If necessity is the mother of invention, then the great Cambodian skill for improvisation must be some sort of crazy old aunty.
Spend five minutes away from the comfortable western bubble we have inflated for ourselves in Australia and the reminder of how “lucky” our country is hits like the guilt trip that accompanies the consumption of half a packet of Tim Tams.
It wasn’t that long ago that many of our parents (and some of us) grew up and lived with the notion of “making do” as a reality. Offal was a delicacy, lard on fried bread was a meal, and hand-me-downs didn’t just go down, their journeys sometimes continued on sideways – or even back up.
Yet there’s some real joy to be witnessed in the improvisation that plays out every day in this wonderful country. Clothes always seem to fit, food is always eaten and complaints are seldom heard. The rare argument is usually settled with a simple smile and sompiah, and those that aren’t will only simmer as long as it takes to make tea or share a meal.
If you’re suffering from an ache in your tooth, stomach or head, a placebo will surely fix it – an estimated 90% of drugs carried by the local pharmacies are fake.
Two wheels are enough to transport a double bed, a 300 litre fridge or a family of eight, and if you run out of fuel, any number of helpful locals will appear out of nowhere and fill your tank with your choice of diesel or unleaded from colourful rows of discarded whiskey, Bacardi and Fanta bottles.
If it doesn’t fit just cut it down to size, whether it be a spiffy pair of shoes, a balding tyre, or a SIM for your mobile phone, and a handsaw will cut your fence, food or fire wood.
When you’re in need of power, just attach another wire to the nearest pole. The pole’s full? That’s ok, just latch on to one of the existing wires. Construction workers double as high trapeze artists, and will be more than willing to attach another outlet for you. Not a suitably qualified, competent and licensed electrician? Neither are they, but how else will families power their TVs so they can watch kick-boxing, and a fluorescent light while they cook their evening meal?
Pets can be either cuddled or cooked, and if you run out of space to store your scrap newspaper, coconut husks, and fake drugs, just burn them in the street!
The legacy of Cambodia’s sorry history is an absence of the elderly, wisdom and guidance, but their ability to adapt, cultivate hope, and carry on demands our admiration. Sometimes it seems like we need to find our own joy in a country where the roads are paved, people grow old, and even scruffy street dogs go to heaven.