Signs of Cambodia, vol. 1



Food and drink

For your own safety

And my favorite, for your Cambodian-Jewish grandma  


The king is dead. Long live the king!

When I teach fiction writing workshops, I use this example for the difference between story and plot:

Example 1—
The king died, and then the queen died.
(Story—a series of events told in sequential order.)

Example 2—
The king died, and then the queen died of heartbreak.
(Plot—a series of events told with cause and effect so one event brings about the next.)

This isn’t an original lesson—it came from one of my writing teachers, the wonderful Joshua Henkin. (If you haven’t read Josh’s novels, including The World Without You and Matrimony, you should go do so immediately.)

Some story happened in Cambodia this week. King Norodom Sihanouk, who led Cambodia for great swaths of the 20th century, died. He was 89 and mostly living in Beijing for medical care; he’d stepped down from the throne in 2004. Sihanouk’s son, Norodom Sihamoni, now wears the crown, but Sihanouk, the king father, is still very popular, and his portrait hangs next to the one of the king in many businesses and homes.

The news was announced on Monday morning, October 15, and by Monday afternoon a crowd had gathered outside the Royal Palace. National days of mourning were proclaimed, and the Water Festival, a holiday at the end of November, was cancelled in Phnom Penh, on account of being too festive for a sad time. I was prepared for a combination of the funerals for Ronald Reagan and Michael Jackson.

Sihanouk’s body returned to Phnom Penh on Wednesday. Even though the plane wasn’t supposed to land until 3 pm, people started lining up in the streets in early afternoon for the processional from the airport to the Royal Palace. It was hot, 90-something degrees and humid, but only the westerners were sweating.

Traditional mourning clothes are a white shirt and black pants or skirt, and just about every person in the street was wearing this combination. I wore my white shirt and black pants too, and for the first time in six weeks, I felt like I was able to blend in with the crowd. People pinned a black ribbon to their shirts, which reminded me of Jewish shiva badges, ripped to show the tear in your soul. Monks gathered together at a turn in the street.

Some carried Cambodian flags, flowers and portraits of Sihanouk.


The mood was festive. Maybe it’s not so odd—why not be cheerful for a parade and a moment to feel national pride? The motorcade finally arrived, and when it did it passed quickly; there was no lingering, waving, or taking in the crowds. (Which explains why these photos are at odd angles.) The king father’s golden coffin was in a vehicle that looked like a mythic bird; it was followed by a group of monks in a dragon boat. Older women around me cried genuine tears. Were they mouning the king, the end of an era, or did this death remind them of every other person they’ve mourned? I can’t know.

After the cars passed, the crowds dispersed into what felt like one big block party: children played in the still-barricaded streets, adults hung around chatting with family and friends, and vendors sold cotton candy, kettle corn and sweet drinks.

Small, makeshift shrines, with incense sticks, candles and Cambodian flags, popped up at the base of trees. In front of the Royal Palace were larger urns of flowers and incense, and men and women circled around these praying. People were also weeping openly here, and it felt exploitative to take photos, so I didn’t. Sihanouk’s body will lie in state at the palace for three months before being cremated in a traditional Buddhist ceremony.

Angkor what?

Angkor Wat

For my 21st birthday, my mom took me to Las Vegas. It was March 2001, and the city was flush with cash and new buildings. The Paris and the Venetian and New York-New York, with its compressed skyline and roller coaster flying above the Statue of Liberty, were only a couple of years old, and the Bellagio was just opening—Brad Pitt and George Clooney were romping around the not-quite-finished lobby filming Ocean’s Eleven. Vegas’s mission is to recreate every great world city and historical landmark in a couple of square miles, right? The model for these hotels was the Luxor, which has that beam on top of the pyramid that you can supposedly see from outer space. Hey, if one building is visible from outer space, why shouldn’t they all be?

Of course none of us knew that it would soon be, as R.E.M. says, the end of the world as we knew it. We all felt fine. That summer I lived in New York, where I was an art museum intern and ran around with a pack of boys who were interning as investment bankers and girls who were interning at magazines and museums and other fashionable institutions. One girl was a model wrangler: that was her actual title. The biggest news that summer in New York was Lizzie Grubman backing her SUV into a pack of party-goers at a night club in the Hamptons. The only things injured were some egos and Lizzie Grubman’s fender.

Inside the lobby of one of these Vegas hotel-universes was an architect’s model of one of the next big properties in development for the strip. I loved looking at this tiny version of the building, with its dollhouse details, and peering over everything as if I was god or Steve Wynn himself.

According to my memory’s file cabinet, that building was a Vegas reproduction of Angkor Wat, the twelfth-century temple in Cambodia. It fits a Vegas theme: Angkor Wat is exotic, full of its own mythology, and had a tourist boom in the 1960s. The temples, mysterious and gorgeous, were built by ancient god-kings with lavish lives. Dealer and cocktail waitress costumes could be based on soldiers and traditional Apsara dancers. The bars would serve drinks with tiny plastic elephants perched on the rim, or fishbowls of martinis floating lotus flowers. Casino chips would picture King Suryavarman II’s face. A replica of King Jayavarman VII could welcome you, with its animatronic mouth, to the hotel.

That building never happened, and I’m sure after September 11 the plans became cage liner for some recently out-of-work birds. But after visiting Angkor Wat and the temples in Siem Reap, I can see why a casino developer thought it would be the next Vegas icon.

Angkor Wat gets all the talk, but it’s only one temple among many in Siem Reap. Angkor Wat is the best preserved because it has been in constant use from the time it was built. As the story goes, other temples were swallowed by the jungle, or abandoned when Cambodia’s capital moved to Phnom Penh in the 1400s, or taken over by Thailand when territory borders shifted. A French explorer is credited with discovering the Siem Reap temples in the 1800s, but Cambodians say, Nah, it was never forgotten or abandoned, we just kept a good secret.

At Angkor Wat, there’s a section on the back of the building called the Elephant Gate. It earned this title because the terrace is exactly the right height for the king to climb on and off his elephant. The Elephant Gate at Angkor Wat is inaccessible from the building (no steps for the people not on elephant, you see), but there’s also an Elephant Terrace at Angkor Thom, decorated with trunks just in case you forgot you were supposed to park your elephant there.

Elephant trunks at Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom, a walled city built by King Jayavarman VII in the late 1100s, has these gates on all four sides. Plus, there are monkeys.

Angkor Thom gate


The first site in Angkor Thom is the Bayon, which has 216 enormous carved stone faces. Some say they are the face of King Jayavarman VII, who wanted to keep an eye on his kingdom and found this to be the best way. Others say the faces are the bodhisattva of compassion. From a distance, the towers look like rubble, and then when you get up close you see that the rubble is ears, noses, and lips.


Also in Angkor Thom is Bauphon. Ancient Egyptians weren’t the only ones building pyramids.


Ta Prohm is competing with the jungle—the trees have moved in and started to reclaim the building. Trees like this, that look like wax dripping, are everywhere, but the Ta Prohm trees are the most striking. This temple is also featured in Tomb Raider. I’ve never had a thing for Angelina Jolie or movies based on video games, but now I’m interested. Anyone up for a Tomb Raider watching party back in the states in a few months?

Ta Prohm

You can climb, explore, stand on the precipice, and pretend you’re the ruler of your kingdom—or a peasant walking the causeway to worship. The only things closed off are areas that looked like they could dislodge and kill you.

Pre Rup

There’s a lot of conservation and preservation work happening at many of the sites, but it doesn’t disrupt the experience. Nearly every building is supported by a different country; the whole world is pitching in to restore the temples, which are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

What else can I say about the temples? They are glorious, gorgeous, a feat of humanity and ingenuity and technology and artistry, they make you think about your place in the world and history and everybody else’s too, but also—they’re really, really, really cool. If you’re in the neighborhood, go. And if you’re not in the neighborhood, this is the reason to get yourself here.

Angkor Wat’s upper gallery

More temple photos are on my Flickr stream in Siem Reap

On the road again

It’s amazing how good a shower, air conditioning, and cold drinking water can make you feel. After a quick stop by the NGO office to use the facilities and drop off bags, we boarded a 12-seat van—with only one person assigned to each seat—and hit the road. The a/c worked and the road to Siem Reap was paved. Nothing broke on the way, and no oxen were involved in travel.

In the morning, I joined a youth workshop on reproductive health. It brought together three NGOs and a group of university students from Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Battambang. They’d been learning about sexual health and birth control and were being trained as peer educators. For the final day, we were going to visit a university for a Q&A with students and stop by the Marie Stopes International clinic, which is sort of like Planned Parenthood but with men’s healthcare, too.

One of my NGO’s youth leaders, Heng, was assigned to be my translator. He’s only studied English for a few years but did a great job keeping me in the loop during this discussion, which couched birth control in the practice of family planning. The workshop leaders said: “You make a plan for your education and for your career, so you can make a plan for your family, too.” I liked this soft sell for a culture that’s not accustomed to talking openly about sex, bodies and what they do, and it was refreshing to hear a conversation about reproductive health that wasn’t tethered to a political position.

During the Q&A Heng and I got tangled in technical terms, and I drew him a picture of a uterus, ovaries and fallopian tubes, and taught him the corresponding English words. Think about it: how many conversational English books have you seen that a include a page on sexual health and reproductive vocabulary? It took a lot of restraint to keep from teaching him sex-ed slang along with the correct words.


Youth with UNFPA Goodwill Ambassador Dr. Chea Samnang


Village People

The best snacks were for sale in front of the bus station. Before we were even outside Phnom Penh city limits, I had eaten half of Aya’s shared bag of green, unripe fruit sprinkled with chili-sugar-salt. The mangoes are my favorite. Aya had also bought roasted pumpkin seeds, and as we crunched through them I told her about how the seasons are changing back home, and friends were talking about apple-eating and cider-drinking and pumpkin-picking, cool weather and cozy blankets, and these pumpkin seeds were the closest I’d have to fall this year.

Two hours later, we arrived in Kompong Chhnang province capital, but it wasn’t the end our journey. We had to take a tuk-tuk 60 kilometers down a long red-dirt road to the village where my NGO sponsors a youth club. On the way, we passed green fields of rice, and palm trees with perfect poufs of fronds, so tall and straight they looked like they had been purchased in the tropical décor section at a party-supply store.

An hour into the ride, the day’s ran began to fall in big, rinsing drops. We zipped down the carriage’s heavy canvas sides. The tuk-tuk bumped hard and we rolled to a stop. The driver said he hit a hole in the road and broken a tire; he had to unhitch his moto from the tuk-tuk and walk it down the road in search of a repair shop.

Houses were few and far between, and commerce even more scarce, but my colleagues assured me there were small moto repair shops closer than the province capital and we wouldn’t be spending the night huddled in a moto-less tuk-tuk by an irrigation ditch.

Some time after the rain had stopped, the driver returned with his wheel repaired, and we arrived at our host house just as it was beginning to get dark. This village’s houses were more spread out than the last one I visited, and aside from one close neighbor, I couldn’t see any other homes.

The house was much sparer than the one at my last homestay. The walls were plain board, with sections of woven palm fronds and a plain tin roof. Below the house, raised platforms were used for cooking, eating and gathering. Inside, magazine glamour photos were tacked to the wall, but aside from that there were few material possessions. The owners slept on bamboo mats on a wooden platform, and we slept on bamboo mats on the floor. The steps to the house were slippery beneath my feet.

This village had no evening electricity, and no bathhouses. For light, our host family had a couple of fluorescent bulbs gator-clipped to a car battery; they charged cell phones on the same battery. For bathing and cooking, they collected rainwater in a large ceramic vessel, and bathers wrapped in a sarong dumped buckets of water over themselves. For toileting, the youth club president escorted me, flashlight and hoe in hand, to the mud field where the water buffalo were tied for the night. My colleague called after me to be aware of snakes. The youth club president hacked a hole in the mud, which immediately filled with groundwater from the day’s rain, and waited several meters away to make sure I got back to the house safely.

In the morning, I visited the market with Ratha so we could purchase youth club-meeting snacks from local vendors, and as we approached I saw that it was the center of the village’s activity. Residents were buying food and exchanging the day’s news. Fruits, vegetables, fresh meat and wriggling fish were on display, vendors fried bananas and potatoes, and women squatted behind trays of small cakes. Storefronts sold household items, nonperishable foods, moto parts and gas.

And this time, there was a snake snack for sale.

Back at our host’s home, the youth club’s workshop had already started. The NGO team came here to lead a workshop on self-development: listening skills and speaking skills. It was clear that the youth were excited to be together and meeting with their advisors from Phnom Penh.

In the afternoon, I interviewed some members of the youth club, learned how challenging life in this village is, and how it was representative of so many villages in Cambodia. For most, farming rice is an inevitability, not an economic choice. It pays little, and because there isn’t much modern farming technology available, like irrigation systems, crop yield is almost entirely dependent on weather conditions.

One member of the youth group, a guy who’s 30 and married with a young son, farms with the rest of his family. He only completed first grade, because when he was a child during the years the Vietnamese army was fighting the Khmer Rouge, that was the only education available at the local school. A 20-year-old girl said she completed sixth grade, but when she was 17, because she didn’t begin school until she was 10. It struck me that she was wearing glasses—something I hadn’t seen much, especially in rural communities—and she mentioned that they were new, given to her through a joint effort from several organizations, and she was now able to read clearly. Another guy, 24, was in the process of finishing high school, but since it was 20 km away he was living at a pagoda with the monks. I don’t know if there are any options like this available for girls whose commute to school is too long for a daily trip.

The day’s work ended, and the water buffalo returned home from the rice paddies. We had spicy chicken in addition to our fish and rice for dinner. The flavor was delicious, but like all meat in Cambodia, no part of the animal was wasted: that meant the entire bird has been chopped up, feet and all. Each bite was mostly bone, which a bit of meat and some skin and tendon. I’m not good at eating chicken this way, crunching a bite and then not-so-discreetly depositing the bones back into my hand and tossing them to the dogs waiting beneath our platform.

Aya and I left in the morning so we could travel to Siem Reap for a different youth workshop. We caught a Cambodian shared taxi—a 12-seat van that had at least 15 people already in it—for a ride back to Kompong Chhnang province center. When we arrived I thought we’d transfer to the same kind of large coach bus we took out of the city, but instead we transfer to another 12-seat van, jammed with 18 other passengers.

The back of the van was packed with at least 10 huge bags of charcoal. A dead duck was tied to the back door. I wondered if it was decoration or dinner. Halfway to Phnom Penh, we stopped at a roadside stand, and everybody climbed out. Why? The driver had to wash the van.

My last two questions of the morning:

Q: Why did we have to wash the van? It wasn’t particularly dirty—the windows weren’t caked with mud; the driver could see out—it looked like any other local vehicle that had been driving on a dirt road.
A: Because in the city we could get pulled over for having a dirty vehicle.

Q: Why did we pack 18 people into a van with only enough seats for 12?
A: Because it was “the Cambodian way”: people would rather travel cheaply than safely.

We made it back to Phnom Penh just fine—we didn’t get pulled over, the duck didn’t fall off the back door until the first stop (at which point the driver just tied it right back on), and we had enough time to stop by the office for a shower before heading to the next bus station to travel to Siem Reap.

Banana quarters

I’ve been seeing the carts around town, but only in passing from a tuk-tuk. There’s a profusion of street meat available in Phnom Penh, and look at the shapes here—it’s easy to see Jimmy Dean-style sausage links and patties. But the other morning the cart was parked right on the street where I was walking and I got a good look at the contents: bananas!

If you’ve ever been camping (we’ll count one weekend at Girl Scout camp in third grade, since that’s about the extent of my experience), or at a bonfire, you know bananas and fire are a great pair. The outside of the fruit caramelizes, and the inside becomes creamy and smoky.

I bought a skewer and the vendor charged me 1000 riels. The big number sounds like a lot, but there’s 4000 riels to the dollar. I realized I spent a quarter on my bananas, the same amount I paid for a banana at the fruit truck on my way to work every morning in New York.

I always made sure I had a quarter for the banana in my pocket before I got off the subway, and some time ago, at some bar, when I was counting out money for drinks and jabbering away to my pal Melissa about making sure I had 25¢ left for the morning, banana quarters became our inside joke.

And just like that, I was back in New York, walking up Lexington Avenue, and my friends on the other side of the world didn’t seem so far away.

Little Cambodia on the Prairie

I was stuck in Chhlong, waiting.

I had been on a local bus for six hours with my co-workers from the NGO, a guy, Ratha, and a girl, Aya, both in their 20s, whom I’d met for the first time the day before. The bus caromed all over the road, which was barely two lanes, passing motos, cars, tuk-tuks, bicycles, and trucks by veering into oncoming traffic. The driver took advantage of winning by being the largest thing on the road and alerted other drivers in both directions that he was coming by beeping the horn approximately every 7.2 seconds.

We got off the bus, dragged three large boxes out of under-bus storage, and ate lunch at a roadside stand. I was wary of the boxes. On the bus, Aya said they contained a snake. She made a wide gesture with her hands and said the snake was to share with the youth club. She said we’d cut it up. I was terrified: Was it alive? Was I going to witness some kind of traditional ritual? Maybe it was sushi-style BBQ eel? All I could see in the boxes were piles of fruit, mangosteens and longans. I imagined them covering a snake ready to pop out like a jack-in-the-box.

Ratha ended a phone call and turned to us. “There’s a flood,” he said. “There’s no way to get to our village.”

Three and a half hours and one downpour later, an SUV pulled up and we piled in. Ratha said we’d take the car farther into the province, cross the water by boat, and a truck on the other side would drive us to the village.

As we drove I looked for the water. I imagined a river, ordinarily creek-calm, swollen with rainwater. I pictured us crossing in a small motorboat and feeling the pull of the current. The SUV pulled to a stop and Ratha and Aya gathered their bags. I didn’t see the river: maybe we had to climb down a bank?

“Here we are,” Ratha said.

And then I saw: we weren’t crossing a river by boat, we were crossing a flooded dirt road by ox cart.

And thus began my journey to another era.






We held on tight as the cart bumped and the oxen splashed. The road was rough and pocked, and the cart wheels dipped unevenly as the driver urged the oxen on. We passed carts going in the opposite direction; one was carrying a man and his moto.

Our truck was waiting on the other side, and we continued our ride on the dirt road. It was nearly 7 pm and completely dark by the time we pulled up to our host house. The only light came from the few scattered fluorescent bulbs hanging around. The village has no running water, and electricity is only available from 6-9 pm.

Our host family greeted us and ushered us to a table for dinner. I could see that the house, like many in the country in Cambodia, was on stilts, and we were eating underneath. The family’s dog, part pet and part guard, sat in the dirt at our feet, waiting for bones. The flock of chickens ran by. After dinner I made my way to the bathhouse, splashed around by flashlight, and climbed the stairs into the house. With the country darkness, and the smell of the woodburning stove breezing in, I slept soundly for the first time since arriving in SE Asia.

I woke in the morning to the family’s rooster crowing. By daylight, I took in the village, tropical green and flowering in the rainy season. We were staying in the biggest house, which looked like a rustic cabin on stilts. Next door was a bigger, multi-purpose building; the landlord rents part of the space to the youth club for meetings and activities. Behind the house was the new, paint-still-drying bathhouse: Through a recent initiative and funding, some of the homes in this village were building bathhouses with a squat toilet and a water reserve (from rain and well water) for bathing.

We met with the youth club that my NGO helped found, fund and support, and with the help of Aya as translator, I interviewed some of the members. In Cambodia, there’s a huge population of young people (ages 15-30), and many NGOs are working to empower and build capacity with this group. The kids told me about how the Kratie province youth club has been focused on environmental issues, including initiating trash clean-up projects and advocating for local forests and farm lands, which are facing land grabbers and deforestation. All of them said the youth club’s projects had made a big and positive impact on the village.

With the youth clubbers, we unpacked the boxes and prepared refreshment bags for the following day’s community forum. We sorted mangosteens, sliced apples, purchased cookies from a village store and finally stored the stuffed and finished bags.

It was a slow day. We walked the village, and I met children who’d never seen a foreigner. They giggled when I bowed in greeting and made a game of getting me to bow again. I saw a white water buffalo bathing and watched dogs and cats and chickens scramble under the tables and over the dirt together. I ate the best bananas I’ve ever had; they were green when ripe and tasted like conventional bananas but creamier and more banana-y. The banana tree was growing in the yard of our house. After lunch, I took a nap in a hammock. When the electricity was on that evening, Aya and I watched what looked like “Cambodian Idol” with the landlady.






I basked in my Little House on the Prairie fantasies, but I spent a lot of the time thinking about how this life impacts the residents of this village—and so many like it all over Cambodia. As I made my first trip to what many call “the real Cambodia,” I saw the country that exists outside Phnom Penh. Decentralization and destabilization are common, and part of the reason why there isn’t power or running water. While it’s clear that there are systems in place for daily living, and people are surviving and thriving in many ways, there are so many elements that gave me pause. Was it good for people, dogs, cats, and chickens to all share the same living, cooking, eating, and toileting space? Can people wash their hands well enough or often enough to successfully prevent the spread of disease? How can education, health care and dental care become more accessible? My colleagues told me there’s only a primary school in this village, and it’s difficult and expensive to get to the nearest secondary school. And how does all of this stack up in an increasingly connected world?

Starting early the next morning was the main event of this trip, the community forum. Held in the primary school’s yard, about 200 people from the village came. The village chief and two of his deputies talked, and Ratha facilitated a Q&A. The focus was the shared idea of good governance: What is it? How does it affect us? Who can participate? Who has rights? They highlighted transparency, accountability, consistency, efficiency, balance. They talked about what to do with people who are illegally cutting down trees, and how they can protect the village’s natural resources.

After the community forum was over, and we were getting ready to return to Phnom Penh, I remembered what Aya said about the snake in the box. I had seen everything in our boxes, and there had been no snakes; we had conducted no rituals. So, I asked. I made slithering gestures, I hissed. I asked if she remembered our conversation from the bus. She gave me a strange look. Snake? Snake? No, there was no snake.

It was the snack.

Try it: snake, snack, snake, snack. Have you ever noticed how similar those vowel sounds are? We laughed: relief for me. I made Aya and Ratha promise that we were not having snakes for snacks at any upcoming meetings.

And then we climbed into the truck to drive back to Chhlong. The flood had receded, but the dirt road was muddy and bumpy, full of enormous pits. There was still standing water, and I thought the truck might get stuck, but it didn’t. The ox carts were out again, but they were pulling hay and produce, not people and motos. In Chhlong we boarded an express 12-passenger van heading to Phnom Penh, and as we drove through darkening towns and saw light coming from bare fluorescent bulbs and TVs, I understood: it was evening, and the power was on for a few hours.