What Makes Something "Cambodian"?
05-Jan: 2015



From the end of the Angkorian period until the 1940s Cambodia had no roads of significance, and a royal chronicle relates: "In former times there was little dry land here, and people would go everywhere in boats, but never farther than the sounds of dogs barking in their village could be heard. There were no canals then, and no paths. There were only forests with tigers, and elephants, and wild buffalo. No people dared leave their village. - Cambodian Buddhism: History and Practice, by Ian Harris.

The photograph above was taken on the top floor of a guesthouse I stayed in in Siem Reap, a town known to the world as the gateway to the fabled Angkor Wat. I took this snapshot on my way to breakfast, with the morning sun illuminating towels and sheets hung the previous day to dry. It is of course the light that brings this photograph to life. The way the orange towels and yellow blanket are back lit. The way the black towels are opaque. The way the sun is rising on the world with a glaring brilliance at 7:00 AM.

Like the photograph, Cambodia is a world of contrasts. Especially in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's only real city, the contrasts range into the lurid. High-rise apartments and condominiums are rising in every part of the city, although they are largely foreign-owned and still mostly unoccupied. Chinese, Japanese and Malay investors are eventually hoping to turn a profit on their investments, hoping the Cambodian middle-class will grow, that the Cambodians will lose their preference for living close to the earth, with chickens rooting about the kitchen, and in houses that will accomodate extended families. Hoping that Cambodians will soon prefer the nuclear family, living lives of seeming autonomy and relative isolation, but at least owning a refrigerator.

A trip into the city-outskirts or country-side reveals houses and shops plastered in signage, from proper billboards to sheets of plasticized paper, with the vast majority of the ubiquitous advertising hawking two classes of product: beer and cellphones. Small mountains of trash lie in heaps everywhere or have been dispersed into rivers, causeways and roadsides, embedding the land in untold tons of used shopping bags, water bottles and spoons. In an earlier time, refuge consisted of food scraps, and these were quickly devoured by the nearest chicken, pig or kitty cat. Needless to say, plastic bags are inedible, but they also take from twenty to a thousand years to decompose. Some plastics apparently will never decompose.

Another contrast are Cambodia's forests, which are disappearing. Land grabs, encroachment by rubber or coconut plantations, and clandestine illegal harvests are some of the ways in which Cambodia's tropical hardwoods are being plundered.

"It's just like in the United States in the 1960s, when every single redwood tree was a target for illegal logger[s]," says Susanna Gauntlett, head of the Phnom Penh office of Wildlife Alliance. "It's the same thing in Cambodia. It's a natural resource worth a lot of money."1 (NPR, January 29, 2013)

China's bourgeoning middle class is behind most of the demand for illegal timber, but Cambodian's, too, can be seen turning rosewood and teak trees into beds, chairs, tables and carvings of monkeys. What's doubly sad it the lackluster and uniform design of the furniture, nearly identical pieces massively over-built, and stained with polyurethane coating, another kind of plastic.

Contrasted against these outer degradations are what is so inspiring and lovely about Cambodia, the goodness and industry of it's people, the uncanny humor found amid hardship or absurdity, the recovery - such as it is - from the societal meltdown of the Khmer Rouge era, an era now over a generation distant in history (though conflict in parts of the country raged with conflict well into the 1990s).

Curiously, something of what it is like here can be illustrated with a story of a tuna-fish sandwich. I had one yesterday in Siem Reap. No longer strictly confining myself to "real" Cambodian restaurants, the ones Cambodians eat at, the ones I frequented almost exclusively in my first trips here, I ate at a tourist joint called Joe to Go, a place that actually didn't offer take out. Because I was vaguely in the mood when I saw it on the menu, I ordered the tuna-fish sandwich. And it was delicious. A perfect tuna-fish sandwich, perfectly moist, perfectly toasted, perfection cut along the diagonal, held together with toothpicks and a sprig of green pepper, it was authentic Cambodian food. How can I claim this as authentic? It was because the sandwich was so well prepared, carefully prepared, prepared with precision, yet not without a bit of nonchalance as well. It was Cambodian because of the way it was done.

Most people here are embedded in their jobs. They typically work the same job seven days a week and for far longer than eight hours a day. And often they are literally embedded; the men and woman who sit atop huge sacks of rice, yellow split peas or garbanzo beans, sitting there all day, dispensing products from their sacks one kilo at a time. Or the other sellers in the market or street-side, selling gasoline from used liter bottles of soda pop or Johnnie Walker Red, selling durian from two square meters of sidewalk, selling newspapers or repairing punctured motorcycle tires, people become very good at what they do when they stay put and do it all day long. You can see this in your laundry that comes back from a local shop. Even though done without an iron or spin dryer, even though often washed by hand, the laundry is immaculately clean, pressed and folded. The tuna-fish sandwich was done this way and I can't wait to have another.




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This is a series of essays under the overall title, Cambodia 2015. - Bill Scheffel

Your'e Hired

Expecting Me

What Makes Something "Cambodian"?

Durian, Food of the Future?

A Morning Walk

The Cambodian Market: Wheel of the Quivering Meat Conception

Inside the Temple Grounds

Inside the Chinese Shrine

Inside Saigon

Inside Level One

Inside Hanoi

Buddhism and the Khmer Rouge