Grim about the Mouth.


I’ve been in such a cranky, worn-out mood this week that all my ideas for posts are things like, “Why Won’t the Barfly at the Guesthouse Shut Up, Just Shut Up,” and, “I Think a Mouse or Possibly Even a Rat Has Made Its Home Under My Bed,” and, “Why Can’t They Remember My Coffee Order, I’ve Been Here Five Times Already.”

(Based only on my own experience, I think Khmer coffee drinkers may tend to prefer more sugar and sweet milk than Americans – in part because the coffee here is so bitterly strong.  It usually takes a few weeks for me to wean my own order down to a little bit of condensed milk to cut the coffee, but not enough to turn it a murky tan.)

(The guesthouse barfly isn’t really a guesthouse barfly – he owns a lady bar, although he hastened to assure me that this is not anything like being a pimp.  It is pretty much exactly the same as being a pimp. He has lost the knack of speaking at normal volume, and the habit of not greeting every single person in the room.)

Culture shock is a little bit like typhus that way, or malaria – it waits in the blood, you suffer bouts at intervals.  I have milestones, one month, two months, half a year, one year – each with its own mix of fury and nostalgia.

A lot of the time, it will alternate with a warm sense of belonging and comfort, sort of the way a buzz will precede a hangover.  And then a cockroach will fall out of a tree and onto your shoulder, and the cycle will start over again.


Hardship Posting


When I first came to Cambodia, people said I was being very brave, and that it must be hard.  I felt like correcting this impression was another form of bragging, but of course I did it anyway.  And it was a form of bragging.  I told people I could get a toasted muffin anywhere in Phnom Penh – and it’s true.  There are even two or three places that sell madeleines and financiers instead.  I keep track of them.

Visiting a foreign country is difficult.  Living there for a year or so is hard.  Many places in Cambodia are not only foreign but devoid of the comforts that makes tourism possible.  Most of Cambodia is rural and many destinations are remote.

Phnom Penh is very easy to live in.  It’s chaotic in small ways, but much less hectic or oppressive than a larger city.  It’s much easier to navigate the streets on foot than in Ho Chi Minh City, much easier to ignore the garbage and open sewers than in Karachi.  The smog is lighter.

There’s heat, but there’s also air-con and hotel pools.  There are cockroaches and rats, but there are also cleaners.  There’s traffic, but there are also moto-drawn surreys that will take you through town for a dollar or two.  There’s food poisoning, but there’s the long vacation rhythm of expat life and all the pricey import stores that sell you on hygiene.

Phnom Penh also hosts a lot of luxury, and the options for luxury increase every year.  When I first came, there were French cafes and cocktail bars, a patio ice-cream parlor near the best international school, a Belgian bakery that sold cappuccino and coconut buttercream tarts.  My best friend in the country loved to get the English breakfast at the restaurant up the riverside with dollar bloody marys.  I ate mango-banana pancakes in a patio brunch place near the Royal Palace.  We went together to the champagne brunch (all you could eat, if not all you could drink) at the Naga Casino when it opened halfway through the year.

Now there’s a sushi place he visits occasionally, and I’ve seen two new cupcake shops since I’ve been here.  There are three new coffee chains since six years ago, each with multiple locations.  Two designer burger bars, a jazz club, a children’s playground cafe.

I complained about the heat, got angry with the traffic and the sour smells off the river.  I caught lice the first week I was in the country and kept them all year.  I had a dead rat in my toilet.  I rode past two ‘black rivers’ on my way to work.  But I had a cleaner and I spent my free afternoons drinking coffee in a beautiful place on Sihanouk with new linen couches and clean white walls.

I’m not saying this to brag.  I wrote a post last week excoriating a woman for her investment in luxury – her own desire to sleep on clean linen sheets like the ones I had washed for a dollar or so.  I’m not any less dependent on luxury, or less likely to seek it out.  But part of the experience of Cambodia is this tourist infrastructure designed to sell us luxuries at bargain rates.  It’s just as present as the signs of fragile infrastructure and enduring poverty – and most expats, tourists, and volunteers spend more time on intimate terms with luxury than either discomfort or want.

On Tables


I’m reading This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett’s essay collection.  It’s a writer’s autobiography in essay format.  She talks about MFA programs, saying that they are good for honing style and inculcating structural expertise, and offers advice on how to be a writer.

Reading advice on how to be a writer is a sublime form of self-shaming for writers.

Most of the advice is the equivalent of, “Eat less and exercise more!”  People who ask how to “get in shape” are actually asking how to “eat less and exercise more,” and there are many concrete options.  Try going to bed half an hour earlier.  No more wine with dinner.  Can you take the commuter train?  Do you like doing pushups?  Reducing all of those possibilities to a single rubric makes the problem of health mysterious.

“Just write!  Sit down and write!  Write all the time!  Write wherever you are, whenever you are!  Carry a notebook around so that you are never unable to write!  Keep one by your bed in case some opportunity to write arises in the middle of the night!  Join a writing group so you can write more!”

I love to write, and this advice still makes me feel terrible about myself.

Continue reading On Tables

Banana Again

I’m eating durian.  I’ve never had it before, although I might have tried durian-flavored ice cream.  I also may have bought jackfruit thinking it was durian; a lot of tourists make the same mistake.  Jackfruits are big, long and loafen like a fat lapdog’s body, and their skins are a spoiled, leathery grass green etched in brown, warty like a toad’s back.  The fruit inside is packed in square lobes off a central interior stem like the head of a fern.  Jackfruit fruit is pale yellow, and it has a plasticky sheen.

Durian is smaller, more spherical, and much more spiky.  Its exterior is the color of mossy wood.  Its inside is arranged similarly to jackfruit, but the taste and texture of the fruit is very different – and a slightly different color, less like peeled sugarcane and more like custard.  Durian has a custardy texture, mushy on the teeth.  It tastes…sort of like a banana, which is how many tropical fruits taste to me.  A good and flavorful banana, but still a banana.

Durian has a reputation in the West – there’s an import folklore that has risen up around durian.  It was supposedly delicious, rich in texture and taste.  It was prized in this part of the world in season.  Soon it was in high demand at home.  Chefs were using it in desserts, specialty markets sold it at premium rates.

But there was a catch.  Durian, so the story went, stank.  It was “pungent,” and it smelled either like rotting meat or catshit, but it smelled so strongly that guesthouses forbade customers to bring it inside.

I was curious when I arrived, enough to buy durian this afternoon, but I can’t smell anything ripe.  Durian smells like a banana.  Strong, fruity, pungent after all, but just like ripe tropical fruit.


I think “a gas station on I-80” might make a good litmus test, actually:

“The gas stations on I-80 are hopelessly corrupt.”

“I was so sick!  I was flat on my back for weeks.  And I thought, man, you’re really having the gas station experience now!”

“They’ll try to cheat you at that gas station, but they’re so poor.”

“The people at that gas station are so welcoming and warm-hearted!  Always smiling!”

“I bought some delicious snacks at the gas stations on I-80.  They heat them up right in front of you in these little ovens.”

“The bathrooms at the gas stations on I-80 are barely more than holes in the ground.”

“I was so frustrated, and I had to keep reminding myself, you’re at a gas station.”

“You have to haggle at a gas station.  They’ll try to charge you five dollars for a sandwich.”

“The gas stations on I-80 are so touristy these days – you see Westerners everywhere.  It doesn’t even feel like you’re at a gas station.  Where are the gas stations tourists don’t go?  I want to go there, you know?”

Of course not every place is for everyone.

Amy Scott is a friend on facebook.  She has built a kind of career for herself out of being a ‘modern nomad.’  She offers advice to aspiring modern nomads on her website, Nomadtopia.  She just published this piece about not liking Nicaragua, and linked it on Facebook:

Yes, there have been some good times and pleasant discoveries—friendly and caring people, cheap taxis, nice cafés, a beautiful central plaza, a place I’ve started taking art classes—but overall, I’m feeling underwhelmed.

Or perhaps more accurately, overwhelmed—by the heat, and the dust, and the crazy drivers, and those people who haven’t been as friendly, and the expensive food… And yet, I’ve been other places in the world that have a lot of those same things and it didn’t bother me as much as it does here. I still can’t quite put my finger on how I feel about this place or why.

I have often said that I think I could be happy almost anywhere—I adapt easily and have found the good in lots of places I didn’t expect to like—so not feeling at home here is a surprise.

I feel guilty admitting that I don’t love it.

I’ve had words from Amy about getting snarky in her facebook feed before, so I’ll put my thoughts here.

Continue reading Of course not every place is for everyone.

Like Friendship

Designer coffee carts, coffee carts for tourists, weren’t popular when I was here the first time.  I’m not sure there were any – I don’t remember seeing them, and I would have sought them out.  There was the cafe halfway to Stung Mean Chey – “European Coffee, Khmer Cafe!” that sold iced mochas at a steep discount.  I remember once I asked the driver to pull over so I could buy a quartet – 3000 riel apiece – to take to work.

Now the coffee carts are all over Boeng Keng Kang and along Sihanouk Boulevard – Teenager Coffee (pink), Thai Coffee (pastel burnt orange, like Thai iced tea), #1 Coffee Bean (black accented with red), Morning Coffee (green), Lyda Coffee (rose purple).  They’re designed to capture a different set of customers than the people who came to the traditional, unadorned hand carts with racks full of red and green bottles of Samurai.  They’re designer coffee, slogans and names in English, and they advertise traditional Khmer iced coffee with sweet milk along with milk teas and Western-style coffee.  And they typically charge more – twice as much, for the carts on Sihanouk.

They’re usually staffed by young women who perch inside; sometimes one will mix the drinks and the other will translate orders.  I’ve seen at least one that’s a social enterprise – near Russian Market – and several have multiple carts.

Yesterday, on the way to an interview, I sighted a Hygiene Coffee cart, whose slogan is, “Good Coffee is Like Friendship,” and I bought an iced coffee with sweet milk so I could take some pictures:


Mister Cockroach


I wandered into “Cambodia’s First Concept Store” today.  There was a display of throw pillows in the window, cotton with a silkscreen print of a lotus.  I picked up the sky blue on royal blue version and found a cockroach sitting on the back side.

And I said, “Hello, there!  How are you today?” and lifted the pillow up for a closer look.  I showed him to the minder in the shop, and she shouted.  “It’s all right!” I said.  The cockroach hadn’t moved, and didn’t seem nervous of me.  Its antennae were barely wavering.  “Time for you to go outside,” I said.  Then I opened the door and tried to shake the cockroach off onto the pavement, but it didn’t want to go.  After the third try, it started climbing up the cushion to get better purchase on the top, and finally it buzzed off into a potted tree on the sidewalk.

I wish I’d gotten a picture.  It was a beautiful caramel color against the deep blue of the pillow.  Roaches in Cambodia are robust, three or more inches long, with elegant legs and glossy heads.  I’ve never met one so calm, but it looked almost noble.

My first year here, I woke up one night to hear a rustling by my head, the noise I would imagine a sparrow might make if it were trapped under a sheet.  I jumped out of bed and flipped the light on.  There was a cockroach running along the headboard.  I decamped to the living room, where I slept for the next month.


DSC01318 DSC01319 DSC01320 I had an interview today with an organization whose administrative offices turned out to sit on the other side of town from its customer-facing establishment, so I had to ask a tuk-tuk driver to take me all the way from the Royal Palace area to several blocks south of Boeng Keng Kang.  We missed the tiny logo and sign the first time we drove past it, so I arrived half an hour late.

For the return trip, I hailed another tuk-tuk driver who ran out of gas on Mao Tse Tung Boulevard.  When he hopped off to push, I asked him if he wanted me to get off as well, and he said, “No, no, it’s just – ” and gestured to a gas station two blocks down the road.  Then a guy driving a metal moto-truck heaped with bags of limes pulled up behind us and offered to push the tuk-tuk, his sandaled foot against the back of the metal carriage.


On the way to type up my notes, I stopped at the market to buy mangoes, and the woman offered me some kind of jelly wrapped in a leaf.  It’s mango-yellow and glutinous, and it doesn’t taste like much.


Rainy Day

The rainy season has finally started in earnest, even though today is clear.  Yesterday, the sky was overcast.  The rainclouds appeared in the afternoon, and soon the rain was pouring down over the awnings.

DSC01245Most people in Phnom Penh travel by moto (tourists and locals also take motodups – they climb on the backs of motorcycles for fifty cents or a dollar), and when it rains every motorcyclist wears a poncho.