Spirits, Strange Ancient Men, and Widows

One Saturday in August 2007, while in Phnom Penh once again for work, I decided to go russian marketto the Russian market, which was the best covered market for tourist shopping according to the guides. It was pretty far away from my hotel, so I planned to take a moto down there in the morning. Just in case I needed to walk, I wore my running shoes, even though I would stand out even more as a foreigner (barang), since everyone—no matter how old—seemed to be able to wear flip flops to do any work or walking.  I enviously hoped that in Khmer, which I didn’t understand, Cambodians were constantly complaining about their feet.

In my knowing, post-novice phase in Phnom Penh, I decided to walk south along the Tonle Sap River boulevard in order to get a better deal from the moto drivers who charged premium prices along the tourist part of the Riverside.  The boulevard south of the main tourist area had broad sidewalks without beggars and other constant intrusions, and the traffic was quiet. The temperature was cool enough. The tropical sun was shining brightly, but I could often walk under the shade of trees. Soon I was enjoying this walk tremendously and decided to keep going.  I hadn’t been this way before. It was much easier to pay close attention to my surroundings, to build my mental map of the city while walking, instead of from the back of a moto threading somewhat precariously through traffic.  The route seemed clear, and if I started to doubt, I could communicate by naming the Russian market’s road “Mao Tse Tung?”, follow their pointing finger, and finish the transaction with my extremely limited Khmer vocabulary: “ah-kun” (thank you).

I seemed to be almost the only Westerner on the sidewalks in this part of town. After passing by the last hotel I entered into a Khmer-only area of houses and street markets.  Gradually my narrow route gave onto another wider street (Sothearos Blvd), one section of which seemed dedicated to furniture-making and selling. furniture carving 1

I was on the lookout for the possibility of buying and bringing home on the plane a small “spirit house”, the omnipresent animist altars that predate Buddhism. They were shaped like a small ornate temple on a post with a front courtyard where offerings were laid. They were painted gold or red. I imagined how splendid one would look in my Minnesota perennial garden.  I decided that since animism reflects a universal appreciation, respect and fear for the forces of nature, which I hold as well, I would not be a crass culture expropriator if I had one.  According to the weight limits of baggage on Thai Air, I had 10-15 kilos to spare for the purchase.

Sadly, I found out during my walk that they were all made of cement under that beautiful gilt!  As a fall-back there were light colorful metal shrines that were used inside shops and homes.  TPO Cambodia, my project’s partner organization, now had two of them, one in each building to ward off ghosts.

A ghost was rumored to be about in TPO’s new office suite, according to the next door neighbor who complained of noises in the night after TPO moved in.  Since the computer server was always turned off at night, it seemed impossible that it could be humans, even if someone wanted to work late.  Just in case, TPO’s director purchased two metal shrines as a show of concern or perhaps to ward off ghosts—I was not sure.  Stephen, our no-nonsense Australian expatriate consultant living just over the back fence from the office, explained the ghost phenomenon.  He said that a priest who lived next to the new office got on the internet every morning at 5am or earlier because it was easier to get bandwidth at that time. Since buildings are pretty open with no sound baffling, the ghostly voice of Microsoft email passed through the walls.

Back on my Saturday jaunt, as I passed along the furniture district, I saw a shop, the equivalent of Metal Shrines-R-Us.  The smallest one could do. It was lightweight and only $7. But it just didn’t have the same charm. It didn’t look like a miniature temple. It looked like gaudy Mexican painted tin ware, fit for keeping ghosts as allies, but not inspiring or able to withstand the Minnesota elements.  I left the shop disappointed.

Next I spotted a hand-written sign in English next to a dark open shop full of mahogany-style furniture. It said “sale—strange ancient furniture”.  Who could pass that up?  Nothing inside seemed very strange to me.  Just quite lovely solid wooden tables, file cabinets, glass cases—nice, but not under the 15 kilo limit.  Looking more carefully, however, I spotted two intricately carved small clay sculptures. Each was of an old man–beggar, monk or demi-god?–sitting on a large log. One included a carved stone bird nearby and one, a metal cone attached to the log.  The one with the cone I was told was designed to hold pens, so I focused on the other more mysterious one.  ancient manThe log was rough ceramic, completely knarled. The man was much more delicately sculpted, with details of sinew, veins, knuckles, and a wonderful face. A ceramic aqua cloth was draped over his bare torso. His elbow leaned on a small box with a latch. A monk’s or beggar’s cup sat nearby.  I sure would like to know more about it.  The language barrier, again. The shopkeeper said it was 80 years old. That is all I knew. Was it truly?  Was it art or mass- produced?  For $10 I was willing to be fooled.

With my mystery sculpture wrapped in newspapers and carried in a plastic bag, I continued on to the Russian market.  By that time I was sweating profusely, feet swollen and stiff. Moving inside the dark covered market, the heat intensified.  I made several purchases of silk and organza fabric, a $4 raw silk blouse, and three little metal candle holders that I was told were used while marching around a bride and groom, wishing all the good fortune associated with that rite. Perfect for the free-spirited Quaker wedding of my niece I would be attending as soon as I got home. I was there a total of about 90 minutes.  By that time I felt faint from the heat and humidity.  I staggered from the market and plopped down at the nearest coffee shop. Two cold drinks and a fan later, I was refreshed. I grabbed a covered tuk-tuk back to the hotel, but not before giving the last of my riels to the Khmer elder woman with a rice bowl and a buzz cut who approached the tuk-tuk. Her look and bowl signified that she was a widow, in a country without a social support system, and therefore allowed to beg as a nun. That could be me.

camel necklaceFortunately, before I arrived back at my hotel the tuk-tuk driver let me pop into a tourist shop to get change for a $25 dollar bill in order to pay him.  I had to buy something to get change, so now I have two memorabilia of this adventure.



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