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Phnom Penh Perspective:

Culture Shock

by Bronwyn Sloan

December 2005

The extent to which long stints spent immersed in Cambodia have changed me really hit home this month when I caught myself watching two lovely crested doves in the parking lot of one of the hundreds of massive supermarkets that dot Australian cities and musing on how edible they might be. A trip home to Oz has been a real culture shock.

Not that I go around murdering urban wildlife in Cambodia. But it is impossible not to be aware that a lot of other people do, and the luckless deep-fried sparrows and pigeon-type birds glistening in the sun outside the FCC in Phnom Penh are not a million miles removed from similar creatures that strut Australian parks and gardens with impunity. The crested doves might be delicious. I will never know. I just know that the same thought did not even cross the mind of even one other Australian who sat sweltering in that car park that day, and it made me acutely aware of how differently you judge normalcy after living in Cambodia.

Sydney is a modern city with a population imbued with Western values and traditions. Pigs, cattle, sheep, seafood and chickens are for eating. Kangaroos are at the exotic meat end of the scale. Mind you it is acceptable to eat kangaroo, which is also our national symbol, so Australians are not entirely prudish about food. Kangaroos are not even close to extinction, however, unlike the now almost certainly extinct kouprey, which remains Cambodia’s national animal despite no confirmed sightings of that unfortunate beast in more than 20 years.

Doves though are not generally included in our you beaut Aussie food chain. In fact, the city has at least one company entirely devoted to renting out white doves for weddings and events, and they no doubt expect them to be returned. The company, Doves R Us, seems to do a roaring trade in a country where schmaltzy weddings are in and sentimentality is worn like a badge of humanity on suburban sleeves. These birds are a far cry from the motley crew of somewhat flight impaired common or garden pigeons wheeled out for EUASAC weapons burnings, which were rudely dubbed the ‘Pigeons of Peace’ by one spectator at a weapons burning in Siem Reap some years ago. It is doubtful, anyway, that the pampered and immaculate birds of Doves R Us would be up to the front line atmosphere of a Cambodian weapons burning, which may lack the smell of napalm but is nevertheless characterized by the popping of stray leftover bullets through the flames and smoke thick with accelerant, towards which the brave but nondescript peace pigeons of Cambodia invariably resolutely march. This is in preference, no doubt, to facing the possibly hungry crowd of spectators and school children less inculcated with political correctness and a European narrowness when it comes to menu selection than the audiences Doves R Us regularly charm. 

In a previous column I lamented the loss of Cambodia’s innocence embodied in the introduction of a range of dresses for canines into some of the capital’s larger supermarkets. Tempted as I was in Australia by a cute little doggy security guard uniform (unfortunately, and for 50USD, it only came in pink), having recently begun to foster an inexplicable desire to hire competent security, I nevertheless tore myself away from Pet Paradise at Hurstville empty handed. Our dog will have to continue to perform her duty without the snazzy uniform for now.

But pet obsession in Cambodia still has a way to go, it seems, judging from an interview published in a silly season edition of the Sydney Morning Herald with a vet who had just performed cosmetic surgery on a pet goldfish to remove unsightly growths. The same vet then proceeded, apparently seriously, to give his views on the efficacy of glass eyes for Japanese carp (not recommended, he said, because they tend to fall out). The inset story was no less bizarre—a list of daycare centers for dogs with establishments boasting names like Caninekidz, the range and quality of which suggested that the doggy daycare network in Sydney is more advanced than the entire Cambodian education system.

Like most things in Cambodia, there is no middle ground on the issue of pets. Recently a woman on my street hired a team of builders to renovate her house. Like many of Phnom Penh’s newly moneyed middle class, she is mean, and provided them with the bare minimum; one sack of rice, around a thousand riel a day and permission to camp in the rubble until they were finished. Naturally, as she no doubt knew they would, they supplemented their meager rations with what they could, which coincided exactly with the sudden disappearance of almost every cat on the street accompanied by the constant smell of roasting meat emanating from the renovation site.

During my visit to the first world, I realized with a sudden shock not unlike an amnesiac must feel upon remembering his own identity that these people, however hungry, would probably be locked up in Australia. Tabloids would dub them glibly with monikers like the Kitty Killers and their faces would become synonymous with evil, jumping out at a shocked nation from every television and every newspaper. They would probably require protective custody in jail and have to change their names upon release. And if criminals who create cuisine from Grandma’s cat outraged Australians, imagine what they would make of the peckish poachers currently rumored to be picking off the monkeys at Wat Phnom. Not that the Wat Phnom monkeys are the epitome of purity, judging by allegations featured in Kampuchea Thmey newspaper over past weeks that the macaques had followed the lead of local street children and had begun sniffing glue using the discarded bags of human addicts. The newspaper even featured a somewhat blurred photo purported to be a local monkey getting high in more ways than one in a Wat Phnom treetop—a more pressing problem for wildlife groups perhaps than my brief flight of fancy about pigeons. Would addict monkeys sell their own family for their next hit? If so, the revelation opens up a whole new field for an army of yet to be established harm reduction-orientated anti-trafficking wildlife NGOs. One slightly tarnished former hero of local aid organizations in particular is already being touted by some cynics to be a prime candidate to make this leap as its once lucrative ship continues to founder and a litany of accusations of scandals and mishaps in its centers continue to hit the Khmer press.

But enough on aid organizations, that most sacred of topics, and back to pets, a topic only slightly less sacred to many Australians. In Cambodia, however, you almost expect someone to eat your pets if they get out—the renovation queen landlady from hell in my street said as much as she swanned up and down the laneway with her faux Chinese lapdog, Lucky (so named, perhaps, because retribution is a Cambodian specialty and he has so far managed to stay alive despite her antics). Pet ownership in Cambodia is a constant gamble, a game of fate. Few people’s moggies grow old in Phnom Penh, and dognappers prowl the streets after dark looking for stray canines to whisk away by moto to be sold as meat at markets like the one behind The Bolding on Sotheros Boulevard. Dog meat is only slightly cheaper than pork. To the Khmer wine drinkers of the capital, your dog is tapas on legs, and the pressure is on you to keep Fido on a leash and off the menu.

Another institution Australians treat with an almost religious reverence totally alien to Cambodian drivers is the pedestrian crossing. Australians have an unflagging faith in the ability of white stripes to ward off vehicles. They step unflinchingly from curbs to be borne across the busiest of thoroughfares by these magic lines. Australian drivers, in turn, will come to a sudden and complete halt at the merest hint that someone may be about to set foot on these sacred markings, and will wait, expressionless, for interminable periods whilst hoards dribble across the road at intervals before them.

This faith in humble paint is hard to fathom after living amongst the chaos that Cambodians decipher into their own interpretation of road rules. These markings exist in Cambodia, but for no apparent reason. Trucks periodically speed around Phnom Penh marking out crossings at seemingly random intersections around the city, along with lane marking—another strange custom imported from foreigner countries that exists to be largely ignored. The pedestrian crossing in Cambodia is widely assumed by most longterm expatriates to have been adopted as an ironic joke on those who seek to impose foreign concepts on an ancient system. These mystic markings encourage those familiar with them to step out into traffic with confidence, only to find themselves in the center of insanity, forced to run, leap and dodge their way across the road through a gamut of unfazed motorists like some sort of demented cartoon character. It goes without saying that Cambodian pedestrian crossings in tourist areas make great perching places for the uncharitable spectator in search of entertainment.

A common sight in Phnom Penh that is not for spectators and would never be entertained in Australia but is simply a fact of life in the capital is public urination. The city’s police set a new precedent last month by arresting a man for urinating in a public place, which there is not even actually a law against as far as anyone was aware. This in a country where real men piss wherever and whenever they feel like it (I was in a car once when the driver pulled up and pissed on the Independence Monument), and it is rare to pass a Phnom Penh public park not adorned by at least one proud local christening the shrubbery. So why pick on one man in a city where freedom to urinate is tantamount to a basic right? “It wasn’t so much that he was pissing in public, it was that he was SHOWING everyone,” my friend explained when I expressed doubts that such a crackdown could be maintained. Ah—so he could have pissed with impunity if he had just turned his back, but he chose to urinate in a full frontal position towards a market, thus violating sensibilities and possibly breaking that unwritten male rule that you may look, but should never be seen to be looking. I see. A warning for flamboyant public pissers then, but not yet a crackdown on this most ancient of traditions enjoyed by the average Cambodian man.

Real Cambodian men, then, pee with impunity, but without pretensions. Real Australian men, however, must have bladders like camels, because Australian men, like their fellow first world counterparts in America, do not pee in public without fear of prosecution. This gives Australia a luxury almost unknown in Cambodia—public parks that don’t smell equally as bad as the public toilets which many Cambodians studiously avoid using in order to save themselves the crippling 200 riel entry fee. The few public parks left, that is, that have not been resolutely pushed off-limits for the average Khmer in the capital’s relentless beautification program.

At least one of the Cambodian American returnees deported from the US has to face this cultural urination conflict every day for the rest of his life. In some US states, public urination constitutes indecent exposure and is therefore a sex crime and a felony. At least one returnee suffered deportation for this crime and this crime alone. Imagine the anguish to be deported from the country you grew up in for exactly that crime to spend the rest of your life in Cambodia, where public pissing is almost a right of male passage. 

There is something to be said for the order of a country like Australia. On every railway station, in many city streets, big brother is watching through vast banks of cameras, with even more cameras filming the cameras to make sure no one misses any crime—not even a crime against another camera. Australians just expect to be able to cross the road when its their turn to do so in the same way as they expect the sun to rise in the morning. Laws are by and large abided by, every road is tarmac, missing pets tend to end up in the local pound, not in a local pot, and the mere report of an annoying barking dog keeping people awake in the neighborhood will have the local council round in a jiffy to sort it all out. Try doing that next time you find yourself faced with the old crowing rooster at dawn scenario in downtown Daun Penh and you will find it is enough to make even the most devout fan of disorder, even if only fleetingly, wish for the predictability of a sweet Australian suburban life of silent, generic pets.

But in the absence of insomniac roosters, Phnom Penh is alive in a way the west has forgotten how to be. Public pissing doesn’t outrage my sensibilities, and the chaos of Phnom Penh streets has become second nature over time. Australia has an order and a charm that I grew up with, and I love Australia, but I miss the anarchy and the off-the-wall honesty Cambodia dishes up in equal measures on a constant basis. I miss the lunacy of the local newspapers, the unpredictability, the accessibility of everything as people run through the quicksand of existence here in a mad daily dash at life. I miss the dysfunctional but totally charming insanity that embodies so much about Cambodia, and I am very glad I am finally home again.

Thus ends my ranting for another month. Happy New Year.

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