Wednesday, June 8 2011
We passed the grinning prostitutes, pink lipstick smeared across their lips. I could feel the heat of the motorbike’s exhaust pipe burning through my rubber flip-flops. The barbers, hunched over their streetside clients, waved at me in recognition. We turned under the crumbling stairwell, swathes of damp clothes swinging above us. Somewhere a mother called for her child. We came to a stop in a clearing between the corrugated iron shacks and the peeling walls of the flats. I handed him 2000 riel, “Okun Chiran.”
I was in Dey Krahaom, the sprawling mess of squatter slums and tenement flats that filled one corner pocket of Phnom Penh’s Riverside. I had been invited to a wedding party.
At the entrance to the marquee, stacks of envelopes covered the table. A wedding reception was an expensive risk for a Cambodian family and one that was dependent on the generosity of its guests. I passed over my envelope. It contained fifteen US dollars.
The groom greeted me warmly. Though we had only met once, I was offered a seat at one of the front tables. Through a plume of Ganja smoke, my students ran at me, with equal doses of glee and respect. I was still their teacher. The grandfathers roosted on their rattan day beds, the source of the happy cloud. Their infant grandchildren crawled carelessly around them.
The contrast between the glittering party of the marquee and the surrounding slum could not escape notice. Eventually the two became blurred. As we dined on salty beef loc lak and the crumbly coconut of fish amok, children scavenged beneath our tables. They fought over empty cans, a kilo of which would fetch 20 cents at the local dumpsite.
Those who were not invited to the reception still lingered around, helping themselves to cold Angkor beer and swaying to the music. The wedding party didn’t mind. Tomorrow, they would all just be neighbours again. I caught a few of my young students swigging from half empty tins. They cackled as I chased after them, cursing in Khmer.
A few of the old men beckoned me to their table. I eagerly sank shots of local whisky. It was time to dance.
One of the large circular tables was brought into the middle of the space and a live performer took to the stage. I cantered awkwardly around the table with the men. Jangly pop tunes clashed with the harsh syllables of the Khmer tongue. We continued dancing, round and round the table, as more people joined us. I held hands with my pupils and dark shadows fell across the marquee as we skipped in the dirt. Round and round we danced to the frenetic melody, feeling dizzy and reckless in the humid air.
I looked cautiously at the matrimonial couple, suddenly self-conscious as a large and clumsy foreigner, full of food and prancing around a table in the middle of a Cambodian slum. Nothing but smiles encouraged me on. Perhaps fifteen dollars wasn’t enough.