Posted 19-Apr: 2016
Phnom Penh. I went for dinner after the rainstorms. Waitresses assembled at my outdoor table like a gang of football referees, trying to understand just what I was saying in Khmer. I ordered chicken with rice and a beer. The latter is served with icecubes, irregular hunks chipped from blocks men deliver on the back of flat-bed trucks, exposed to the sun – the ice laughably vulnerable (symbols of Cambodia everywhere). Young women called “beer girls” represent particular companies – Tiger Beer or Angkor – wear tight-fitting dresses, deliver ice cubes, will sit down and talk with you, work in a kind of quasi-prostitution of availability depending on the restaurant.
To my left was a table of solders; four woman and three men. Civil servants like soldiers, policemen and public school teachers are paid horribly little in Cambodia, which creates systems of dysfunction and graft. The soldiers were good-looking in their uniforms, heftier than most Cambodians, carousing, half-drunk, eyes showing desires and frustrations under the languid influence of beer expressed with increasing inaccuracy and blur. The owner of the places sat at another table with a similar scene of men and women, several beers and sexual innuendo edges. The young waitresses and waiters giggling, innocent, curious and smiling tenderly by contrast.
A young mother entered the scene with her baby at her breast, her clothes blackened by filth; she seemed nearly as small as her infant, standing there at the tables, begging. Alternately brushed away or given 100 riel. An outlandish but understandable custom – coming as it does from centuries of rural life where table scraps were fed to the dogs, chickens and pigs, and plastic had not yet been invented – is that dinner napkins (toilet paper kept in small dispensers) and every other discard from the table is thrown to the ground with impunity. At the end of a meal the floor under a table might be ankle deep in beer cans and trash (as laughable as the ice cubes).
A young man arrived with his baby and sat at a table in front of me. He plunked the baby right down on the tabletop and moved its occupants – a toothpick dispenser and two bottles of hot sauce - in front of his daughter while he offered her smiles and loving adoration. The baby girl, just old enough to sit upright, sat like an enlightened emanation - Buddha-like, she sat perfectly, seemingly without tensing a single muscle to keep herself upright. Her ears, cheeks, eyes and head all cheerfully round. She handled and examined the objects offered to her as if they were scepters from a former lifetime. Eventually she upended the toothpick dispenser and a stream of toothpicks spread across the table. The father reacted with tender humor befitting his daughter and this kind of thing went on without the slightest trace of impatience or gap in affection between them. As I left, I stopped at his table and said konya s’aat – beautiful baby. Whether she understood or not, the baby smiled at me in an instant, almost knowingly, as if she was expecting me to arrive there.
This is one of a series of essays under the overall title, Cambodia 2015 - 2016. - Bill Scheffel