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Published: June 20th 2006
As I am peddling down the waterlogged, potholed back streets leading from my house to the Happy School, I must have an approachable look on my face, as a young Khmer man speeds up to putt beside me, exclaiming in laughing giggles that Water! Yes, water.
After a quiet weekend away at an expat residence in Kampot, the ocean-inlet town to the South of Phnom Penh, I am back on my loaned mountain bike, making my way to a little coffee shop I had spotted last week. The motodop’s comments sum up the activity that happened in the city whilst I was away - it rained, actually it flooded into my little rooftop apartment, thankfully leaving a dry puddle around the powerboard I had left laying thoughtlessly on the tiles. My potted flowers had started to blossom all over again, and there was a beautiful cool breeze flowing past me at a speed faster than I could hope to peddle through the water below.
By the time I rounded the corner near the Russian Market, I spotted the gates shut to the establishment I was hoping would indulge my craving for a coffee (and some cake?). Damn. I disembarked from my bike at an internet café across the road instead, to find that the splashes I had felt on my calves on the way there had reached all the way up to soak my just-handwashed carry bag. Ha! I was definitely back in the mayhem of Phnom Penh, and it felt chaotically good. People were smiling, laughing, giggling. The depth in their eyes told me that they were real people, their feet firmly on the ground, something I had failed to see in the German-American contingent of the party with which I spent the weekend. Perhaps it was not a case of failing to see, I thought to myself, but rather seeing a failure?
Beep-beep. Beep-beep. Nika. Yes, I meet you at Russian market for num krug. I had to smile, as I had been hanging out for these little fried rice balls in coconut and ? sauce since I had sampled them with her two weeks ago. Problem is that in Cambodia, dishes are only served at certain times, eg, rice and noodles at lunchtime only, sweets in the afternoon only, coffee in the morning only… The concept of all-day breakfast is far from being adopted in these circles. But today, I had managed to place myself in close proximity to the diet of my dreams just at the time of its creation. Ahhh. I had known there was a reason the café had been shut.
Inside the hot, ventilation-less psar, I made my way past the silk and crockery sellers, the war veterans selling copied books out of the square plastic baskets suspended from their necks with lengths of cloth, the beggar women with babes on one weak arm, tin bowls for collections in the other. Past the tourists with their money belts and uneasy looks, the fruit sellers flogging off their wares to the former for highly inflated, fair-trade prices.
And then the num krug. My senses lead me towards them; it was as though I could find them without knowing their whereabouts, as a deeper force roped me in. Somewhere in this time, Nika arrived and ordered the delicious dessert, and we ate in silence, my sun-browned face soaked, by now, in another big smile. And all that for USD0.25. Cheap thrills, some would say.
But not as cheap as the air I breathe in over here, of being fortunate enough to indulge in the commotion of my senses; the water at my feet, the food in my belly, the smell of industry in the air, the colourful pictures painted in front of me, and the laughter of the kids playing tag around the motos waiting for the lights to turn green. My lights seems forever green today.
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