This is a passage from the book I'm working on "Crossing the River; a letter to my daughter on becoming a mother", a bit long, but would love to hear your thoughts and feedback. You can read another passage here
The clock has barely struck nine in the morning, and I can already feel drops of sweat making their way down my back, as yet another stranger with darkened teeth and heavily callused hands makes a beeline straight for you.
‘chum riep sua, sok sobai?’ she greets me bringing her hands together in prayer, ‘srei? maong kaeh?’ She wants to know how old you are and if you are a boy or a girl? They always ask that, even if you are wearing a pink long dress.
‘bun kaeh, srei’ four months, I tell her, a girl
She smiles satisfied showing her black gums and missing teeth as she reaches out to touch you. They always head straight for the hands, the hands that spend more time in your mouth than anywhere else. I wrap my hands around your tiny ones to keep them out of her reach. It's a polite way of saying ‘stay off these!’ So instead she grabs your feet.
You hang onto my Baby Bjorg blissfully unaware, and probably just as hot.
You’ve grown up with this kind of attention, and it doesn’t strike you as odd that all eyes are on you whenever you walk into a room. Surrounded by strangers delighted just to be able to look at you. That in restaurants, while me and your dad eat, there is a person walking you up and down the isle, entertaining you the whole time, while others pop in and out to make you smile.
‘sa’at’ the stranger confirms, beautiful. And finally we see eye to eye on something.
I politely get away as fast as I can. I used to think that it was rude and culturally insensitive to try and keep you away from complete strangers. To keep them from touching you, my preciously clean and brand new baby, in a culture that so adores babies. Obviously this was the custom here, and I had to be respectful. Then one day, walking down the street during our morning stroll, I saw a woman that only the day before had held your hands as I watched on uncomfortably. She was rummaging through garbage, through half putrid spoils in search of things to recycle. ‘Screw this’ I thought.
We make our way through the labyrinth foreigners refer to as the Russian Market. Even years later I would have a hard time finding my way if I stray from the usual paths. The alleys between the different stands are thin, and serpent throughout without a clear structure. The market is covered with wooden planks and pieces of cloth to protect the vendors and buyers from the sun, further trapping the heat in. On account of this, it is always night inside the market and there are no reference points.
You can buy anything here. There is a whole section for foods, where skinned cows and pigs hang upside down like Christmas decorations. You can find all sorts of meats, all sorts of body parts, sitting side by side with bloody knives, cutting boards and children sleeping on the table tops. Plucked ducks hanging by their necks on multi-point hooks, almost like a flower arrangement of skin, claws and wings. Live chickens clucking away from their small cages, perhaps aware of their future fate.
Then there is the fish section, which in time will become your favourite. The fish are alive and move in circles inside their plastic containers of bright colors, probably hoping to get somewhere. Heaps of shellfish and crawling beasts of different shapes and colours, each attempting to crawl away slowly, making the mountain appear as one living mass from some sci-fi movie. The fruit and vegetable sections is an orgy of shapes and colours, with pungent smells. My favourite is the dragon fruit. With a bright hotpink and spiky exterior, white meat with little black seeds in the inside provides further contrast. The flavour, mild and tame, although nice, does not live up to the expectations such an exotic exterior promises. You liked the rambutan best. A spiky little ball that looks a lot like a fresh lychee, inside sticky and slippery at the same time, and sweet, very sweet. Green mangoes, sweet mangoes, bananas of every size, the list goes on and on.
The spice section is an affront to the nose, although a much more pleasant one than accidentally crossing a “public lavatory”, otherwise known as any-ol’ wall assigned to that purpose. Nuts and seeds in different shades of earth, the closest thing to autumn you can get here, surrounded by spices and incense sticks. You could find it with your eyes closed.
There is an area where people can sit down to eat, anything from your typical noodle soup to barbequed and charred little snakes. A section for clothes, were you can find brands from both America and Europe, tag and all, at one eighth the price. I didn’t learn about this for some time. Then it became a bit of a habit as much as an addiction. One dollar fifty for a shirt, maybe three for a pair of pants, I have never been any good at haggling so I’m sure it could have been less. You could find the occasional dress, and they would often try to flog off winter gear to foreigners. How these items make it from the sweatshops to the market is uncertain. Some say they are rejects, or excess production. Others say they accidentally fall of the back of truck. But the brands that pay good salaries and have good working conditions, those never reach the stalls.
It is always hot and dark inside the market, but every now and then a ray of light sneaks in between two planks. And sometimes the smoke from one of the pots mixes with the light, and then you can see the smoke crawl up in circles, like a spirit trying to escape, making for quite a beautiful sight. Bare light bulbs hang from the ceiling. A few women walk up and down selling traditional sweets and foods to nibble on. They carry the baskets on their heads, the food surrounded and protected by large banana leaves. There are of course also beggars, others struggling to sell bad quality photocopies of hand painted cards or of the Lonely Planet guides.
Then there is the souvenir section, where the adventurous tourists wonder alongside the local expats, looking for a remembrance to bring back with them, some kind of proof that they were here, that this moment, soon to be gone, existed; carved wood, Buda heads of every size, shape and material, all with the famous Cambodian smile, calm and sweet. The Mona Lisa is got nothing on them. The elegant hands of an Apasara dancer made of hallow dark metal are another favourite. Large wooden instruments much like a large xylophone which are part of their traditional music. Then there is the famous Cambodian silk, in just about every shape and size you can imagine; clothes, cushions, scarves, anything and everything.
Further north you can find hand crafted silver sold by weight, no value given to the time invested in the hand labour which is so precious back in the West. There is a section for motor parts, where almost everything seems to be made of metal or black rubber, and another where you can buy precious and semi precious stones, next to the Pirated DVDs, all at one fifty. Anything and everything can be bought or bargained here. The myth goes that you can even buy servants for the house. Fortunately I never saw such a thing.
As we exit the market, I wave to one of the many tuk-tuks waiting outside.
‘chum riep sua’ I greet him as we climb onboard, ‘kngom tchoulchat tau ptea roba kngnom?’ I would like to go back home, I struggle say. They are always entertained by my attempts to speak their language
‘ speak khamai?” he asks with a wide smile
“otei” I admit with shame ‘tit tit” only a little. For some reason, he finds this is even funnier.
We struggle to make our way out of the market through the flood of motorcycles moving in all directions, very much like bees near a hive. We head east and as we reach Norodom Boulevard turn to head south. We are flanked on both sides by male mango trees which never give fruit, but once a year do give off beautiful little lilac flowers, that make the entire expatriate community sneeze non-stop. Finally the breeze begins to cool us off. There is barely any traffic and the sun is still setting up shop. Past the beautifully carved burial sites in the Wats, we take a right at the Independence monument, whose red carved stone looks particularly beautiful in this half light. We reach the silver Mekong, where its inhabitants are slowly going about their business, still waking from their slumber. Saffron shadows cross our path as the monks head to the temples for morning prayers.You love tuk tuks; they let you watch the world go by at high speed, just like you like it, that world you are so impatient to taste. They rock and bump you around. You love the noise. There are so many motos it’s almost like the city itself is purring. You are quiet and content. Your eyes wide taking it all in. I’m also blissfully unaware. It isn’t always like this, but today, right now, alls well. It is a beautiful day in Phnom Penh.
you can see more photos from the Asian Markets series here: