Visit to Buddhist site proves to be a mixed blessing

Vendors flank route toward the top of the "mountain," more than a-500 stair climb away.

Vendors flank path toward the top of the “mountain,” more than a-500 stair climb away.

My Cambodian family, as I now think of them, called early Friday morning to suggest a trip to Oudong “mountain,” a 38-km (23.6-mile) drive from the center of Phnom Penh.

The drive Continue reading

It turns out that we are not all in the same boat

This woman makes a point of not looking at me -- or her husband.

This woman makes a point of not looking at me — or her husband — at Brown coffee house.

On the long list of my misapprehensions about moving to Cambodia was the belief that all expats perceived each other as being in the same club.

Walking down the street, sharing a table at the coffee house or encountering each other in a restaurant, I assumed there was a common connection that would produce at minimum a nod or smile of recognition. Silly me.

Unfriendly man

One unfriendly face. . .

Although it is true that Continue reading

In teeming market, little girl is sign of the times

Sign of times

Battling my way through Phsar Thmey (Central Market, or literally New Market) in Phnom Penh last week, the little girl in the photo above stopped me in my tracks.

Although it seems as though she is responding to someone’s bid for attention, it is merely a young girl’s curiosity at work.

She is perched on the edge of a restaurant stall, one of many in that part of the market, where her mother was busily at work while resorting to the sort of distraction that parents around the world use to occupy the young.

Below is Continue reading

Chinese New Year is taken quite seriously in Cambodia

Taking care of our ancestors are, from left, our new friend Barbara, the family's youngest, Mai, and me.

Honoring our ancestors are, from left, our new Canadian friend Barbara (whose husband was traveling for work), 17-year-old Mai (the family’s youngest) and me.

On the sidewalks outside stores and schools, in front of homes and in private settings, Cambodians of Chinese extraction paid tribute to their ancestors Thursday on the eve of the Chinese New Year.

Fires burned in small containers, and the pretty unpleasant odor of paper being consumed was inescapable in Phnom Penh.  To ensure that their dead parents, grandparents and all those who came before have wealth in the afterlife, they prayed and dropped wads of fake cash into the flames.

It is a touching ceremony that speaks to a strong Buddhist tradition here and a Chinese heritage that a friend estimates at 70 percent of the population, though I have no confidence in that number and am certain it varies from the cities to the farms.

To me, the difference is striking Continue reading

One sensible habit is proving difficult to break

This block intersects with the one below, a minute or two from my apartment.,

This street intersects with the clean one to the right, just a minute or two from my apartment.,

no trash

I love my neighborhood because of the greenery, especially the fragrant overhang visible at left.

Dare to drop a gum wrapper on many a New York City street and tempt the rage of a passerby.  You know, don’t even think about it, at least not in those chic neighborhoods where real estate prices have revived.

Then there were those signs that I don’t recall noticing for years that declared,  appropriately enough, something like “littering is filthy and disgusting, so don’t do it.”

Here in Phnom Penh, you would do well to fuggedaboutit.  In fact, Continue reading

In Cambodia, that certain smile is everywhere

In front of an apartment building nearing completion, this pair could not have been more charming.

In front of an apartment building nearing completion, this pair could not have been more charming.

They, whoever “they” are, have dubbed Cambodia variations of the “land of a million smiles.”

In a nation currently beset by grim political protests and bedeviled by widespread poverty, malnutrition and corruption, perhaps it is odd to be writing about smiles.  But I have been struck by their prevalence here.

I cannot walk a block without encountering a countenance that smiles back with my merest suggestion of a friendly nod.  Even omnipresent tuk-tuk drivers, who ceaselessly hale potential fares, smile back when refused with barely a polite gesture.

The contrast to many New York City taxi drivers, U.S. Postal Service employees and other service personnel in a range of businesses is striking to the extreme.

Children smile, vendors smile, everyone smiles at the slightest encouragement or sometimes no encouragement at all.  The smallest child with only a fledgling’s vocabulary often takes me aback with a volunteered “hello” in English in addition to that infectious smile.

I have two theories for the phenomenon.

Continue reading

Traffic chaos is not in the eye of this beholder

One busy intersection without lights or signs during the evening rush period.

One busy intersection without lights or signs during the evening rush period.

Chaotic doesn’t begin to describe the traffic in much of the developing world.

One of my earliest memories of it takes place in Mumbai, which I visited in the late 80s.  I was thoroughly intimidated by the convergence of cows, bicycles, motorcycles, cars and pedestrians on the thoroughfares and side streets.  Crossing them seemed undoubtedly was perilous to the extreme.

I since have witnessed similar congestion and danger, usually without the cows, in Asia and Africa.

Here in Phnom Penh, what looks like chaos actually turns out to be more like a mutable form of brinksmanship.  Or chicken.  Continue reading

Short video highlights natural beauty of Cambodia

My photo of sunset from the beach in Sihanoukville

Like many developing countries, Cambodia is plagued with poverty, dust and poor roads, among other characteristics.

But the country also encompasses stretches of natural beauty, and these have been captured in a short video shot via drone by documentarian Roberto Serrini.  Although the piece provides an unbalanced impression of the nation’s ambiance, the point obviously is to highlight Cambodia’s positive aspects, including the infectious buoyancy of many of the children.

I highly recommend that you take just the few minutes required to view the striking footage.


News about unrest often seems worse from afar

Pad Thai and tea for lunch after a tumultuous weekend.

Pad Thai and tea — yes, tea — for lunch on Monday following the weekend’s violence and continued arrests.

It happens that I was in Suriname’s jungle decades ago researching a travel story and waiting for a commercial flight back to the capital.

After my days in a dugout canoe bearing me and a photographer down a river and my nights sleeping in hammocks in shelters that consisted of little more than thatched roofs and swooping bats, I was more than ready to escape those hardships.

We waited and waited for a small airplane that mysteriously failed to appear.

No seemed to know what was going on for a couple of days until those on our flight finally learned — was it from a radio broadcast someone had monitored? — that the nation was in the grips of a coup.  Continue reading

‘Malcolm has landed’ is true but admittedly grandiose


View of central Phnom Penh from roof of my apartment building.

View of central Phnom Penh from roof of my apartment building.

Life in Phnom Penh seems to start unfailingly around 7 a.m., two hours after what somehow has become my routine wake-up time.

Sitting in the apartment that we’ll occupy probably for no more than six months, I hear construction starting on the house 10 floors below me in the neighboring lot.  I can see tuk-tuks gathering on street corners, hear Buddhist chants and notice other sounds of life, including birds, rising in volume.  Later this morning, the city’s inescapable energy is sure to peak.

(One reason for expecting to move is that the apartment we had to grab was merely acceptable and available following our arrival here on Dec. 3.  Two weeks in a basic hotel was quite enough, and the building is well situated in an area with a concentration of ex-pats, upscale coffee shops and, heaven help me, a Burger King that soon will open.  There goes the neighborhood.

(But I expect that the open kitchen with its two-burner electric stovetop, bath with pink tiles, master bedroom with bubblegum-pink sheets, lukewarm water in the shower and fluorescent lighting will prove to be too much to bear for an extended period — that and a bigger reason that I’ll detail toward the end of this post.  One attraction is the rooftop pool, however.

(For the $1,000 a month we’re spending on a furnished 2BR, how can I complain?  Well, you’ll see.)

Since I spent three weeks here in March, I have encountered a few surprises.   Continue reading