Interlude: List of Random Cambo Things

I leave this country in only a couple of days and there are still a lot of things that I want to share about my time here.  I’ve wanted to make a list of some of interesting things about Cambodia, and this is the perfect opportunity.  I see some of these things every day and don’t really think about them anymore.  I forget that it’s sometimes surprising for outsiders to find out that people here don’t follow traffic signals, something that I now find very intuitive.  Here is my goodbye (for now) ode to Cambodia, a list of some of the country’s unique traits as well as some of the more out-of-the-ordinary events I observed while living and working in Banlung.

In the Court

  • A judge found that a man was guilty of theft and convicted him of six months in jail. After the ruling everyone had shuffled out of the courtroom except for the judge, the defendant and I.  The defendant asked the judge for some money to buy coffee, and without flinching the judge laughed, pulled some bills out of his pocket, and handed them to the defendant with a pat on the back.
  • I once tried to map the process of questioning at a trial to figure out the process.  Here is what I wrote (J=Judge, DA=Defense Attorney, PA=Prosecuting Attorney, D=Defendant, W=Witness, Q=questions): 1. J Q D   2. PA Q D  3. DA Q D.  4. PA Q D  5. DA Q D  6. J chastises D  7. J Q W  8. J Q D  9. J Q W  10. J Q D  11. J Q W  12. PA Q W  13. J Q D  14. J Q W  15. PA Q D  16. PA Q P  17. PA Q D  18. DA Q D….and that’s where I stopped.
  • Even the clerk stands up during the judgment, bends over and continues to handwrite a transcript of the trial.
  • Cell phones are constantly going off in the courtroom. Sometimes judges will answer them mid-sentence.  I went to a conference where a judge answered his phone during a speech and proceeded to speak with the person on the line for several minutes with 50 people watching.
  • My co-worker, the lawyer assistant, spends a lot of time copying files by hand at the court and prison.
  • It’s common for family members to give prisoners food and drinks before and after trial.
  • Two defendants in a murder case rolled up in a moto with an unarmed prison guard driving them.  They then sat next to their families, unsupervised, outside of the courtroom, playing with their children before their trial.  Their wives sat next to them looking very worried. The two men were handcuffed together at the wrist.
  • A judge once told a defendant that he was a liar like Abhisit, the previous Prime Minister of Thailand.
  • In the Stung Treng prison, the judges, prosecuting attorney, and clerk have much higher desks than the defense attorney. Their desks are five feet tall while the defense attorney is given a regular desk far away from everyone else.  It’s very symbolic of how criminal defense attorneys are viewed here (or anywhere for that matter).
  • Lawyers, clerks, and judges wear black robes during trial with white silk scarves around their necks.
  • We solicit clients at the prison by passing out my boss’s business cards to prison guards.  They always tell us that many people in the prison need an attorney but we rarely hear from them.  There is a large communication gap between the guards and prisoners and no one is aware of their right to representation.  The Stung Treng prison more recently wouldn’t even allow us a visit.  They say that no one needs an attorney.  Very, very frustrating.
  • No one flinches if the power goes out during a trial in Banlung.
On the Road
  • Only the wealthy have cars.  Most people with vehicles have motos. Many people don’t even have motos and ride bicycles or walk for miles every day.
  • I’ve already mentioned my two favorite moto drivers: the balloon man and the aquarium fish salesman.
  • It’s true, six people or more can fit on a motorcycle. (Don’t worry Mom, I haven’t done it, only seen it.)
  • Motos also make great for transporting large items, e.g. furniture, dead or live pigs (can be carried on the back of the moto if strapped down lying on their back), stacks of Gerry cans, bunches of ducks tied together upside-down, etc.
  • When people honk at an intersection, it means they’re not stopping or looking, so everyone else should slow down.
  • I drive without a license plate since I’m renting my moto, which is something I’m able to get away with in this province.  The police generally leave foreign NGO workers alone.  Once my Khmer friend was driving my moto and we were immediately pulled over.  Luckily, after I convinced them that the moto was mine, we didn’t get a ticket.
  • Even if we got a ticket it wouldn’t have been too bad.  There is a new anti-corruption law that makes the maximum police traffic ticket only 5,000 riel, or $1.25.
  • Gasoline is usually pumped straight out of the barrel.  It’s probably a bit watered down but it costs about $2/liter.
In the Language
  • There are several words that were brought in by the French or other countries.  My favorites are muh-seen (machine), car-ott (carrot) and poh-leeh (police).
  • Two very important words are “baan” and “nung.” Baan is a past tense identifier and nung is the future tense identifier.  All other words basically stay the same.  After learning Spanish with all of its different tenses, this was a very happy discovery.
  •  In question sentences the question words sometimes go at the end of the question…but unfortunately in colloquial speech the question word is often dropped.
  • The language reflects a hierarchical system that is imbedded into the culture.  There are several different words for “you,” and one generally addresses someone else according to their age or their familial relationship.  For example, “nia” is used for “you” in very informal situations, “goan” is used for children, “bong” or “bong sray”  are used for someone the same age, and “loak” is used for someone older or in formal situations. “Ohm,” “meeng,” “bpu,” or “mia,” can also be used for someone older, and in a family situation these are used differently according to one’s position in the family.  I think it’s even more interesting that in romantic relationships the man calls the woman “goan,” while the woman calls the man “bong,” a term of higher respect.
In Our Stomachs
  • Rice, rice, rice.  Rice is Cambodia’s staple, there are several kinds and words for it, as well as words for eating it.  If you don’t have rice with a meal, you are not eating well.  One Khmer person, in jest, told me that bread gives people pointy noses.
  • Cambodian coffee=condensed milk, sugar and ice with a little bit of coffee mixed in.  I quickly learned to order my coffee black and hot, just like I have it in the states.
  • Before eating, it’s very important to use napkins to wipe down the table, plates, cups, and silverware.  The napkins can then be thrown on the ground.
  • Dessert is some sort of fruit shake packed with sugar, ice, and condensed milk, or sweet beans and sticky rice topped with shaved ice and condensed milk.  As you can see, condensed milk is very important here.
  • There are small sandwich stalls that are pushed by men or women along the streets.  They include a small baguette, a choice of different kinds of meat on a stick, vegetables, and lots of sauce.
  • Durian (“turin”) is the most delicious fruit and delicacy in Cambodia.  It’s creamy, slimy, and very rich.  Some people think that it smells like garbage.  I hated it the first time I came here but after the family I live with force fed it to me a couple of times, I fell in love.  I have made getting turin shakes an every-other-night ritual.
  • Cost of food:
    • One meal
      • In the market: $1
      • On the street: $1.50
      • In a Khmer restaurant: $2.50
      • In a nice Khmer restaurant: $4
      • In a touristy restaurant: $3-5
    • Fruit
      • One kilo of rambutans: $0.50
      • One kilo of mangosteens: $0.75
      • One bunch of bananas: $0.50
      • One kilo of lichis: $0.50
      • Fruit shake: $1
    • Coffee
      • On the street/in the market: $0.50
      • In restaurants: $1
Around Town
  • Rural people often wear matching pajama sets as clothing. I find this very practical and wish we had the same tradition in the States.  My favorite was a man with turquoise, shiny silk pajama pants and button-up shirt (he was also carrying a chicken).
  • For those of you that have never been to Asia, they generally use squat toilets here, although more touristy areas have plenty of the  more luxurious Western-style toilets.
  • Construction sites are scary.  They use buckets to hoist up heavy objects and they don’t wear hardhats.
  • The market is the place to shop, meet people, hang out, or even sleep.
  • Music videos are constantly blaring, and they are ridiculously melodramatic and cheesy.  They usually include either 1. Someone crying or 2. A couple romantically holding hands and walking around in a field.
  • There is usually music or chanting blaring from a wedding, funeral, or monastery at 5:00a.m. or from a karaoke bar until 2:00a.m..  As if the roosters crowing weren’t enough…
  • TV is quite popular, favorite shows being voiced-over Korean soap operas, Chinese and American movies, or Khmer comedy skits.
    • Speaking of Khmer voice-overs, all of the women voices are squeaky and high-pitched, while the male voices are abnormally deep.
There is plenty more to share, but this is already getting a bit long. I might add more things as I think of them!