Saturday, March 6, 2010

Being a Hater and a Lover: Phnom Penh Compacted

The writer’s block that inspired my last post still plagues me. One of the tricks I’ve picked up from an undergraduate class with memoirist Jennifer Brice is creating lists as a step to begin writing. This is an exercise I’ve used with my students at the Nou Hach Literary Journal, a literary organization here in Phnom Penh. While some may think of doing writing exercises as a “thing” for novices, I’ve been doing exercises ever since I started writing. Plus, lists are fun. The following two lists are written in no particular order and are full of my biases. Take it with a grain of rice. Cliché remark? Absolutely. I’m totally failing as a writer today.

6 Things I Hate About Phnom Penh:

1) The Trash

A pile of smoke rises from the side of the road. From Uncle’s yard. Next to the vendor selling grilled potato cakes and bananas. Oh, no worries. It’s just trash burning. That’s the way many people eliminate their waste here. Or, it’s dumped into the river. “I don’t go one day without smelling this sweetness,” my friend Chakrya tells me sarcastically as we drive past a river of sewage. Now, let’s talk litter. Much of the city looks as if an evil magic fairy sprinkled Coke cans and scraps of banana leaves and wood confetti over the land and water. Try to sweep that shit up, Cintri.

2) The Stench

OK, so the smell of trash is an ashy-burnt-plastic kind of smell. When I speak of “the stench,” I mean the city carries with it a special scent that is vomit inducing at first, and unfortunately, after being here for nearly four months, I have now become accustomed to it. But let me go back to my first experience taking in the city’s odor. Say you were making a mixed drink. Perhaps Fear-Factor style, and you want to put in the nastiest ingredients. Piss. Gasoline. Burnt hair. Dog shit. Human shit. Exhaust. Rotten milk. Gutted fish. Days of unflushed excrement. Shake it all up in a blender, and take a whiff of that. Hellooo, Phnom Penh. OK, OK. I might be being a little unfair here because ¼ of the city doesn’t smell like this. Congrats to this lucky crowd.

3) The Night Noise

So, if you read my earlier post on “Leaving Harpswell,” you’ll find that I am ambivalent towards “the night noise.” In some ways, my earlier post suggests that I might even like it. Well, today, I must tell you that I’ve changed my mind. For troubled sleepers like myself, take heed of this advice: bring some Ambien if you’re going to visit this city. When I lived in Brooklyn, NY for a brief time, I was troubled by the late-night honking, early morning construction, police-whistles, the old-crazy-polka-dot dress lady hollering at 2 AM, the babies balling. Phnom Penh is like this, but consists of different sounds. Like roosters crowing, dogs fighting, bakers clanging, carpenters banging, hookers prowling, karaoke-all-night-long. And right now as I am tapping away at my now dirty white laptop due to the dusty city and my carelessness, all I wish for is that my neighbor sing a different song. This ShinEE one is way overplayed in my head. (For those who do not know of the pop-scene here in SEA, this Korean boy band is an obsession of the teenybopper crowd. Confession: I went to their concert at the Olympic Stadium here in Phnom Penh. Don’t judge me. I was the responsible adult of four teens.)

4) The Showers

I. Like. Hot. Showers. If you want one, and you’re going to live here, forget about it. (Unless you live in one of those uppity villas or American-like gated neighborhoods).

5) The Traffic

Phnom Penh is a relatively small city. Traffic consists of a conglomeration of cars, trucks, motos, cyclos and tuk-tuks. All mushed together like one of those nutty cheese balls. Where’s the public transportation? At one time, public transport did exist. With the current urban sprawl, the city is becoming overcrowded with people and vehicles. Public transportation could certainly alleviate this problem. Also, it is an easy city to walk, especially if one lives in a neighborhood that typically has all the services one needs. But nobody walks. Why? There are no sidewalks (except near the Independence Monument and riverside). And walking in the streets might be a recipe for disaster. “Hey, Lexus. Run me over” is the sign on your $2 T-shirt.

6) The MSG

It’s unavoidable, unless you want to be the horrid foreigner who prefers only to eat at borathiy or Westernized places. Usually when I eat out, I request that MSG not be added to my food. Whether or not this really happens, I’m not sure, but I feel better that I’ve at least tried to avoid it. Usually restaurants and vendors have pre-made broths or porridges from the morning and have already added MSG to these dishes, so I wouldn’t expect an MSG-free bowl to be made just for me. Most of these places nod to my request, and bring me out a my dish three minutes later. Some places do advertise that they are MSG-free. Be wary, however, these are the less authentic Khmer places. Saying that Khmer Kitchen is really Khmer is as if saying that Chipotle is real Mexican food (No less love to Chipotle, however).

6 Things I Love About Phnom Penh:

1) The People

I’ve never been surrounded by so many Cambodians. Go figure. I’m from Denver where the entire Cambodian community can probably fit under one rooftop. I went to Colgate University where there was one other Cambodian: Robert. I’ve never really had a Cambodian friend growing up. And now...I have over fifty. Also, they’re awesome. Most of the people I meet whether they are strangers or family members have large welcoming smiles when I see them. The people here radiate more warmth than I’ve ever felt in another place. Maybe it’s because I’m Cambodian that I feel so, but I think not. Many foreigners who I’ve met have voiced this same feeling of warmness and kindness experienced when interacting with Khmers. The big smiles and welcoming nature of Khmers is in part cultural, I think, but more so, I have a feeling that it stems from somewhere much deeper...I’ve yet to put a finger on where this is however.

2) The Local Love

If you want to buy a pair of custom made shoes, venture to the fifteen shops surrounding Tuol Sleng. They’re all neighbors selling basically the same shoes. If you want some ice, check out your neighbor’s house. He might be selling some. If you want some fish, go to your mouy, your go-to person.

In a developing country such as Cambodia, people try to make money in any way they can. This could be doing anything from selling cigarettes at the front of one’s house just as kids in America might sell lemonade, bringing in about 30,000 Riel a day (the equivalent of a little less than 8 dollars) to baking goods and setting them in a basket atop one’s head while wandering up and down market aisles for fourteen hours straight. There aren’t really mega-marts here. Just little mini-tents selling certain items. The glory of having a lot of the same businesses is that everyone here buys from local vendors.

3) Toul Tom Poung a.k.a. The Russian Market

As an admitted shopping addict, I confess that during my first two months here, I frequented this market at least twice a week. But hear me out: I’ve bought a good amount of dresses ranging from $2.50 to $5, which is a good incentive (in my skewed head) to keep shopping. Many foreigners ask me, “Where did you get that dress?” To their surprise, I say here in Cambodia, and they are shocked having found “nothing worth buying (clothes-wise).” If you are willing to Forever 21-it, and dig for the good finds, Toul Tom Poung is the way to go. And by dig, I mean dig. There are also clothes from brands like Gap, Bebe, Old Navy, Abercrombie, Hollister and the list goes on that manufacture clothing in Cambodia. I got three Gap plain T’s for five bucks. I’d say that’s quite the deal.

Toul Tom Poung also is known as the Foreigner’s market because it is the souvenir hot-spot. From silver trinkets to opium sets, you’ll find it here.

4) The Fruit

I believe I have harked on the fruit before, but indulge me. I am going through one of those moments where I miss a lot of American things. This also makes me think of how I will feel when I am back in America when I am sure I will miss Cambodian things. People aside, I think fruit might top the list. I can’t get enough of it, and many don’t exist back home. The ones that do aren’t the same. There are at least five different kinds of bananas here and five different kinds of mangos. I pick these off trees and eat them. Note to those who love me: A banana or mango tree is on my wish list for any special occasion.

5) Cheap Living

I’ve lived here for almost four months, and before I came here, I set my budget max as $2000. I don’t think I’ve reached over half this amount. And I don’t live cheaply. I indulge in daily coffees, teas, and croissants—things that add up. I buy dresses and fruit (which is relatively expensive). I ride tuk-tuks, the more expensive way of traveling that caters mostly to foreigners. Back home, I would be broke well before now.

6) Angkor Food (located near Toul Tom Poung)

Food here ranges from 3000 Riel to 7000 Riel a dish. Don’t expect a waiter with a napkin tucked into his server’s belt and spotless utensils. Angkor Food opens to the street, and many of the dishes are cooked at the make-shift kitchen on the sidewalk. Utensils are brought out soaked in a cup of hot water, and you polish your own silverware. Aside from being cheap, this food is real Khmer food with the perfect amount of lemongrass and tamarind and chili. The mee, yellow egg noodles, with some veggies is a must. Somlaw krung is also a must. Way more “finger-lickin’ good” than the overpriced KFC faux-chicken that my cousins pine for.