Elizabeth Briel, Travel Artist

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There’s something about you, Cambodia

Notes from a Phnom Penh visa run, autumn 2011

Every country is like a lover.
You breathe it in, eat it every day, drink to forget it at night.
(There is something about Cambodia that makes me want to drink. A lot.)
Sometimes you spit one another out. I was spit out from Cambodia 5 years ago.

I am here again now, confronted by images of Angkor Wat everywhere (on spoons made into bracelets, on the satin scarf that covers my bed, its black fringes grazing the lacquered wood beloved here), on the cheap acrylic paintings that litter the sidewalks of Phnom Penh’s “Art Street”

The sugar palms like green lollipops as we fly into Pochentong airport/Pochentong air base in Phnom Penh. As I greet the Immigration officals with “Cheum Reap Sua”, a formal greeting in Khmer, they only rip me off a little on the baht to dollar exchange for my visa.

The language. It is the language that reminds me of why I fell for this country years ago. Khmer sounds like blowing bubbles underwater. It is harsher than Thai, which glides off the breath and tongue like a sigh. No, Khmer is a staccato, made not of tones but of the Mon. The Khmer were here first, a fact the Thai have written out of their histories…they have muffled it as conquerors do everywhere.

The tuk-tuks are more ornate than I remember. I see several more years of abundant food in the round figures beneath stretch jersey and polyester, in the backs that bulge around womens’ brastraps. I am given long, intrigued glances by fellow passengers on motorbikes, both women and men, as I sit in my gaily-painted tuk-tuk with intricate carved wood trimmings. My driver is patient with others, and older than I am. He would have seen a lot as a child, as a teenager, before something like peace finally arrived here in the early nineties.

The chaotic traffic like that of Vietnam. Phnom Penh’s outskirts reminds me of those of Hanoi. Newly – and cheaply – built. Ready to crumble but hanging together with determination. Stained by a mold and dust which bother no one. Sheltering those who had none for awhile.

It is raw here. So raw. Something that no skyscraper or escalator or pizza company can obscure. There is an edge here, a palpable tension. Lovers smooch on park benches next to the Mekong, street food vendors dish out bacteria at twice the rate of those in Bangkok….
Apsaras dance on my pillowcase. Embroidered in cream on milk chocolate.

There is a coffin shop next to my hotel. Long skinny boxes peep out from its doors. Carved with Chinese characters in relief, painted in festive colors, they glisten with slick coats of polyeurethane. Next to the coffin shop hang families who squat and work in the spaces. Filling holes, renovating walls, redecorating for whatever shop comes next. Some of them beg from passersby, most just do their thing: lie, talk, eat rice in the shade (the same thing they’d be doing under a palm tree or by the river in the villages they come from).

The western men here are more furtive than those in Bangkok. Perhaps they have more to hide. (Or perhaps they are hiding here.) They are not a sociable lot outside their own kind. A western man sniffs an inhaler as he blearily eyes a Khmer masseuse upstairs. He is there when I return downstairs, eyes me and my tattered shoes suspiciously, as though I’m breaking into a much-cherished dream of his harem.

Hints a massage parlor may not be for me: 1. The women are slender and stunning (competent masseuses often have built up extra strength, especially on the forearms) 2. Prices marked outside are low (they make $ from extras) 3. They hand you a set of slinky polyester pajamas (hands slip on synthetics).

There are few nights as black as those on the top floor of a low-rise city. Phnom Penh changes after dusk. Grows wilder. Smokier. Markets are moist and odiferous.

Tuk-tuks here are noisy two-stroke motorbikes spewing smoky oil and rattling onto the street. There is a slow steady row of traffic on Sisowath quay. A car plays Ros Sereysothea’s dop pram mui (I’m only 16) and fades into the night. Over the river where she once sang, she lives on. The tinkling music mentioned by Norman Lewis echoes in the karaoke videos of today.

There are some places a girl falls in love with, whether she wants to or not. Cambodia is one for me. That’s why I had to leave. But Cambodia will always have a special hold for many. A few writers and I pay tribute to the country in the book To Cambodia with Love.

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