The Village Report — Lost in the cacophany of Asia

Dipika Kohli

By Dipika Kohli
Northwest Asian Weekly

Phnom Penh is hot, but not terribly so, and the air has a softness to it. People from around the world are here to invest, do business, and see the potential.

While they do, I am lost in the cacophony of Asia — night markets lit with bare bulbs, autobike drivers raising a hand high in the sky with a winning confidence they know breaks all language barriers, and more. Glassy cafes with designer lattes await the elite, who linger, while international schools in gated enclaves teach the ABCs to their young. Slums, too.

This is Cambodia? You go to India, you go to Thailand, and you think you’ve seen something. But when you cross a new line, without expectations, you marvel at the sensation of everywhere, all a blend. Modern culture is coming here fast, and the people know it. But there’s still a lackadaisical quality that doesn’t blare like Bangkok.

It’s a natural byproduct of a place that doesn’t care if you come or go.

I’m at the Riverside part of town today. The red walls of the Opera Café are papered in music sheets. There’s a piano and a bar with upside down wine over the espresso counter. And jazz. I might as well be in New York. We are walking with our hosts, talking about art, music, and creativity. A man is eating pasta upstairs. He comes down and introduces himself as a photographer from Italy. Next come the web folks, then the ad agency veterans, and an opera singer. This is the vibe. This is the stage.

Making sense of it in real time is impossible, but it feels like anything is possible, and the magic is tangible. You could show up anywhere in Asia that’s been visited a billion times, like the capital Siem Riep, and you could get lost in the whirl of the overdone, poorly managed tourism. You’re just a walking wallet.

“Can I get a business license in Cambodia?” Wondering out loud about putting down a miniature root here, for a bit.

“Yes,” says the photographer. “But you have to bribe the police.”

“A hundred bucks?”


“A hundred dollars?”


“Oh, that’s not bad. I saw some of that at the border.”

“Si, of course.”

There’s a thing that happens when you’ve been gone for so long from a place that you’re not sure if you’re past the point of no return, but suspect that you are. You give up on certain things.

Seems to me we delude ourselves when we think we want a thing so much that we can’t stop thinking about it. Obsessing leads to nowhere. Not one square forward, or even half an inch. The perfect house. The perfect clothes, appearance, set of friends, spouse, or girlfriend. Job. Ribbons from field days past. Yearbook photo. All of it. All different forms of the same thing: striving for a thing that’s just too perfect, too ideal.

Every so often, like the chance crossing of ideas from around Europe and Asia at Opera Cafe, something cool comes along and shows you that picture-attaining is all pretty opaque, anyway. We are all hustling, and doing our best. I feel the old pictures getting scratched off all on their own, making space for the fresh and yet-to-be. (end)

Dipika Kohli (@dipikakohli) writes Kismuth.

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