International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Cambodia
was there as a part of an English-teacher training programme. The
programme started out in Thailand and then moved onto a tour of
Phnom Penh University; it aimed to expose the potential teachers
to other work environments. I have always been interested in Cambodia
and so was excited at the chance of seeing it, in going on an adventure.
But even with the romance of it in my mind the first thing I noticed
while on the Tuk-Tuk, going from the airport to the guesthouse,
was how underdeveloped Phnom Penh was even in comparison
to Dhaka and that most of the people I saw on the roads were
The guesthouse I
stayed in was close to the newest shopping mall in Phnom Penh, which
was famous for being the first place in Cambodia with escalators. Some
teachers and staff attached with the programme were also staying there.
The regional chief teacher trainer and head of the Cambodia programme
was a man named Robert. He was an American who had been living in that
part of the world since the seventies. He spoke Thai and Khmer as well
as any forang might have. He was also kind of kooky and
somehow made me think that he was the modern equivalent of a swashbuckling
pirate, the type one would see in old movies or old books. I liked him
straight away and felt that I could trust what he said.
The two other teachers staying there were actually quite young, both
were in their twenties. The first was Tom, an Australian stockbroker,
who had taken a year off from work to travel, and then had somehow met
up with the teacher-training programme and became a teacher in Phnom
Penh University. Tom was funny; a man who had never grown out of the
wise-ass slacker attitude he must have had when he was younger. He said
he liked Phnom Penh, though he did feel that being white
he was a little bit on display most of the time.
The other guy was Andy. He was from Chicago and fresh out of college.
He told me that he was supposed to work in Vietnam but changed his mind
and came to Phnom Penh. "Cambodia is mad chill," he said.
"Vietnam is much more uptight. This place is so much more fun."
Finally there was Choch, the resident Cambodian concierge, a cute little
Khmer woman with a fiery temperament. She spoke English as well as any
local I had yet come across (including in Thailand) and had the peculiar
habit of being a rambler; if she started talking it was pointless to
try and get a word in edgewise. But I liked her anyway; she seemed nice,
although she did keep blaming the guests for being a lot of trouble
all the time.
On my first night the people in the guesthouse decided to go out and
take in the city. All of us, including Robert and Choch, took two Tuk-Tuks
and started the night at a nice restaurant. There at dinner, I found
out that Cambodia had two official currencies: the Khmer Riel and the
US dollar. Everyone paid in dollars most of the time, using the Riel
which was valued really cheaply at four thousand real to one
dollar only for spare change.
"This is freakin weird," I said to Robert, holding the dollar
and seventeen hundred riels in change.
"This is Cambodia," he replied. "This is the Wild West.
After dinner we all went to a club for foreigners. The club was made
up of two large rooms, one for the bar and the other for the dance floor.
In the far end of the barroom was a balcony that overlooked the Mekong.
The dance floor was full of drunk white foreigners and their local companions.
The novel thing about the place was that it was Mexican-themed and the
staff was dressed up like what the Mexicans might look like in Hollywood-Westerns.
Their costumes were complete: with sombreros, heavy ponchos, and shoulder
belts holstering shot glasses. It was quite absurd. Standing with Tom
at the balcony, looking at it all from the outside, I said: "What
sort of insane place is this? Why is there a Khmer there dressed up
as a Mexican pushing tequila?"
"I know mate," he replied. "Can you believe youre
still in Cambodia?"
I nodded to him in agreement and kept looking at the scene for some
time from the balcony, sometimes switching off to look at the Mekong
below and remind myself I was still in Cambodia.
It was a harsh awakening the next day. The windows in my room did not
have any curtains and faced East. I awoke with the morning sunlight
hitting me directly in the face; it was the visual equivalent of a bullhorn
blast two inches from the ear. When I came out of the room I saw that
Robert and Choch were already sitting in the office, drinking coffee
and making up a lesson plan for teaching Khmer.
"Morning champ. Youre up early." Said Robert.
"Good morning," said Choch.
"Morning," I moaned in reply. "My room doesnt have
any curtains and the sun hit me really hard this morning."
"Sorry about that," laughed Robert. "Youre only
here for a couple of days, so it wont really be that bad."
"I guess." I shuddered at the thought of having to wake up
like that again.
"Get dressed though. Were going to go to the university for
you to take a look at the place."
"Do I need to dress formally?" I asked.
"Nope," replied Robert.
We went to the university on Roberts motorbike. Sitting on the
back gave me a great look of Phnom Penh in the daytime. It was a well-planned
city, with broad and straight roads that intersected each other at right
angles, breaking up the neighborhoods into neat and organized blocks.
The main highways were six lane roads and I did not see any traffic
"I know what youre thinking," said Robert. "This
city is really well planned. Driving here is great. No one follows the
rules though but since everyone drives so slowly its impossible
to get into a real accident."
"How fast are you going?"
"Twenty three miles an hour and itll still only take half
an hour to get from one end of the city to the other. The city is pretty
small and the roads are completely free. But streets are called Rues
here. Its the French-colonization thing."
Robert acted the tour guide the rest of the way. But he avoided any
questions I asked about the violent history of Cambodia, explained that
it was an internal thing and it would not be right to ask too many questions
about what had happened. "The way I figure it is that they really
dont like talking about it to the outsiders. Maybe it might change
with the trials." He added: "To them it is more important
to look forward rather than backwards. They want to leave the genocide
behind them. I think its a good thing that they are trying to
move on. But well see what happens."
Roberts guided tour of the university lasted about ten minutes.
He had to meet the director and so just left me to myself to wander
and look around for myself. The place was full of young staffers, many
of whom must have had grown up in exile and had come back because there
was now peace: most of them spoke English with diverse Western accents,
from the straight American to Northern-Italian. I noticed Tom and Andy
after a little bit of walking around and went up to them to say Hi.
"Hey mate," Tom said in his Aussie manner upon seeing me.
"Hows it going fellas?" I replied. "You guys had
"Yeah," replied Andy. "But were done for the day
and going back to the house. You gonna come along?"
"Sure. But Im here with Robert. Need to tell him first so
that he doesnt start looking."
"Not a problem," Andy said directly. "Im heading
to the Directors office anyway to drop of some documents. Will
save you the walk and tell him."
"No problem." Andy said and left for the office.
"Hey, theres Sam," pointed Tom. "Shes from
England. Been here for six months. She likes dark fellas. Her last
boyfriend was Khmer."
"Hey fellas," said Sam as she walked up to us. She was extremely
thin and very soft-spoken. Her accent was thick and almost sounded Scottish.
Sam later explained that she was from Northern England, a place close
to Sheffield. She also explained that people there were called Geordies
and what she had was a Geordie accent.
"Hey, Sam," replied Tom. "You met this young man here.
Hes here as a part of the programme from Thailand. He came with
"ello, name is Samantha. How are ya?" she cooed. Cooing was
the only way to describe the way Samantha spoke. She would have been
great at reciting lullabies; her voice was calming and soporific. It
was nice to hear but that softness, combined with the thick accent made
it hard to understand her.
"Hello," I replied carefully. "Tom said youve been
here six months. What do you think of the place?"
"I likes it pretty fine. Its a little hard about food but
I gets by."
Dinner was just the four of us; Robert and Choch were not around. We
four decided to walk around for awhile and pick out a place which looked
good. We eventually settled on a Karaoke restaurant; one out of the
many that sprinkled the city in the same manner as fast food chains
did elsewhere. As we were walking in I noticed that there was a line
of girls sitting up front by the entrance. I was about to ask one of
the others what the girls were doing there when a waiter ushered us
to follow her to our table. They seated us in a corner table lined by
three rows of tall potted plants, on the other side of which I could
hear the noise of street traffic and pedestrians.
I scanned the menu to order and was taken aback by an option in the
last page after the deserts, a couple of line spaces underneath
was listed: Karaoke Girl
"What is this?" I asked the table.
"Its exactly what you think it is mate," replied Tom.
"Those girls up front. You pick one and they come up and sit with
you at the table."
"And then what?" I asked, had to just hear it said.
"She comes and sits with you at the table for the rest of the night,"
said Sam. "She becomes your date. Afterwards you can take her home
at no extra charge. Youve already paid for her for the night."
"Its like a trial run, her sitting a the table with you.
If you dont like her you dont have to take her back,"
"It makes the entire process such that youre not really buying
a hooker so much as ordering entertainment while you eat. They call
them Karaoke Girls, theyre supposed to sing for you while you
"And all this for eight bucks?"
"And whatever tip you might want to leave them," cooed Sam.
"They be hookers everywhere in this part of the world,
as you musta seen. But these Karaoke restaurants makes it like a date."
"And you can order it off the menu," I pointed out.
"Hey mate," replied Tom. "You have not been to the Russian
market yet. You can buy live landmines there. I dont know why
anyone would want to do that but theyre still there for sale."
We laughed about it all for a little longer: about the Mexican club,
the money, the Karoake girls (local points, which we with our alien
understandings found novel, absurd or amusing). Sam teased that we were
all big boys and that we ought to get a Karaoke girl to see what it
would be like. I was also quite curious about what the girls might be
like. I wondered whether or not they would be able to speak English;
I assumed that they probably had to deal with foreigners a lot and so
they must have needed the use of the language.
The next day was my flight back. I said goodbye to the others and thanked
them for showing me around Phnom Penh. Robert bought me lunch at from
a duty free kiosk while we waited for our flight back. I asked him whether
or not he had been to the Killing Fields. He said that he had gone and
that if I had stayed in Cambodia longer, I probably might have gone
to see it and Ankhor Watt.
"You can take classes on the history of Khmer Rouge at the Thai
consulate," he said.
"Why is it that the Thai consulate gives these classes and not
a Cambodian organization?" I said in an indignant manner.
"Dont rock the boat too much Champ," Robert replied.
"What happened is their business. And the Khmers have a way of
shutting down against things that they find uncomfortable. The truth
is that they are trying to move on. Maybe the trails will help or maybe
itll just be for show. All they can do is hope. This place is
terribly corrupt. And with all the new money from oil all set to come
in over the next couple of years things are just going to get worse.
But still some of it might just get to the people."
"But what about their history?" I said. "Dont you
think that its important for them to remember the genocide."
"Theyve never forgotten it. You might not understand it,
but its everywhere. How many old people have you seen in Cambodia?
There are very few over forty in this country, so many of them died
in war. Almost everyone has a list of close relatives that were killed
in the war or in the camps. What happened is not something they will
forget anytime soon."
Robert and I spoke no more about the topic after that; we switched to
what there was still to do in Thailand. The flight back to Bangkok was
uneventful. The plane was almost empty and each of us were able stretch
out over our very-own isle. After Phnom Penh, Bangkoks Macdonalds
and Seven-Elevens made it feel like it was the developed world. I felt
that it was terrible that Macdonalds was now almost a sign of development.
© Shakil Rabbi Oct 2009
ssrabbi at gmail.com
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