Phnom Penh, 5 April 2017
Communicating in Cambodia
It’s 2:00 in the afternoon, the hottest time of day. I’m soaked with sweat and fed up with it. When I try once more to dry myself off with the towel hanging around my neck, I’m impressed again by the situation’s hopelessness. It won’t take a single drop more. I toss the towel bleakly into a corner of the little bus.
In front of me our driver, Mister Pros, is hot too. There’s no way to avoid it. But Cambodians can be hot without sweating. I may look like a melting ice cube, but I see our beloved Mister Pros with not a drop on his face and not even a damp spot on his long-sleeved shirt.
“You are all right, Mister Erwin?” he asks.
“Yes! Yes”, I say in irritation, and immediately shift to second gear! Chop-chop to work. This is how it is for you in the evening, when it’s time to cool down your overheated body in the refreshing pool.
I don’t want to look, but do so anyway. The cool water is just lying there, shamelessly flirting with me… The pool is like a longing lover… Come, it says softly. Come to me… I’m lying here ready for you.
“Okay,” I continue, not so harshly, “so, our first stop is in half an hour at the river…”
“…and then after we leave the river, we pick up the guys!”
“So first the river and then the guys!”
“In half an hour.”
“Yes, half an hour.”
Beautiful! Well organized, quickly arranged, resisting all temptation to the pool. To work!
About three quarters of an hour of Phnom Penh’s chaotic stop-and-go traffic and I haven’t yet seen a glimpse of the river.
“Are we nearly there?” I call from the back seat.
It’s the only possible question I could have asked. The answer is obvious: “Yes, yes, nearly there!”
“How much longer… ten minutes?”
Once again I get the answer I want to hear. “Yes, yes, ten minutes.”
“Ten minutes or longer?”
“Yes, ten minutes or longer. No problem.”
I throw myself back into the seat. Defeated by my own questions. My good friend E, who has been roaming around this region for a decade, instructed me clearly before I left: Don’t ask any questions that can have only a clear yes-or-no answer. Leave them some room and always accept the answer you get. Cambodians don’t speak to you fast. That’s not reluctance, it’s politeness. They give you what you ask for; they are utterly lovely people…
For 20 seconds I flood my lungs with air, let it go in one breath, and then light a cigarette. The rest that this ritual provides me could give Zen a tip.
“Phnom Penh is a beautiful city,” I call to Mister Pros. “Hot, but beautiful.”
“Yes, Mister Erwin, very beautiful…. and look, there you can see the river. You are happy man now!”
“Yes,” I respond. “I’m a happy man.”
Photo Erik Smits
Translation Pete Kaiser