“They can’t drink the alcohol or woo the ladies”

Originally sent: 27 June 2005

About this series

I’m in Battambang: which is famous across Indochina for its decrepit colonial French architecture, raunchy statues of garudas having their way with apsaras and a state of sleepiness that gives the lack of English expressions for somnolence a bad name. Since the Khmer Rouge stopped firing rocket-propelled grenades at the public transport on the way to Siem Reap, there is no reason for most people to detour via Battambang on their way to Angkor Wat, unless you’re like me and Ausaid is paying me for it.

My revelation for this week is that people eat the leftovers from our bin. I don’t know what you say to someone when you catch them eating your rotting dinner out the front of your house; my gut reaction is to set the hose on them. I guess it is marginally better that he eats it there than picks it from wherever the garbage truck takes it. I’m starting to wonder if there is anything left there by the time the garbage truck arrives.

Contrary to popular belief, the locals don’t have a stronger gastrointestinal fortitude; they just get sick more often and more severely. Over half the staff where I work have already used up their entire allocation of sick leave for the year and I blame it on their compulsive desire for weird food. While I was in Siem Reap, the two workmates I was with insisted on going to the same Khmer restaurant every day for fermented salty fish salad despite us all being quite ill after the first lunch. From that point on I avoided the fish and watched them both get sicker and sicker as the week progressed. Cambodians are pretty keen on both my favourite and least favourite modes of meat preparation: deep frying and fermenting. I’ll let you guess which is which.

M got sick a few weeks ago from something random and tropical, thankfully nothing egg-laying, flesh-eating or combination thereof. When we consulted our handy Traveler’s Health Guide that came with the kilo of prescription drugs we brought with us, it warned against eating salads, predatory reef fish, crustacea, ice, and dairy produce; all of which we had eaten for the previous lunch on a boat trip. The previous day’s boat tour had been cancelled and so there was speculation aplenty as to how long the barracuda had been sitting in the lukewarm Esky. Obviously, not long enough to be considered fermented.

On the monk front, it turns out that they’re the same as most other Khmer people except as the admin assistant at work lovingly put it,
“They can’t drink the alcohol or woo the ladies”. They consequently do seem obscenely interested in my drinking and wooing habits, especially because they’ve found out that firstly, I not only drink beer but I know how to make it; and secondly that I live with someone I’m not married to. I did see one of the monks slap our tea lady/cleaner on the ass the other day but I’m lead to believe that this is acceptable workplace behaviour rather than a misguided attempt at wooing.

My understanding is that being a monk in Cambodia is much closer to doing national service than joining the priesthood: you get to wear an absurd uniform with a large group of other men and if all goes well you’ll be out in a year or so, albeit completely indoctrinated. Despite Buddhist doctrine to the contrary, the monks in Cambodia are not charitable. Practically everything that gets donated to them goes towards building increasingly grandiose gold-plated pagodas rather than say, feeding the poor so they don’t have to eat from our bin.

The pagoda where SCC is located in Siem Reap cost $US1 million to build and is of average size. There are 4000 pagodas in Cambodia, which means that at least US$4 billion of the Cambodian economy has been sunk into infrastructure whose sole purpose is to further drain the pockets of their local constituents. I’m no longer horrified that Phnom Penh’s only casino is located next door to Cambodia’s most important Buddhist training school. I’m sure that some of the pagodas run orphanages or schools simply because the monks lack sufficient armaments to cleanse their pagoda of street kids.

The UN has about US$200,000 set aside per annum to encourage monks to volunteer for charity to try and change this parlous state of affairs. The monks of SCC are using some of it to pay for their Business degrees with the ultimate goal of leaving Cambodia for the West as soon as possible. Non-government organisations call this “capacity building”.

Previously in this series: Ratspotting

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