Cambodia like Naples, but not

“Chum reap sua”, I greet my audience, “But for the sake of those not completely fluent in Khmer, I will continue in English.” 

In Cambodia raising money for Japan? It is usually Japan for Cambodia, but I’m here in Phnom Penh to help raise funds for the children orphaned by the Tsunami which devastated Japan one year ago. The tables are turned as this developing nation is stepping up to help its neighbour in a moment of need. Tiny Tim doesn’t usually help Hercules with any heavy lifting but it’s quite spectacular when he does. 

Cambodia has an interesting feel to it. There is definitely chaos on the streets, with mopeds, bikes and tuk-tuk drivers all zigzagging in between the cars. It seems like the Asian version of my native Naples during a public transit strike. Like someone just announced free food on the opposite side of town and everybody’s trying to get there first. But it quickly hits me that the “frenzy” is only apparent. Actually there’s a certain sweet calm to the chaos.  

Cars make U-turns in the middle of busy intersections but nobody seems to mind. At each infraction committed you get the feeling that an older sibling is nodding disapprovingly but fondly at his younger brother, smiling and thinking, “What will he do next?”. No honking. No screaming. Just a happy flow. Even when I ask for “Wi-Fi” in a local restaurant and hear the waitress repeat back “fried rice?” I can’t help but smile. It’s contagious. 


Super-cool guy 

I’m staying at the Intercontinental Hotel care of the general manager, who contrary to most people in his position, is just a super cool regular guy. Maybe a ‘victim’ of this general feeling of happiness pervading the city, he seems unaffected by the fact that most hotel managers run their places like a soft dictatorship.  

The publicity campaign for my concert is fierce and I’m in all the local and national newspapers. My interview even makes Cambodian National Television. Never before have I felt so much like a celebrity with people recognising me in cafes and on street corners. Yumi, the concert producer responsible for it all, tells me I’m a star in Cambodia. I don’t know what a “star in Cambodia” means, but I must admit I’m very well disposed toward strangers who recognise me. Maybe it’s my ‘typical’ Khmer hairstyle but I still have the feeling New York is a much tougher crowd. 

I hate hiding backstage before a performance, so here I am out front, greeting people as they arrive and joking, “In an effort to cut costs, I’m also working as usher tonight.”  

Some of the more linguistically challenged in the crowd seem to take me seriously. Despite worries that a 10 dollar ticket in Cambodia will discourage people from coming we break the house record with more than 700 people in the grand ballroom. I love playing for a full hall, and this audience is with me from the start. After the concert, everyone is armed with a camera and the desire to have me in their picture. I tell them my Facebook photo rule: “Friend. Tag. Post.”  

I am told that the most memorable line from the concert is the way I addressed the Cambodian Princess in attendance as the “Princess with the very long name.” Disrespect toward royalty in this country is admired almost as much as graffiti is in Singapore. Fortunately, she smiles at my next joke about the Japanese Ambassador and all is well again. Beheading postponed. 


Julian Gargiulo is a pianist and composer who divides his time between wishing sabre-toothed tigers weren’t extinct and making paper pirate hats out of his old bios. In between his involvement as fundraiser for and friend of, he also finds time for touring with his new album mostlyjulian, working on his nonprofit, curating the Water Island Music Festival in the US Virgin Islands and Crossing Borders of Hunter College in NY, and endlessly walking the streets of New York in search of people to add as Facebook friends.
Contact the globetrotting pianist on [email protected] 

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