A collection of the weird, the funny, and well, in Cambodia, the normal.
Updated May 2, 2004
The following are short bits of humor, strange happenings, and other unusual and often funny things that occur in Cambodia. Some of these have previously appeared in my monthly columns but I've now assembled them here in one complete section.
They kill thieves, don't they?
In one of the more surprising crimes, a Phnom Penh expat was arrested for stealing a television from O'Russei Market. Normally in Cambodia, suspected thieves are chased with shouts of "jao, jao!" (it means 'thief') and crowds seize the criminals and beat them to death. But I think in this case the Khmers were probably too astonished at the sight of a foreigner running off with a television that giving chase and killing him were a distant second to laughing. According to the report in the Phnom Penh Post Police Blotter, "The police said (Jamie) McGowan, a former English teacher, had a mental problem and they released him after educating him." The word on the streets is the police beat the crap out of him. I'd say he got off easy.
Skyscrapers in Phnom Penh
PM Hun Sen wants skyscrapers in Phnom Penh and has offered, “Whoever will build taller buildings, we will give a medal.” Better than any tax incentive, I'd say.
A woman was kidnapped in Kompong Thom province in October 2003. Was she a rich or influential person? Not at all. She was just another villager. But the kidnappers weren't exactly your typical kidnappers either. Their ransom demands? How about 50 kilos of rice, three ducks, and a carton of cigarettes.
The Kralanh toilet saga
Kralanh is a village halfway between Siem Reap and Sisophon. Awhile back, somebody there, no doubt observing the steady flow of tourists between Siem Reap and the border and knowing the abuse the road heaped upon these traveler's innards, got the idea to build a block of clean toilets, advertising this fact with a large sign in English, Thai, and Khmer. The plan worked as numerous taxis, buses, trucks, etc., especially those carrying foreigners, pulled up with weary travelers pouring out en masse paying the happy toilet owners 500 riels for the privilege of using these clean facilities. So what happened? Cambodians being the great imitators they are, all the neighbors began building their own rest facilities and now there most be at least eight of these things in this small village and more seem to pop up every month. And I can attest, upon visiting one recently, it was clean and stocked with all the things a westerner would require.
Then, following the anti-Thai riots of late January 2003 the people of Kralanh ceremoniously erased the Thai script off all the 'Toilet' signs in the village. But as tensions eased and, certainly to the relief of Thai travelers, one fine citizen of Kralanh repainted the Thai script on his toilet sign telling one and all, well, one and all Thais, that clean toilets are indeed available. We can only assume the other ten or so toilet block owners will follow suit as they all copied the original in constructing the toilets, making the signs, erasing the signs, and probably a few other things we'd just as well not know about.
When a large celebration was held to commemorate the opening of the Preah Vihear temple in January 2003, Approximately 10,000 people turned up for the event. The entertainment, which lasted until five in the morning, went off with few hitches. Enterprising individuals ensured there was plenty of food and drink available. All sounds great, sure. But two things, things which few westerners would neglect, were given noticeable short shrift by the planning committee. There was not one single garbage receptacle to be found and there were only four existing toilets to serve 10,000 people. To the planners' credit, for added toilet facilities, they did dig a few holes in the ground, surrounding them with blue tarp for some privacy. But, the holes were placed behind ropes delineating the limits of land cleared for mines! Kind of gives a whole new meaning to the term thunder box.
Souvenirs were quite limited at the aforementioned Preah Vihear celebration with a series of Preah Vihear postcards being about the extent of the offerings. Many locals, wishing for some kind of remembrance, took land mine warning signs home with them, instead. It could give a whole new meaning to the saying leave a little of yourself behind. And hey, why leave nothing but footprints when you can leave your whole foot?
Put out the fire, we're thirsty over here
Siem Reap's fire police made a visit to a western-owned bar. In uniform and carrying an official signed and sealed paper they approached the British owner who could only imagine what ordinance he must be in violation of - insufficient fire extinguishers, non-compliant wiring, who knew? Turned out the paper was an official requisition slip. And what were the fire police officially requisitioning? A case of Beer Lao. Shocked and in disbelief, the bar owner shoved the paper in his pocket and responded to the firemen with an emphatic "no". "Well, um, err, could we have our paper back?" they wanted to know. Again, the answer was "no" leaving the firemen no choice but to retreat to the streets, still thirsty and short one official requisition slip. No word on what kind of response the bar owner will get if his place ever catches on fire.
Adventures with tolls
Cambodia recently received its first modern toll facility. Several booths were erected on National Highway 4 (the road from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville). As with toll plazas throughout the world, different lanes are designated for different types of vehicles. There is a lane for motorcycles, one lane for lorries, and one lane designated for tourist vehicles (define that one, huh!?). As for everything else, you figure it out!
Creative restaurant ordering
An expat is sitting at one of the many riverside restaurants along Phnom Penh's riverfront and places an order for some lunch. Enjoying the taste of bacon, the expat puts in a request for a side order of the stuff. Now, bacon as a side order is not listed on the menu but seeing as the restaurant serves breakfasts as well as a number of sandwiches containing the ingredient, the expat figured they out to be able to manage this order.
The waitress, confused at this request, flips through the
menu and not finding bacon as a side order tells the customer that bacon
is not available. The expat points out that bacon is obviously available
as it's a common ingredient in a number of the restaurant's dishes.
An expat was recently relating an incident involving two
of his Khmer employees who had been in a motorbike wreck. The expat had
asked the two how fast they had been going. The driver of the bike said
they were going about 40 kilometers per hour when they crashed.
A foreigner walks into
an internet shop with a laptop and asks if he can get on line with his
computer through their phone line.
Seeing a Khmer riding her motorbike the wrong way on a one-way street, I inquired as to whether she knew she was violating a traffic law. “Oh, it’s no problem,” she said, “I’m Cambodian.”
The State of Traffic Enforcement
In March 2002 Siem Reap erected its first traffic lights, a modern invention most residents had never seen before. Surprisingly, educating the locals proved to be a remarkably easy process. While we can assume the police on the corner shouting at the motorists might have something to do with it, in fact a special feature of the traffic lights had more to do with the widespread compliance. You see, the lights are equipped with timers that display the number of seconds remaining until the light changes. Several locals I spoke with all said that watching the numbers count down to zero was well worth the wait.
From a Siem Reap motodop
asked as to where a particular road goes:
Word for help: choo-ay
Number of restaurants
in Anlong Veng with an English-language sign reading “restaurant”: 3
Number of land mines
in Cambodia: several million.
Number of beggars in
Moto scrums and moto fun
In Phnom Penh the end of July (2001), I'm walking to Sharky Bar one evening (my hotel is but two blocks away), I approached the entryway where the usual assortment of motodops were hanging around. Turning towards the stairs one steps in front of me, "moto?" This was too good of an opportunity. I'm walking into a bar and this guy wants to drive me somewhere. "Okay," and I got on the back of his moto. "Where you go?" he asks. I pointed up the stairs. He gives me a puzzled look. I pointed up the stairs again. He shuts off his bike. "You go up?" he asks with more than a hint of confusion. "Yes, I go up, you couldn't see I was going IN to Sharky's?" I hop off and bound up the stairs to the sound of riotous laughter from the moto driver's colleagues.
During the 1998 election season, one individual was interviewed following
his taking part in a pre-election political march across the city.
Dressing up Phnom Penh
I almost fell off my bar stool when I read the following in the September 11 (2002) Cambodia Daily:
"Shameless Shirtlessness Shocks Official" was the headline. The story began with the news that an age 30-or-so westerner, caught on his motorbike in a rainstorm on Kampuchea Krom Blvd, decided to remove all of his clothing except for his underwear. This act apparently caused such a stir that Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara announced a ban on shirtless motorcycle driving. The governor was quoted as saying "I must stop this. Do not allow this to go on anymore. They can do whatever they want outside the city, but not once they get inside." He then added that this act would make Phnom Penh more attractive for the November ASEAN summit being held here.
Chev Hak, accident investigator for the Phnom Penh police said that this was not a crime in which anyone could be charged. He was quoted as saying, "All we can do is arrest them and educate them." Then adding that he didn't see shirtless men as a detriment to the city, only that they were too poor to buy clothes.
You have been warned, wear a shirt or stand to be arrested and educated.
Public Health Awareness
In discussing the dangers
of cigarette smoking, a Khmer man responded, “If you smoke a different
brand of cigarettes each time, you won’t get cancer.”
Quality Education in Mathematics
If you choose to get a Cambodian visa at the embassy in Bangkok and pay in US dollars you’ll pay $20 for a tourist visa and $25 for a business visa. Offer up baht, the local currency, and you’ll pay 1000 baht and 1500 baht respectively, that translates to 50 baht to the dollar for the tourist visa but 60 baht to the dollar for the business visa. Presently the baht exchanges at about 43 to the dollar.
Awareness of the Evils of Corruption
A commune chief in a remote area of Ratanakiri province was lamenting his poverty despite his powerful position in local politics. “If I were the chief of a commune someplace else I could be a wealthy man.”
Sihanoukville (2002), a foreign pub owner, angry that a large Landcruiser was blocking access to his pub, took to letting the air out of all four tires. Too bad for him the vehicle belonged to a powerful local police captain whose cronies responded by smashing the windows of his business.
In September 2001, when Siem Reap temporarily barred foreign tourists (as a distinct entity from expats) from renting and operating motorbikes it was announced that this would soon be followed by licensing of all motodops who transported tourists around the Angkor temples. In Cambodia soon is a vague word that refers to no particular time frame of any quantifiable duration. Eighteen months from the inception of the idea, came the implementation of the next phase of the plan - the "official announcement", which said that motodrivers will be required to wear a special vest which they purchase for $6 and will be required to display a photo ID license for which they pay 2000 riels (about fifty cents) and is valid for a year. Still, announcing a plan and putting it into action are two entirely different processes so I asked my motodop on the street, Mr. Marom, when he thought the new regulations would actually go into effect. He looked at me, laughed, and said "soon".
The complications of buying bread
A Siem Reap guesthouse owner sends one of his staff
to the market each day to buy fresh bread. One day the girl returns empty-handed
with the explanation that there was no bread in the market today. Quite
surprised at this seemingly impossible situation, the western guesthouse
owner presses for more details.
In Cambodia, the relationship aspect of business is quite important and once a good relationship exists it is not all that unusual for a Khmer to refuse to make the purchase of a same product from another seller even if the regular merchant doesn't show up one day as it could cause personal complications when both sellers are back on the job.
Australia has made it known loud and clear that they intend to do their part in a worldwide clampdown on sex crimes against children by, among other things, prosecuting its citizens for offenses committed in another country. So it was with some surprise that the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh issued a brand new passport to one of its citizens, out on bail, and but one week before his sentencing for sex crimes. Needless to say at the time of sentencing a lawyer stood in the courtroom with no client, as said client was back in Australia enjoying the freedom his new passport provided. Australia and Cambodia have no extradition treaty and the chances of getting witnesses and evidence flown from Cambodia to Australia and being able to secure a conviction in a considerably more transparent court proceeding, well, you have a better chance of spotting a wild kangaroo in Thailand. Let freedom ring. [Update: Since then, the guilty party has been arrested and is being held by the Australian authorities as they work out an extradition treaty to get him back to Cambodia.]
During the Phnom Penh riots of January 2003, one rioter doing his part in destroying the offices of Shinawatra paused from his pillaging to make a phone call on his mobile, but he couldn't get through as the network was down. Complaining about the lousy service, he was asked who his service provider was. He jerked his head in the direction of the burning and looting - "Shinawatra".
Earlier this year (2002), the Phnom Penh government, much to the dismay of many, chopped down a large percentage of the city’s trees. Why? Because the leaves clogged the sewers and besides, they told us, the trees were the ‘wrong kind of tree’. Recently, Phnom Penh has begun to replant trees throughout the city restoring streets to the same appearance that residents and visitors had once enjoyed. How much the same? Well, the trees they are planting are the same kind of trees they had removed previously.
Help Wanted, Hi-Tech Career
Construction continues rapidly on Phnom Penh’s first modern indoor shopping mall (it’s that huge structure just south of the Central market). Expectedly, elevators and escalators will shuttle shoppers between floors. But considering that many Cambodians have never seen an elevator or escalator, the mall’s management is hiring personnel to show people how to use them.
Back in early 1998, when Cambodia was still effectively at war I asked a local why Cambodians ate so fast, especially compared to their leisurely neighbors, the Thais. “War,” he said, “You never know, one minute you’re eating supper, than ‘boom’, bomb goes off and soldiers run in.” He then added, “We can eat and run at the same time.”
Dog Pounds? We have the Vietnamese!
Seeing a stray dog walk by, a far less frequent occurrence than one sees in Thailand, our same local was asked as to where all the dogs were. “Vietnamese,” he said, “every time a Vietnamese family moves in, one more dog disappears.” No word as to whether the Vietnamese or the dogs can run and eat at the same time.
A few years ago Phnom Penh Municipality installed public restrooms across from the National Museum. Upon their completion several families promptly moved in.
Not a quack but a moo?
A cow in Kampot province is providing folks with relief for rheumatism and other ailments. This cow receives as many as twenty patients a day and after the requisite donation of incense, candles, flowers, and water is made the bovine treats the patients by licking them. Apparently a lot of area residents, many who are coming from considerable distance, are quite convinced of the effectiveness of the treatment. No word yet if regional health plans are covering the procedure or not.
This sign appeared in downtown Siem Reap early in 2002. One sign opposite Psah Chas, and a second sign around the corner, each one pointing down an alley where we could find the "Angkor Lady Virgin". Not reading Khmer nobody I knew could figure out just what Angkor Lady Virgin was offering us, though we had no shortage of ideas. The Bayon Pearnik went so far as to insinuate that this would be a short-lived business given that this was a venture you'd only get one shot at.
Sometime in September, the word "virgin" was painted over on both signs. Do we assume that the lady finally did the deed, or more likely, did someone finally tell the owner just what exactly his sign meant? Alas, there's still the 25-Hour Watch store in Phnom Penh.
Update, December 2002. The owner has now painted in the word "Beauty", where the word "Virgin" once resided. The owner must no doubt be enchanted by the afterglow of his now experienced Angkor Lady.
A new note
When countries issue currency in new denominations, most of the time it's to print a larger valued banknote to help keep up with rapid inflation. But Cambodia, where inflation is not a problem, the currency is as worthless now as it was three years ago, is moving in the other direction, now offering a 50-riel note (about 1.25 cents US). Previously, the smallest note was the 100-riel note (2.5 cents).
While there are a number of reasons offered for the issuance of this new banknote, we can only remark, given the hagglers the Cambodians can be, how this will bring bargaining to new heights, or perhaps we should say, new lows.
Honors in education
An expat was talking about his English
teaching job at a well-known private language school. At the end of the
term he was asked to compile a list of the most noteworthy students. Dutifully,
he went over the grades, considered such factors as motivation, class
participation, attention to homework, etc and came up with a list of names
which he submitted to the school's director. The list was rejected, unacceptable
for it was based on the wrong criteria.
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1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written
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