Gillian Rhodes is spending eight months in Cambodia to teach choreography workshops and produce an evening that shows the fusion between contemporary and Cambodian classical dance. In the meantime, she’s alone in a country completely alien to her – her last time abroad was in Paris. Here’s an account of her first day in Phnom Penh:
Markets, Khmer, and Tuk-tuks
by Gillian Rhodes
How should I begin? With what, doing where, going how? I don’t usually have expectations about things, so I can’t exactly say it’s what I expected, but it is…It is, as expected, nothing like anywhere I have ever been.
Let’s start this way: the roofs are colorful. Flying in, it’s a mess of color: green of the trees, brick red, deep blue roofs, white, everything else thrown in for kicks. On the street, you don’t see the colors of the roofs, but it’s still a mess: umbrellas, carts, restaurants without front windows. The streets are packed with motos and tuk-tuks and a few cars, and nobody seems to care which side of the road you drive on. The motos weave in and out of everything – often you’ll see the moto taxis with one or two people sitting on the back. And if you walk down the street, the drivers – moto and tuk tuk – will offer rides incessantly.
The city is small, but any time you don’t know where you’re going it seems bigger. There don’t appear to be any street signs, except for a few on the main roads. People seem to operate on landmarks and a solid knowledge of their neighborhoods.
Everywhere there is something to buy. It’s cheap if you go where the locals go and extremely expensive if you go Western. Someone is always selling something: phones, bikes, water. Parking seems to be another adventurous activity. I’m staying with my Cambodian-American friend, Nettra, and her mother, and Nettra has a driver to chauffer her around. That’s partly to avoid having to struggle to find parking. I notice that almost all shops have an assistant whose job is to park cars for customers and to make sure the tuk-tuks go around when a car is backing up. They open the door for the customer to get out, and I guess they receive a few riels in return.
I arrived in Phnom Penh around noon and the rest of the day existed in a haze. I was bombarded with sights, sounds, and information, all while trying to trick my body into believing that it wasn’t actually the middle of the night. I managed to stay awake until 8:30, barely. I enjoyed a traditional Cambodian dinner with my friend’s parents: chicken and ginger, fish soup, and some kind of stew with some kind of eggs, meat, and veggies…all served with rice, of course, and then fresh lychees and mangosteens for dessert.
I’ve decided that my current wardrobe is drastically inadequate for the culture and the heat and have already set about rectifying that. People are somewhat conservative here, so I already have a pair of “Aladdin” pants, which are light and airy but cover a lot. I’ve also bought a light, calf-length dress with short sleeves, and will soon add a very light shirt to cover my shoulders when I wear the dresses I already have. Apparently white skin is deeply coveted here, and despite the heat the locals cover most of their skin to keep it from burning. Many even go so far as to use whitening creams.
I’m already working on learning the language. It bugs me greatly not to be able to communicate with the locals in their own tongue, and English is pretty spotty anyway. I know how to say basic things like “thank you,” “please,” “I would like to go,” “I am a teacher in the arts,” “more rice please,” and how to count to twenty. It’s not a difficult language, but the pronunciation is crazy-difficult and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to read it. But most signs are in both English and Khmer, so I don’t really have to. It’s just speaking that’s the trick.
I already have a Cambodian nickname. Although English nicknames usually come from the first syllable – Gill for Gillian – here they come from the last syllable. Nettra’s mom has trouble saying Gillian because the soft “g” sound doesn’t really exist here, so now she calls me “Yan,” from the “ian” at the end. I actually quite like it.
Tomorrow morning I plan to hit the market again, and this time I plan to buy something. The markets here are cramped and busy and you can buy whatever you please. Bargaining is encouraged, and the shopkeepers either recruit customers or can be found napping in their stalls. Things are cheap, but apparently the prices jack up if you’re white. The most jarring for me today were the piles of fresh fish and dead chickens, which were gutted and cleaned as I watched. I guess it’s a good way to see where your food is coming from, but it smelled too much of blood for me. I suppose it’s something you get used to, so I’m going to suck it up and go back to buy fruit for breakfast.
Gillian Rhodes is from Colorado. She graduated in May from Columbia University with a BA in dance. She’s currently spending several months in Phnom Penh to teach choreography as a volunteer. She plans to eventually move to Paris and start a dance company.