I have been meaning to write this post for a while but for lack of time didn’t get around to it. Recently I saw a comment on another board on this subject which reminded me to finally hit the keyboard (funnily enough I wanted to write ‘put pen to paper’; but this is a thing of the past, now, isn’t it?).
Basically, what prompted me to ponder this subject was the traffic in Phnom Penh. Everybody who has ever ridden a motorbike, not to mention a bicycle, or driven a car around town knows what I am talking about. Despite the obvious chaos on the streets, it somehow seems to work nonetheless. People disregard red lights and just barrel across intersections, and make it across alive; cars turn willy-nilly without regard to anybody else on the street. Motorbikes regularly block lanes; cars change lanes never looking in their rear-view mirror, etc. etc. The list is endless. In the West, people would kill if they saw such traffic behavior. In Cambodia, people seem to shrug it off with typical Asian stoicism.
Of course, the whole traffic situation would not be so bad if motorbike riders just observed the most fundamental of traffic rules. I am not talking about the law on the rules of the road, and such, but rather about common sense. When I see these people on their motorbikes, I can’t help but think that many of them must have a death wish, or maybe, a large part of the population has a genetic defect. They can’t wait the additional 30 seconds for the light to change; they must hurry across as if they risked missing a very important appointment, at the same time risking their lives.
Let the other car cross ahead of you? No way, they just stare ahead ignoring everything around them and inch their way across the intersection. Now is this rude? In my mind, it is. I mean, it doesn’t make me mad; I only shake my head in wonderment.
This is the wedding season. Wedding ceremonies usually last three days. I don’t really envy the bride and groom because that ceremony is really hard on them. They start at 5 o’clock in the morning. And how they start. The keep the music blaring and the priest’s chants at high volume on the loudspeakers so nobody can really miss it. People also seem to enjoy shrieking sounds because in many cases the loudspeakers are of such poor quality that the sounds emanating from them make you cringe.
It might be a good wake-up call for people who have to get up early but what about the ones that can sleep to 7 or even 8 o’clock? Never mind, they should know that a daughter or a son in the neighborhood is getting married, right? What did they do before there were loudspeakers?
This does not just happen with weddings. If there is a death in the family, although the prayers are different, the set-up is the same. They put up a tent and the wailing sounds of the priests, mostly recorded, wake up the people at 5 o’clock. I mean you can’t mourn at 10 am, right? The relatives talk about the life of the deceased over those loudspeakers – their form of eulogies; I am sure the neighbors are all interested in that. And this also goes on for three days. But not enough, after 7 days there is another day of open mourning, starting at 5 o’clock in the morning. Thankfully, it is only for one day.
Ok, ok, I know this is the local custom. I also know people do things early in the morning because the day’s heat hasn’t arrived yet. But those loudspeakers, thanks to the invention of tapes, CDs, etc., blast their sounds into the neighborhood throughout the day.
The same applies to parties, whether it’s a house warming, a family-reunion, whatever. Everything has to be so loud so you can hear it miles away.
But there is a good side to all these parties and ceremonies. They usually stop at 10 o’clock at night. Hardly ever have I come across one that lasted longer than that, perhaps 11 o’clock once. Of course, people have to get up at 5 o’clock so they can attend one those ceremonies.
Another feature of modern Cambodian life is Karaoke (thank you Japan). As long as it’s in a KTV parlor, who cares? But many people keep one of those things at home and hold regular Karaoke parties. At full blast, that goes without saying, to make sure the neighbors can hear how they can’t hit the right notes.The more the evening advances the shriller the voices become. A pure joy to listen to.
Way back when I came to Cambodia first I didn’t live in a house but stayed at hotels in the city. The dogs I saw on the streets were all of the mangy stray-dog type. I got the impression that Cambodians don’t really care much for dogs since I also knew that a lot of people eat them.
But now with the newfound affluence of certain segments of Cambodian society they keep pet dogs, sometimes also guard dogs, which in the face of the high rate of burglaries and other crimes is understandable. It appears, though, as if many people just buy a dog, keep it fed, and then just leave the dog to its own devices. The dogs see someone walking by the property – well, that must be a potential burglar and they start barking away. It must be a signal for all the other dogs in the neighborhood because all of a sudden they all start barking and howling. During the day, it’s not so bad as there aren’t a lot of people walking around. But come evening, they engage in a virtual barking concert. In gated communities, the guards make their regular rounds during the night. You should just hear the racket that causes. And wait when there is a full moon!
People also seem to think it’s good to let their pets wander around the neighborhood scavenging from trash bins, knocking them over so the contents spill all across the street. Well, it makes it so much easier for the rats.
And lastly, as I mentioned before, people get up early to avoid the day’s heat for certain things. Some private schools keep really early hours, state schools start at 7. Most private schools run a shuttle service. Sometimes, this leaves the kids with some time while they are waiting for the van to pick them up. Kids being kids, they play a game of some sort, whether it’s kicking the ball, or engage in a running competition or whatever. They are just having fun. Needless to say, they don’t do this quietly. Hey, it’s 5:30, 6 o’clock already. Who’s still in bed at this time? It also seems to be the time when everybody, not only the kids, are in their most communicative mood; they way talk about (what? their dreams?) out on the streets.
Now don’t think it’s any quieter on weekends. Fathers use the early hours to spend some quality time with their little kids on the streets at 6 o’clock in the morning.
Now come 8 o’clock everything is quiet again. Exactly at a time when I usually get up. Sometimes I am thinking maybe I should change my routine and sleep during the day while it is quiet.
Now can all this be called rude? Well, it for sure is a high degree of inconsiderateness, if not outright rudeness. For people who put so much value on saving their face it certainly appears somewhat unbecoming to display this kind of behavior.
On the other hand, Cambodians are traditionally very friendly (to foreigners too), hospitable, helpful, and, yes, courteous. And this is not only to your face but it is part of their nature. So why this inconsiderateness and sometimes outright rudeness? I guess it has to do with their recent past. Culture and civility was eradicated during the Pol Pot years, and the ensuing Communists didn’t pay much heed to civility either. After all, they were a peasant and worker state. So civility which is usually also a sign of a better education still has to take hold in Cambodian society – by and large, at least. In the meantime, personally, I will just have to get away to my countryside retreat more often.