t catch that, here’s another photo:
3) Threadmill Babe
The bike repair shop is located on a very busy intersection and has two immediate neighbours: Dusty Bacteria’s Paradise Eatery which I already painfully portrayed in point 5, and an elderly couple who somehow happens to own a threadmill, is willing to benefit from it, but doesn’t have the opportunity to store it at home. So now the machinery which normally belongs in a gym, school, playground or in some other vacant spot with clean air occupies an important part of road space right before the beginning of the busy intersection with bike repair shop guys wiping sweat off, dogs sniffing, hens and roosters pecking, motorbikes with more than three people aboard passing by, Homo Sapiens Sapiens children playing in the dirt, cars, restaurants on wheels offering their merchandise, the whole nine yards.
I’m sure whoever arrived this far can now assume from all other stories that this threadmill isn’t placed on the intersection without a good reason.
It’s the wife who usually spends time hyperventilating there, I saw the husband only once. She was seen sporting the following two clothing combinations: the middle-aged Cambodian women’s favourite outfit – the Pyjama, complete with badly rendered flowers and a melancholic shade of light green as the main theme colour; and black tracksuit + Nikes + elegant black long-sleeved blouse + dark green tennis headband.
I personally regard having witnessed this lady in action as one of the greatest achievements of my life so the brain freeze and subsequent lack of supporting evidence is understandable. Photographing her would be a step up on my personal success ladder, a rite of passage into the yet unknown realm of high-level personal accomplishment. Having her documented on video performing this surreal scene is unimaginable. I wouldn’t dare. I’d have to go undercover, and spend days choosing the perfect guise for my brutal plan. Another problem is that I haven’t seen them in quite a while, maybe they went exercising with the group of Chinese expats, who also mainly wear pyjamas for their workout sessions at the main bus station terminal. However, that will be material for the next set of surreal scenes. Cheers!