Cambodia: Can’t live with it, can’t live without it…

Bitching about Cambodia, slagging off the natives, complaining about living in Phnom Penh: How often do you hear these topics raised in conversation? Everyone does it surely. Not just the overhearing of course, but really getting stuck in yourself, a decent gripe about traffic lunacy, slating the bent officials squeezing dollars from you at every turn, retelling the latest instalment of your dismal work/boss saga. The inexhaustible pastime close to many an expat heart. Grumble, grumble……

I mean, don’t you hate the way people drive? Cars! Shouldn’t allow Khmers behind the wheel. Six on a moto; four on a Chaly; drivers on the phone staring at the bird with the great stack across the street. Yeah, yeah, bloody awful. But head ‘home’ – whether that’s the Land of the Free, Old Blighty, Down Under or somewhere a little less tainted with fascistic tendencies – and the idiocy you see here on the streets every day might take on a different hue.

Next time you’re in the West give it a go Khmer style, taking the racing line round the corner on the wrong side (”well, there was no one coming anyway”); keep going eleven seconds after the lights have turned red (”everyone else is doing it”); stick your double mattress flat on the back of a moto when you move house (”won’t be any bother”).

Phnom Penh traffic, as it gets heavier, increasingly drives me up the wall, sometimes amuses me that both sides of the road are two-way, or leaves me wondering whether it’s me on the wrong side or everyone coming at me that is. Over in civilised western countries, decent folk would be appalled by such reckless behaviour, and how far would you get pleading, ”I only did it once, officer, and nobody was harmed?”

Say you do get pulled; had a skinful of booze, perhaps a lady or two on the back, drugs in the system, plenty more in your pockets, no licence, no tax disk, heaven forbid a faulty hazard light and bugger all cash on you. That plump, sun-weathered, white-gloved traffic cop’s ”me is hungry for money” grin seems an angelic image now that this plump white starch collared, rednecked cop is asking you to blow down a plastic tube, empty your cherished stash from your pockets, then cuffs you and you prepare for a night in the cells, preceded by a more forceful version of the cavity search you might have had in mind for your new found friends perched on your bike. Whinge, whinge.

Bribery and corruption get a bad press here: crippling the country, ingraining immorality, laziness, powerlessness and cynicism. All valid points. And no it ain’t funny when us upstanding white folk are supposed to pay through the nose for electricity, hand over hundreds for a birth certificate, fork out ten bucks for rubbish, finance the purchase of a Camry in exchange for a marriage licence, or be hit with endless ‘taxes’ if you have a business.

Ever forgotten to bring a photo for the visa at the border? ”No problem sir,” ”Great,” you think, exhaling in relief before he completes his sentence, ”100 baht!” You scream foul, but this chap is doing you a favour – want to head back down the road to get a picture developed?

Fuck up a form, neglect formalities, miss a bureaucratic deadline over in Ninetofiveland and start haggling over a suitable bribe and see where you end up. (They may have been fantasising over such a situation their whole glorious career as a pen pusher.)

Try offering 50 bucks to the passport office to waive your omission of the countersignature of a doctor or lawyer or judge or man-of-the-cloth, then sheepishly up it to 100. Yeah right. There may be no ‘get out jail free’ card here, but such a system of buying your freedom would raise trillions in the U.S. alone.

Accidentally run over a schoolkid, then 500 dollars and a single solemn-faced visit to the comatosed minor’s bedside later and you’re back snorting, shooting, pilling and boozing again with another recent acquaintance on your bike – hey, you’re free, so stick two more on the back of your Vespa/dirtbike.

Sex Workers, ladies of the night, working girls; call them what you will, but they’re all the same and it’s only for money and there’s no feeling or emotional engagement. Even if they aren’t on the game (when you met them at least), Khmer women are only after your money and wouldn’t shed a tear if you split up and would be out earning again within a week. Not like having a proper loving relationship with a girl ‘back home,’ eh? Ahhh, that’s lovely. M’mmm! Let’s not get too rose-tinted about this real deal girlfriend in the west line. Don’t they like clothes and make-up and money and schtuff any more?

Besides, think big asses, droopy tits, gaping bearded clams, and their mouths too. Maybe just imagining it is not sufficient, so leave shithole crappy Cambodia and seek out some hot babe and have that loving, caring, sharing, respectful relationship. Then get bored of rooting Miss Centrefold and go looking for other nooks and crannies to stick your aching-for-new-flange knob inside for a quick cash transaction. Whilst you’re tuning these heavenly chicks, mention you’ve been in Cambodia for ‘x’ years and check the vacant look as you feel that prairie breeze roll the tumbleweed by. Hey it’s not about looks though is it? Personality goes a long way, and rather frequently goes express to destination Annoying Girlfriend. Enjoy your sagging, lumbering, whining heifers why don’t you. Moan, moan.

I can’t stand how pharmacies just peddle pills to Khmers and stick an IV drip in them then send them home on a moto or a cyclo. One specific, focussed medication is never enough for the illiterate, gullible and hypochondriac Cambodian; nope, must have five kinds minimum, assorted colours an absolute must, variety of capsules and tablets of different shapes and sizes adds to the potency too and should not be overlooked. The vendors, referred to by most Khmers as ‘doctors’, at your local drugstore may not even be able to read the instructions. (And when I say read, I mean comprehend too, not as in the way I can ‘read’ Polish or Vietnamese or Basque since they have Roman characters). Think of the dangers of that for a moment; the drug interactions, what if the patient mixed them up, or those pills weren’t suitable for a child, or say if they were an undiagnosed diabetic. Good heavens! Terrible. Then in faraway lands head to your GP or MD and cunningly blag some 2mg valium on prescription (‘remember to only take one a day.’ You frown at doc, ”or two if you feel the anxiety returning,”), for which they’ll charge just under 10 dollars, unless you’ve managed to scam your way onto the dole and sickness benefit too perhaps. Without even mentioning the gems stocked by Cambodia’s unsung chemist shops – back home in Canada/England/the States/etc even a measerly strip of paracetemol or aspirin will set you back a few dollars to take the edge off a nasty hangover so better to put that cash towards the hair of the dog.

And another thing, you can’t be sold too much paracetemol in one go, else it might just coincide with you thinking, ”Well I never, my life is excruciatingly tiresome,” and coolly swallowing a few hundred pills (only to find out that you won’t die straight away, but be held in limbo in an irreversible liver destruction zombie state, regretting your feeble overdose effort for the next few sobbing days before you perish).

”If you need more, sir, you’ll have to pay for it in another transaction. The cash register won’t let me scan two boxes of 12.” All part of the service to help you stay alive and straight and proper. Just like the traffic laws, litter rules, disability benefit, parking your car in the direction of traffic, age prohibitions on fags and booze (and time restrictions on drinking, even for fully-fledged adults), healthcare, social services, pensions and drug control. All marvellously caring, protective and supportive, and damn useful in many respects (notably the benefits agencies), and alas no there isn’t any such guardianship looking out for you in Cambodia. Nor a fraction of the restrictions.

Maybe that’s at the crux of it: here, you (with perhaps your very nearest and dearest) are on your own. You must be responsible for crossing the road safely, finding clean water, lining your pockets, healing yourself, wiping your bottom, exercising your brain, getting yourself out of tight spots and looking out for yourself. Social safety net, what safety net? True artistes of the trapeze don’t mess about with safety nets.

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