Tag Archives: phnom penh

During Hot Season

The sun
has been pressing down on us
for weeks,
its two thousand trillion
trillion
tonnes
driving us to the ground,
sealing up lungs
and minds.

In the market, the brown-dirt ground burns white,
the bananas turn brown,
the flies swarm.

The buzz of motorcycles rises
and falls
and leaves behind only
heat.

There is sweat on my face, under my shirt, on my skin,
running down my chest, my arms.

In the afternoon the sky falls slowly
pushing down harder
threatening and promising rain
that does not come.

Finally the sun sets,
taking its weight from us,
and the earth and our homes
leak out the heat
so the night thickens with it.

And fans whir and buzz
and the sweat rises from our bodies or sinks into our sheets,
until the sun
rises again.

Whistles, Happily

My language teacher told me that his name, literally translated, means “Whistles-Happily No-Problems.” He was born in provincial Cambodia, fourth child of seven in a farming family, to parents who survived the Khmer Rouge with the regulation emotional scarring. “I don’t speak to my father,” he tells me. “When I go home, I sew up my mouth, because whenever I speak to him, it’s wrong.” This is hyperbole, I think. “He drinks a lot. When we were children he hit us a lot. I don’t want to be like him. I work with foreigners now; I want to be like them.” I can’t decide whether this makes me sad or hopeful. Both, maybe.
When he was a child, my language teacher worked as a rubbish-kid, sifting through stinking piles at the side of the road for recyclables, which he could on-sell. He had a cart, with bicycle pedals and handlebars and a saddle. “But I never sat on the saddle. I was too small. I just stood on the pedals all the time. It was very difficult. I stopped that job when I was twelve, because I was ashamed.
“I was a very cheeky child,” he tells me. The Khmer word for ‘cheeky’ is the same as for ‘broken.’
“When I was twenty, I came to Phnom Penh. I carried everything I could on my moto, and wore extra layers of clothes so I didn’t have to pack them. I came with some friends, and we were so excited. ‘Goodbye! We’re going to Phnom Penh. Goodbye!’ I had $25 in my pocket. I wanted to study medicine at university.”
My language teacher is a very intelligent guy. His grades are always good, and he doesn’t pay to pass, though the practice is common here. When he got to Phnom Penh, he went to the university, and asked how much to apply to study medicine. “$25,” the clerk told him. He went back to the room he had rented and lay in bed. “I thought, $25! $25! So expensive!”
He worked for a while at the side of the road selling rice; then again, he worked for a while in a factory, covered from head to foot in white safety gear, so the workers hardly knew each others’ faces.
“My brother got me that job. I didn’t want to do it, because I thought I was too smart to be a factory worker. But I had to. For three months at work I never talked at all. People asked my brother if I was dumb. Then I started to talk.”
After a little while at the factory, my language teacher decided to study veterinary science. “The application fee was $5.” He left his job at the factory. A friend helped him get a job at the language school. He is working in the mornings now, studying every afternoon. His colleagues are all Khmer. They are almost all Christian.
“It made me very angry,” he said once, “because they told me anyone can go to heaven, even my father. I didn’t want my father to go to heaven.”
He spoke almost no English when he started to teach. He learned fast.
“My English is still very bad.” This is not true. “My students are patient, and I am learning.”
My language teacher became a Christian after some time working at the school.
“I was very harsh, before I believed in Jesus. I didn’t say much, but inside. If you didn’t do what I told you, there would be a big problem.” I find this hard to imagine, knowing him now. When he found out I was a Christian he asked to pray at our lessons.
“For today’s class?” I asked.
“Yes. And for the school, and for me; for your family; for Cambodia; for the foreigners who come to have a good attitude; for Khmer people; everything.” So we prayed for everything.
When he completes his studies in Phnom Penh, he would like to do his Masters in Veterinary Science in Australia. After all, my language teacher wants to be a veterinarian, not a language teacher. Money is difficult, so he would need a scholarship. He doubts his English is good enough for that.
“I have a project. A plan. I will start a farm in my province. My friend can help me finance it. I will help children who have no parents: they can work with me in the mornings, and go to study in the afternoon, so they can learn.” He smiles when he talks about it.
The day we discussed his name and its meaning, he told me, “I don’t like it. I can’t even whistle.” He showed me, pursing his lips and blowing, soundlessly.

My language teacher has taught me so much in the past nine months, not simply about Khmer as a language, but about the culture and about what life is like here. He has shared a great deal with me, and I am intensely grateful that he was also willing to share his story more widely. I wrote this as I wanted it, assuming that there would be parts of it he would ask me to change or remove. He left it all as it was, saying, “I’m free. I want to share.” I pray he is successful in all he puts his hand to; if you’re the praying kind, perhaps you could too.

Phnom Penh Traffic Part Nine: Tuk-Tuk

Please note that this is the last in the Phnom Penh Traffic Series, so it’s a bit spoiler-y if you haven’t read anything else here before. If you do want to read the series, Part One can be found here, while the central Phnom Penh Traffic Page is here.

Sam hadn’t taken it well.
“Now? We’re just hitting it big!
You’re in pretty deep.
And you think Narith is the kinda guy you can just fuck around with?”
“I booked my flight already.
I’m out this afternoon.”
Sam stared at him without blinking,
arms at his sides,
colour coming back to his cheeks,
and Jack firmed his grip on his beer bottle
very slightly.
But then Sam turned
and walked out without a word.

Now the tuk-tuk is clearing the intersection onto Russian Federation Boulevard
and joining a new traffic jam.
In front of them is another tuk-tuk
with a poster-ad on the back
for a Christian NGO,
sporting bible verses
and a photograph of a smiling soulful Cambodian child
in a white cotton shirt with a starched and folded collar.
They trundle slowly along the wide road,
passing minivans and SUVs on the left,
while streams of motos on the right pass them in turn.
A small boy on the back of one looks at Jack as he passes,
and Jack feels like he is being measured
and made to fit into the boy’s world.
A few adults glance his way
but he sees their eyes
flick
to the suitcase on the seat by his side
and dismiss him.

They pass petrol stations and road-side shops
filled with bottled drinks
and an old woman
sitting by two big orange ice-boxes
and a display stand
hung with plastic raincoats.
A low breeze runs through the tuk-tuk
and he lifts his arms from his sides to let the air pass through his shirt.
Then they pull to a stop
at a red light
beneath a rotating billboard
advertising cameras
worth six months of a Cambodian wage.

In the intersection, a police-officer stands
and waves his baton importantly,
directing traffic to go where it will go
whether he waves or not.

Jack realises there is someone standing by the tuk-tuk
and jumps.
It is a girl,
perhaps six years old,
or four. Or eight.
Who can tell?
Her yellow blouse is faded but
as yet
untorn.
Her palms are pressed together
and she murmurs,
inaudible beneath the growl and sputter of engines.
Jack stares at her
blinking.
You’re better not giving to beggars,
they told him.
Especially kids.
They have to give it to their bosses anyway.
After a moment she turns away.

“Wait a second,” he says suddenly, surprising himself,
and she is there again.
He hurriedly digs for his wallet
and pulls out the first note he finds,
a twenty.
Her eyes go wide as he pushes it at her
but she plucks it from his fingers
and is gone.

Jack glances up and sees the driver’s dark eyes on him in the mirror.
After a moment, he looks away.

The lights change,
and the traffic rolls ahead.
Jack wonders if she will keep the money
or lose it
or just buy glue.

The child with the white starched collar
stares at him from the tuk-tuk ahead,
smiling,
never moving.

Phnom Penh Traffic Part Eight: Sports Club

It is strange, Jack thinks,
seeing blue water
here
in this city.
But the Club’s swimming pool could be anywhere in the world
with waiters from some other ethnic background staffing the bar.

Narith had led them to a table with a broad, cloth umbrella,
and now they sit in the shade
sipping cognac
which the day is still too hot for.
Expatriates,
pale and flabby
or taut and tanned
lie on sun-beds
or in the water.
A man in blue shorts,
his body long and muscular,
swims laps in the pool in front of them.
He splashes the ground close to their table as he goes by
rhythmically digging at the water with his arms,
head twisting to the left or right at every third stroke,
to breathe through the crook between elbow
and water.

Borey stands by the table
and stares at a blonde woman who is lying nearby
showing more skin than even the girls at the KTV bar.
Jack glances at him from time to time,
looking for the bulge of a gun under his shirt.

“So. Your product was good,”
Narith says, after swallowing the last of his drink.
“I think I paid a fair price.
I had no complaints.”
“We’re respectable men.”

Sam’s eyes flick toward Jack as he says it.
Jack looks down into his cognac.

“Can you get more?”

The man in the blue shorts swims past again,
going the other way.
Jack watches him,
the way he twists his face up and out of the water
to suck in the air,
snatch it under his arm,
before plunging it back into the water
and thrashing onward through the blue.

This is Part Eight in the series. Here is Part One. And the ninth (and final) part, ‘Tuk-Tuk’, is here.
The central Phnom Penh Traffic Page is here.

Phnom Penh Traffic Part Seven: Psar

The marketplace is alive with the sound of busy conversation in Khmer.
Sellers perch on low stools
behind their displays of fruits and vegetables,
close to the muddy ground
and call out to customers
or to one another.
Metal trays are laid out
and filled with still-flapping fish,
and a woman all in orange cotton clothes
(which look oddly like pyjamas)
picks one up
and deftly hacks off its head
before handing it over in sale.

A man on a little white moto
rides along the cramped street,
forcing shoppers to step aside and into stalls
which they seem to do
completely
unconsciously.
He stops next to an egg vendor,
and the two shout good-naturedly to one another for a minute
before the driver hands over a tight wad
of stained bank notes
and rides away,
a plastic bag containing thirty unprotected eggs
cradled on his lap.

A tall foreigner stops at a vegetable stall,
and chatters expertly in Khmer
as he buys his potatoes and broccoli and chili and strange mushrooms.
Locals point and laugh
because he speaks their language,
because he speaks with an accent,
because he is a man buying groceries with a list from his wife.

As he finishes shopping and turns away,
he makes eye-contact with Jack,
smiles,
and gives a quick flash of his eyebrows.
Jack smiles back
but stays at his spot under an awning
out of the way
drinking the juice out of a coconut with a straw.

The smile doesn’t quite fade as he stands there,
and he looks at the way the sunlight
comes through the colourful shade cloth overhead
and the people’s faces are light
then dark
then light
then dark
as they walk in and out of the heat.

“There you are!
You didn’t answer your phone!”
Jack turns to Sam, stepping toward him through the crowd,
and wonders what time he left the girl.

“Sorry, didn’t notice it ring.”

“Well, come on, we’re late.
Leave that.”
Sam lifts the coconut out of Jack’s hand,
tosses it onto a nearby pile
of plastic bags, cardboard boxes and scraps.

Jack follows Sam as he turns away,
glancing back at the fish seller one more time,
just as she brings down her cleaver
with a crunching thud.
She catches his eye,
smiles at him,
and goes back to work.

This is Part Seven in a series. Part One is here. The next part, ‘Sports Club,’ is here.
The central Phnom Penh Traffic Page is here.

Phnom Penh Traffic Part Six: Breakfast

Traffic in the intersection is consistent,
but the corner smells mainly of charcoal fire
and caramelising pork,
and Jack thinks it is the first time that Phnom Penh has ever smelled good.
A yellow mini-van goes by,
badly in need of a tune-up,
and almost spoils it,
but then it is gone, and the scent of breakfast returns.

He sits in a blue plastic chair,
resting his bare elbows on the metal trestle table,
and can feel the heat of the day brewing already.
In the junction, motos weave in and out around big SUVs,
careful not to touch them.
Jack looks away,
thinks about his hangover instead.

Across the road, a monk receives alms from the owner of a bicycle shop.
He chants a flat, nasal blessing
while she stands facing him,
eyes lowered,
palms pressed together before her face.
The monk looks about him as he chants,
then accepts her money in his orange pot.

A slim arm sets a green plastic bowl on the metal trestle
with a thunk.
It is laden with steamed white rice, grilled pork and fried egg,
and a mixed smell of soy sauce and fish sauce and spring onion
is oddly appealing for eight in the morning.

As he eats Jack watches an old woman shuffling along the road,
feet hardly leaving the ground,
shoulders curled forward.
When she reaches the bicycle shop she stops,
faces the doorway, palms held together in front of her,
and waits.
No one comes out and,
after a while,
she shuffles away.

When he finishes eating
he mutely hands a dollar bill to one of the women serving,
and she gives him back a thousand-riel note,
crumpled
and brown.

For many westerners, the idea of eating marinaded, grilled pork with rice for breakfast is just a bridge too far. But it’s become a part of my life that, frankly, I’m not sure how I’m ever going to go without again, should I eventually find myself living in a place where you can’t get it for 75c at the side of the road.

This is Part Six in a series. Part One is here. For the next part click here.
The central Phnom Penh Traffic Page is here.

Phnom Penh Traffic Part Five: Riverfront

They sit together on Narith’s balcony, looking over the traffic.
From below comes the rumble of engines
and the buzz of the local restaurants
and the calling of street vendors.
Across the way, the brown river makes its sullen way to the sea.
The air is hot, and Jack’s scalp itches.
He sips at the cheap scotch that Sam brought,
feels it scorch his mouth
and smoke out his throat,
like the gritty haze from the rubber fire burning nearby
that hangs in the air and pricks his eyes.
“Isn’t it funny,” Sam says
from nothing,
“how you reach a certain age and you think
all that emotional bullshit
is finally done with;
but then, out of nowhere, some
thing comes along
and makes you feel like you’re
bloody seventeen again.”

Jack sets down his glass and picks up the bottle,
and pours himself another long, bad drink.
In the street below, a skinny local goes by,
pedalling a cyclo with a fat tourist sitting in the front.
Jack swallows a full mouth of whiskey
and knows he will have a headache later.
“I guess,” he says at last,
“that I never really thought about it.”

This is Part Five in a series. Part One can be found here. Or you can read the next part, ‘Breakfast.
The central Phnom Penh Traffic Page is here.
If you have been a reader of this blog before this poem may seem familiar; indeed, it is a reworking of an older one. It just seemed to fit the tone, so I incorporated it.