Living and working in Cambodia and trying to learn the local language has brought many challenges and some embarrassing moments for Intrepid’s Jo Crisp. But the effort has been well worth it…
“When I started as a new manager with Intrepid in Cambodia I thought the key to success was learning the language. So I bought a Khmer English dictionary and practiced key phrases when ever I got the chance. Remork (motorcycle rickshaw) and taxi drivers, friends and work colleagues, they all suffered as I mangled the ancient Khmer language. What I thought was a good representation of chh’nung – delicious – was in fact a badly pronounced version of chanung – cooking pot. Meanwhile everyone must have been a little confused when I announced that I had a sore snake – rather than stomach ache.
Early on I was trying to break the ice during a performance review with an employee who didn’t speak much English. I resorted to a comment about the weather. What I thought I said was “it’s very hot isn’t it”. The ice was certainly broken as the shy man blushed bright red and laughed uncontrollably. This was when I learnt that the word for hot and the word for the male genitalia are very similar. I believe I had actually complimented him on the size of his doo da!
Luckily Cambodians love to laugh and have a wicked sense of humour, otherwise I never would have recovered from the humiliation. Any country that can name the vegetable aubergine ‘bull’s penis’ has definitely got its collective tongue firmly wedged in its cheek.
A word of warning, if you are sharing a beer and everyone is sitting around with baited breath for you to say the Cambodian term for cheers, the expression is chuol moi. It is definitely not choy moi which relates to marital intimacy and is better not said in polite circles. Also, it’s not wise to ask for bok choy at the market. You may be slapped in the face by your local vegetable seller.
So despite the red faces and potential embarrassment, learning a little of the language when you travel in Cambodia will definitely enhance your trip, will put a smile on faces, and will earn you the title pros songhaa – handsome man, or srei saart – beautiful woman wherever you go!”
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* photo by Erin Bromfield – Intrepid Photography Competition