It is not unknown for me to exasperate at my fellow travellers from time to time, yesterday evening was one of those times. Prue and I are sitting at a rooftop café that overlooks the mighty Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Not that we can see it. The sun has set and between us and the litter strewn river banks are a rainbow parade of exercise junkies and a road streaming with the fluorescent lights from a thousand different types of vehicles, all making their noisy way through the night.
Not only are we celebrating/commiserating our final meal in Cambodia and making the most of their traditional soup and famous amok but we are also endeavouring to do justice to a ‘happy hour’ offer; two jugs of beer for 3 USD. It is during this 8-glass marathon and a little tipsy we begin to overhear conversations amongst our fellow travellers. Beside us a blonde haired bigot has already scoured the walls which are smothered in as thousand pieces of paper scribbled with many thanks to Cambodia, much love to everyone for the New Year or even a tribute to Bruno the Boxer. Disgusted at the surplus ‘AUSTR’IA DAY’ banners she whips out a lecture to her dinner date (an Australian I might add) about the numerous Australians that travel the world but declare their own country to be far superior in beauty. “They are stupid…” she begins but I am distracted from this rant by the table opposite; the waiter is asking if they would like the bill. “We want sep-a-rate” rants the slow broken English from the lady of the table; she points at each of her co-diners individually as if the waiter has made several misunderstandings in English already. He has not as his English tongue is superior to hers and his exasperated eyes at having to calculate and organise the change for 6 separate bills should belie the fact that he understood her at the beginning of “sep-a-…” Unfortunately she is too far down her condescending runway and taking off into an air of contempt as the waiter takes everyone’s order in turn to assess what they owe.
Back to Blondie, our Australian-hating Cambodian tourist. She has now just received Cambodia’s star dish. Fish Amok has good reason to be visitors favourite, hints of coconut, lemongrass and ginger merge from within the thick curry paste that softly coats your vegetables or meat. Despite boasting their version of this international star dish hers seems to have been infected. Blondie is inspecting the fish string by string with a look of disgust that is embarrassing to all. As her taste for Amok aligns with her taste for Australians she continues a bitch about the latter. This time the Aussies are accountable for not having visited the most beautiful place in their country, the west coast. What idiots.
.By now the table in front are receiving their change, there is a problem. The condescending lady has received a one dollar bill that she is unhappy with. “I will not accept this I want a different one.” This time the waiter is confused, he has just performed a perfect cash exchange and the lady is holding out a one dollar bill.
“This is for tip?”
“No, no tip. I don’t like this one.” She straightens out the article to allow him to scrutinise the apparent defects. We watch this gentlemen look to the sky for an answer to the absurdity and the smile fall from his face as he fails to understand why this woman is screeching over a one dollar bill that he would gratefully accept. Finally, he insists “speak downstairs.” The group rumble from their seating and a hopeful cat dashes from its hiding, perhaps they had shown him more kindness than their waiter or someone had happened to miss their mouth.
Blondie is now attempting to pay, she is looking over her dollars and finally produces a 100 bill. Her waiter is waiting patiently as she depicts that this is the note to pay the expense. Let’s be honest, a filling meal for two plus enough booze to get you tipsy comes to 12 dollars but she holds out the big note with a look of scepticism.
“I’ll bring back your change, madam.”
“Make sure you do.”
This is the second waiter to look pained by the treatment of his customers. Her face is disgusting while she observes that every single dollar and every single cent has been accounted for, in my tipsy state I find myself mesmerized and stare quite openly but she doesn’t notice as she is busy examining her fine, fine dollars. “I’ve got something small for a tip” her diner mate chimes.
“Just leave it.”
Prue and I are left alone on this top floor. Now I stress that we are by no means rich travellers, quite the opposite in fact. At the moment we are avid adventurers writing an unpaid blog and rely on the recent stint of employment we had in Australia recently and the basic pay of occasional work as dive guiding and teaching. On this night we reach into our pockets and provide a basic tip to the two waiters and the cleaner who is bent over double trying to sweep the carpet. A dollar each won’t change their lives but it will give them the encouragement to keep doing a fine job and puts a smile on their faces for a while.
Cambodia is not as cheap as you might expect, but this is one of those countries where in all honesty you don’t want to be so hard on your money. Walk a single road in Cambodia and you will see all manners of poverty that we know nothing about, and damn right we should be grateful for the world in which we have been raised. Several beggars have accidently trodden upon mines that have been lurking within their fields for decades, little girls are selling bracelets on the streets and lets encourage them to do so before instead they start selling their bodies. On our second evening in Cambodia a dirty lady makes eye contact with us at our dining table, those deep brown oval eyes are pleading for help. As she turns on her thick bare heels to approach the next set of diners we catch a glimpse of the small bundle on her back. I look down the Sisowath Road, one of the most popular places to see in Cambodia and spy a strip of white heads drinking and eating in luxury. If I were her, asking rich strangers for a small donation while I walk with sore feet and the knowledge that my child is hungry, every time I am refused I would think ‘Why Not?’
A dollar a day… the price of a beer is a good way to make someones life a little easier in a country that has been ripped apart by civil war.