Samlor Khmer

Sometimes you walk blindly into a situation knowing that it’s going to be one from which you’ll emerge—I hesitate to say “enlightened” or “a better person”—but no doubt in some way changed.

Sometimes you walk blindly into a situation knowing that it’s going to be one from which you’ll emerge—I hesitate to say “enlightened” or “a better person”—but no doubt in some way changed.

Well, instead of walking, which probably would have been the more prudent approach, I rashly threw myself into this experience. Like some sort of diabolical chef wanting to shock out the potential of some carrots, I purposely plucked myself, a carrot (1), from the happily simmering chicken noodle soup of familiarity and comfort, of home and family and friends, and chucked myself into the boiling cauldron of some foreign stew, in this case Samlor Khmer (2). Would I sink to the bottom and disintegrate in this frithing and frothing broth? Or would I float and bob about merrily with my new cohorts, some friendly cucumbers, bean sprouts, chunks of meat, and noodles? In the end, shall I come out from this experience a carrot a little more flavorful and a little plumper, having absorbed some of the magic of these other ingredients?

One can only hope.

I can already feel myself learning so much. I am seeing sides of Cambodia that the casual, thrill-seeking tourist doesn’t want or need and doesn’t even pause long enough to see, much less understand. And by this, I don’t mean discovering the secret nooks and crannies of Phnom Penh, the best tropical fruits stall, or the best view of the Mekong River at night. These are all wonderful in their own right, but when actually living in a place, one needs more. What it really boils down to are the people you meet.

I wouldn’t be coping so well with such an onslaught of new experiences were it not for the boundless kindness from the people I am meeting. Little do they realize that their simple gestures mean the world to me. Be it inviting me to tag along on a quick trip to the night market, or going to grab some sugar cane juice, or taking a moment to turn to me and explain why Cambodian people or French people do it this way, or just by listening patiently to my pathetic attempts at Khmer without responding with look of disdain, but with a genuine laugh or smile (and sometimes even a good humored attempt at correcting my pronunciation), I treasure every single gesture as a little golden nugget that that shines with warmth.


Yesterday, Naren invited me to her house for a little brunch she and her husband were hosting. She lives in a newer residential area far on the northwestern side of town, and came all the way down to pick me up from my guest house. Sitting on the back of her moto going back to her place, I was all eyes and craning neck as I took stock of a part of town I had not yet been to. The cramped shop fronts, the moto-repair shops, the tumult and squalor of the street markets soon shifted before my very eyes. Suddenly everything was just a little more clean, a little less dusty, a little more square, a little less haphazard, and a whole lot more organized. We stopped in a small supermarket that turned out to be French-owned. Walking through the store with its smooth white floors and shiny white walls, every item carefully wrapped in packages, stacked neatly row upon row upon row, I couldn’t help feeling that, well, the place was sterile. I’m sure its goods would most likely agree with my stomach more (3), but even so, I felt myself missing the vibrancy of the outdoor markets. There was even a boulangerie section. That, I have to admit, was a very pleasant surprise. There is nothing quite so glorious as a bunch of golden baguettes and a line of gorgeous fruity tarts that only the French could make look so exquisite.

We then continued on our merry way and I found myself in this lovely little residential chunk of town that felt oddly tranquil in comparison to the constant commotion of the city. Aside from the fact the architecture of the house was a sort of traditional mixture of Cambodian-style/French villa, there wasn’t much to suggest I was really still in Phnom Penh.

It was a charming little get-together, with a total of about 9 people. I realized she hadn’t invited other people from Bophana and felt quite honored and delighted to be included. It being a mostly French crowd, the whole brunch was a very French-ish affair with baguettes and croissants and tarts and fig jam and saucisson and smoked salmon and coffee all mixed in with what I’m finding to be a quintessentially French kind of wry, quippy humor (4).

One of the women there was an artist who is apparently quite well known and is up-and-coming in the Cambodian art-scene. I was so surprised when I saw her walk in because I had gone to her exposition opening two nights before at the French Cultural Center! (5) The exposition was a fun occasion celebrating her rather springy installation art (well, the structures were literally made out of springs…) that supposedly evoked some whimsical aspect of her childhood. It could be placed in that genre of contemporary art that I find virtually impossible to “understand.” It was the type of art that is reasonably enjoyable/intriguing to look at at the time, but in the end, lacks in the substance that will make it last in ones memory for years to come. It was also a strangely light hearted exposition in comparison to one I’d been to just across the street by another Cambodian artist whose paintings were nightmarish attempts at grappling with the horror of the Cambodian genocide.

So, I have to admit, I had not the most favorable first impression of her work (Not because it wasn’t “serious” like the other artist, but because it didn’t resonate with me visually or conceptually.) But, then we got to talking, and like a lot of Cambodians, I’ve found, she was extremely friendly. She told me all about the new project she was working on and I was really impressed by her ideas. Apparently she was selected by an NGO to display her project at an international exposition in Berlin 2012. Woah. It was strange to think that I could possibly be talking to some future-big-name artist, and didn’t even know it. Well, big-name Cambodian artist or not, what really counted was the fact she was just really, really nice and I loved talking to her.

She offered to give me a ride home, and invited me to tag along with her to go shopping at one of her favorite vintage markets. Of course I happily said, YES! It was fun traipsing after her through the stiflingly narrow aisles of the winding market, her sharp eyes spotting creative outfits that I, frankly, would not have the guts or the thought to try. She kept finding long dresses that she thought looked “long enough” for me, but as I am not the typical petite Cambodian they all were all that supremely awkward just-past-mid-calf-length. We laughed as every single one of these dresses ended up being perfect on her. She did manage to find this bright rather retro shirt that did end up fitting me and we bonded over the fact that we adore bright-colored clothing. Ha. (Also, killer deal: 1 dollaah!) We concluded our little escapade with a toast using our freshly squeezed cups of sugar-cane juice. (Freshly-squeezed sugar cane juice with a snazzle of citrus, O how I adore theeeeee!)

I feel like thus far, a lot of my Cambodian experiences have been comprised of me bumping into people and tagging along or being invited to do something and saying, “Sure! Why not?” (I’m sensing a bit of a Jim Carrey “Yes Man” mentality a happening.) My life has always been so structured and while it is very structured here, with 8am to 6pm workdays, I feel like this is the first time I’ve been so free to see where the day takes me and to try whatever comes my way. The world does tend to surprise you. 🙂

That night, having not made dinner plans with anyone, I got on my bike and decided to explore this street of night stalls I had discovered a week before. I slowly made my way past the stands, sniffing, tasting with my eyes, and debating whether I really should test my luck with street food on my own. However, before any of the sizzling noodles stands, or bubbling vats of who-knows-what, or frantically motioning cooks (“La-dy! You want noodles, la-dy??) could tempt me, I receive a call from Sopheap asking about my dinner plans. Goodness, the guy must be psychic. I don’t shy away at the notion of eating alone, but the opportunity to meet some people to niam bai (to eat, in Khmer) sounded like a fabulous alternative to me. This was, once again, an instance of someone simply being thoughtful and welcoming and without realizing it, completely making my evening. 🙂

As it turned out, we weren’t just joining two co-workers, and the American girl I had met the week before, but a man who worked in one of the departments at Tuol Sleng Museum (Genocide museum, located in the building of the former torture center, S21.) I didn’t quite catch what he was in charge of at the museum, but he was probably one of the most talkative and jovial Cambodians I’ve met to date (aside from Sopheap, who really is a gleaming beacon of Khmer friendliness and constant chatter).

The man’s words opened up a whole array of issues surrounding the museum and the many challenges it is trying to surmount. Of course there is the problem of funding; UNESCO isn’t being as helpful as it could be. More collaboration is needed, etc etc. He then recounted problems with disrespectful tourists that made me absolutely sick inside. (How people can be so cruel and hateful and obstinately ignorant, I cannot begin to understand.) He also talked about the present schism developing between the two generations, the survivors of the genocide who are ceaselessly haunted by memories of a bloody regime and the Cambodian youth who barely know of its existence (due to a lack of education in schools on the subject) to those who purposely refuse to understand the genocide’s significance in their modern lives. The importance of memory is an incredibly pressing question in Cambodia, and what with the ECCC (The Extroardinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia) getting ready to begin case 002, which is to try some high-up officials of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia is clearly still grappling with a not so distant past.

Hearing this man talk about these pressing issues, like what he was doing with the museum and the importance of educating the youth of today, was no less than inspiring. Plus he was so sparkling with life and good humor that, despite the heavy topics at times, it was hard not to smile. (“What you think of Cambodia? You like? Of course!! We Cambodians friendly funny people aren’t we??”)

Looking back at the day, the kindness of Naren, the artist, Sopheap and the man from Tuol Sleng really touched me. Interactions like these, amongst countless others, move me and inspire me to do better. I feel things sorting themselves out inside me and sometimes I get the sense I’m figuring out my place in the world. It’s not in terms of specifics, such as the question of career, but more so that this experience is giving me more of a sense of myself and what I want and what I want to give. Just as these people have so unwittingly opened their hearts to me, as the saying goes, I want to continue to find ways to “pay it forward”.

I can’t speak for the end product of this Cambodian stew, as this little carrot is still in the bobbing phase, but even now I can sense the change, the growth, as it gradually becomes a more flavorful carrot. And maybe, just maybe, by the end, when a curious chef dips in her ladle for a sampling, she will not only find the carrot changed, but will find that the wee little morsel did indeed add a little something to the entire stew as well.

(1) For the purposes of this analogy I shall be both the conniving chef and the unsuspecting carrot. I dismiss any possibly problematic implications of such a dual personality.

(2) A traditional Khmer soup.

(3)This whole time my stomach has been keeping up a pretty constant conversation with me.

-WOW! That looks delicious feed me!
-Right, I’m sure it will taste better than it looks…
-Oh god, are you sure?
Mmmmmmmmm. Note to self—try that again next time!
Oh dear, what exactly did you eat last night?!/Hah. I told you this would happen./Tell your eyes to be a little less greedy/stupid and a little more thoughtful for what I have to deal with. Kthxbye.

(4) I feel like a study of the psychology of French expats would be so intriguing. They are always so, well, undeniably French. Though I suppose that one could apply this logic to any person who travels from their home country. In addition to our physical luggage, there is no denying that we always carry the baggage of our own culture with us everywhere as well.

(5) I guess I shouldn’t have been that surprised to meet her. I haven’t mentioned this yet, but it is almost ridiculous how many strange coincidences/overlapping of people’s acquaintances/chance meetings have happened in this bustling little city. You’d think that in a city with a population of 2 million, this would be a rarity, but no, this is not the case. However, I do suspect it’s also a reflection of the rather specific community of people I am meeting.

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