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Delightful Cambodia – You Are Welcome (3)



Beggars have been common to Cambodia, but became decidedly more in the last few years. A new form of interethnic encounters around Phnom Penh are waterborne pesterers – see the first two sequels for more on those guys. Another novelty are "barrang" (western) mendicants, now molesting westerners and even ordinary Khmer citizens.

— BEGGARS AND THIEVES, BARRANG (1) —

In the popular disco "Heart of Darkness" a huge drunk westerner talks and talks into me something about "ganja". As polite and clear and nonverbal as possible I try to end his monologue. He doesn't stop at all, but keeps yakking away, bellowing right into my crumbling ear with delightful nicotine and beer breath. This guy is double as tall and wide as me; I will have to buy the stuff from him, should I wish to maintain my current impersonation. Suddenly he turns away and molests another punter.

— BEGGARS AND THIEVES, BARRANG (2) —

Later that night I wander through a dark corner of the Phnom Penh riverside. It's where dozens of rickshaw drivers sleep right in their microscopic vehicles. Unfortunately they don't build orderly aisles, so it is quite a bushwalk to get through this cluster of "cyclos", as they are locally called. One driver has even fixed a hammock between his rickshaw and a lamp pole and blocks a big part of the pavement.

In this environment I meet a dirty, drunk, moustached westerner in his 30s with nervous or maybe drugged eyes. – Am I English or American, he demands to know? – I have to decline. – He makes an accusing face and regretting sighs. He then blames me that he has been robbed and no place to sleep. Because of this, I have to pay him. – "Adh mee'an ey", I say, just what Khmers say to *Khmer* beggars (no have, ey). Hastily I slalom away, around three more rickshaws into the pitch black Phnom Penh night. Fortunately there is no streetlight.

— BEGGARS AND THIEVES, BARRANG (3) —

And while westerners molesting westerners is already a new social phenomenon of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, some long noses now go out of their way to pester even decent local Cambodians: Westerners in cute business attire have been known to walk into Khmer middle-class quarters, knock on the door and suggest a reading from the bible to Khmer residents.

Once established, the missionaries would not easily leave the scene, instead they offer free books and free assistance in swapping Buddha for Jesus. When politely reminded that the Khmer inhabitants now had urgent things to do, the western Christian intruders would still not get lost, but cling to their chairs and start to talk unfavorably about Buddha. According to my reliable Cambodian sources, a highly uncomfortable degree of impoliteness is required to get rid of the Christian missionaries.

— SHOPPING ADVICE – GUNS —

In Cambodia, police recommends that thieves and other intruders in your house are shot dead on the spot. Why fuss around. I don't know if this colorful, widespread piece of local habit is also applied to obnoxious Christian missionaries. Anyway, do buy your pistol straight from police – this avoids any trouble if they later find a gun in your flat. Prices start from 30 USD.

— KHMER TRADITION (1) —

In my search for high traditional Khmer culture, the Khmer dance at the NGO-funded Apsara Arts Association had been another vast disappointment. Over marshland they have built a small open performance sala for about 40 spectators. On our visit, the place is full of mosquitoes and camera-toting French tourists in shorts.

They perform amateurish. Norah shudders: "Hans, they do it *so wrong*." It is like a show that primary school pupils do for their parents around Christmas. A few musicians play live on classic instruments; they are out of synch and sound horrible. I can bear the faster, humourous dances revolving around rice harvest and flirtation. But slow pieces, solo dances and solo instrumental performances are most awkward. After only half of the dances we walk out.

In the tuktuk back home we discuss Khmer dancing. We have already been to the Souvannaphoum theatre on road 360. That's a similarly crude salle with the ambiance of a 50 years old third-world schoolroom, half-open air. Happy amateurs perform there.

I tell Norah how the world-class dance shows on Bali took my breath away. Even the somnambule dancing at the open Erawan shrine in Bangkok is better than what we saw in Phnom Penh so far.

Most Cambodian artists had been killed by the Khmers Rouges. "Are there no skilled performers in this country", I ask Norah?

She says that until a few years ago they had high-quality Khmer dancing in a beautiful venue called Salle Mahao Srob, behind the Naga casino on the riverside, better than Salle Chaktomuk also on the riverside. Norah: "Now Salle Mahao Srob looks like it hadn't been used for some years."

"And the dancing", I ask?

It appears that Cambodia had one great lady dancer called Phisat Pilika, who studied the art for many years. Everybody knew and loved her. She had a son and a husband in the US. "When she died, the streets of Phnom Penh were full", recalls Norah. "People cried everywhere."

It was rumored that Phisat Pilika was involved in a triangle in Cambodia's highest circles. Maybe it was just a rumor, and the rumored dinner outing with that famous Khmer politician was harmless. Anyway, her time ended Khmer style. She was shot dead.

— KHMER TRADITION (2) —

Oh, to be honest, Phisat Pilika's death was not *completely* Khmer style. As multiple marriages now are not only illegal, but actually grow out of common in the Khmer Kingdom, Cambodian husbands still like to entertain a "propon chong" or two on the side (mia noi, mistress, girlfriend).

This is just like Thailand. But unlike Thailand, cheated Cambodian wives won't dare to snip off their unfaithful husband's procreating device. They have another good Cambodian tradition: The fuming wife orders someone to pour a bucketload of battery acid into her rival's beautiful Khmer face.


Stickman's thoughts:

Battery acid? Ouch!