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Phnom Penh Perspective:

Phnom Penh Plumbing

by Bronwyn Sloan

January 2005

The plumber and I stood looking at the blocked toilet. It was a weekend, which is typical. "It’s bad, all right. Looks like a two or three eel job," he said, shaking his head. This is all well and good, but in the world of Cambodian plumbing, the great thing about conventional plungers is, one plunger is the same as another and you can buy them late into the afternoon.

Eels, a traditional Cambodian method of dealing with blocked toilets without dealing with them directly, are a problematic, idiosyncratic breed which are at their best at ungodly hours of the morning when they have first hit the market, before they have been prodded, poked, sent wriggling across floors and been whacked across the head with the blunt end of an axe a few times. Thankfully, I was already aware of what the plumber meant by an "eel job" due to a strange experience an acquaintance running a guesthouse had reported once, years ago.

A guest had wandered into the toilet without fear or trepidation after a few drinks one day. It was a very clean toilet by Asian shared toilet standards, and did not require the cautious approach of many lakeside toilets in Phnom Penh. It was only when the guest heard splashing where splashing should not be that they looked into the bowl—just in time to come face to face with two beady black eyes peering from a serpentine head scowling through the hapless visitor’s legs. It was then that the screams began.

The owners rushed to the aid of the guest, but communications being what they are in a bustling guesthouse, they only recalled asking for someone to unblock a slow toilet, and had left it at that. They, too, were therefore unaware of the traditional method used by the staff, who had mistakenly assumed that they would be prepared for this scenario. However, they were not, and were caught off-guard at the sight of a muddled but active eel circling angrily around its unusual bowl and total confusion reportedly ensued.

It was only later that the staff explained that the eel's extraordinary stomach, combined with its natural instinct to disappear from view into dark areas made it a perfect budget plumbing tool for people who were neither in a hurry to go, nor in a hurry to sully their own hands.

And so we eyed this particular toilet on a sunny Saturday afternoon, years later, and decided on its eel-ability.

While we debated, a second opinion arrived, as often happens with plumbers the world over. He advocated a more modern approach—a plunger followed by eels. "The problem with eels is, sister, that they die," he said. "And a dead eel is as big a problem as your initial problem—maybe even worse. What you need, I reckon, is a plunger to start the job, and when you have gotten as far as you can with that, then you get your eels onto it."

For your average eel just won't do, apparently. Nope. Choosing an eel for plumbing purposes is as skillful a task as choosing a thoroughbred to win a Derby. A plumber’s eel must be strong, active, focused, and above all, willing.

"So we start with a plunger, and at five or six tomorrow morning, I will go to the market and handpick our eels," Plumber 2 announced. By this stage, Plumber 1, beaten by someone who was obviously a superior judge of eel flesh, had retreated to enjoy his days off in peace.

"You don't want an eel what is just going to sit there and die," he reiterated. "Or worse still, one who gets the job half done, and then dies. That ain't nothing but an even bigger headache and you end up needing more eels or a plumber with tools to fix that." A plumber with tools? If there was such a thing in this country, it was a rare breed indeed. This last sentence was meant to strike fear into doubting hearts, and it worked on me.

"If three go in, why don't the live ones eat the one or two who don't make it?" I asked. Stony silence. I had obviously said something too idiotic to deserve a reply.

"Well, could we send in a catfish instead?" I continued, racking my brains to think of a hardier creature that might like drains and would feast happily on detritus.

The plumber's answering look was withering. Obviously, I was a new kid on the block, in water out of my depth, an ignorant babe in the woods when it came to drains and the delicate science of unblocking them. "Catfish? Don't be so bloody stupid," he muttered, and stalked off to purchase Plan A, the $1.25 plunger which would clear the way for the three, 50 cent eels. Or 75 cent eels, if I wanted the job done right. It was, I was reminded tersely, no time to be cutting corners.

This had already been a typically strange month, and I am by now used to total strangers wandering through my home and offering odd solutions to problems — even problems I didn't know I had — such as the inconvenient lack of holes in my walls and fly screens that the man without tools from the telephone company had pointed out to me, or my profligate tendency to leave my fridge switched on all night, pointed out by the guy who delivers water. Or the obvious shortage of staff the office has, since it didn't yet employ him, pointed out by some guy we all thought someone else had made an appointment with for an interview, but as it turned out, discovered none of us knew after he left.

As I had heard good reports from others about the work of eels, and as I had no desire to go fishing around in the drains myself, I was happy to give them a try. This month was one spent largely writing about other people's strange choices and decisions. My decision to listen to plumbers advocating eels was perhaps a subconscious urge to do something a little unconventional myself, but something that nonetheless actually had a point and half a chance of working.

It had to work better than this month's plan of attack by Siem Reap police to eradicate the red light district. That proposal was, believe it or not, as straightforward as literally banning red lights. Why hasn't anyone else thought of that? Devastatingly simple, easy to execute, a cinch to enforce—that plan had to be foolproof, according to someone's thinking, anyway. Who would think of going to a green light district to buy sex? Or a fairy light district? No red-blooded man, that's for sure! Or that's what the local police force had concluded anyway.

It was also less ludicrous than the excuse the man caught with an anti-tank mine under his stairs had come up with when police appeared less than impressed as he handed it in at the local station. Although who is to say he wasn't telling the truth and his faithful retriever dog hadn't brought the explosive home thinking it was food? Perhaps it was a true story and he had been the unwitting victim of his hungry and very lucky dog? Whatever the truth, the police are unlikely to accept it a second time, so if it is a story of canine misbehavior, a training session on handling explosives and what to do with suspicious looking packages found in the garbage worthy of a custom's beagle had better be in store for that particular pooch, and fast.

The plumbing experiment was certainly less gory than the display of pique indulged in by the husband upset that his former wife had remarried. Exhuming her daughter's rotting corpse and dumping it on the ex-wife's verandah in protest while she was at the market was far too hands on and heartless to ever be practical, and had cost him hundreds of dollars to rebury the body when police arrived and explained that this was not acceptable behavior.

It was certainly a less demonstrative than the newlywed husband who did not trust his new wife and so decided to douse the both of them with petrol and die together rather than risk her being unfaithful further down the track. Fortunately or perhaps unfortunately, the family arrived and doused the flames in time to save them both. Divorce and a jail term will almost certainly follow.

No, eels, in the greater scheme of human reactions to adversities that had appeared in local media during the past month seemed reasonable.

The eels arrived in due course just as dawn broke; sterling specimens of animals which appeared as eager as the plumber to begin work, squirming athletically inside their clear plastic bag.

They were bright eyed, firm bodied, toothy individuals who looked unlikely to die before they managed to break from the barrier, so to speak, and well suited to a torrid trip into the Cambodian sewer system. The perfect, eco-friendly weapon.

And so they were released, with no undue ceremony, to embark on their mission. A trio of slimy allies, vicious, keen, with teeth as sharp as razors and bellies empty, ready to do battle for their new masters and in doing so win their freedom. To hear the plumber sing their praises (for these were by no means the first specimens he had seen and examined for the task in a hard morning inspecting potential bloodstock at the market) these creatures were the aquatic versions of greyhounds.

"The plunger probably helped a lot," the plumber said. "But we won't know if the eels succeeded or died trying until there is another problem. Remember, don't let anyone flush—this could take a while."

So we locked the door and left them to their work. There was proper fishing to be done and catfish to be caught at a little place the plumber said he knew just outside of Phnom Penh, and it seemed like a good time to be somewhere else for a while.

And anyway, I hadn't quite given up on the idea of sending a catfish in after the eels, in the unlikely event they did fail. It somehow didn't seem like such a silly idea after all; at least to me. But what would I know?

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