Comparing CambodiaOctober 15, 2011
At a moment of huge frustration a few months back, I asked a work colleague and old friend for some advice, something I unfortunately have never really done, and besides I’ve never listened to anyone’s advice anyway. All he had to say was the simple: “Don’t let it get to you.”
I love this country dearly, but at times you can find yourself in maddening situations, whether through work, leisure or just minding your own business and getting about. Luckily I have spent time in other places like East Africa, where it’s not a good idea to light up a cigarette on the street, as at least five locals will accost you and blag one off you before it’s finished, or instead try and sell you a nasty pair of 100% cotton (100% Synthetic) socks for more than the things cost in Marks & Spencer.
I love India, it’s got amazing sights, ancient ruins and the natural wonders it has in abundance, and the people are generally easy-going. They are however incredibly nosy. You might find yourself in a rural train station in the early hours, with a semi-circle of forty or fifty peasants around you, pointing and chatting about you as if you were an animal in a zoo. None of them would make the slightest effort at contact, you were just an anomaly.
You could always try and break the ice and introduce yourself or whatever, but there was often a slight hostility in the air, not necessarily a strong one but still discernible. My technique would be to generally stay quiet and manage to avoid any eye-contact through my height alone. I simply looked out above their heads at the carriages pulling into the stations or the palm trees in the background. I developed what could be called a thousand-yard-stare. I would look off into the distance, completely ignoring the intense gapes and discussion directed at me. In a way, I wasn’t really there, they didn’t matter and I had grander things to think about; it was quite amazing.
At other times in cities you would find, other than the people you actually wanted to meet and were happy to see, an amazing amount of people just trying to practice English maybe, but being a major pain in the ass in the process. The last time I went to India was on business, and sometimes I’d have to wander down the street to a nearby call center rather than using the hotel’s extortionate line. Every time I’d get followed by guys who either wanted me to go to Srinigar in war-torn Kashmir, or just wanted to talk bollocks about where I was from and what my occupation was, my station and caste were and the usual strange questions the natives ask in those regions. I didn’t mind chatting with people on the street, but when I got to a phone place, these guys would follow me in. I’d tell them to get out; they were driving me nuts.
Phnom Penh has always been completely different place than Cairo, Dar es Salaam, Bangkok, London or bloody Paris. It’s not an immediately inviting place, but you can get some peace here too. Some let the street life get to them, and its chaotic style can freak the hardest out. I can’t relax much at all when driving around with lunatics breaking the lights and speeding across lanes, and walking about can be even harder because of blocked-up pavements. In general it’s a really easy-going place to live in though, you can kick back a little. It’s not Disneyland so you should keep your wits around you, but in the main it’s very safe. Motorbike and tuk-tuk drivers can sometimes pester you, along with the odd tout or beggar, but much of the time you’re left alone. Many of the locals are genuinely friendly, and seem to smile just because they are happy to see you rather than because they want something from you. In rural parts you will often draw a bit more attention, but it’s very rarely hostile, more just curious, and most people will at least greet you or try to engage you in conversation rather than just stare. Compared to many places I’ve lived in or just travelled through it’s a breeze, and as long as you keep calm and cheerful you won’t ever have any problems.
Words: Dermot Sheehan
Photo: Darren Wilch