One of the things that is great about living in Cambodia when you first get here is the almost complete and utter lack of rules and stifling limitations that can beset you in the west. You can do just about anything you in Cambodia as long as you adhere to some basics. Don’t tread on gun-toting toes in nightclubs, careful what you say in public about politics and take your shoes off when you enter a temple or house. Other than that, go crazy! I have slowly realised, however, that a few rules and restrictions here and there are what keeps the social status quo.Here in Cambodia, there seems to be a fine line between common courtesy, custom and just plain out rudeness and I am trying to keep it together as I attempt to differentiate.
Firstly; Weddings, Parties and Funerals. We all need to have them and in the west there are clear laws and common courtesies to ensure that (most of the time) things stay in control and there is a harmonious outcome for all. Not so in Phnom Penh. You can walk out your front gate on any given day of the week and find that a massive marquee has been erected in front of your house, totally restricting not only your ability to use your own entry gate and get your car out but also blocking off the whole street to traffic. Then comes the dreaded music pumped up to volume 11 and broadcast by stadium sized speakers – usually pointed directly at your house for maximum effect. If you are lucky, it will be a wedding, the music will be bearable and it will only last a night. If you are dead unlucky (pardon the pun) it is a funeral wake and can go on for days with chanting that will drive you mad and drums that start at 6a.m. Now… I can actually deal with all of this BUT would it be so hard for the people having the party to do leaflet drop saying “Dear Neighbour, sorry to inconvenience you but we will be having a shindig and it will go on for (x) days so you are welcome to join us or you might want to move your car or go stay in a hotel for the night”? What courtesy! You can then ensure your heavily pregnant wife isn’t stuck in the kitchen having the baby whilst the party roars on outside and generally make alternative plans to endure the event. Apparently this idea is so radical, it just cannot be considered and as my Khmer wife says, everyone will have a party at some stage and be inconvenienced so what goes around comes around.
Secondly; Back home, if my dogs even so much as barked more than once or were out on the street for more than five minutes without me, the Ranger would come around and slap me with a summons. As a dog lover, I have no problems with dogs walking around unattended, barking (within reason) and dealing with the odd doo-doo outside my house! What I cannot handle is the way the owners in my street allow their dogs out and then watch as their mutts systematically rip my rubbish to shreds, leaving the contents strewn. My polite requests to keep them away from our rubbish have gone unanswered so the other day I (re)bundled up my trash and took it over to the main offender’s house and dumped the bag on her doorstep. In the ensuing verbal mêlée,I asked her how she would feel if I took a 9 iron to her rubbish every time she put it out and spread it all over the place ? She then tried to make to feel like the culprit. How dare I put food scraps in my trash! Later I had a chat with her neighbour and he quietly confided he had been putting up with it for years. I asked him why he didn’t get steamed and he said in typical passive resignation “but what can I do?…..”. Poison the god damned dog for one thing.
Finally, construction work. Again, I love seeing a house go up and I don’t mind a bit of industrious noise and at the moment, Cambodia is in boom time. Back home, here are the rules; No site work before 7am, no work after sunset, Sundays are an absolute NO NO and you clean-up after yourself. Failure to adhere to these rules ensures a hefty fine is imposed. We have a villa next door to us that is setting a new world record for construction time and it is starting to test us, especially as we have a newborn in the house. Power for tools is supplied by a generator that sounds like a World War 1 Tank rolling around a battlefield and the workers like to kick off at 5.30a.m with a rousing session of farting, spitting, showering and meal cooking by what must be one-armed, blind chefs. Pots are dropped and clanged, chilli is pounded into powder, songs are sung and hammers are tested against our walls for the day ahead. When we first moved in, I gave the workers our excess pots and bamboo mats which they were very thankful for. How courteous of us! Alas…..no such reciprocation. I have thus far had to complain about concrete being splashed over our wall and onto my car, workers walking around semi-naked (and I don’t mean the top half ) on OUR rooftop deck , nails hitting our windows and my stolen ladder. The other day I snapped. Imagine their surprise (Sunday no less) when their early morning pre-sunrise cooking fires were doused by me (accidentally) as I watered my plants. I have lousy aim – what can I say?
I know this is Cambodia and I know things are different but surely common courtesy is just that? I am not asking for miracles. I just want to be able to enter and exit my house when I want, for my rubbish to remain intact until the garbos arrive and for a bit of early morning kip on my days off. If a few basic common courtesies were adhered to Cambodia, and the world, would be a much easier place to live in.