I haven't written about Siem Reap yet because I've been waiting for some sort of tidy conclusion to present itself, but there are no tidy conclusions to be had in this town. Therefore I am very pleased to present this wonderful and incomplete series of Siem Reap Snippets (a.k.a "Starts that have never known ends"), none of which are going to mention Angkor Wat.
Snippet #1: The Inappropriate Shopkeeper
There's a shop called Bloom above a restaurant on Bar Street. They sell bags and other accessories made out of old rice sacks with cheerful pictures of mermaids on them. Good karma bags, with proceeds going back to the poor Cambodians who made them. I went in to have a look and within three seconds of strolling in the door I was being bombarded with questions from the shop assistant: "Where are you from? How long are you here? How old are you? Do you have a boyfriend?"
This isn't uncommon, but when you were just interested in looking at some bags it's a little offputting. Maybe the young guy noticed my walls going up because his next question wasn't common at all: "Can you teach me some good questions to ask people in the shop?"
We spent the next hour hovering over a notebook discussion what sort of things are appropriate and inappropriate to say to westerners.
- Where are you from?
- How long are you staying in Siem Reap?
- Have you been to see the temples yet?
- Do you like Cambodia?
- I like talking to you because I'm trying to improve my English.
- Isn't it warm?
- How old are you?
- Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?
- I love you.
The fact that "I love you" isn't something you'd say to a westerner upon first meeting strikes the lad as being extremely strange. In Khmer culture the love is spread around liberally: They have no trouble declaring it, and they love everyone. I try to explain how that for us this "love" word is a very strong one: We have no problem "liking" lots of people, but we keep the "love" for people we've known a long time and who are extremely dear to us.
I try to explain this further, to his great fascination, by mentioning that it's not uncommon for people to sleep together and still never mention this word. Firstly this provokes a discussion on what "sleep together" means. Then it provokes a pronunciation lesson for the word "sex". Then once this is understood I witness the most impressive mental slap of a forehead that I've seen in recent times.
"So you can sleep together but you cannot say 'I love you'? You can sex but you cannot say 'I love you?'"
It does seem kind of ridiculous when you put it like that. For Cambodians it's the opposite: Lots of love but no sex.
The poor guy kept shaking his head and exclaiming to himself -- "You can sleep together but you can not say 'I love you'." He got me to write it into his book. I put it under the "inappropriate" header.
Snippet #2: The Gradual Softening of Aletta
I'm staying in a hostel in Siem Reap which has everything. It has a swimming pool. Free internet. Free bicycles. Crisp white sheets on comfortable beds in rooms with air-conditioning and private hot-shower bathrooms. It has a yoga room and free DVDs, a pool table and giant Connect-4. In the morning there's a free breakfast buffet with four different types of cereals and fruits, mini-pancakes with maple syrup, toast and jam, tea and coffee, juices and real (not condensed) milk.
After three weeks in Laos (albeit interrupted by a five-night stint in a hotel with HBO (hallelujah)), checking into this place was like hitting a five-star hotel after sleeping in a doorway.
The first couple of days I spent relishing my new luxuries. I'd get up in the morning, eat my breakfast whilst lingering over the news sites, borrow a yoga DVD and spend twenty minutes following the bendy man on the big-screen TV, and then another twenty minutes simply watching the bendy man in exhaustion. Then I'd climb down the spiral staircase to the beautiful clear indoor pool and spend another twenty minutes trying to sit on the giant inflatable log. How much fun can you have with a floating log? You have no idea! Then I'd take a hot shower, eat some lunch, take a nap. Read a book on the hammock, sit on my computer again, go out for dinner.
Then one day the swimming pool turned green and a big "out of order" sign was slapped on the ladder. The next day the pool was empty and people were working on it. I grumbled.
Another day there was no hot water in the shower. I squealed and grumbled again.
The next day the water in the toilet and in the taps turned yellow and stinky. The next day there was no water at all. Then the water comes back, but there's still not hot water. The swimming pool is still empty and grimy looking. My floating log languishes at the bottom of the pool with the other inflatable toys. To me this is a singularly depressing scene.
And I grumble. I grumble that my sheets haven't been changed in two weeks. I grumble when the drain in the shower gets blocked.
I turn soft.
I have completely forgotten that three weeks ago I was crammed into buses with dying poultry, juddering along dirt roads with a folded jersey wedged under my bum, scarf wrapped around my face to block the dust. Three weeks ago a hot shower was a luxury, as was a flush toilet. Three weeks ago I was marveling at the idea that my skin is just like another set of clothes, but considerably easier to get clean.
I miss that me.
Snippet #3: In Which Aletta Is Reminded Of Herself (Again)
Sitting in a bar/restaurant on Bar Street in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and the sound system is churning out some Chili Peppers. Specifically "Californication". This song was part of the soundtrack to my six-month partial circumnavigation of Australia several years ago, when I had two gradually melting tapes in my gradually disintegrating Kingswood. I played those tapes on rotation over about 10,000 kilometres. I would wake up in the morning, boil some water for tea on my gas stove, pack up the car, wash my face with water from my drink bottle, locate my packet of biscuits and then launch myself (and my vehicle) out of town when the shadows were still long, with the windows down and the Chili Peppers blasting somewhat distortedly from my nasty stereo.
So Californication was the soundtrack to a lot of things. But hey! We're not in Australia anymore: We're in Cambodia! Time for new soundtracks! Yeah!
But when this song came over the stereo in this pub in Bar Street, Siem Reap, Cambodia, it's like the past came tugging on my shirt sleeve. "Hi. Don't forget. That was you there doing that shit. This is all part of the same story."
Snippet #5: The Inappropriate Shopkeeper Reprised
Back to my appropriate/inappropriate boy, this was also on the list of inappropriate questions:
I put this in the "inappropriate" list but actually I can't think of anything more appropriate. I asked him whether working in this shop was a good job. He paused, grinned and shook his head. He asked me if I wanted to know how much he earned, and I said "only if it's not a rude question". I should have figured by now that Cambodians don't have such bones about these kinds of things.
He broke it down for me.
He earns USD$3 a day. Five days a week. That's $15 a week, or $60 a month.
He pays $1 a day for his food and accommodation. That leaves him $30 a month.
He pays $20 a month to go to school to learn English. That leaves him $10 a month.
I ask him what would be a good job for him. What job would he like to have? He says he'd really like to be a translator. This is why he's spending a third of his income on English lessons, and why he's so excited to ask inappropriate questions in the shop.
He doesn't ask me how much I earn, and I don't think he'd ever actually ask that of anyone who came into the shop. But like I said, I don't think there's a single more appropriate question that a man earning $3 a day could ask of a tourist visiting Cambodia.
Snippet #6: Mr Cello And The Unfortunate State Of Cambodian Healthcare*
Last night we went to a cello thing. We all got dressed up because it kind of sounded like culture. I put on this green dress which I bought from the night market. Tara dolled herself up in leopard print. Sally wore black with Lisa Loeb glasses. We all spoiled the image in the end by putting on our dusty flip-flops or Crocs, but hey. We took Sally's tuk-tuk down the road of ridiculously expensive hotels and walked into an auditorium with super-frosty air conditioning.
On stage a reasonably rotund Swiss man was holding a cello and talking about Dengue fever.
So he's holding a cello, but talking about Dengue? We sit in expectation.
He tells us that Dengue was at epidemic proportions amongst the population of Siem Reap and Cambodia these past years. Now it's no longer epidemic, it's simply endemic. It never goes away. In Singapore there was a Dengue epidemic, and whenever a child was brought into the hospital with the disease the authorities would be dispatched to the child's house to neutralise the mosquito population. Dengue mosquitoes can only fly 100 metres, see. So they were able to stop the epidemic. In Cambodia the system is so corrupt that this simply isn't possible. Lots of money going in, but nothing coming out. "Oh, it'll take six months for the chemicals to arrive!" So the epidemic lives on.
In Cambodia the heath care system is so corrupt that people with no money cannot access health care. It's not that the doctors cost a lot, it's that the bribery costs a lot. You don't see any action without slipping the staff some riel. The man holding the cello is a doctor who has set up children's hospitals in Phnom Pehn and in Siem Reap. These hospitals are free. They are well equipped. They have modern equipment, and good medicine. The care is free. Their staff are paid good salaries and don't need to take money under the table. The people know that they can bring their children there for free, and they travel hundreds of kilometres to visit the hospitals.
But according to the various international aid organisations and the WHO (and even Princess Anne, miss representative of the Save The Children Fund herself) they're doing everything wrong. The hospitals in Cambodia do not need expensive medicine. They do not need sophisticated diagnostic equipment or laboratories. These things are not appropriate for the economic reality of the country. First the Cambodian people must learn to wash their hands.
Before the civil war, Mr Cello tells us, Cambodia had better healthcare facilities than either Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. Before the Khmer Rouge there were 950 highly qualified doctors working in the hospitals. After the revolution there were 50. There was also no healthcare system, and a huge tuberculosis epidemic. But although all these international health organisations and the media will swarm to any suggestion of SARS or "Bird Flu" in Cambodia, nobody is at all interested in Dengue, Tuberculosis, HIV, Japanese Encephalitis or any of the other less globally threatening diseases.
Also, according to these global organisations it is perfectly appropriate to supply drugs to Cambodia and other poor countries that are banned in developed countries. These drugs are banned because the side effects can be things like... oh, you know... death. It's appropriate because it's cheap, and because it suits the economic reality of the country. It is also perfectly appropriate to continue vaccinating children against tuberculosis even though it has been shown to lead to the children developing more virulent and devastating forms of the disease. Ineffective and counterproductive vaccinations are appropriate. Correct diagnosis and treatment is inappropriate.
Mr Cello repeats his point many times over the course of the evening. All this work is "not appropriate for the economic reality of the country. First they must learn to wash their hands."
In between talk of diseases and injustice the good doctor plays his cello. He plays Bach. He plays a song in Italian about a man sitting under an umbrella. He plays a song about forgiveness.
He tells us the story of when he was made "Swiss of the year 2002" and was invited to play something on television. He thought that it would be an excellent opportunity to talk about the hospitals and drum up support and donations. But unlike my inappropriate Cambodian shopkeeper friend, the Swiss have terrible trouble discussing money. You're not allowed to say that your organisation needs money on television. You're not allowed to give your bank account for donations. It's just not done.
There is a little loophole, however: Anything spoken in a foreign language on Swiss television will be translated, word for word, at the bottom of the screen. So on Swiss television he sung a song in English which went something along the lines of:
"I am the doctor PC8060699.1
We still need money,
Please send us money.
Is it fair that a Cambodian child should die?
We still need money,
Please send us money."
At the start of the show when we were sitting down he suggested that young people in the audience could help the hospital by giving blood. Older members of the audience could give money. Those in between could give both. I walked in thinking that the evening could cost me a couple of bucks.
In the end it cost me the entire month's wages of a Cambodian shopkeeper.
Snippet #7: Who Needs Conclusions Anyway?
Compared with Laos and Thailand, eating in Siem Reap is an expensive exercise. The restaurants on Bar Street don't feed you for less than $2.50. Usually you're looking at $3-4. In the light of my conversations with the inappropriate shopkeeper I consider it the sign of a pure asshole to sit down to a meal that would set the average Cambodian back their entire day's wages.
Of course this is a stupid attitude because if everyone held this view there would be a whole lot of waiters and waitresses out of the job, poorly paid though it might be. (I'm finding this "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation to be a recurring theme in Southeast Asia.) Nonetheless, I've been frequenting the street restaurants crowding around the corner at the end of Bar Street. There are about ten places selling nearly identical fare of fried rice, fried noodles, fried vegetables and noodle soup for around 3000 to 4000 riel, or 75c to $1 depending on your currency of preference.
The other night I sat down to a bowl of noodle soup and a banana "shark", and I started talking to a Dutch girl who sat next to me. Soup and three sharks later and I've told her all my stupid philosophies of travel, she's told me all about Dutch winter food, and I've mentioned how I'm a little "over" Siem Reap. She suggests I come with her to Phnom Penh in two days time. I say "I could quite probably do that" and we agree to meet up the next day at the same time, same place, at which point I would have made a decision.
I spend the next day deciding. At 6pm I still hadn't decided. At 7pm I'd decided yes, and I was packing my bags and lamenting all the things that I hadn't actually gotten around to doing in Siem Reap. At 8pm I was telling this girl that I'd come with her, but by 9pm I'd lost her in the streets of Siem Reap, been completely unable to find a bus ticket, and I was shoving a note into her bicycle basket saying that if I didn't show up at the bus station tomorrow it probably meant that I'd changed my mind.
Hah. I'm still lacking conclusions, but when faced with the prospect of leaving what has come to be "home" over the past two and a half weeks, my listlessness has lifted. I went out to the night market and spent the evening bartering in a good-natured fashion with a lot of very charming stall-keepers and buying arguably too many scarves.
Today I'm still in Siem Reap. And at the hostel they're finally filling up the swimming pool.
* Details of snippet #6 are as good as I can remember. Hey, I wasn't taking notes.