Tuesday, November 24, 2009

CAMBODIAN DIARY

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Total Recall
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Drivers of tuk-tuk (The Cambodian avtar of our very own Phut-Phut) in Phnom Penh swarmed around the weary passengers disgorged by the bus from Ho Chi Minh City. The one I engaged haggled hard, but once the price was settled, he became cordial and compliant. He was keen to drive me around wherever I wanted to go; and whenever. To be picked up from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) after dinner? No problem. Royal Palace? Fine. To the airport at five in the morning? Okay, I’ll be there.
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But how do I locate you when I get out of the FCC, I asked. Here’s my cell number, said he, fishing out a visiting card from the hip pocket of his bermuda shorts. I could not conceal my surprise at the name: ‘Spiderman’. In response to my query about the unlikely name, he said, ‘Much easier than Mam Bun Heng.’ His compatriots had names like Camera, Superman and Computer, he added. Quite practical, I thought. Names foreigners would find user-friendly and easy to recall.
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Kamasutra and Sansara
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More on names. The Indian restaurant in Siem Reap we had dinner in went by an equally unlikely monicker: Kamasutra. Cambodian girls wearing Kerala sarees served kadai chicken and raita. The joint was owned by a Malayali. Along with the bill came a small brochure which exhorted the customer ‘Why not try South Indian delicacies at Sansara in the next lane?’
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Footloose in the streets of Siem Reap the next evening, we spotted the same Cambodian girls in Kerala sarees under a new sign – Sansara with the sign-off line ‘for mouth-watering delicacies’. It did not need a cartographer’s skills to infer that Sansara was right behind it Kamasutra. I discovered that they even shared a kitchen and a chef. Talk of Indian ingenuity!
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The India Connection
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The friendly tuk-tuk driver asked my companion what his name was. He replied, Hari. Oh, Haree as in Haree-haraa, they said in a chorus. They had heard that Indian name in some context. The guide in Siem Reap was thrilled to meet us. Indians built our temple, he said, and gave us our culture. We had Khmer rulers from your country – named Jeyya-Vermman, Yesso-vermman, Sooriyya-vermman, In-dra-Vermman, Udeyya-Vermman and the like, he said in his heavily accented tongue. I felt that being an Indian, I was almost being worshipped. A great feeling!
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A Red Herring
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The young man who took me around the Angkor Artisans Village in the suburbs of Siem Reap where breathtaking handicraft items are made sported a plastic name plate on his shirt. Pram Bir, it said.
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Having seen several shops with Indian sounding names like Archana, Kartika etc, I was ready to bet my shirt that Pram Bir is a corrupt form of Param Veer or Prem Veer. What does your name mean, I asked him. Five plus two, rather, seven. Seven? Yes, because I was born in the seventh month. Quite an innovative method of naming your kids, I thought.
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The Young Salesperson
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There were over a hundred hole-in-the-wall shops under one roof. They all sold souvenirs and trinkets. As we ambled through the aisles between rows of shops, we were accosted by vendors (all women), urging us to step in: ‘All items very cheap, sir’ and ‘Only one dollar, Sir!’ As we passed by one shop, a tiny voice repeated the call. It was a boy, barely three; I suspect he did not know enough Cambodian, but he could echo the ‘Only one dollar, sir!’ of his mother.
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Parallel Currency
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The official currency in Cambodia is the Riel, but US Dollars are as popular. So are counterfeits, I was warned. I had toted up a bill of 25,000 Riels (about USD 6) in the souvenir shop. The woman in charge of the shop took a tenner from me and returned four one-dollar notes. As I peered at them for genuineness, she asked, ‘I didn’t check if yours was a genuine note, did I?’
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Pun on Angkor
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Anchor, I guess, must be one of the most popular brands of beer in the Far East. One just cannot miss the red-blue-and-silver cans in the shops and the huge hoardings on the highways promoting the beverage from the Heineken stable. Once in Cambodia, the competing homophonic brand – Angkor – from the Carlsberg house fights for shelf-space, visibility and market share. The logo of the Angkor brand is the iconic temple. Blasphemy, wouldn’t it be, in other cultures? I mused , somewhat irreverently: does Cambodia have a whiskey in called Angkor Vat 69, a doppelganger the ubiquitous Vat 69 from the liquor giant Diageo?
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Extending the thought, I wondered what the reaction would be if Vijay Mallya were to propose names like Benaras Brandy, Juma Masjid Gin or Velankanni Whiskey for his products. Sacrilege, wouldn’t it be?
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A Thousand Buddhas
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I spent nearly a whole day in the Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap. It is indeed a world class centre of heritage divided into eight fascinating galleries. Before being given access to the halls, visitors are given a brief presentation that introduces the museum and its amenities. Interactive multimedia technology has been harnessed and employed in the headsets that speak seven languages. There are short documentaries on most galleries that tell a full picturesque story.
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The awe-inspiring exhibits and the expertise in curating them facilitate a deeper understanding of the splendour of the ancient Khmer civilisation. The section that impressed me most was the gallery of a thousand Buddhas.
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Tintin in Cambodia
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The most avid follower of Tintin comics would not have heard of the young peripatetic reporter having set foot in Cambodia. But on sale everywhere in Cambodia are T-shirts with the words ‘Tintin au Cambodge’ and a picture of the boy astride a bicycle, with Snowy predictably in tow. Another featured Tintin and Snowy in a ‘cyclo’ driven by a Cambodian in his conical straw hat. Though short on facts, at three dollars apiece, they are not pricey.

8 comments:

mathew said...

Uncle,
I enjoyed your post.was interesting and educational!

I've been off blogging for a while. Thank you for your comments on my Lab Station. I plan to start writing again soon.

kochuthresiamma p .j said...

no pol pot holocaust museum? guesss you'll be writing about it.

kochuthresiamma p .j said...

malayalee in cambodia! and that too runing a kamasutra restaurant! guess the life and story and the choice of the name for his eatery will make a good story for scribes.

Ravi Kumar said...

Dear Mr.KTR,

I actually traveled along with you to Camobodia ! I feel ;-)

Amazing !!!

Ravi

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

Lovely snippets. Thanks.

anilkurup said...

Strange and confusing name for a restaurant.
Interesting piece of travelogue.

kochuthresiamma p .j said...

missing the updates.

Vibha said...

Liked your blog and enjoyed reading your post.

Do visit - http://literarysojourn.blogspot.com for some book reviews.