Sometimes, when I’m wandering cluelessly down a street of an unfamiliar city in a country that doesn’t share my language or alphabet, I wish I had a local with me to explain things. In America, telephone poles have 3 or 4 wires strung from one pole to the next as far as the eye can see. The poles in Siem Reap have dozens of wires. The wires running above my head look like a hundred black snakes racing across the sky. How do repairmen know which wire is faulty? What’s the apprenticeship of a Cambodian lineman like? What’s the attrition rate? What’s the death rate?
To escape the sun and snakes I ducked into a busy market. The stuffy chamber offered shade and an endless selection of T-shirts adorned with temples and elephants. It had racks of puffy pants, backpacks, purses, bikinis, flip-flops and a bright red Chicago Bulls jersey sporting the number 23, Michael Jordan. And if you don’t like the price just walk a few feet and there will be another merchant selling the exact same thing. SE Asia is known for countless markets and cheap clothing. But like the promenades of any beach town in America it seems like everyone is selling the same junk.
The seafood and meat markets are far more interesting. From the rafters hang grayish-white to blood red slabs of filleted flesh. Some have a tail fin attached letting you know it’s a fish. Others are more tubular shaped, eels perhaps. And at the far end hanging from the ceiling like a string of dots and dashes is a chain of sausage links. Why are sausages hanging in a fish market? At the next market a woman wearing a black hijab chops a side of beef into stew pieces. Behind her is a collection of hand woven baskets and in the foreground sits a severed heart and a handful of flies, a little something for everyone.
Across the river a few doors down from the Siem Reap Artist market stands an elegant bistro with a well tended garden and patio furniture with oversized umbrellas. It was too slick and expensive a place for locals and way too hot to be sitting outside. I snagged one of the last empty chairs in the air conditioned interior. It wasn’t a private table or booth, just a grouping of chairs around a knee high coffee table. Chinese tourists represented the majority of customers with a few Westerners peppered about. Across from me sat a crisply dressed man in slacks and a button down white shirt. He stood out from the other guests and appeared to be a local businessman. When I returned to my seat with a second serving of iced coffee we acknowledged each other and began a conversation.
Taiv was not a businessman. He was a 25 year old college student majoring in English. He made his living as a tour guide at the nearby floating village but being April, the hottest month of the year in Cambodia, business was slow. I noticed he wasn’t drinking or eating anything. He was at the bistro for the same reason I was, the air conditioning. A rare find in Cambodia. After a bit of talking I offered to buy him a coffee, he declined but accepted a cold bottle of water.
“Did you grow up in the floating village?”
“No, I grew up in a small village in the country.”
“How did you end up here?”
“There is no future in my village. When I was 15 my father sent me to live with the monks. They were my teachers. I still live with them.”
“Do you want to be a monk?”
“My father wants me to be a monk but I can’t. My brother is married and has a child. He is responsible for them. I am single and my parents have sacrificed much for me. I must take care of them forever. If I marry I will be responsible for my wife, then my father and mother.”
I asked some of the questions I had collected on my walk across town. He told me there was no license required to drive a motorcycle in Cambodia nor was there an age limit for drinking alcohol. Tiav was soft spoken and unassuming and we chatted without effort.
“I want to take you to a real Cambodian bar,” he said. “I have a meeting now but I will be back.”
By the time Tiav returned the sun was gone and the patio was buzzing with customers. He unlatched the seat of his motorcycle and passed me the helmet that had been dangling from it’s edge. I like riding motorcycles but it’s a leap of faith to ride on the back of a strangers, especially in a country that doesn’t require formal training or a license. A few months earlier, when I was shopping for travel insurance, I read that the number one activity associated with medical claims was motorcycle riding. As the bike rattled to life and the headlight cut a tunnel in the darkness I was grateful I bought that policy.
I didn’t know where we were going but I looked forward to the ride. I love that oily smell a motorcycle gives off as the engine warms and the moon-like glow of the speedometer at night and the marvelous breeze you create with a twist of your wrist. Of course when you’re a passenger on another dude’s bike there’s always that awkwardness of how to hold on. You could place your hands on his shoulders but that’s a bit lame and if he guns the engine to impress you, you could fly off the back. You defiantly don’t want to wrap your arms around him. That gives you a secure grip but makes it look like heading to the Poconos for the weekend. There was no backrest or a bar under the seat to hold on to so I chose a light grip on either side of his waist. If things got ugly and we started heading for the pavement I could always throw my arms around him. My wife would understand. She’s owned a couple motorcycles.
We left the glitzy side of town and headed to where the buildings were faded and the markets sold necessities like food and gas. We passed motorcycle shops, hair salons, an office supply store, and other small, nondescript businesses that I couldn’t figure out what they were selling. There were a few quaint corner bars along the way but the one we turned into was big, loud and gaudy. Strings of purple and blue lights were draped across the front and ablaze above the entrance were four foot tall squiggly Cambodian letters shouting the bar’s name. To enter we passed through a tunnel-like awning. On either side were benches and sitting on them were pretty girls in short skirts. Some smiled, others typed away on their smartphones but none said hello or laid a hand on us.
We were escorted past the rock band that was playing something I didn’t recognize and up the stairs to our table. The building was a two story wooden deck with a canvas roof with zippered sides that could be opened or closed depending whether it was the dry time or monsoon season.
“What makes this a real Cambodian bar?”, I asked.
“Cambodian bars have live music.”
“And what about the girls?”
“You can ask them to sit with you for company. Do you want to have a girl sit with you?”
“No, but they look like they do more than talk.”
“You can ask them to go to the hotel but you must be careful. Prostitution is illegal in Cambodia. Not like Thailand.”
I didn’t bother to mention it’s illegal in Thailand also. In hindsight it could have been interesting to talk with one of the girls especially with Tiav translating.
“Do you have a girlfriend Tiav?”
“There is a girl at school. She is very nice. I like her but she doesn’t know.”
In some ways speaking with Tiav was like speaking with a teenager. It was cute to see him gush about a girl he’s had a crush on for a year but hasn’t really spoken to. It’s also amazing how quickly your own memories of awkwardness reappear in your mind. I don’t know if it’s acceptable to simply ask a girl out in Cambodia but that seemed like the logical next step and Tiav needed encouragement.
“You know, based on how well the two of you work together in class she may be just as interested in you as you are in her.”
“Do you think so?”
A rush of hope caused Tiav’s voice to hit a high note.
“Sure,” I said.
As conversations like this tend to go, we talked about that girl most of the night. I sure hope he asked her out.
After a beer and a long chat Tiav returned me to the shiny side of town. Thanks to Tiav I have a little better understanding of Cambodian laws, family dynamics, and dating, but I still don’t know why they have a hundred wires strung between their telephone poles.