Cambodia: “Logic” in My New Life (or Lack Thereof)

(Note regarding last post: I admit naive existence by my reaction to Poipet, of all border towns, and am duly humbled and impressed by y’all’s courage under fire. I remain in anticipation of genuine notoriety ahead!)

Lunch was a hearty bowl of steaming soup. I dug in. . . . Uh-huh, I don’t eat that {{taking out a pig knuckle}} . . . Mmm, chicken feet {{chuck}}. . . Hadn’t had innards in a while {{chuck}}. . . What-is–??–{{scrutinizing from different angles. . . chuck}} . . . By the time I was ready to start there were a few noodles left in my bowl and four dogs waiting expectantly at my feet. Meals are a Fear Factor challenge without the prizes. The psychology part can be overcome, it boils down to digestive prowess—and a good medical evacuation plan.

A third world state of affairs bypass logic for lottery in Kampuchea. I was looking for a friend’s place and passed a row of houses addressed 41, 9, 243, 245, 9 (in that sequence, and yes you saw 9 twice). After a sufficient amount of cursing I looked around, hoping to find a baraing (foreigner), because even English-speaking Khmers are little help. (For no apparent reason street names or currency denominations will just change.) Postcards: one person in the entirety of the country was delegated monopoly on the photo stocks here, and capturing the unrefined splendor of Cambodia was not his forte. Mail: don’t bother. Internet: user-resistant. ATMs: none. Bring all the money you will need into Cambodia with you and stuff it under the mattress against your better judgment. I was told by the bank teller to go “upstairs” when I flashed my ATM Visa card. After two dark flights of stairs and down a narrow musty labyrinth I came upon a small closet of an office with a bare light bulb, one desk, and one very small old man with a receipt book who told me in French that the wires are down and please come again NEXT WEEK. As in, I clarified, many DAYS from now? Oui, he nodded.


Transport: There are bus stops but no buses. There are no taxis. Most roads even in the capital city of Phnom Penh are unpaved. Stop lights are a senseless piece of adornment to be ignored at convenience. I still spazz a twitch when my motodup makes a left on red and plows intrepidly into the oncoming traffic. While walking I look alertly in ALL directions, not just BOTH ways, because all manner of wheeled transport hum right along every crack of space, kicking up thick clouds of dirt which I am convinced obstruct reason somewhat. Public transportation comprise motodups (drivers with motorbikes) and cyclos (bicycle-driven rickshaws)– good luck communicating in ANY language theirs or yours. In eagerness to earn as much cash as possible, they nod affirmatively when asked about a destination, then rocket halfway to Vietnam before you realize in panic that this navigationally-challenged psychopath has not a drop of clue where you just told him to go.

First impressions indeed at Poipet. Infrastructure is in hideous disrepair. I am not an engineer, but watching foundation being laid is a worrisome sight. I cringe every time a truck drives by and shakes the building I’m in. On a decrepit one-lane bridge in Kandal province, as I erred in apprehension over a cheery gust of wind, unsecured planks of wood or steel shifted about beneath our tires. Drivers tear through the narrow roads, passing on the left, the right, on the grass, between pedestrians and streetside stalls– with chickens and livestock scurrying out of the way. I must mention that fellow riders are belting out folk songs throughout these suicide jaunts, while my life flashes before my popped-out eyeballs and thoughts along the lines of “WE’RE-ALL-GONNA-DIE” cycle through my consciousness.

I never worried about medical insurance in the US or while traveling, but statistically in this raw environment I have a high probability of needing emergency evacuation to Singapore or Thailand at some point. Regulation is cockeyed. Valium and Cipla are available over-the-counter, but in the latest blip of attempt at regulation, you need a letter from the Ministry of Health to obtain migraine medicine (hello? prescription?). As a result, microorganisms have reached critical levels of resistance to the bastions of antibiotics straight out of the pharmaceutical pipelines. Hygiene: what’s that? (Try not to eat in Cambodia). Medical and clinical science education: not accredited (Kudos to whoever braves a root canal in Cambodia). I want to tattoo a credit card number on my forehead: “If found unconscious please medevac OUT of Cambodia PRONTO.”

The food is adequate (read: be afraid). It’s a different culinary experience to my street corner binges in Thailand. Were it not for the endless other elements in Khmer society vying for damage to my person, there would not be a second thought to snarfing what morsel crosses my path. However, with a maximum lifetime allowance in mind, I must budget my behavior accordingly. Many an unsuspecting digestive tract– sturdy ones at that– have been felled by the multitude surprises this cuisine has to offer, that I am loathe to challenge the fates quite yet. There are things in their food– THINGS— that Phnom Penh must boast a robust sanitation system. {{Whining, wringing fingers:}}} And the bathrooms, the bathrooms!– FINE latrines though they may be by local standards–you do not want to be that acquainted with them. So I sadly stick to things whose nutritional content has been heat-beaten out of it, and hencewith I’ve found Khmer preferences to run in the flavour vicinities of bitter, sour, and salty. {{{sigh}} Someday when intestinal difficulties move higher up my priority experiences of Kampuchea I shall endeavor to elaborate further on this– the cuisine, not its digestive repercussions.

At least I caught the cool season hereabouts Indochina at a mild 90+degrees, dry as a bone. I’m burnt like a rice farmer and am very often hot and sticky. I went for a haircut and my Khmer apparently came out as “take it all off” instead of “trim it just a wee bit”.

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Ah well, a new look for a new life.

For women, Cambodia is a shocking sweep back in time for misfortune of birth. Virtue is paramount: rape victims are forced into the sex industry for lack of options, thanks to unforgiving social stigmas. This attitude is so entrenched that girls will actually drop enrollment and proactively shop for brothels. Propriety dictates single women be chaperoned by a family member in social situations. And while wives are expected to be obedient and faithful, society encourages men to keep several bedmates. (I do not understand royal dynamics yet. I expect an openly gay King to liberalize a few things somewhat, but I won’t hold my breath).

All Khmers are survivors, and as with anyone who has undergone trauma, there is a gravity to their spirit. People as young as 30 bear psychological remnants of the Khmer Rouge purges. The genocide that tyrranized Democratic Kampuchea just three decades ago stripped the country of its entire educated population. The reign of terror ended only in 1998 with the death of Pol Pot, without justice meted out, leaving the country scarred and exhausted. Today over half of the population is under 14 years old. Literacy struggles around 30%. Cambodia ranks 130 out of 175 countries in the Human Development Index (HDI). It is a clean administrative slate hospitable to and eliciting a steady flow of aid, creating an NGO economy, from which of course corruption took firm hold. There is evidence of families pimping children out to beg, severing their limbs or pouring battery acid over their face, to better tug at the empathies and wallets of foreigners. Human trafficking, the slave trade, a child sex industry are all rampant. It is an international effort to curb the markets for abuse here. I still reduce to verge of tears when I’m approached by uniformed men with rifles demanding my passport in rapid language beyond my grasp, in areas where I’m the only baraing, because it is not so long ago that foreigners, especially US Americans, were terror targets. But I suspect these problems are the reason why I’m accosted.

Throughout all this we have the UN presence to thank for the fortressed neoclassical French villas which comprise the Boeng Keng Kang section of Phnom Penh, home to the expats. I cannot fault such havens amid abject poverty and the daily dose of heinous realities that blow right through the psyche. This country tears every foreigner away from known comfort zones. It is a lot rougher than I expected, and my travel trepidation level is daily readjusted. I thank my lucky stars for friends across the borders here who keep regular tabs on me. And a husband who can read logs like this and still remain eternally supportive.

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