Part 5: Spare Days
To keep the kids from getting horribly bored when we're not going somewhere, we've brought several DVDs. Among them is The Complete Bean, featuring Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean.
Apparently, Mr. Bean is quite popular in Cambodia. This is easy to understand: Atkinson's rubber face and bizarre physical comedy transcends language, and there's very little dialogue in most episodes anyway.
For some reason, however, Cambodians seem to think that Rowan Atkinson is dead.
I've encountered this in Chicago, when one of our Khmer friends told my wife this; and sure enough, while my children were watching an episode with their cousins, someone asked if we knew that Atkinson was dead.
Perhaps he can show up at Angkor with Angelina Jolie, and put an end to the greatly exaggerated rumors of his untimely demise.
In the evening, while the two small humans recuperate in the house, Srey and I attend a dance program at Sovanna Phum. The Sovanna Phum Association (#111, St. 360, Phnom Penh, email@example.com) is dedicated to supporting Khmer art. The program is a combination of traditional dance and shadow theatre. Cambodian shadow theatre is performed with elaborate screens cut from leather; calling them puppets is somewhat misleading. The screens are also available for sale at Sovanna Phum, and would make a fine souvenir.
The following morning, we venture out in search of a refrigerator. What's a trip to another continent without appliance shopping? We'll use it for a couple weeks, then it will be Lung's. We're looking for something small, the type of under-counter refrigerator that you might find in a college dorm room. Most Cambodians do not have refrigerators; this is partly why shopping is such a different experience. Instead of buying a week's worth of meat and fish, they buy what they plan to cook that day, because it's difficult to store.
We settle on a tiny Toshiba, but the other choices are marvelous in a goofy, exotic, tacky way. Maybe you'd like a refrigerator in glowing sea green, or bright turquoise. Or, better yet, how about one with a serene photographic scene of a white sand beach, shaded by palm trees?
Venturing around Phnom Penh, you'll eventually notice something peculiar: the astonishing market dominance of the Toyota Camry.
The number of Camrys is positively amazing. Something like two out of every three sedans are Camrys. The Mother of All Toyota Salesmen must have taken up residence in Cambodia. There are a fair number of trucks and SUVs of various make and model. Among sedans, however, there is no question: this is the Kingdom of Camrybodia.
In the evening, we return with our children to Sovanna Phum for another performance; this one, called "The Story of the Dog," is a mixture of shadow puppets and conventional puppets. In the end, it's a split verdict: our seven-year-old pronounces it "cool," while the ten-year-old declares it "boring."
Sean is still feverish, so it's off to the doctor. (Naga Clinic, 11 Street 254, Phnom Penh, www.nagaclinic.com). The verdict: a virus, coupled with a slight throat infection. The doctor prescribes an antibiotic, along with Paracetemol. Paracetemol is the French name for Acetominephin. (As Steve Martin once said: "It's like those French have a different word for everything!").
In the early evening, to placate our children's longing for the virtual world, we take them to an internet cafe for an hour. Cafe is not quite the right term, since they don't actually serve anything other than canned drinks. The children are relieved to learn that the Internet is still out there, even if it is excruitiatingly slow.
Later that evening, Anna and Sean are delighted to find that a gecko has taken up residence on the living room ceiling. They immediately name the gecko Jub-Jub, after Aunt Selma's pet Iguana in The Simpsons. This results in a surreal exchange between the children and their Aunt Lung. The Khmer name for the gecko is jing-jot. Hearing the children shout "Jub-jub!" Lung attempts to correct them:
"Jing-jot!" she says.
"Jub-jub!" comes the reply.
Lung shakes her head. "Jing-jot."
Lung picks up a broom and lifts it up close to the gecko, sending the gecko darting across the ceiling with amazing speed. Eventually she corners it and catches it in her hand, an act that impresses the children in much the same way that they were impressed by their mother's ability to snare the dragonfly at Tuk Chu.
The next morning, we have lunch at Thom Tan's home. It has changed greatly since 1991; Thom's brother Narath, who lives in Chicago, paid to have a loft added inside the space. Many old buildings in Cambodia were built with very high ceilings, high enough to accomodate a sleeping loft with standing room beneath. Interior space is precious, and it is conserved in every way possible; staircases, for example, tend to be incredibly steep, thereby minimizing the amount of lost living area.
In the afternoon, we visit Wat Phnom. Like most spots frequented by tourists, the stairs to the temple are lined with beggars - the blind, the old, the infirm, and Cambodia's ubiquitous amputees. For anyone who has not visited Cambodia previously, the number of amputees is shocking. Those familiar with Cambodia's history will be less surprised. Scholar Craig Etcheson has argued that Cambodia's tortuous history can be seen in large measure as a single, thirty-year war, with the Khmer Rouge at the center of the drama. The amputees are the most visible reminder of the extensive use of landmines during the last three decades of the Twentieth Century.
Today, Wat Phnom looks much as it did years ago. An elephant, looking old and tired, still carries riders around the circle at the base of the temple. The monkey population seems to have grown dramatically. Vendors carry baskets of snacks, incense, lotus blossoms, postcards, and even baskets of books about Cambodian history: David Chandler's Voices from S-21, Ben Kiernan's How Pol Pot Came to Power, Vann Nath's A Cambodian Prison Portrait, and a host of others. Foreigners pay one dollar to visit Wat Phnom; for Khmer (including, apparently, half-Khmer children), it's free.
One change in Phnom Penh is the proliferation of cell phones. A similar phenomenon can be seen in many countries where poverty prevented the development of an extensive infrastructure of land lines. It's cheaper and simpler to implement cell service, so there are more cell phones than land phones.
There are other ways in which Cambodia is increasingly connected with the outside world, as well. One example can be seen in the Thai Huot Market (99-105 Monivong Blvd.), where artificial Christmas trees are on sale for the upcoming holiday. Homesick foreigners can also find the comforts of home at nearby Bayon Market (133 Monivong Blvd.): Fruit Loops, Chef Boyardee spaghetti, Miracle Whip, coffee ice cream... mmm, what could be better?
That evening, since it's Anna's birthday, we prepare a small party in front of the house. Anna is upstairs, putting on a dress that Thom has made. Just as she is about to come downstairs to show off her new dress, the entire block blacks out. The children out front begin to cheer and clap. We go searching for candles and flashlights, continuing preparations in the dark. After 15 or 20 minutes, by the time we've tracked down candles and lit them, the streetlights begin to glow again, though the houses are still without power. A neighbor offers the space in front of her house, directly below the streetlight, as a place to host the birthday cake. After the cake, it's time for the highlight of the party: clay pot pinatas. The makeshift pinatas were Srey's idea, a workaround that she had employed on our last visit to Cambodia. The pots are filled with candy and suspended from a cord between a tree and the streetlight. They're perfect for the purpose: just sturdy enough to sometimes take a hit without breaking. Nearly every child on the street shows up for a chance to smash the "pinatas," and it still takes a full ten minutes before both pots have given up their candy.
The children positively love it, and it makes me wonder if a new tradition will take hold: will we come back in five years, ten years, and find that children's parties in Phnom Penh always include a clay pot pinata?
In the morning, Srey finds a spider behind the door of the bedroom. It's not particularly big by Cambodian standards, but if you found it in your bedroom in Chicago, you'd be saying, "Holy crap, that is a huge spider!" I try to smack it with a broom, but it darts away. Srey tries, and manages to get it trapped in the broom's soft bristles, allowing her to release it outside. An hour later, it's relaxing on the outside wall, none the worse for wear. We relax at the house all day and prepare for another attempt at Siem Reap the next morning.
This article contains nine parts:
Part One: Princess of Cambodia
Part Two: Banishing Shadows
Part Three: The Saint of the Deported
Part Four: Trips Taken and Not Taken
Part Five: Spare Days
Part Six: North to the Temples
Part Seven: Ghosts and Wrong Turns
Part Eight: Changed City
Part Nine: The Eight Hundred and Nine Stairs