Whatever their ultimate achievements, United Nations troops in Cambodia won't be remembered for the sartorial elegance
they display once they cast off their blue berets for the day.
God forbid that, as possible role models for young Cambodians, the off-duty "uniform" of U.N. troops
should ever find favor here: tee shirt, short-short shorts, baseball cap, running shoes, and sunglasses.
Also part of this get-up, which includes a white Toyota Hilux and a cellular telephone for the more privileged,
are the "steal-me" waist pouches favored for carrying dollar bills and IDs.
Since 1970, when war spread from Vietnam, most Cambodians have been cut off from contact with foreigners, especially
those from other continents.
The Australian U.N. contingent sent a psychologist to interview its troops here to assess whether they were
suffering from culture shock. Culture shock, however, is a two-way street and the almost 16,000 troops of UNTAC
are producing shocks of their own.
The Vietnamese have been here, of course, and the Chinese are part of Phnom Penh commercial life. And now the
Thais are flocking in: every nightclub, with its flashing neon, reminds one of Bangkok, although maybe Bangkok
in the 60s.
UNTAC troops from Indonesia and Malaysia are culturally not so different from Khmer. Although most Cambodians
are Buddhists, the Cham minority here are Muslim.
But it is the troops from other continents, from Europe-especially Eastern Europe-and Africa, whose customs
Cambodians find strangest.
The pungent aroma of Balkan tobacco scents the lobby of the Monorom Hotel, where Bulgarian troops are staying.
A Senegalese colonel in Kompong Thom says: "Cambodians are nice enough but when they spot me they laugh
openly and rub my arms to see if the color comes off. They ask me if Senegal is very hot and is that why I am very
black-but what could be hotter than Cambodia?"
A large Ghanaian policeman standing on a raised platform in the middle of Achar Mean tries to bring a foreign
logic to the traffic chaos outside the Pailin Hotel.
Shaking his finger and glaring expressively, he shows the Cambodian traffic policemen how he thinks it should
be done. The cops watch for a while, then yawn.
Two soldiers from Namibia-a country from which the U.N. only recently withdrew-are shopping at the PX. How soon
before Cambodians are helping keep the peace in Bosnia?
A German medic watches little boys collect empty plastic water bottles-the Germans brought their own water from
Bielefeld-at the UNTAC hospital. "In Germany, everyone is rich and seems grumpy all the time," he says.
"Here everyone is poor but smiles all the time."
Not all Germans are as generous as the medic. At Crackers restaurant, 16 of them enjoyed a slap-up dinner, then
asked for 16 separate checks. "I was up half the night writing them out," groaned host Bill Grant in
his Scottish brogue. "I hope they don't come again."
Maybe Scottish customs are among the strangest. Rev. Gordon Watson, the Australian padre, was born in Scotland,
and every morning on a third floor balcony, he skirls his bagpipes.
He cuts a generous figure as he marches to and fro, clad in a sarong. A puzzled group of Cambodians watch him,
then query some Australian soldiers as to what it all means.
"That's our Buddha, and he is sacrificing cats," they are told, an explanation that apparently satisfies
Of course, foreign restaurants are part of the influx, so they shouldn't complain if the blue berets, some of
whom have never been so rich, find novel ways to bank their per diem allowances.
At La Paillote, seven officers from the sub-continent sat down at the peak evening hour. One ordered coffee,
the others ice water. An hour later, they paid their bill-for one coffee-and left.
On the per diem, one Russian military liaison officer can't believe his good fortune. "I earn 17 times
what I earn in Russia, and three times more than the Russian ambassador here," he exults.
A Dutch soldier at the PX groans. "Oh no, Russians! When they were in Angola they bought up everything."
The Russians who fly the U.N. M.18 helicopters are more dashing than the PX Ivans, but perhaps could be more
discreet about their recent past.
"We are all combat veterans from Afghanistan-we are excellent pilots," says one.
Will love bridge the cultural differences between U.N. troops and Cambodian women?
The French-who else?-are said to have worked out a system for dealing with lovesick troopers. Should one fall
head over heels with a Cambodian woman, she is not given a French entry visa right away.
The soldier is asked to observe a two-month cooling off period at the end of his tour. If he is still enthusiastic,
then he is re-united with his Khmer sweetheart.