Recently I was obliged to spend ten days in Bangkok. Between appointments, I wandered around midtown, either dodging the relentless traffic or gliding above it all on the crowded Sky Train. Bangkok is a modern urban landscape interspersed with alley-way neighborhoods. In many ways these neighborhoods within the greater metropolis of Bangkok resemble those of villages in Cambodia. Tin-roofed patched together huts set close to railroad lines are homes of the jasmine sellers and fishmongers, similar to the crazy hodgepodge architecture of downtown Phnom Penh. The working poor are always around to cater to the working rich.
In Bangkok the flux of new money is personified by an overabundance of super malls offering posh merchandise: Prada and Alexander McQueen for ironic ripped jeans and pink kitty T-shirts, and Harrods of London for cream scones and tea. I enjoyed mingling with other afternoon dilettantes pricing the sale rack at Chanel while wearing my village-made sarong shift and Tevas. One morning I rode the escalator up the icy air conditioned helix of Embassy Central to the top where a promised luxury cinema waited. But the $18 tickets were too rich for my Peace Corps per diem—although the La-Z-Boy-like lounges did look awfully comfy. You could even order dinner with your movie, but of course that was extra.
Thais in Bangkok are like the rich cousins of their Khmer kin. Separated by the Gulf of Thailand and just 333 miles away by air, both Buddhist nations share some similarities, although they are not at all alike in character. Their borders may have morphed in favor of one country or the other over the years, but the two cultures remain distinct. Thai is a tonal language; Khmer is not. Thailand is at least ten years ahead in technology and medical tourism. Cambodia offers shaky wifi and $8 a night river view hotels. Thais, influenced by British colonials, drive on the left side of the road, while Cambodians, obedient to the French colonialists, drive on the right.
But the biggest noticeable difference is on Sundays—Thais take a day off. On Sundays many shops were closed. Even the corner egg seller had a different guy on Sunday. Thais enjoy a day of rest. Cambodians only take time off for weddings, funerals or religious holidays—and that’s only for part of the day. Cambodians have stamina. They can endure. My host father may rest in his hammock after lunch, but soon he is back in the fields. And this is done without a grumble. I have never heard anyone in my family complain about even wanting a day off. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that it is an option. If there is work to do, one must do it. Most Cambodians I have met share this admirable trait.
Yet, that Sunday in Bangkok reminded me how having a day off gives a little space for reflection and renewal. Seeing a shop not open makes one glad for Monday when the mango lady is back with her baskets of fruit. (How can I miss you if you won’t go away?) Cambodians could take a lesson from their Thai cousin’s playbook and take a day of rest. Just for a change.