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Tonlé Sap, Cambodia: What's in a Word?

Boater on Cambodia's Tonlé Sap.
Boater on Cambodia's Tonlé Sap.

Winston Churchill once said the Americans and British are two peoples separated by a common language. The more countries I visit, the more this seems to be true around the globe.

For better or worse, English has become the second language for most of the world. While no one cause can be singled out for this, I believe there are two great contributing factors.

First, after World War II, we were one of two superpowers left standing. Since we stood for freedom and democracy while the other guys represented repression and submission, it only made sense for folks to want to talk to us.

Second, in the 1950s when commercial air travel started to become affordable and popular, it was quickly obvious how hard it would be to land in New York or Los Angeles when the pilots spoke only Farsi or Japanese. An international conference was held to decide an official language for the airlines, and the world chose English.

All that aside, I never cease to be amazed by people who speak impeccable English in the mountains of Peru or the jungles of Cambodia. English has spread around the globe more effectively than swine flu. But I have found that an accent can make quite a difference.

My wife and I were in the tiny town of Battambang in central Cambodia. We hired a guide to take us up the river to our next destination at Siem Reap. This was to be a six-hour trip followed by crossing Tonlé Sap, the largest lake in Central Asia.

Battambang is an extremely poor area, and our mode of transport was a very small and battered boat, not much larger than the three of us. It showed much sign of repair and of course, it was open to the elements.

With six bags lashed to the bow, three travelers and the boatman, I figured we were overloaded by at least a ton. We frequently had seen four or five people on a single motorbike in Cambodia, so no one but us was concerned about our weight or its distribution.

We had been on the water only a few minutes when our pilot made for shore and hopped from our boat to another. Our guide said not to worry; he would only be a minute. She then added, “We need to pick up live chickens for their legs.”

My wife and I exchanged glances. We are pretty open-minded, especially when traveling in the Third World. It was obvious there was little room in our tiny vessel for live chickens. If we had to take them along, we were willing to hold them on our laps, as there was no place else to put them. The thought even occurred to me that perhaps the chickens were needed if the boat’s tiny engine stopped in the middle of nowhere.

I had a vision of us holding them over the side of the boat while their tiny legs paddled away, guiding us to safety. After all, our guide (pictured) said we needed them for their legs.

The author's guide on the journey to Siem Reap.

We proceeded to make numerous jokes about live chickens towing us to shore if we capsized or about eating them if we became marooned in the jungle. Meanwhile, our guide who had returned with a pile of life preservers but without any living fowl just gave us puzzled looks.

Finally my wife turned to her and asked, “How many chickens are we taking?”

At first she seemed totally bewildered by this question, and then as he caught on large smile spread over her face and she began to laugh.

My wife turned to me and said, “I’m glad she thinks us holding live chickens on our laps for six hours is funny.” When she finished laughing, she looked at us and very loudly enunciated, “No live chickens! What I said was, ‘We need life jackets for the lake!’”

It took a moment for this to sink in. “Life jackets for the lake,” when filtered through a Cambodian accent, came to my ears as “Live chickens for their legs.”

Suddenly we all found this to be profoundly funny, and in fact for the next six hours chicken jokes abounded as we threw our life jackets about while making clucking sounds.

Whenever we made eye contact, our guide would laugh, shake her head and say, “America, so funny.”

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Boater on Cambodia's Tonlé Sap.
Boater on Cambodia's Tonlé Sap.

Winston Churchill once said the Americans and British are two peoples separated by a common language. The more countries I visit, the more this seems to be true around the globe.

For better or worse, English has become the second language for most of the world. While no one cause can be singled out for this, I believe there are two great contributing factors.

First, after World War II, we were one of two superpowers left standing. Since we stood for freedom and democracy while the other guys represented repression and submission, it only made sense for folks to want to talk to us.

Second, in the 1950s when commercial air travel started to become affordable and popular, it was quickly obvious how hard it would be to land in New York or Los Angeles when the pilots spoke only Farsi or Japanese. An international conference was held to decide an official language for the airlines, and the world chose English.

All that aside, I never cease to be amazed by people who speak impeccable English in the mountains of Peru or the jungles of Cambodia. English has spread around the globe more effectively than swine flu. But I have found that an accent can make quite a difference.

My wife and I were in the tiny town of Battambang in central Cambodia. We hired a guide to take us up the river to our next destination at Siem Reap. This was to be a six-hour trip followed by crossing Tonlé Sap, the largest lake in Central Asia.

Battambang is an extremely poor area, and our mode of transport was a very small and battered boat, not much larger than the three of us. It showed much sign of repair and of course, it was open to the elements.

With six bags lashed to the bow, three travelers and the boatman, I figured we were overloaded by at least a ton. We frequently had seen four or five people on a single motorbike in Cambodia, so no one but us was concerned about our weight or its distribution.

We had been on the water only a few minutes when our pilot made for shore and hopped from our boat to another. Our guide said not to worry; he would only be a minute. She then added, “We need to pick up live chickens for their legs.”

My wife and I exchanged glances. We are pretty open-minded, especially when traveling in the Third World. It was obvious there was little room in our tiny vessel for live chickens. If we had to take them along, we were willing to hold them on our laps, as there was no place else to put them. The thought even occurred to me that perhaps the chickens were needed if the boat’s tiny engine stopped in the middle of nowhere.

I had a vision of us holding them over the side of the boat while their tiny legs paddled away, guiding us to safety. After all, our guide (pictured) said we needed them for their legs.

The author's guide on the journey to Siem Reap.

We proceeded to make numerous jokes about live chickens towing us to shore if we capsized or about eating them if we became marooned in the jungle. Meanwhile, our guide who had returned with a pile of life preservers but without any living fowl just gave us puzzled looks.

Finally my wife turned to her and asked, “How many chickens are we taking?”

At first she seemed totally bewildered by this question, and then as he caught on large smile spread over her face and she began to laugh.

My wife turned to me and said, “I’m glad she thinks us holding live chickens on our laps for six hours is funny.” When she finished laughing, she looked at us and very loudly enunciated, “No live chickens! What I said was, ‘We need life jackets for the lake!’”

It took a moment for this to sink in. “Life jackets for the lake,” when filtered through a Cambodian accent, came to my ears as “Live chickens for their legs.”

Suddenly we all found this to be profoundly funny, and in fact for the next six hours chicken jokes abounded as we threw our life jackets about while making clucking sounds.

Whenever we made eye contact, our guide would laugh, shake her head and say, “America, so funny.”

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