Notes from Cambodia

Share on

Motorbikes, water buffalo, landmine legacies, genocide memorials, migration, noodle carts, authenticity & pigs rolled in blankets.


Beware the word “authenticity.” Do not trust the restaurant or shop plastering signs and paper printouts with boasts of such a promise. Instead of asking this woman who doesn’t understand you if this is an “authentic Cambodian meal” because you want “something with authenticity,” open your senses. We are sitting on plastic chairs on uneven dirt with dozens of bare-chested children and men watching a pirated Chinese DVD on a small TV. The whir of a motor clacks behind us, and the scent of burning garbage and gasoline is in the air. Only the man beside us speaks a smattering of English. His home is twelve hours away by bus, and you insist on questioning whether the soup made of straw-thin rice noodle, hacked slabs of beef and other floating edibles is authentic.

A man crosses the street using his hands to pull his body, one leg bent beneath him and one missing below the knee. He inches forward on the dusty pavement, the rains from last night puddled alongside. Motorbikes clatter around him, and people like me walk past without looking or trying to look as if we are not. He may be forty or fifty or maybe younger, but he appears older. His gray hair is cropped short, button-up blue shirt unbuttoned, chest coated in dust. It again begins to rain. On two hands and two knees, he stretches his one foot behind him and crawls beside a fruit stand, his expression unchanged. I watch women sell pomelos, tangerines, bananas and melons—yellows and pinks and reds and greens piled on top of one another. Children pedal bicycles holding other children half their size, sharing the seat or balancing on the metal platform above the back tire. I no longer see the man. He has slipped away unseen, perhaps behind the fruit stands into the market stalls, out of the rain. I contemplate his history, suspect an infection, a motorbike accident, a landmine, any number of calamities to explain his loss. Then I see him again. A barefoot boy in tattered shorts and a dusty green shirt has lifted him onto the wooden slats holding his three-wheeled bike together, likely used for carrying fruit. The man sits much the same as he did in the center of the street, resting on his hands and leg. The boy walks ahead without speaking, steering his tricycle and its passenger behind him, away from the market and its stands. I finish my coffee and set off in the other direction.

Eddy Milfort

I am ambling along the river, itself a milky brown in which children swim, when a young man falls into step beside me. I expect another offer of a lift or some item for sale as he asks where I come from as well as my name. We walk together like old friends and he wonders how long I intend to stay—and if I might visit or even teach a while at a nearby school. We sit on a concrete bench beside the water and talk. He is twenty-three and comes from the countryside. He sleeps at the pagoda with the monks, he says, because he takes up little space. He attends high-school classes when he can and would like to visit other cities one day. When he saves enough for a bus fare, he returns to the countryside to see relatives. He has no sisters or brothers. His parents were killed after he was born. He shows me how, using his hands as a gun. He likes to practice English with tourists. Before we part ways, he asks if I could clarify the difference between two words that confuse him because they sound so similar: “prison” and “present.” I spell both on the back page of his textbook along with my best phonetic enunciations. He locks his hands together to describe the first. I hand him the book as an attempt to explain the second.

His parents were killed after he was born. He shows me how, using his hands as a gun.

At the intersection between the bridge and the old market, a man smiles at a visitor. I point to his cap, navy with a red B, and say, “Red Sox—that’s my home.” He smiles again, shrugs, responds, “My friend gave me.”

I say “no” seven or eight times before buying ten postcards for one dollar from a boy between the age of eight and twelve, I can’t tell. A girl from fifteen minutes earlier demands, “You said no, but then you buy from him. Why you say me ‘no,’ sir?” Two younger companions chime in, one boy more vocal than the other. “We ask you first. You say ‘no,’ sir. Then you buy from him. That not fair, sir. That not fair. Why you say ‘no’ when we ask you first?” I bumble a mix of “sorry” and “no” again, and, to be honest, I do not know the answer myself. I parted with my dollar at the words “I go to school,” and I suppose I’d rather hope that is the case even if it is midday during the week without a classroom in sight. “You not fair, sir.”

I drink from a bottle of water as I pass two children splashing in the soupy mud puddle in front of their house. Then I put the bottle down as I pass two boys (who appear my age, but are most likely younger) mostly submerged in a rice paddy. A water buffalo watches all of us.

I presume the man is their father. He steers a motorbike over the rutted road. A small girl sits in front of him. Three others drape over the back of the seat.

Xiaojun Deng

Another man carries a large branch, maybe six feet long and heavier than I could easily lift. He balances it over his left shoulder while riding a one-speed bicycle.

We sit at a wooden table on plastic chairs at the first of a row of street stalls. Five feet away, two young women sit at another stall, talking casually with their friend who fries noodles behind them. I don’t see the men approaching, or the pretty prostitutes leaving, but every time I turn around there are two new women in the old plastic chairs.

Within minutes of us sitting down to eat, a small boy walks over and gestures without words, lifting two fingers pressed to his mouth in a way I understand to mean hunger. He is maybe six. He has blank eyes, large and brown. No smile. I can’t recall ever seeing such emptiness in a youth. I hand him a menu and pull out a chair for him to join us. His finger touches the laminated paper. It is clear he doesn’t read. I beckon to the attendant, who takes orders to his mother at the wok. The little one sits with us, opens and closes the plastic case that holds spoons and chopsticks. Within minutes another boy approaches. He is also without a shirt, and his face is caked in dirt. I gesture that he, too, is welcome to sit at the table, and call out for another order of whatever the other child requested. At this point the first boy decides to teach us tricks, like how to make it appear as if you’re removing your pointer finger from your hand. He smiles and gives instructions as I attempt his magic. The other boy attaches several straws and pokes them awkwardly across the table. My plate arrives first, and a young girl appears between our first guest and me. She says nothing, but clasps her hands together. I take a second dish and fill it with rice. She refuses to take it, holding out for money instead. More rice and soup appear at our table. The first boy eats at an unmatched pace, then takes the serving I offered to the girl. The second boy is more measured. He finishes half and requests a takeaway container. By now three more children have gathered around the wooden table. I could buy meals for all of them, but there would be more. The owner of the food stand, the table and the chairs emerges from behind her wok to shush away the crowd. The second boy carries his dish across the street, where he shares with other children. The first boy finishes his rice, pretends to give me a high-five before putting his hand on his head, laughing, and runs into the street. I pay the bill, the equivalent of three U.S. dollars.

This girl’s bare feet look much older than mine as we walk on rough stones halfway up a temple.

The woman doesn’t have a face. It is a crater filled with craters. Her upper lip is swollen and fleshy pink, split to her nose. Her arms are contorted, skin pulled taut around the bones, and, like her face and neck, her arms are speckled from chemical burns maybe twenty or thirty years old. Perhaps they came from her people. Perhaps they are a result of mine. She speaks with fleshy lips trembling; her sound is merely a moan. I stand in front of her, look at her eyes without eyelashes or eyebrows, hollow moons surrounded by craters. I can’t explain, but there’s something in her I see that reminds me of a woman with whom I worked at a grocery store back home when I was fifteen.

“Mister, you buy very nice tablecloth. Look, very nice. You give it as gift to your girlfriend.”
“Oh, I don’t have a girlfriend.”
“Mister, this tablecloth so nice, you buy it from me, you will get girlfriend.”

paul stocker1

The child, little more than half my height, walks toward us on the dusty road, watching without a word. He wears burgundy pajama pants and a well-smudged T-shirt. It is the afternoon. I say hello first. He watches, still without a word, passes, then shouts at our backs, “HELLO.” He now has a big smile. I say hello again. He responds “bye-bye” and waves his hand in the air, laughing to himself. When I pass again maybe five minutes later, he has a half-inflated balloon untied at its base and lets air out, emitting loud squeaks. He finds these noises amusing, as do I.

His right arm is a stump. An off-white scar marks where the amputation healed, and dark spots identify where ball bearings or bits of metal tore his flesh. He carries an open backpack, held on his handless limb. He walks with me for maybe one minute, but it feels much longer until I agree to purchase another set of postcards. I now have thirty and couldn’t even begin to send them all.


A girl asks if I want to buy a drink, either water or Coca-Cola. Not now, I say. I’m not thirsty. I have two bottles already in my bag. “But mister, you will be thirsty.” Maybe later, I say. “Okay, when you come back, look for me. I will look for you.” Two hours later, it is dark and I descend the hill from a different direction. There are hundreds of people around me who also watched the sunset. “Mister,” I hear, as the girl from earlier somehow sights me among the crowd. “You say you look for me. You thirsty now?” I walk with her to a cooler maybe a hundred meters away, where her mother sells me a liter of water. The girl lifts it from the ice, gives it to me, and waves. “Good luck to you,” she says. “Good luck to you,” I reply.

When I take my cold shower this morning, I have no idea it’s possible to blow so much dirt out of my nose.

I could become accustomed to drinking coffee with sweet condensed milk from a clear plastic bag poked with a plastic straw.

Even though I say, “No, thank you,” to another offer of a motorbike, the man smiles the biggest, toothless smile.

I count at least twenty-seven coconuts on the back of the old man’s bicycle as he pedals through town. By the time I count that high, I can no longer see them well enough to continue counting.

The man at the ticket shop seems surprised at my surprise when he says there is no bus to Kompong Cham at 12:30 p.m., even though he has hung a banner in front of his shop that says “BUS TO KOMPONG CHAM AT 12:30 PM.” I walk to another bus-ticket shop that has no buses, but a young boy points me to a young girl who introduces me to an old man who walks me across the street to another ticket stand that sells seats on a 12:30 p.m. bus to Kompong Cham. I come back, as instructed, three hours later, and am introduced to another man who accompanies me across another street to another bus-ticket stand. He gives me his daughter’s phone number, saying maybe she could come to America with me, and then points toward a minibus that drives me to a bus station. There, I board a 12:30 p.m. bus to Kompong Cham.


From my window, it looks like they’re kidding until one of the two men lands a punch into the other guy’s face. The one who threw the punch moves across the flooded parking lot to the other side of the bus. A woman sells mangoes from a cart nearby.

Two bikes pass, each with three pigs rolled in blankets, lying on their backs, feet sticking out like stuffed animals.

I would rather be a silly-seeming fool of a tourist whom an old lady wearing a straw hat helps by explaining with her hands how to detach a bag of Vietnamese banana chips from a string tied to the roof of the wooden shack than a brute who, however unintentionally, pulls the wrong way and collapses half her shop.

A kind woman turns around from the seat ahead of me to offer a quarter of her pomelo with a packet of chili salt and monosodium glutamate. I thank her and extend, in return, the bag holding my last two banana chips.

Australian money built the new bridge over the river that runs parallel to the old French bridge. We know this because a kangaroo is painted in black on either side.

I’m quite sure the passenger sitting behind me is drunk. She has a hard face, four gold teeth and talks at me for fifteen minutes although it should be quite evident I don’t understand a word. For the last hour of the trip, she retches into a plastic bag and compensates by sucking a mint candy.

A little boy tries to jump onto the back of a calf on the side of the road. He fails, but the calf doesn’t move.

We sit in front of a noodle stand at a three-way intersection and see a lightning flash over the Mekong. He, an American citizen, tells me how he and his fiancée are thinking about moving to the United States. He read that Lowell, Massachusetts, has one of the largest Khmer populations in the country, after Long Beach, California. I tell him about the Irish mill girls, the French-Canadian arrivals and their joual dialect, Jack Kerouac, the collapse of manufacturing, the influx from Cambodia and Laos in the 1970s and the artists and musicians now converting lofts into art spaces. A generator hums. The lights flicker on, first at the sugarcane-juice cart, then the noodle stands. Our attention turns briefly to the thousands of insects pressing themselves against the glass, allured by the glow.

The woman who just cut our morning snack of pomelo curses the monkeys that are beginning to encircle us. She then tries to sell us bananas to feed them, seemingly without care that they will then be more likely to return.

I look over the bus driver’s shoulder to check our speed as we crawl along a two-way road with seven lanes of traffic backed up miles from the bridge to Phnom Penh. The speedometer clearly doesn’t work. I mention this to a friend. She laughs. “It doesn’t matter. He will always drive as fast as it’s possible to drive.” Several bicycles pass us on the right.

The teenager selling pineapple, mango slices and fried spiders at the bus stop speaks English better than some with English degrees from local universities.

The teenager selling pineapple, mango slices and fried spiders at the bus stop speaks English better than some with English degrees from local universities.

Between the rusted bars on the second-story windows of the former prison, I can see motorbikes, a woman walking up stairs with an umbrella, four children plodding along the street and several homes, one with a barbed wire fence, all within earshot.

Most of the twenty rooms on the three floors of the first school building have tiled floors, a rusted metal bed, mildew along the walls and ceilings and oversized photographs of mutilated bodies. The tourist in front of me moves from room to room, snapping photos of the photographs.

In the second school building, there are walls of what could be bad school photos of dozens, maybe hundreds, of children. Captured in black-and-white prints, they posed as instructed in front of a dull gray backdrop. Nobody is smiling. They are many ages, and I would say, the way things go, some were calm and collected, some studious, some enigmatic rabble-rousers. Not one is alive today.

A brown-winged butterfly with blue and yellow specks sips from a small yellow flower near a sign written in English and Khmer that reads, “Mass grave of 166 victims with out heads.”

I am curious to find more of a French legacy than crumbling colonial-era architecture and chocolate croissants. A young man about my age tells me he knows a person who speaks French, but that he must be more than seventy years old.

Outside, I attempt to step over an open sewer. Inside, I sit by the pool and watch three people swim laps while I drink an icy blend of ginger, papaya and yogurt.

I have been sitting in the courtyard of this five-star hotel for two hours now and have not heard any of the eleven people surrounding me speak to one another. Over the hum of the air-conditioning units and the lapping of the two pools, the city blares on the other side of the gates.

There are times when you meet somebody and know she or he is such a good person that instead of saying goodbye you shake hands several times and say the same thing again or talk just a few more minutes, knowing in different circumstances you would be great friends for much longer than a day or a week or a month. Usually, I find, I am the one who leaves.

Sean Carlson is completing his first book—a narrative of emigration from Ireland to the United Kingdom and the United States, told through a family story. His essays have been published in the Irish Times, the New York Daily News, USA Today and elsewhere. “Notes from Cambodia” was a finalist in Nowhere’s Fall 2014 Travel Writing Contest judged by Lorin Stein of the Paris Review. Learn more at

Photography by Paul Stocker, Eddy Milfort, Xiaojun Deng, Paul Stocker, and Totalitarism, top to bottom

Share on