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A week on the wagon.

Adventures in house rentals.

The trials and tribulations of developing a human interest story in Cambodia.

Phnom Penh Perspective:

How normal Cambodia

by Bronwyn Sloan

September 2004

The tourists seemed absolutely shocked when the motorbike zoomed out of nowhere, narrowly missing them, and sped off with little more than a friendly wave from the guard. Perhaps it was because they were standing at the counter, inside the bank at the time. That raised an interesting question—what is the definition of weird, and is this definition skewed when you stand inside the Bermuda Triangle of sanity that is Cambodia?

Having narrowly avoided being run down inside the Ministry of Tourism, which some days more closely resembles a highway than many Cambodian roads, the concept of being flattened in a public building makes perfect sense to me. It is well known in this country that if there is no physical reason to get off the motorbike, such as flights of stairs, then you don't do it. Generally there are two speeds at which you can do this; painfully slowly or dangerously fast. Therefore, by local standards, riding a motorbike through a bank or ministry at 60 kilometers per hour is not strange at all. Walking your bike or riding it at 40 kilometers per hour would be.

There are the other, little things that no one ever seems surprised by but no one ever explains.

In Sampov Loun town, on the Thai border northwest of Battambang, a sign tells travelers that a tractor was donated by Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen himself. Far from putting it in a field, however, they have built it a little pedestal in the center of town, and it stands about a meter off the ground on bricks, cemented into place for eternity. Why? No one seems sure, except that it seemed like a good idea at the time. Yes, even by local standards, this seems strange.

The Phnom Penh man who claimed his dog had given birth to a kitten this month was not widely regarded as strange. In fact, some of his neighbors seemed disappointed that they had not thought of this fine idea themselves, and he made $25 from curious visitors in just a few days before the kitten died. Far from deterred, he then put out a public appeal through the media asking that people continue to visit the kitten as the bereaved dog was depressed. He had ensured the kitten would not begin to smell by placing it in a jar of alcohol next to the television, he added. If this was just an ordinary kitten, to embalm it and keep it in your living room would maybe be a little strange. Being a magic kitten, however, this is not deemed strange at all. If the dog doesn't mind, who are the neighbors to care?

The month also saw a magic cow who cured people by licking them and a baby the parents said had been born with a tail. To be born with a tail would be unusual enough, but the attitude of the parents—that this was a wonderful little money spinner as people were queuing up to pay to see it—was perhaps the oddest thing about the whole saga.

Then there was the mother who accidentally beat her son to death with a tennis racket when trying to educate him on the dangers of sport recently. There is irony in this, and sadness, but in a country with a police blotter of the savagery of the Phnom Penh Post newspaper's, it seems to be more just an imaginative variation on everyday violence than weird.

The deportation of the Indian mosquito net sellers showed that people here struggle with this concept of the bizarre, too. After noticing that these guys walked for hours in the baking sun for tiny profits, hawking cheap shirts, mosquito nets, watches and radios, the authorities decided that despite all of them having valid visas, they must be up to no good and should leave the country. Hence the quote in the Cambodia Daily from one law enforcement official; "Of course they don't want to go. They say they want to stay, but when we ask them what they do, they say they sell mosquito nets. That just isn't a real job."

The phrases "they say they run a bar" or "they say they are journalists" might be equally interchangeable here, but apparently the idea of a grown foreign national walking (yes, walking! Not riding a moto. They must be mad.) for hours for a few thousand riel in profits made far less sense than either of the more sedentary pursuits above, and they were duly ushered out.

After acclimatization to the zany world of Phnom Penh traffic, the story of the woman who was pulled over and fined on two separate occasions for having the temerity to actually wear a seatbelt makes perfect sense to most foreigners here, as does the rule that says it is illegal to drive with lights on during the day. There is absolutely no problem with driving with them off at night, ironically. Phnom Penh's rule that all men should ride sidesaddle on the back of a moto still exists on the books, but is totally ignored. This one does make some sense, as it was brought in to make throwing grenades from passing bikes more difficult back when the capital was still the Wild West.

The photographer at a major city tourist site who candidly told a local magazine that taking tourist's photos was a natural career progression for him did not think he was being anything less than practical. "I used to shoot the gun and kill the hostages, but now I shoot tourists in the park with my camera," he said, adding that photography was far more complex because one had to worry about silly little incidentals such as lighting which just don’t make a dash of difference when you are shooting with a gun at close range. Guns, however, are loud and the soft click of a camera was music to his tired old soldier's ears, he admitted.

Monks are an endless source of wonderment when it comes to having your reality jarred. The monk who sped past on a motorbike, mobile phone in hand, television in his lap the other day was interesting.

Change the characters to suburban neighbors in any city in the world and the saga of the Supreme Court judge who lodged an official complaint about the noisy monks next door driving him mad is nothing unusual. He accused them of banging their gong particularly loudly and insistently in the early hours of the morning. They said they had always done it and why did he suddenly have a problem? The Ministry of Cults and Religions said they would try to educate them, but honestly, monks never listened to them. The problem appears to finally have been resolved with the timely deployment of earplugs. Case closed.

The guys who dressed up as monks and went around raising money under false pretences from unsuspecting Buddhist faithful were only unusual for their stupidity—if you are going to wander around with shaved heads and drink in karaoke parlors after a hard day of defrauding the locals, do it in one where the people you just defrauded are unlikely to be drinking beside you. Otherwise, they will get angry, and a group of baldies carousing in a bar together is a dead giveaway.

Disorganization was also at the root of the problem of the bank robbers some years back who pulled a job on a city bank. The whole robbery went without a hitch—until they got outside. Then they realized for the first time that they had only planned to the point of the robbery and no further. They now had to split up, and neither trusted the other with the loot. An argument ensued. Both pulled their guns and fired, so that by the time the police arrived, both lay bleeding and helpless on the pavement, the incriminating bags of cash lying uselessly on the ground beside them.

The basis of much of this strangeness seems to be the ability of Cambodians to accept things at face value. You say your dog has just given birth to a cat. Scientists say this is impossible, but why would you lie? And anyway, does it hurt anyone if you think your cow is magic or your dog has defied Charles Darwin? No. So sure, why not? If it makes you happy. If it makes you money. If you can afford to pay. If they are not being too greedy. In a "civilized" world of nine-to-five days where everyone grinds away at work, there is no magic anymore. People do what they have to do, and logic is the thing people live by.

Cambodia is different. There are the basic logics that without rain there is no rice, or the proverb that where there is water, there are fish, where there is money, there are women, but outside of these indispensable truths, there is still room here for magic men and strange phenomenon. It might be annoying to be arrested for wearing a seatbelt, but in the end, strange is just a state of mind. If you don't lose your mind here, you must be able to appreciate that.

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