Delightful Cambodian Girlfriend (3/7) – Dahlaeng With Darling
One month of "dahlaeng" lies ahead of Norah and me. "Dahlaeng" is the Khmer word for any leasure activity outside the house. So that means of course eating out and shopping; but anything else too, from beach time to visiting friends and family. First we should meet a few relatives and friends; after that, we may stay on our own. It's Norah's logic, not mine, but meeting friends and family is mostly fun. For a while.
— Visiting Srei Tuj —
We visit her friend Mrs. Tuj and husband in their shabby apartment. According to Norah, they have some money, they just don't like to spend it on creature comforts. We've brought a big basket of good fruit from Boeng Keng Kang market. For Srei Tuj's adoptive child, I have a few shiny plastic toys from Farangland.
We sit down at a table bursting with meats, veggies, sauces and drinks. A pot of soup boils over a gas stove in the middle of the table. They offer me a can of Anchor beer, to be poured into a prepared glass full of ice cubes. When I opt for Fanta instead, they give Norah a mild look – is he a real man?
After dinner, they have a present for me too. It is a high something, wrapped into glittery paper. When I open it from the top, first I see the typical spiky hat of a carved apsara dancer, a Khmer icon. Uiii, I think, as I slowly unwrap the lower parts – this is an apsara dancer statue; but this means she will be topless, flashing a pair of wooden dream breasts, sexy like on the walls of Angkor Wat. Hmm, this would be kind of awkward in our conservative circle here. How to deal with a sexy semi-naked wooden dancer on our dinner table?
I unwrap a few more centimeters of the wooden dancer. And see: This carved one has a silk shirt carved onto her! Very rare, but modesty remains high on our dinner table!
Back in the hotel room, Norah smiles: "You know, Srei Tuj wanted to give you apsara dancer. First she only saw statue with no dress! Can see everything!" She points to her chest. "But then she found apsara dancer with full dress!" Norah sighs with relief.
— Trip To "Spark" —
When we said our goodbyes at Srei Tuj's place, her mostly silent husband whose name I always forget, suddenly gave word: "You like to dance? You know Spaaaaahk?" We end up with his invitation to some kind of mysterious dance-place named "Spaaaaahk".
Three evenings later, Srei Tuj's husband pulls up at the hotel driveway with the default Khmer car, a white Toyota Camry of unknown vintage. Norah and I hop inside, and on the backseat we meet a young brother and a young sister of Tuj's husband. Tuj herself "feels sick", we hear. Everybody starts chatting away as the car slaloms through dark dangerous backroads, crosses a few main arteries, then dives back into gloomy Phnom Penh neighborhoods. The Toyota finally parks in front of a colossal, brightly lit space ship.
"Spark" is a huge disco, bigger than most places I have seen in Thailand. In true Thai style, we settle on slick steel bistro stools around a small round bistro table. With Srei Tuj absent, her husband can peacefully order Tiger beer. Uniformed waiters fill our table with drinks.
I'm a bit shy with Mr. Husband's young sister. She gives me adoring looks and says awkward things like "Oh mister, I think you look very handsome"; Norah sits right next to me of course. Finally I manage to get young sister and young brother to the dance-floor. Norah refuses to dance.
This is the only Thai-style dance-hangar I ever saw in Cambodia. Two differences to Thailand though: They have an actual dance-space in front of the stage; you don't bounce around your bistro tables, as in Thailand. And, of course: The music is much more tame and unspicy, the performers look as slight squinted and mollycoddled as any slimy Khmer karaoke video actor.
I ask silent Mr. Husband, and he nods. We agree to drive home, the waiter is called. Mr. Husband had invited us, but of course I plan to share the cost with him. Then I'm in for a double surprise: I see a computer-printed bill – a novelty in Cambodia outside the big hotels -, but what's even more astonishing: It is me who gets the bill.
The waiter stands next to me and opens the folder with the bill to me. I look at the bill for ten long seconds, just waiting that anybody would intervene and take care of the bill. But that doesn't happen. If I had agreed to pay before, I would now give the bill to somebody else to check it. But in this situation I simply have no idea what to do. We had clearly been invited here by Tuj's husband. Being invited and then having to pay is an absolute novelty with the friends I made all over the region. Well, I am the oldest and the richest guy around our bistro table, and on other occasions I would happily pay for all. I am unhappy, but now I will pay for all, too; anything else would be to embarrassing at least for My Khmer Lady.
12,50 USD. I shrug and pay 13 to the waiter, who bows and shuffles off.
Back in the hotel room, Norah frowns: "WHY you have to pay? He invited us. What's that?" But what could have been done in the disco? We never hear from Srei Tuj and husband again.
— Soup Chnang Dei —
Norah knows that I would love to meet her parents. Partly because they are her parents, and partly because it would be a fascinating trip into Old Asia. I really exploit my local friends for those glimpses into Classic Asia I am addicted to. And Norah's old ones live far away next to Phnom Domrei, the Elephant Mountains, in something like a self-supporting rural community.
But I am not to meet her parents, and her grandfather in Prey Veng province is off-limits too. – "Why can't can't we go there", I ask? – "I think you know why…", says Norah with a regretful voice. More she says not. But of course: There is no talk of marriage. I figure that means we are not to meet her more sensible and conservative relatives, like parents and grandfather.
But a few younger relatives of Norah's are in town, and Norah is happy about an evening with everybody. I tell her I would like to invite all and sundry into a Khmer style restaurant that would be fun for everybody and that would have at least one dish suitable for the Farang palate.
Nine people on three motorcycles, we roar into the steamy Pnom Penh night. Her niece and nephew from part 2 are there, too. We stop in a small road on the corner of Monivong Boulevard. A garage style restaurant with tiled walls has put ten tables on the pavement there. We hand the motos to service guys who perfectly thread the machines into the rows of motos that already park there. We get a numbered ticket for every two-wheeler.
On the pavement, we find a round table with just the perfect size and sit all around. It's right in the roar of dust and diesel, but that may be part of the fun. A gas stove is turned on in the middle of the table, an earthen pot full of dark soup lands on top.
What we are now going to eat – or *do* – is called soup chnang dei, which translates to earthen pot soup. "What would you like, darling", asks my caring Norah and reels off about ten items. I understand nothing and suggest she just orders anything that's fun. We would share all-around anyway.
Soon the waiters appear with plates and plates, then more plates filled with anything that might fit into the boiling broth. All kinds of meats, egg, fish, salad, veggies, fish chips, meat balls, noodles, actually a lot of things I've never seen. – "Any rat or dog in there", I ask Norah secretly? – "You crazy!!" – You throw anything into the bubbling broth, wait a minute or five and try to fish it out again – or steal somebody else's food. Put it into your personal bowl first, and then into your mouth. Norah takes care that I don't boil my stuff for too long or too short; with a mildly ironic smile, she has also asked the waiter to replace the chopsticks near my plate and bowl with fork and spoon.
All the time, new plates of food come up. Empty plates don't disappear, but service stacks them in a laundry basket next to our table. All in all, it's great fun. We don't exchange a lot of ideas except for "You like it?" or "How old are you, mister", but the vibes are good.
9 p.m. – niece and nephew need to sleep now! So we call for service. The waiter grabs the laundry basket with all the empty plates and starts to count them. I realize all our different items came on three different kinds of plates, relating to three different price groups. So the price is easily added-up; then he counts the old Coke cans that have also been collected in our laundry basket. One more time, the bill is handed to me. Just 14 USD all in all.
Suddenly her cousin stands up and gestures at me: "I pay, I want to pay!" – What is this, I had invited everybody. "Ah, I'll pay", I smile to her. – "No, please, let me pay", cousin insists, swinging a twenty dollar bill. – "But why", I ask back, wondering what the waiter thinks of our dispute, "I am glad to be here with everybody, I would really like to invite you to celebrate the time in Cambodia."
It's one of the hardest bargains I had in Cambodia, and I lose it. She will not even let me share the bill – she pays it all, plus tip.
— The Ring —
Srei Tuj noticed it first. But she was too shy to speak to her good friend Srei Norah, to bring her such a heartbreaking news. So Srei Tuj dialled Srei Dah's mobile number, and yes – Srei Dah had seen it too, on that wedding we all attended two Sundays ago.
"We must warn Srei Norah", Tuj said to Dah. – Dah nodded into her second-hand Nokia. – "But what can we do", pondered Tuj, "I have no idea how to speak to Srei Norah." – Dah: "But she must know it. The sooner the better." – Tuj: "The sooner the better." – "OK", said Dah courageously, "I will try to explain it to Srei Norah."
Norah and I just sat down on the grass in front of the Royal Palace, when Norah's second-hand Nokia whinged it's usual silly ring. – "Norah? It's Dah. You know what…" – I saw Norah's face getting super-pale and shocked! – Srei Dah said with a low voice: "Can I tell you some very very bad news? I don't want to hurt you, but I think you should know. Srei Tuj saw it, too." – Norah now got this intensely serious look, as if the course of her life might change. She bit on her lips, her upper body moved up and down, and she spoke only little. – Dah continued: "We found out that your boyfriend Mr. Pothole is married already." – Norah abruptly turned away from me, put her arms around her legs and formed a closed box. They talked a little more when –
– SUDDENLY! Norah EXPLODES into laughter, she shrieks and claps on her legs, she grins at me like a paid clown, her face lightens up 10 f-stops, she beams all over. A few sentences later, she says "liahoay" and hangs up.
What had happened? Dah informed Norah that I was married already, and it would be better to move away from me quickly. Dah went on that Tuj had the same evidence. Norah recounted:
"You know, they saw the RING on your finger. So they thought you are married, and felt so sorry for me. They thought I didn't see that ring. But of course, this ring is from me, you wear MY ring, so no need to worry!!" She beams like a child on Christmas eve.