Rene and Georgette Magritte, with their dog, after the war.

Surrealism.

Hmmm, nice.

A bit like Jazz.

Delicious hot, disgusting cold.

Paul Simon has a beautiful and elegantly understated song on the subject, ‘Rene and Georgette Magritte with their dog, after the war.’ which nimbly evokes in its musical structure and lyrics the strangely calm yet disquieting effect that much of the masters work has upon the observer. Sometimes our life in Phnom Penh echoes that song (although we have never come home to find our personal possessions inextricably entwined) as on occasion, dear reader, we encounter what to us is deeply surreal, yet to others is presumably the normal. One such encounter took place last Saturday morning. Before I get to that, however, do please allow me to get out my (virtual) Rolf Harris paintbrush and tin of paint and just fill in a little – um diddah dah – background – oom chickah wah – for you here. Can you guess what it is yet? Let me just splash a bit – ooh chuckah doo doo – of colour over there, and a couple of lines… yes, that’s absolutely right, it’s a group of people setting up a pre-school… let me grab my wobble board and sing you a little ditty about that… you can join in if you like… ‘oom diddy dum doo… oh if you go down, in Phnom Penh town, I really ought to warn you, where ‘ere you go, well don’t you know, there’s a pre-school on every corner…’

O’s future is of course very important to us, but we are generally very happy for him to meander along for a bit just being, well, just being what he is – a beautiful, mischievous, gregarious, happy little boy child. However, the Modern World, and particularly this Modern virtual expat World (try singing that, Paul Weller…) which exists in Phnom Penh and which we engage with from time to time seems to delight in pushing all parents towards getting their young chap or chapette signed up for teeny boot camp, sorry, that should have read pre-school, almost before they have had their cord snipped and bottom smacked by the midwife (oh, I know they don’t do that anymore, I’m being metaphorically facetious. They don’t hang them upside down by the ankles either any more, do they? Never did me any harm, though… just ask my therapist…). There are multifarious groups of parents out there to be targeted, mainly dripping with expat cash (or if Cambodian, the spoils of you-know-what…) and the desire to get the small ones signed up and into… well, something, that will ensure they are adequately prepared for, em, something else seems to run rampant through their ranks. There are, of course, many lovely and well-meaning parent-type-people out there (stand up and be counted!), but they are balanced out by such as the self righteous crazies who believe that ending up like the David Walliams ‘bitty’ obsessed adult from ‘Little Britain’ is actually the way to go in positive parenting. Come to think of it, maybe they have a point… or two…

So, in a blizzard of virtual publicity along came the latest expensive option to get the little blighters out from under the feet of the overworked and underpaid domestics and into some kind of pre-education, following on from the horrendously overpriced ‘turn them into Mini-Mozart’s’ scheme which we had forced O to endure for one session. If he could have strung a coherent sentence or two in English together at the time I’m sure he would have said ‘Why is this woman shoving a tuning fork in my earhole? I only want to sing ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes.’… oh, I wish I was back in Mhate’s Room…’ (Mhate’s Room is actually a really good playgroup (can I still call it that?) run by a lovely Thai man who takes the time-honoured Brian Cant/Ralph McTell ‘Playschool’ approach to children and music. O loves going there. Wonderful stuff, and highly recommended. All together now, ‘row,row,row your boat…’) The pre-school mentioned above, which is not actually open yet, although premises appear to be ‘promised’ for August (how virtual can one get), has an arboreal theme going on in its nomenclature. I suppose I have a subconscious fear of litigation which prevents me from naming them directly, although having said that, litigation in Cambodia iappears to be often bypassed in favour of the more immediate response offered by the AK47. Just imagine that, being gunned down by a gang of winsome female pre-school teachers… there seem to be some very surreal scenarios emerging in this particular blog…

So, to avoid an ignominious and bullet-riddled end at the hands of vigilante female teachers, an event which would have certainly inspired the likes of Russ Meyer to previously unheard of heights of gore-drenched celluloid excess (I can see it now, emblazoned on cinema marquees across the nation – ‘Kindergarten Killers – Schoolma’ams with Machine Guns!’), I shall refer to it (the pre-school) obliquely as ‘The Singing Ringing Tree’. That should bring back some terrifying memories of dwarves, scary bears and giant fish for those who grew up in 1960’s Britain, for the rest of you, look it up on the internet. I rather think that personally I might have overly enjoyed a pre-school experience featuring the above, being an imaginative little chap who was equally fascinated by and afraid of pretty much everything, particularly large wooden bedroom furniture and garden sheds full of waterlogged corpses (a tale for the telling another time, me hearties…!) but of course that sort of thing didn’t exist when I were a nipper, our long suffering parents had to put up with us little blighters running around crushing their cigarette packets, swallowing their Valium and draining the dregs from their Sweetheart Stout bottles until we were at least five years old.

Curiosity not only killed the cat, but also aroused the interest of this old dog, so on last Saturday morning the family collective found themselves gathered in a hot and stuffy living room somewhere in downtown Phnom Penh to witness a presentation from the aforesaid ‘Singing Ringing Tree’ I have to say that it was not what one would term a brilliant presentation, somewhat under-rehearsed, but it was overshadowed easily by the behaviour of the scarily enthusiastic teachers who walked a very unusual line that reminded me somewhat of a gaggle of Pamela Stephenson’s doing her gauche ‘Not The Nine O’ Clock News’ routines crossed with ‘The Walton’s’ and ‘The Stepford Wives’ and the bad dancers from the Cambodia Karaoke Channel. Yes, their choreography of thought, deed and action was pretty impressive. Or maybe I simply have an overactive imagination. As A and I were ‘enjoying’ the floor show, O meanwhile had been spirited away to another room where some equally scarily enthusiastic teaching assistants were encouraging ‘boy’ to draw all over himself with indelible magic marker. After the question and very few answers session, we managed to liberate O, who now resembled a disgruntled Maori warrior, from the clutches of the TA’s and made our escape from the flawless grins of the ‘Singing Ringing Tree’ staff. A decision had pretty much been made on the spot – we will send O to pre-school, but in our inestimably weird logic and to strike a blow for reverse pretentiousness we will probably send our precious little chap to a French pre-school – ‘Vive La Difference!’ We decanted the little man into his buggy where he slumped with a slightly surly expression on his painted face and as we stumbled out of the door into the sunshine in search of a very late breakfast little did we suspect, dear reader, that this was where Saturday would begin to move into the territory of the extra surreal…

The plan had been to go to CALM (Commé a la Maison) to passively enjoy inhaling Gauloise smoke whilst enjoying some ‘oeufs sur pain’ (impressively bad command of French, what!) or something similar. As we passed along a far from well trodden side street en route, however, my eyes alighted upon a neon sign that I had previously imagined I had glimpsed briefly whilst passing the week before heading home from a particularly arduous ‘Strategic Workshop’ being held nearby…. It was real! And it really did say ‘The Carole King Jazz Café’ !!! Outside this (externally) modest little establishment, a middle-aged Korean man was sweeping the pavement whilst inhaling deeply from a cigarette. I’m not sure if it was a ‘jazz’ cigarette, but given the ensuing behaviour of said gentleman, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

I strolled over to him and asked if his establishment was open. The following conversation took place in the middle of the street
Him (very excitedly) ‘Yes, yes please! Two days!’
Me ‘Do you sell food?’ (puzzled look) ‘Something to eat?’
Him ‘Ah, fast food! Yes!’
Me ‘do you have a menu?’
Him ‘ham sandwich, yes, yes!’
I turned to A with raised eyebrows. Should we venture in? I was certainly up for it, and the bemused smile she gave to me suggested that a bit of an adventure was certainly something she approved of. O continued to slouch in his buggy, with an expression that seemed to say ‘come on folks, just get on with it…’
I gestured to the door in a quizzical manner, and Mr. Cho (he very thoughtfully gave us business cards before we left) dropped his brush and ushered us in with welcoming gestures and much smiling. As we entered I asked him if he was a fan of Carole King. ‘Oh yes, very good singer, very popular, good jazz…’. However, the dulcet tones emanating from the discreetly hidden speakers within were clearly those of Karen Carpenter, who I suppose if you screw your eyes up and push your fingers slightly into your ears might bear a passing resemblance to Ms King. ‘The Carpenters?’ I said ‘yes, yes, Carole King.’ was the reply…

How to describe the interior…? Kitsch simply does not do it justice… it was truly a magnificent monument to a taste that transcended good or bad, but simply existed. The hanging gardens festooning the front room gave way through a dividing central tree (!) to the large wooden bar and multicoloured disco lights of the back room. A dado rail of wallpaper inscribed with the legend ‘Carole King’ snaked around the entire premises and the walls were decorated with… well, not with pictures of Carole King, that’s for sure. UK readers will be aware of the 99p store, those wonderful places where the occasional genuine bargain nestles amongst an ocean of genuine rubbish, and will have no doubt flicked rapidly through the many tastefully tasteless tackily framed prints usually on sale therein of big haired 1980’s women sipping cocktails next to greasy coiffed tuxedoed lotharios in a low grade approximation of a Jack Vettriano painting (or a paparazzi shot of Bryan Ferry on a night out in Newcastle) whilst pensively pondering on who actually buys these things. Well, ponder no more, as he resides in Phnom Penh and is the proud proprietor of ‘The Carole King Jazz Café.’

I have to say, we absolutely adored the place. Loved it. And I also have to say that Mr. Cho was an absolutely impeccable host. Once he had resettled us in the air-conditioned part to the rear of his establishment, we began negotiating refreshments. ‘Do you have Lime Soda?’ ‘Lime Soda? Sorry, no Lime Soda..’ ‘Coke light?’ ‘Sorry’ ‘Sprite?’ ‘Sorry’ ‘7-up?’ ‘Sorry’ ‘orange juice?’ ‘Ah, yes, orange juice. Sorry, only open two days – please wait!’ and with that he disappeared into the back. It sounded as if alchemy was taking place, with the sounds of pouring liquids and much stirring going on, and then Mr. C emerged with two glasses of reconstituted and well-sugared orange juice in his grasp. He disappeared again and returned with another, for little O who had by now slipped his fabric bindings and was tottering inquisitively around, no doubt overawed by the breadth of imagination displayed in the interior design. Once he had glugged his down, hyperactivity kicked in and off he went to investigate the karaoke machine set up beside the bar. Mr. C sat beside us briefly, smiling and nodding, before he again leapt to his feet and rushed through the back. He re-emerged bearing a large white platter ‘Snacks!’ he pronounced, and laid a veritable feast of onion rings, crisps, prawn crackers and savoury biscuits before us. This prompted us to push the boat out big style. ‘Excuse me. Do you have any beer?’ ‘Beer?’ ‘Beer.’ ‘Ah yes… Heineken?’ “That would be lovely.’
He darted through the back once more and returned with two chilled bottles of Heineken and a bottle opener which he placed on the table before, yes, you’ve guessed it, disappearing through the back again. We waited for a bit, then as he did not appear to be in any hurry to return, opened our beers, raised them to our lips and… ‘Excuse me! Some fruit for you.’ Mr. C. placed an even larger platter of freshly sliced fruits in front of us, and then delivered his customer satisfaction ‘coup de grace’. ‘Madame, please, I was given these by some Korean friends and do not use, so please I want you to have.’ He then solemnly handed A a diverse selection of very good quality cosmetics…

So what can we say? Where lie the borders between the real and the surreal? If you live in, or ever visit, Phnom Penh, please, please pop in to Mr.C’s establishment just around the corner from Wat Lanka near the Independence Monument. He’ll be very, very happy to see you. You might get a ham sandwich out of it (one of the few things we didn’t get) and possibly even a drink of your choice (but be prepared to have multiple options ready). I cannot promise cosmetics, unfortunately, but you will certainly get the world’s most attentive service to the strains of, well, probably not Carole King, I have to say.

We rescued O from the arms of our new friend, thanked him profusely for what had been a hugely enjoyable and slightly bemusing experience, and promised him we would spread the word. If you do go, just tell him the two barangs with the baby who disturbed his Saturday afternoon sent you… for him, we were probably the surreal experience…

LISTENING TO – Paul Weller ’22 Dreams’ – at last! end to end brilliance from the grumpy changingman
The Who – ‘By Numbers’ and ‘Live at Leeds’ – bless them, Keith Moon was SUCH a great drummer
Don Drummond – ‘Jazz Ska Attack 1964’ – fabulous stuff from the second greatest Jamaican trombonist
Elvis Costello – ‘Momofuku’ – another grumpy makes a goodie
Tinariwen – ‘Amassakoul’ – cannae beat that Tuareg groove…

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10 comments

  1. redpie · July 11, 2008

    Love the post. Brought me right back to PP. Thanks for sharing you day with us. We will be departing in just under two weeks to begin our Korean exploits. Plan on ramping the blog up again to satisfy the folks back home and their ever growing appetite for anything and everything Q. Same address (http://cyclocambodia.livejournal.com/) different title.

    adios

  2. Jinja · September 11, 2008

    Thanks for the impromptu restaurant writeup! I was amused by the name as well. http://jinja.apsara.org/index.php/2008/09/carole-king-jazz-cafe

  3. Cristian · January 11, 2009

    Don’t forget to write about the alcohol rehabs from Korea. It should be fun also to hear how they treat their alcoholics if they have any alcohol rehabs in the first place.

  4. Johanna · January 20, 2009

    Oh, what a lovely story! As I was scanning the text to see if it’s worth reading I thought it would be about animal testing and wrinkle creams! But it isn’t and I’m so happy ’cause I’m tired of hearing about so many oppressed animals. Finally, a happy amusing story!

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