There’s a restaurant near my guest house with an air-conditioned second story, tiled and painted in white, with one wall of windows. I go every morning to drink coffee and try to write. There’s an English man who comes to do the same. The first day I came, he threw a genteel tantrum at the server because the server brought him a normal fruit salad with banana. He had asked, he said, for a fruit salad without the banana chopped up inside, but with a whole banana on the side and a knife so that he could cut up the salad himself. The server did not understand.
“Every morning this happens! Every morning!”
This morning, he brought his own banana, showing it proudly to the wait staff, and ordered his fruit salad, “no banana.” Then he sat on his couch and cut up his banana to put into his own salad. He was very pleased with himself. He had cut the gordian knot of fruit salad.
It’s a minor adjustment, and I’m glad he found a solution, but I don’t think you could bring your own banana and knife into a Denny’s. It seems like the kind of exemption any low-wage worker would associate with senseless, draconian consequences. It’s probably against a health code, and most restaurants prohibit outside food. Here, this man expected it – and he was frustrated when the servers, who speak little English and place high value on gracious response, were confused about what he wanted.
There is a tendency to view this place and the people in it as easy to trample – to expect accommodation beyond what you would expect in your own country. For the most part, that expectation is justified – Cambodia is cheap, will offer, will allow. This applies to big as well as small things, not least hiring people, but tourists can visit artillery ranges, walk into orphanages, bring sex workers back to hotels without any fear of legal or social consequences. It’s different here. And I think that for many tourists that difference has tranasctional value – they visit this place because it is different here, because it is cheap, will allow.
I’ve used this man’s banana as the fulcrum for a lot of commentary, but I think part of the attraction of Cambodia has been its freedom – that is, the lack of constraint on foreigners, their ability to act without supervision or humility. Why not? Why can’t I? Why do you care? And of course there are pointless rules back home, and customers who berate customer-service employees for trying to enforce policies they can’t control, but I don’t think people are so prone to petty lawlessness for sport.