Travel Essay Contest -- Entry 14

I Must Be Off! is having its first annual Travel Essay Contest. Each entry will appear at first without byline or bio. These will be added at the end of the contest. As you enjoy these travel essays from around the world, please feel free to comment; but if you offer criticism, remember to be positive. These writers are my guests.


Rock, Paper, Scissors
by Romi Grossberg

Having just arrived in Phnom Penh Cambodia last night, I have spent most of the day walking the streets aimlessly and wondering how people live here. The city just feels like chaos amplified, coupled with stifling heat. Many describe landing in Phnom Penh like being ‘punched in the face’ and I am starting to understand why.

I know I need to leave my air-conditioned guesthouse and find a place for dinner, so off I head down the hot, dusty street. I find a seat on the outskirts of a corner café that allows for maximum people watching which both satisfies my curiosity and boredom of eating alone. There is another café opposite this one, close enough that I can eavesdrop on their conversations. Two expats discussing work, and a younger couple skimpily dressed, discussing busses and their next destination.

The menu is extensive with both local and international food and I giggle at the spelling of some of its items. I order schnitzel, fries and a coke to make me feel like I am at home, and pick up the local paper ‘The Cambodia Daily’ to try and understand this crazy country I seemed to have landed in. Every minute or so I wipe the sweat from my face with the back of my hand and realize I have no way of releasing the sweat that is building up under the backs of my legs against these cushions that is making me increasingly uncomfortable, as I shift my weight from side to side.

An elderly Cambodian woman approaches me off the street. She is dressed with a traditional sarong looking cloth wrapped around her waste, a dirty, thinning shirt, and a krama (Cambodian checkered cloth) wrapped around her head. She is missing most of her teeth and her skin is dark and weathered, she looks like a beautiful old piece of leather. She holds her wrinkled hand out to me saying a word I don’t understand “nyum, nyum” which I later learn is the word for ‘eat’. I don’t know what to do. Do I give money? Do I say no? How do you say no to an old, thin woman who is hungry? I then remember that I don’t have any change on me, only a $20 American note and whilst pleased the decision has been taken out of my hands, the guilt remains. I smile and shake my head no. She begs a little while longer and then just walks away. I look in to the street and see there are beggars everywhere, from five year-olds to this ancient looking woman I just encountered. They all look sad, with the same vacant look in their eyes. As I am watching a little barefoot girl in tattered clothes being shooed away by the expats next door, I am startled by a young boy that approaches my table. He looks maybe nine years old? With a skinny frame and big puppy dog eyes, he later tells me he is thirteen.

Smiling, with a krama cloth across his shoulder, he swings it around to show me a full plastic basket of books for sale. I instantly admire his initiative and do like the fact that he is trying to sell me something rather than just ask me for money, which selfishly I realize, just makes me feel uncomfortable.

“You know the capital of Cambodia?” he asks me.
Phnom Penh” I answer proudly.
“You know the King of Cambodia?”
Embarrassed, I do not.
“Where are you from, Miss?”
“I know the capital of Australia, it is Melbourne,” he tells me proudly. 

Without wanting to burst his bubble I politely tell him that it is in fact Canberra but many people do think it is Melbourne.  He cuts me off, “G’day mate … put another shrimp on the barbie…”, I smile … “A dingo killed my baby” and I burst out laughing and tell him to sit with me and chat awhile. A Black Eyed Peas song comes on and we both sit in our exhaustion, staring blankly, singing the words together and smiling at each other. This is the first conversation I have had since arriving, and not knowing anyone, I am kind of glad it is with this sweet young boy who makes me laugh.

“You buy book” he says more like a statement than a question and puts his basket on the table for me to see. He has an impressive selection. He knows I have just arrived. It seems he knows everyone here and can pick a ‘newbie’ a mile away. He pulls out ‘First They Killed my Father’, a well-known true story on the Khmer rouge written by, and through the eyes of a young girl who survived. He tells me I must read this, and learn the history of his country. I know he is right. I do want to buy this book and wonder how much it will cost me. It doesn’t take me long to find out as he explains what is going to happen, in his near perfect English.

“I like you, so this is what we do… this book only $5 for you, but we play for it… rock, paper, scissors. If I win, you give me $5, if you win, you pay only $3. OK? Best of three. Go”.

He wins the first round, and I win the second. He wins the third of course and I start to feel like my second round win was his doing also. A bet is a bet though and I hand over the $5 for my new book whilst teasing him for being a scammer. He is laughing and decides we will now play thumb wrestling but “just for fun” and this skinny little boy beats me. How, I have no idea. He stays and shares my French fries with me before skipping off to find another sucker to beat at rock, paper, scissors. With him gone, I am reminded of the heat.


Having been visiting Asia since the age of twelve, Australian-born, Romi Grossberg feels now quite at home in these chaotic, tropics. She officially moved out to South East Asia in March 2010, and has been working predominantly with ‘street kids’, and enjoying writing as a hobby.



  1. Wonderfully endearing story, a pleasure to read. Thank you.

    1. Touching story. I just love the image of the 'rock, paper, scissors' deal at the end!

  2. I felt like i was there - seeing the sights, smelling the smells and feeling that heat! Anyone who has visited asia can relate to this lovel;y tale in some way.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. loved reading this and now would love to read your next story!!

  5. This made me feel as if I was sitting back in Phnom Penh enjoying exactly what you wrote! I love this feeling. Thank you.

    Love from Otres Beach.................. m.r.

  6. love this little story!

  7. Wow love it! It's the little moments in Phnom Penh that make Cambodia magical. I can totally relate to the "punch in the face" feeling as you cross the Thai-Cambodia border at Poipet. Or the flushing embarrassment and shame that rises up from the pit of your stomach to your aching heart when approached by a desperate old woman. And... I can most certainly relate to the EXTREME discomfort of sweaty legs stuck to your seat, while trying to play it cool at a restaurant. Don't worry everyone's legs are doing the same thing!! Great story... I feel like I know this little boy. Good luck!

  8. Totally got caught up in your story, the feel of the place and your characters. Just a shame it ended too soon - next installment please!

  9. Definitely got caught up in the moment. I can picture 10 cafes I have sat in around Phnom Penh with that exact feel and those exact character, a really true representation you have given. Thanks for sharing an insight into your time in Cambodia. Would definitely love to read more!

  10. I love your post. You shared so many great posts and stories. Thanks.

  11. Loved this story. Reminded me of my own journey through Cambodia. Thanks for sharing and for bringing back all those details.

  12. Such a beautiful piece. She really captures the contrast between the joys and discomforts of traveling in a tropical, developing nation.


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