Unexpected Sarcophagus

from Thursday, December17th of the year2009.

It feels absurd to try to write anything coherent about what I’ve been up to in Cambodia these last few weeks, and I’m not sure if it makes more sense to divide it up by little thoughts or grander gestures or what. So, instead, it’s going to be a series of freeform observations.

My basic itinerary was to spend a few days in Phnom Penh writing, then go to the north, to Battambang, to teach at Phare, and then back to Phnom Penh, and then to Siem Reap for an actual vacation (which, in my universe, means only writing music for three hours a day rather than six), and then back to Phnom Penh, and then “home,” which is a loose appelation for a procedure that takes the better part of 36 hours.

Knowing in advance that Battambang would be sort of Humble Digs, I planned a Fabulous stay in Phnom Penh at the Raffles (which is attractive to me not only because of its colonial history but also HandsomeLigature because they have a Handsome “FFL” ligature in their logo) and then a Ridiculous, Absurd, Next-Level Fabulous Stay in Siem Reap, because it seemed like the thing to do.

I am relatively cavalier about eating street food because I get Tummy Trouble if I go to London, all it takes is one fucked up dairy smudge to end it all, and here, it’s all hot wok and lime and salted fish and what can go wrong?

I ate a chicken buttflap from a guy in the market. This was the part of the chicken that you peel out of the bottom of the still-warm cast-iron pan when everybody else is admiring the view out of the windows and you are ostensibly tidying up the kitchen, preparing one dishwasher load before you repair to the kluh. ChickenbuttIt’s a secret, private, chicken bit, here formalized, dunked in a peppery sauce, and served with some kind of palm wine that made me fully high for three hours. I was so out of it, in fact, that I fell asleep in a hammock during an after-dinner drink with some French NGOers (NGEauxers?); as their parting gift to me they partially covered my body with a length of terrycloth. The uncovered bits are now covered with mosquito bites.

I had an amazing linguistic experience speaking French with the kids in Battambang. Their French is a combination of vestigial, appendix-like colonial French (costume de bain) and sassy argot taken from karaoke and T-shirt slogans. My french is a combination of grandma french (costume de bain) and academic, conservatoire solfège & déchiffrage French; all of us were struggling. But I

Things I have eaten in Phnom Penh:
A bowl of noodles off of the street; shredded chicken (?), rice noodles, hot peppers, fish sauce, lime, pressed fish ball, lettuce, fried Noodles with beef and basil, A wonderful curry, unclear contents, undercooked rice, Another street soup, this time with pork, some kind of yellow noodles.

finally, after many years, felt myself settle into a certain fluency with it, emboldened by the fact that I could let a vowel go flaccid without the kids looking at me sideways. Dealing with Parisian ballet people in French is like playing with a kitten: it’s all great and fluffy until you do one weird thing and all of a sudden the claws are out, ripping the angora and drawing blood.

I loved hanging out with NGO people: they have such a cool, inflected English. I had dinner with a bunch of French people and an Italian; English was the language of conversation but it was so peppered with phrases in six or seven different languages (one of the French girls and the Italian man had both spent years in Thailand; Thai injokes skittered across the table) that the whole thing had this delirious channel-surfing feel. Two phrases about Khmer youth violence led to a conversation in Half-Spanish about somebody’s landlady in Tijuana; the Southern French accent of the administrator of the French school in Phnom Penh led to me and the Italian guy mocking Neopolitan accents; the Khmer-speaking French duo talked about the Battambang accent. Very bouncy, decadent language. I et that shit up, too, and envied the wild variety of the Italian man’s fluencies: two years each in Romania, Thailand, Cambodia, Mexico, LA, and Egypt gave him a fierce, streetwise fluency in the languages as well as between them.

Organizing my photos is hard because some of them are very plainly “Things I Saw in Singapore One Afternoon” and others are very plainly me taking pictures of lesbians’ haircuts at the transfers desk at Heathrow. Can’t there be a slightly embarrassing “quick snaps” department, and then a more formal “pictures I’ll send my mom?” I have an entire series entitled “Blond Guys in their 20’s in Airports” that needs to be cross-referenced. I think I need to hire some kind of former Assistant wit Annie Leibowitz or something to come sort through this shit.

iPhoto now has this insane face recognition software, which is kind of amazing “” it does a very good job with anybody white. All my black friends it immediately thinks are either each other or, literally, faces on the wall of the Underground Railroad museum in Cincinnati. I am not kidding you. I took a picture of Thomas (who is white) in front of this mural depicting a line of about a hundred freed slaves, and now iPhoto is all, “oh, is THIS your homegirl? is THAT your homegirl?” In other news, it thinks I look like my boyfriend #thatsracist #thatshomophobic.

One of the interesting things about this kind of mixed-purpose travel (as in, half decadent vacationey thing, some volunteer teaching) is the relationship of One to One’s Hosts. In Battambang, my host was a handsome, central-casting French dancer (as in, pouty lips, six foot two, graceful hands) who moved to Cambodia two years ago to administrate this wonderful performing arts organization. An observation. Sometimes it’s nice to navigate cultural differences all by oneself. I loved how the first time I went to Iceland, nobody coached me on the various degrees of mandatory nudity required to perform the pool ritual. As much as I wished for a native informant, I figured it out. I loved how the first time I went to school in Italy, I basically was cast into my first day without preamble; my mother walked me there, we met the teacher, and off I went. I like the strange new rituals of a new place: figuring out where to boil the water for the toothpaste, knowing to get an Oysterâ„¢ card in advance of rush hour, etc. That shit is hard, but it pays off in the end. Now. One thing I wish I had a little more coaching about is vis. Crazy Toilet Situations in Cambodia. I can deal with a simple squat toilet, I’ve dealt with the lota/lotah pot situation in India. (An aside: get into Lotah Stories, link here, it’s insanely fascinating, and I realize that I don’t keep medicine in my bathroom for a similar reason, anyway, moving on ) Even my school in Italy had squatty places! French toilets sometimes have the Hoses of Mysterie. But beloveds. The toilets in rural Cambodia confused your girl. Basically, you walk in, and there’s a giant concrete sarcophagus filled with water, with a pail floating in it, with a handle on the pail. And then there’s a hole in the ground, some distance from the sarcophagus. So the idea I guess is that you (not to put too fine a point on it) poo in the hole, and then use the pail to wash not only the hole, but also your Own Self. Or perhaps you were meant to have brought Turlet Peipur? None of this was made even remotely clear to me. Also the size of the sarcophagus was confusing because it implied a Great Volume of potential users? So I arrived in the room, with the sarcophagus and the hole and the bucket, and being an neurotic, my head started doing the wolf, sheep, and cabbage game tripletime. Help us navigate this. It’s not that I’m too proud to poo in a hole, but I’d love to know the Proper Way to Do It before y’all start banging on the door talmbout **loudly shouted khmer invective**.

More to come, including pictures, tomorrow. I have been on an extreme Angkor Temple Binge; I think a blog is not really the place to post iPhone pictures of antiquity but it might happen.


  • Fantastic post! I am eager to see the pictures. While you were gone, Roger Angell sent you greetings and admiration in The New Yorker.

  • Ha yes, I remember those toilets from Indonesia… They were a bit confusing at first, but I decided to Wing it.

  • Hehehe, yes, you are suppose to use your hands. In these cultures, there would be strict rules to what you can do with each hand. Normally, it’s left hand to wash, right to greet, eat and handle food. So, in Indonesia or Malaysia, people would have their left hand mostly out of sight during meals, unless they’re eating with cutlery.

  • I am pretty sure you are supposed to poo in the hole and probably pour water on it. Not sure about washing yourself. Never been there, but been to rural Bolivia and other parts of South America where they have toilets, but the toilets don’t actually flush, so you have to pour a similar situation of water down the toilet after you use it. I imagine it’s the same kind of idea, except with less plumbing.

  • LOVE this post. Comments about iphoto= priceless.
    Yes, the Roger Angell was brilliant; put it up in my face(book) for posterity. Love the french ballet/kitty analogy: too purrfect. Please post pics ASAP. Good luck with the plumbing!

  • LOVE this post. Comments about iphoto= priceless.
    Yes, the Roger Angell was brilliant; put it up in my face(book) for posterity. Love the french ballet/kitty analogy: too purrfect. Please post pics ASAP. Good luck with the plumbing!

  • A friend of mine is a former Assistant with Annie Leibowitz. I have no idea to what extent she was given insight into the great mysteries though. I should ask her.