Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Same ol' Cambodia

By BRAD BARNES --

People in Southeast Asia have a pidgin English saying that tourists have clung to.

Same same, but different.

It's practically a national slogan in Cambodia, where I've just come from. It's on billboards. It's screen printed on T-shirts and every product imaginable in street markets, where you can buy barbecued tarantulas, fresh produce, or a pirated copy of the new "Simpsons" movie for $3. One guest house one-upped the slogan, claiming "Same same, but better ."

Which reminds me, I found myself looking a lot at girls' legs while spending two weeks in the country.

See, my wife and I were trying to figure out if it was OK for her to wear short pants around in a land that still holds extremely conservative values with regard to women.

It's a country where public displays of affection are frowned upon. Men and women aren't supposed to openly even give each other a peck on the cheek. We saw an entire family of five riding together on a 125-cc motorbike -- seriously, everyone drives motorbikes in Cambodia -- and the two women were riding side-saddle, which is considered more tasteful.

Things are changing there. Young girls are starting to wear shorts, and I even saw a couple holding hands on the streets of Phnom Penh. But these people belong to a new generation, and the folks we were interacting with probably didn't like them any more than they like Americans tromping all over their ancient temples.

We were definitely going to walk the temples, but my wife decided, for the most part, to forgo the shorts.

We spent a few days in the country's beach town of Sihanoukville, where the usually emerald waters of the Gulf of Thailand were a silty blue-gray from the heavy rains of the wet season.

For the better part of three days, my traveling friends and I would sit in a beachfront bar, eating a dish called fish amok and drinking Mekong buckets of Red Bull, Coca-Cola and what probably passes for whiskey. Then we would plunge into the crashing sea.

The water was particularly rough one afternoon, with the waves crashing onto Occheuteal Beach irregularly, but frequently, from two directions. You could duck under one wave and come up just in time to get plastered by another.

It was great fun.

My friend Phil and I were bodysurfing. My legs ached from trying to fight the strong current pulling me sideways. I was out of breath from diving under and over waves in order to get deep enough for a good ride.

I caught a good wave and coasted in to knee-deep water only to find that two others had ventured into the water with us.

One was a naked Cambodian boy who looked about 6 but was probably 10. The other was a grown Cambodian woman, who was wearing a full dress.

All of us were taking ragged, open-mouthed breaths and waiting for the next onslaught from the gulf.

This was carpe diem moment for all of us. Our differences had been washed away. Our skin color didn't matter. Our skin covering didn't matter.

We were different. But we were same same.

Contact Brad "Jetlagged" Barnes at 706-571-8524 or bbarnes@ledger-enquirer.com

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