Visiting the real Cambodia

3 Jan
Staircase - Cambodian size

Staircase - Cambodian size

I got along really well with one of the waiters in the Blue Chilli club. He was also one of the guys that went along with us to the Killing Fields and we had been for lunch with PH and his colleague/friend before (and as it often happens – when the bill comes – we pay, they smile – that’s cool with me though).

In exchange, he invited me to his house for lunch, which was quite an exciting experience. His apartment was located quite centrally (near the National Gallery) but in one of the little back streets. We had to climb over some parked motos in order to get access to the staircase – which was about as wide as the laptop that I’m typing on now… I mean, it was the most narrow steps I’ve ever seen, and definitely not made for Western size visitors. I had to duck to avoid bumping my head in the flight of stairs above.

A cambodian house of a cambodian guy

A cambodian house of a cambodian guy

His apartment wasn’t big but certainly bigger than the hotel rooms I had stayed in till then. So it felt ‘like being home’ (well, not my home, but someone’s home at least). The furniture was basic but it had everything it needed: nice comfy chairs, carpet, fan, TV and even DVD player. In the middle of his apartment there was a big mirror, obviously where he would prepare for his drag shows on Fridays and Saturdays. Pictures of his performances dotted the walls. So he’s really into it.

Within his apartment (that was locked with a padlock) there was a door to his bedroom (also locked with a padlock) with a bed in the corner and a rack with all his clothes next to it (his most precious belongings), and some cute centerfold posters from some magazines he’d probably got from some foreigners… In the back of the apartment were the ‘wet-zones’ of the house: kitchen and bathroom (Cambodian style but all it needed). The toilet didn’t have a flush, but there was a barrel to scoop water from. There was only one burner (in the kitchen) but a rice-cooker and even a drinking water fountain.

So for a guy that earns only about 60 US$ a month he is not doing bad at all – even thought he kept apologizing for the poor state of his apartment. I would not mind at all staying there.

The other side of a normal Cambodian guy

The other side of a normal Cambodian guy

So cool to see the other side of the guy that was dancing on the bar in women’s clothes in the local (foreigners’) gay bar… Because at least I know now that there is a different reality behind Blue Chilli. He actually told me his story, how his mother died after the Pol Pot regime. He was the youngest of 7 children, and had to fight for his place. A bit like my story too. So he also has a need to ‘be seen’ (on stage) and ‘recognized’ (everybody wants to be loved). He dropped school at 14 to work, but through the money he earned (and got from foreigners) he did manage to continue his schooling. He’s a fighter – am proud of him.

After lunch, his colleague from the Blue Chilli club was joining us, with his “guy from that night” (which obviously was a different one than the night before – so I guess the waiters have all the interaction they can dream of – well, if the white guys in the bar are asia-lovers, and the locals are into white meat… then that’s probably normalmore for VIPs). We went for a walk near the river (the tourist area). And during the talks I could hear that my friend’s colleague was trying to get something more than a nice night. All of a sudden he started explaining how he would need money to set up a business, ‘and where oh where could he find the dosh…’

Burning incense at the riverside temple...

Burning incense at the riverside temple...

As we walked along we arrived at the little riverside temple, and as it was Saturday (the day people go to temple) there was music and a lot of animation. Being with two waiter / drag-queens (undercover though – although probably easily recognisable) that also added to the animation (see youtube videos).

But as soon we reached the temple, they switched from ‘crazy barang mode’ to ‘Buddhist mode’. Without much ado, they just moved towards the crowd, blended in (despite the deep rooted queerness), and maneuvered with us to the incense and flower sellers… Before I knew it we had a bunch of incense and a lotus flower in our hands. They gentle hovered us towards the temple proper and showed us what to do.

You light the incense, and hold it in your hands that are flat together, like a wai. While making your wishes you raise and lower your hands. It took a bit more time for me, because I had lots to wish for (and probably also because I didn’t feel as comfortable as our Cambodian friends to push the other people, beggars and vendors aside). The guys also went into the temple area without taking their shoes off (whereas others did – not everybody though – so there is flexibility in all cultural rules…?). Once all the wishing is done, you plant the incense into the sand-boxes provided for this occasion (where children take incense sticks out again to re-sell… Well, I worked in a fast-food place when I was young, maybe ‘recycling’ people’s incense is less cumbersome? And environmentally friendly!). To get rid of the Lotus flower the guys bought for us, was more complicated. That involved going to the side of the temple (as the main entrance was too crowded) and leaning through the side-window, yelling something at the temple person and push a few dollar bills in his hands to take on our offerings… (and the dosh).

  • Davide – I did burn an extra few incense sticks for you as you requested!
  • PS if any other requests from anyone – just let me know;-)
Releasing birds = capturing merit

Releasing birds = capturing merit

And when I thought the religious bout was over, the most surprising part came. Our Cambodian friends showed up with some birds. Yep, they don’t have Gaia or RSPA or animal protection organizations there yet. So it is still perfectly OK to put loads of birds in cages and sell them – handing them over from squeezing hand to squeezing hand. And the point is…  setting them free – because releasing captured animals (and other good-doings) gives you merit for the next life. So there is a business of capturing little birdie-birdies, selling them, to be released… (and probably caught again – hm, Cambodians are big into recycling it seems… except of rubbish – sorry, that’s a lie because in the mornings some people push a cart down the street and squeeze these duck like whistles to tell people to bring them their cans, cardboard, bottles,…).

Soon after the waiters/performers had to go and prepare for their evening act – so there I was, left to my own devices and to the mercy of the American. But it was soo nice to talk! About philosophy, cultural contacts, experiences of traveling… and what not. That is something that I really missed: plain talking… conversation. Not sure it is because of limited English skills, or cultural differences, but talking with the local guys is ‘different’.

  • Maybe it is the issue of different purposes of communication again: is it being together, in relation – or should we be making sense and giving information…

One of the things the American guy told me, is that he actually on purpose left his notebook back home, to be sure he’d switch off from work, from the rat race etc… and I am running around with my little netbook to blog, mail, connect, etc… Am I doing something wrong???


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