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MY PHNOM PENH: JAY RAMAN

Jay Raman
Jay Raman has been based at the US Embassy in Phnom Penh for the past nine months, having spent a year prior to his arrival learning Khmer.

MY PHNOM PENH: JAY RAMAN

Jay Raman has been based at the US Embassy in Phnom Penh for the past nine months, having spent a year prior to his arrival learning Khmer. This week he spoke to Harriet Fitch Little about cultural immersion, local history and why you’ll always find him at the pool table in a bar

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MONIVONG BOULEVARD
If I’m out at night, I love driving down Monivong Boulevard. It’s something about the neon lights – all the colours, the vibrancy, and the seafood restaurants with the moving crab claws lit up … I find it to be totally gorgeous. It reminds me in terms of colours of the old Las Vegas – Fremont Street before they covered it up. I was once was driving really in the middle of the night and it was almost as lively at 3am in the morning as it was at 10pm at night. All the noodle houses were still open. It’s one of the only times that Phnom Penh feels like a really big city. Generally, when I’m out I like to play pool because it’s a really good way to strike up a conversation with someone else. If I’m at a bar and they have a pool table, that’s generally where you’ll find me. I don’t know why, but it’s something about playing pool and walking around a table – it’s a good conversation starter.

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SUGAR CANE JUICE
The one thing I can never say no to is fresh sugar cane juice. It’s better than any other sugared drink you can get. It’s got this fresh, grassy, herbal taste, and with lime it’s even better. I think it’s something I inherited from my father, who grew up in rural southern India and then moved to the US. I remember one time we took a trip, I think it was to Miami, where all the Cubans and Latin Americans have bought their traditions. There was a shop in Little Havana that sold sugar cane juice and I had some insane number [of drinks] and was sick the next day. Now I try to keep it to one.

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PHNOM PENH: A CULTURAL AND LITERARY HISTORY
I’m enjoying Milton Osborne’s Phnom Penh: A Cultural and Literary History. It’s really the biography of a city. Phnom Penh feels like a very new place because you don’t have much left from the early days, but it has a fascinating history. When you live in a city at first everything is brand new, but it starts to become familiar quickly and you get into a routine – it becomes second nature. But there’s so much more lurking behind it. I see things with different eyes now, knowing more about what happened here.

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KHMER HOROSCOPES
I spent a year learning Khmer before I moved here. I don’t get as many opportunities to use it as I would like, but I do try to keep up with the local papers. One of my pastimes is trying to read the horoscopes because I think they’re hilarious. I looked today and my luck is supposed to be so-so. One of the fascinating things about Khmer is that there are so many uses of it – from the very specialised language you use with the King or monks, to this formal archaic-sounding language you see in horoscopes, all the way down to what your tuk-tuk driver or the lady at the market stall uses.

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CAMBODIAN WEDDINGS
My favourite local activity is to go to Khmer weddings. I like everything about them: the way they won’t serve you until your whole table is full, the fact that no matter how fancy the wedding is, it’s always room temperature beer on your table, the way the bride and groom are wearing a different outfit every time you look at them. I’ve gone to four since I’ve been here, from ultra high-end down to very modest affairs. But they all share the same characteristics – there’s such a way that it’s done, it always fits that format. It strikes me as being amazing cultural immersion.

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