By Brooke Hartman
People and guidebooks told me I would need to know things like, “Do you speak English?” and “Where’s the bathroom?” and “How much does this cost?” in the local language, Khmer (pronounced “ka-mai”).
They also advised me to learn a series of greetings, and a language app once helped me name various kitchen appliances in French. Fantastic. Hello, toaster. Do you speak English? How much does it cost, and where is the bathroom? Goodnight!
As helpful as these phrases are, I found during my first 24 hours in Cambodia, half-starved and dehydrated in a home where no one speaks English, that despite being able to greet everyone, I would die if I did not learn the words for food and water.
The very next day, I filled my notebook with essential Khmer words from a translator to be able to communicate basic needs. The words were not hello, goodbye, how are you, turn right here, or how much? The words—written in the exact order I needed to use them—were the following: water, bread, breakfast, lunch, egg, one, two, tomorrow, today, dinner, morning, buy, fruit, spoon, fork, coffee (coffee is mad at me for being sixteenth), boil water, light, fan… you get the idea.
The lesson here? Ignore what the guidebooks have to say about language. Basic survival is a much better teacher.
Here is a video of Mam Sung, the housekeeper, trying to teach us these words. As you laugh at us, keep in mind they have 126 vowels!