Discovering Kerala in Phnom Penh

I have a perpetual case of fernweh – ever encountered this word? It’s Germanic in origin and it means wanderlust. Why do I wander? I wander in search of what makes them different from us, where do the them and us merge – or do they ever? I think I have travelled to about 24 countries by now. And I can say one thing conclusively – all my stories from these varied lands would tell you we are more similar than different – we are all flesh and blood, we all (at least most) demonstrate a joy in living and several of us actively try (like me) to engage to figure out what are those invisible bridges that connect us.

Moving bag, baggage and baby to Phnom Penh was not an easy decision. But when N’s office moved him here and life in Delhi became increasingly difficult on the little one’s lungs and health, the move made sense. Though bringing up little ones far from family and the love, care and supervision of grandparents has more minus-es than plus-es!

But moving to Phnom Penh has been about discovering layer by layer the similarities that exist between my home state of Kerala and this city, Phnom Penh that I now call home.

We moved here in March and less than a month later, Vishu was on us. Vishu is the annual festival of Malayalis – one of two that they celebrate communally. Turns out its also the time of the Khmer New Year called Chol Chnam Thmey. There are several academic pieces on how trade and religious ties that the South Indian Chola kings had with the South East Asian regions, primarily Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and bits of Vietnam upto Indonesia, led to a similar Hindu lunisolar calendar being followed. Imagine my surprise when on April 14 this year, I chanced upon this – the sight on the left is a traditional Cambodian sight – I saw various versions of this in front of several shops – an auspicious sign to augur prosperity! And look at that photo on the left – That’s the kani I hastily put together since it was little A’s first Vishu.

The laburnum that grows in plenty in Cambodia is far rarer across most parts of India these days. The konna as Malayalees call it rarely blooms in abundance by April – and often makes its appearance in May. Every year in India, I have picked up straggly stems of konna for inflated prices, but this year, it was literally a case of tree-to-kani!


The cultural similarities between India and the Southeast Asian countries is hardly coincidental. The large scale acceptance of the same lunisolar calendar in each of these regions is rooted in a kind of colonial cultural exchange that is most often associated with European countries alone. If the paragraph below interests you, click on the link for a quick piece on this from the Indian Express newspaper.

When one refers to the term ‘colonisation’, it is the process of trade and power made popular by West European countries that comes to mind. What is often overlooked is that similar trends occurred in this part of the world as well. The lunisolar calendars of Hindu and Buddhist communities is one evidence among several others of a period in history when Indian traders and elite groups ‘colonised’ several parts of Southeast Asian countries.

This piece helped place the similarities that I saw here with life back in Kerala in context. After all, the weather, climate and the slower pace of life reminds me of the Kerala I grew up in (albeit with, runs my joke, high-speed internet!)

You see glimpses of home in small things – the varieties of small bananas that are available here, the grated coconut which makes life so much simpler for Malayali cooking – much easier than it was in Delhi, for sure. The sight of breadfruit trees and jackfruit trees in every other compound even in the bustling city. In fact, the sight of this jackfruit tree had my jaw locked in amazement – the sheer number of jackfruits going on the tree boggled the mind! To know what a jackfruit means to a Malayali, I’d highly recommend reading this post in the News Minute.20180326_095017-01

Well – the similarities are several – but how do you think I reacted when I found a slightly different version of our pazhampori – batter-fried banana fritters – on the streets here? I jumped at it and got a whole bag home!


And then while walking around the Central Market, I had to stop by this vendor -for she was selling bits of my childhood – star gooseberries. I have rarely seen them outside Kerala, certainly not in the markets of Mumbai or Delhi where I have lived a big chunk of my life away from Kerala. The Khmer like their green mangoes and gooseberries soaked in sugar and then served with a salt and chilly combination. I’m not a fan of the sugar syrup, so I brought it home and cleaned it out thoroughly and then re-soaked it in brine. And hogged on it till my lips shrivelled with the saltiness!

Its been nearly six months since our move here and the process of discovery still continues. But you know the best part is, just down the road from where I currently live is a small Malayali eatery – every time the need to speak a few words in Malayalam or just look at some familiar dishes listed out on a menu strikes, there is TasteBudz with a z at the end to head to! Oooh and I just realized it has a mention in Lonely Planet too!

20180903_161512As I write this, the jasmine bushes in balcony are overrun with buds – its still the monsoons here and as the winds rush ahead to tell me about the impending rains, they leave behind some familiar smells too – rains and jasmine..and some coffee brewing – wait.. I’m in Phnom Penh not Kochi – the brain reminds, but the heart still hums.

Simple joys,


2 thoughts on “Discovering Kerala in Phnom Penh

Add yours

  1. Malayalis believe in homogeneity. They preserve their language and culture at any cost. Period.

    Women like you procreate and spread their legs for men of other communities and live under the delusion of ‘Aliyoo.. I am so proud to be a Malayali, I can’t tell you’.

    In reality, neither are you a Malayali anymore, nor have you an iota of Malayali-ness left in you. Even your kid(s) won’t have any ‘Mallu’ thing left in them. So, stop writing bullshit like these and practice your Punjabi/Sindhi or whatever your adapted culture is.

    Women like you should be ostracized from the Kerala community the moment you decide to sleep with other men.

    People like us will remain the harbingers of our community. We don’t need traitors or psuedo-Mallus telling us what being a Malayali is.


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