The young brother was trying to take control of the show at our local coffee shop. But big sister wasn’t having that. And all the while, disco lights flashed over their ancestors deep in a shrine.
A boy comes up to the table with his bag of books. “”Be careful of your cameras,” he advices.”There are thieves just down the road, and they sell drugs on that corner.” He points to a sidestreet of girly bars. When we don’t buy his books he asks us could we buy him a remote-control car at the toy shop next door. Spiderman with his motor bike is another hot item. The times are changing in Phnom Penh. “Girls on pink scooters,” Anne muses.
“There’s been a helter skelter transformation of the city,” says Francesca. An ESL teacher from Seattle, she says she was first teaching here back in 1998. “The city has become unrecognizable. ATM’s and Pizza Hut and KFC, when I was first here, they had one fast food place where all the well heeled Cambodians came to be seen.”
“Our street food yesterday smelt worse than a sewer,” ITB tells Francesca. It’s lunch time, after a visit to the post office, I’m getting hungry, and ask the young boy for food that is sitting on display. The seafood combo looked delicious, though the boy turned his nose up as he dished it into a plastic bag. When I went to eat it, I smelt it too. It ended up next to the drain where it belonged.
Twenty four hours and one mouthful later, I’m not hugging the toilet and spewing my guts out. “Mirinda drink saved the day,” says Anne, “But where have all the begging children gone?” she asks.
“They moved them across the river,” said Francesca,”They are the Cham people.”
The Cham jigsaw of memory rolls. Stone statues parading in a Saigon museum gallery, sailor-soldiers endlessly falling to the waiting crocodiles on a wall in Ankor Thom, Henri Mohout writing of a people whose most precious possession was a Koran they could not read, women with pink headscarves and flowered sarongs on a plank at a river landing. People of a great Islamic trading city-state in central Vietnam, over-run from the north, hundreds of years later still refugees, and being moved on.
Travelling around the town by tuk-tuk, twenty story buildings remind you Phnom Penh isn’t a sleepy back water any more. Black smoke rises down river. A fire engine thunders past, kicking up dust from the bitumen. brings us to a new hotel going up over the river. The tuk-tuk forges through the scooters on the footpath of the Bassac river bridge. Turning, it bumps down the Chroy Changvar peninsula dividing the Bassac River from the Nam Mekong, to more cranes and yet another new hotel going up.
Nestled among the pipes, barges, and traffic going up and down the Mekong river, the Muslim Cham live on wooden boats without engines. The shadow of the new five star hotel swings across them. We saw them on the other side of the river ten years ago. Police boats recently towed them here. They were considered an eye sore and a nuisance to tourists. As the new hotel is being rapidly completed for the tourist/property boom Cambodia is going through, their fate as refugees is being sealed again. Beyond the village of the boat people there are grand houses, walled, the walls topped with razor wire.
It’s Magrib, evening call of prayer, and the Cham rolled out their mats and erect a makeshift mosque. Nearby, a mosque made from brick and mortar, which reflects in the evening sun, is one they won’t attend to today. The Cham are Sunni preserving older rites than those of the modern imam.