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Thursday, 01 November 2007

Submerged in the Bonn Om Teuk Water Festival of Phnom Penh - Page 3

Written by Elizabeth Gartley
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The hint of a city – plaster white buildings and golden Khmer steeples – finally emerged from the green of the jungle and dirty brown river. After hours of traveling up the Mekong, the small clunky motorboat began its approach into Phnom Penh, the driver taking a back door approach into the city as to avoid the racers. It was the final day of Bonn Om Teuk, the water festival, one of the most important national holidays in Cambodia.

Back outside, I admired the city’s architecture, which reflected its period of French colonial rule. Along the waterfront were several cafes sporting three or four levels of open-air verandas. Sipping a cold drink and watching the world go by seemed the perfect way to spend my afternoon – an appropriate fusion, or perhaps overlap, of French and Cambodian culture.

I broke from the crowd and ducked into a stylish but low-key café, taking a seat outside on the veranda. I sipped an iced coffee which tasted all right, but the day before I’d had the pleasure of drinking true Vietnamese iced coffee: espresso brewed hot with condensed milk added then poured over ice, which was absolutely delightful. The Phnom Penh coffee was a little bland by comparison, but it was that lazy time of day, just before sunset, and I sat back comfortably, considered my coffee, and watched the ebb and flow of the sea of people around

Suddenly, from nowhere, the little book peddler appeared. She’d found me. No doubt she picked my blond head out of the crowd and swooped in unnoticed to pounce on her facile and unassuming prey. I imagined I was emitting some manner of pheromone signaling my itch to spend. Yet, I didn’t mind her sneaking up on me, and she was adorable and charming to boot. If she’d been a fisherman, she’d be one of those so skilled that fish seem to jump right onto the boat.

Another, younger girl, possibly a younger sister or a protégé learning the ropes, stood beside her. The older girl was a hell of a salesman, confident without being too aggressive, so when she asked for five dollars for two books of postcards, I was happy to give her my money. I hoped that it would, at least, go toward school. After I my purchase, she gratuitously said, “Thank you, lay-dee” and offered a wai (the prayer-like gesture and greeting common to many southern and Southeast Asian nations).

Attracted to the gesture, I began to use it myself. It seemed a perfect way to convey thanks and gratitude, embodying chivalry and diplomacy. Before I returned to the West I abandoned the habit, however, for fear of appearing pretentious. Hanging on my walls, however, I still have that little girl’s postcards.

©Elizabeth Gartley

(Page 3 of 3)
Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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