Perfect Day

‘Life’ as those Small Faces so succinctly put it on their classic Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake album, ‘is just a bowl of All-Bran – you wake up every morning and it’s there.’

The life of the lucky expat living in Phnom Penh, however, is more often than not a bowl of All-Bran with added fruit, nuts, yoghurt, honey, a soupcon of prahok and a side order of fried crickets washed down with enough snake wine to whet the appetite of the most jaded. In a nutshell (mmm… another nut reference), it can be funny, friendly, exciting, exhausting, exasperating, alarming, amazing, tragic, terrible, terrific… I could go on and on and on, but I’m certain you get the picture. Life in Phnom Penh, indeed in Cambodia, is never, ever boring.

Being the working parents of an extremely lively 16-month old can, however, put some restrictions on how much that wonderful life going on outside the home can be lived. My eyelids usually start to droop around about the closing minutes of American Idol or the Amazing Race Asia (only quality television in our house), and little O, the child in question, puts the seal on the night by standing at the bottom of the stairs, pointing heavenward and repeating the mantra ‘bat! bat! bat!’ No, we are not infested by flying mice, it’s just his way of saying ‘it’s time for you to take me upstairs so I can drench you with the showerhead and throw plastic ducks repeatedly out of the bath onto the floor to give you some exercise, you lazy old dad, you.’ Staying up past 8.00pm is therefore officially considered a late night, and sadly the only clubbing I experience now is inadvertently delivered by little O as he wallops me with whatever potentially dangerous toy he has at hand. I suppose it’s all our fault for buying him toys that state clearly ‘not suitable for those under 36 months’ on them. I plan to hire a professional scientific film crew to document the moment, waking or sleeping, that little O turns 36. Months, that is. I want to know what happens, if some magical transition occurs that will make his behaviour suddenly change and stop him hammering the living hell out of me with his red wooden replica Bugatti formula one racing car or his Forbidden Planet Robby the Robot… sometimes I wonder who the baby in this family really is. Oh well, only 20 months to go…

So Saturday last we were all in the mood for having a good day. We seemed to be almost fully recovered from the spluttering and sputtering affliction documented in earlier postings, so, in general health terms, all systems appeared to be go. My much better half, A, had unfortunately had a particularly bleak Friday at work and had serious ‘banking issues’ so was in real need of ‘a grand day out’. We had asked our wonderful housekeeper, P, if she would mind staying over to enable us to be dirty stopouts until at least, oh 8.15pm or some other ungodly hour. She jumped at this opportunity. In fact, if there had been a tall building in our neighbourhood she would have leapt it at a single bound. Yes, she is actually a Superwoman. She loves little O, and he loves her back in the completely selfless way that small children (appear) to do. As indeed does his nanny, V, who wasn’t able to help that weekend. Having a dynamic duo like those two around the caring roles get pretty blurred as they both dote on him so much. It also means that his grasp of Khmer is already way beyond my laughingly inept attempts (though I can now confidently say ‘the red foreign ghost is coming’ – remind me to tell you why in some future posting…). I’ve also been known to babble to him in French and Gaelic, and I’m sure mum A sneaks in the odd word in Hindi (in a Liverpudlian accent) so I daresay we’ll pay for it later when he reveals to us as a teenager how traumatized he is from his multi-lingual multi-cultural upbringing. It probably will be water off a plastic ducks back to me by then, as I imagine I shall be inhabiting the same mental landscape as grandpa from ‘The Simpsons’ and blithely bludgeoning my fellow retirement home inmates with Robby the Robot, but those are joys to come… for the moment let us rewind, back to last Saturday…

Little O, A and I (‘May we introduce ourselves? We are the Vowel family. Very pleased to meet you. I’m really sorry, but E and U are busy at the moment.’) began the day by commandeering the good Chairman Mao and his trusty black Tuk-Tuk to take us to the ANZ riverside branch, one of only two open on a Saturday morning, apparently. The Chairman has owned the Chamkarmon Batmobile, as I have affectionately dubbed it, for a few months now, but last Saturday was the first time I had noticed the extremely fetching complementary red spokes on the wheels. I think I’ll definitely need to buy him a couple of ‘Hot Wheels’ racing stripes for Pchum Ben and maybe even a set of bat shaped James Bond style tyre shredders for those hairy moments on Norodom during rush hour. So we arrived at the bank in considerable style, to be greeted by a queue that appeared to be organically snaking out the door and round the block. After a longish wait punctuated by the frequent moans and cries of frustrated foreigners unused to the somewhat random approach to queuing on display we were able to resolve A’s ‘banking issues’ and eventually squeeze back through the waiting throngs to where our carriage awaited. We had to pause to allow O to sign autographs – I’m sorry to be facetious, but being small, very white and golden haired to boot (whither the Indian quarter of his heritage? I know not…) he does attract a great deal of attention, which he really thrives on, and he is now expert at the one-handed scribble followed by the casual wave – before clambering back into the Batmobile. We decided to go somewhere to eat breakfast where O could also run around without causing too much havoc, so Gasolina seemed an obvious choice. However, it has changed ownership recently, and is undergoing a revamp, which meant gamely trying to sip a lime soda as the construction (demolition?) squad busied themselves around, behind, beside and on top of us. The staff were their usual lovely smiley happy selves, completely oblivious to the hammering, sawing, painting, plastering et al going on, but we had also inadvertently stumbled upon the weekly meeting of the Doggie Breakfast Club of Phnom Penh, and felt that the sight of grown barangs on their hands and knees lapping water from bowls and growling at each other might prove too much for O to bear (not to mention the effect it must have on their poor dogs), so we decamped to Comme a la Maison for the chewy part of breakfast. CALM is the perfect acronym for Comme a la Maison, a veritable oasis of the same that even worked its laid back Gallic/Khmer magic on the O and sent us on our happy way back home fed, watered and ever so slightly blissed out…

Several hours later, O and P waved A and I goodbye as we drove off into the hazy afternoon sunshine, promising that we wouldn’t be back too late… first stop was Elsewhere, (where else?) so A could meander around the floaty clothes bit and try things on and I could pretty much doze standing up under the cool breeze from the impressive fans, then, A having bought a couple of new things zoom! off to Ambre to pick up my new white suit (stop laughing at the back – see previous blog for details) and to marvel once again at how Romyda can possibly walk in those heels. If my mum were here she would give her a good telling off… ‘You’ll suffer in later life my dear, you mark my words – it’s not worth it just to be fashionable!’ a quick detour back home to drop off the purchases and to briefly goo over little O soundly asleep in his hammock, then back into the Batmobile and time for some culture. To Reyum Gallery on street 178, and an exhibition of work by young Cambodian artists that was truly amazing in its scope, execution and imagination. Extremely impressive, and a real indication of the strengths apparent in the re-emerging arts scene in Cambodia, in particular those of the young artists. Culturally elated and sated for the moment, it was ‘to the Batmobile!’ and – my goodness! Dinner time already? So where to go?

There is absolutely no dearth of choice in PP, from the delicious roadside chek chean stalls to the finest of haute cuisine, and the number of eateries seems to increase on a daily basis. I felt we should have a bit of a treat, but my offer of $5 worth of banana fritters was given short shrift by A, so we decided to pay a visit to Van’s. I had a vain hope that this new-ish top end restaurant located next to the Post Office would be something like a Hard Rock Café shrine to the grumpy Irish singer Van Morrison (‘now will ya look at that on the wall there – that’s the very drum skin he pushed Bono’s head through at Slaine Castle!’) but t’was not to be. It was, however, equally entertaining, as around 16 young and earnest staff members waited hand, foot, elbow and knee on A and I who happened to be the only two diners in the whole darkly impressive place. I have to say that the food was magnificent, and the service was… well, hilarious, though I do not mean that in any malicious way. There seemed to be some kind of game going on which revolved around us being asked to sit outside, change tables several times, and then watch as the glasses and cutlery were alternately removed and replaced from our table seemingly at random. We were tantalized by breadsticks that were brought to our table, then hastily removed, and then replaced again. I started to peer around looking for any hidden cameras… perhaps we were the hapless victims of an Apsara TV version of Candid Camera? Two huge leather-bound tomes were then presented to us, and I became quite excited as I thought that these might be the rules of the game. No, they were simply his (with prices) and hers (without prices) menus. So we passed them back and forth and ordered. And waited. And waited. The sun had by now set and the night was drawing in, along with its mosquito accompaniment. Patience is a virtue, and we were pretty virtuous by now, but A was more than a little bemused when she was presented with a bowl of steaming lobster soup when she had actually ordered a glass of red wine. The main courses, when they arrived, were extremely impressive, but we had now decided that we would be really decadent and have dessert somewhere else, so we left Van’s with its strange service games and plethora of ever hovering waiters and waitresses, and headed off, off into the night…!

A had spent six years in Phnom Penh during the 1990’s, so for sentimental reasons (it had hosted her farewell party in 1998) we took a pit stop at Le Deauville near Wat Phnom for a beer or two. For me this fast became a beer or three, or quite possibly four, as I had by now long given up counting. The French drinking songs being somewhat boisterously murdered by the very drunk men seated at the bar eventually began to wear me down, so we decided to decamp to the literally and figuratively cooler atmosphere of the Art Café. One day, if I ever get to New Zealand, I will strive to personally apologise to Professor Jack Body. The good professor probably hadn’t bargained upon being pinned into a corner and regaled with my drunken Scottish theorizing on folk music, electric guitars and cultural osmosis (‘… do you have a moment? Tuareg ex-rebels Tinariwen are a great example of Alex Harvey’s theory that it is better to face an oncoming army with a guitar and a 30,000 watt Marshall stack than with a machine gun… blah, blah, blah’), when he signed up to deliver a lecture on Maori traditional music and mythology at the Café, but he tolerated my rantings with extremely good grace before he managed to escape my clutches… we were now well past our normal curfew, and if truth be told, heading toward the slightly silly side of tipsy, but I still felt that there was some life left in our tired old frames, so after a slurry goodbye to Anton (incidentally, there is a wonderful exhibition by a young Indonesian printmaker Karina Hariyanto on there until the end of May – Phnom Penh-ites, please check it out) we stumbled outside and persuaded a clearly amused and bemused Chairman that a stop off at Malis restaurant on the way home was just what we needed. An encounter with a surly waitress, a large and not awfully convincing ladyboy (no, I am not making this up), a nightcap for me and a heavenly Pumpkin Crème Brûlée later we could be found trying to break in to our house as somebody (yes, me) had forgotten the keys… much laughter from the Chairman, our guard and P ensued, and we tiptoed heavily upstairs to bed to slumber noisily whilst awaiting our 5.00am alarm call from little O…

We hadn’t drunk Sangria in the park, watched a movie or indeed fed animals in the zoo, but we had left our problems alone and had pretty much a Perfect Day…

Yes, for the lucky expat, life in Phnom Penh can be much, much more than a bowl of All-Bran…

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The Soul of my Suit

There seems to be a bit of a fashion note creeping into these missives of late, and indeed this particular bunch of virtual scribblings will be no exception, as we proceed through the sickly events of this past week up to your humble correspondents encounter on Saturday last with…
The tailors of Ambre!!!

The pained coughs, wheezes, snorts, splutters et al that accompanied our family visit to Siem Reap to celebrate my birthday (and were compounded by our otherwise lovely driver Socheath’s attempts to cryogenically freeze the lot of us with his state of the art AC on the way back) carried blithely over into the following week, rendering the entire family prostrate at one point, somewhat resembling the Fort Knox gassing scene in ‘Goldfinger’, and effectively knocking Ani and myself completely out of action for a few days.

Poor Ani had to stumble back to school for the latter part of the week, where to compound her already overwhelming miseries a caring parent decided to celebrate their little darling’s birthday with a cake. Not just any cake, but a Durian cake. No, for those reading this in western parts, that’s not a misprint, the parent was not a major fan of dodgy 80’s blow dried Diana -gawd-rest–‘er-soul favourites Duran Duran (of whom more later – can you wait? Please don’t expire from excitement!), but rather a fan of the so called (around these parts anyhow) King of Fruit, the Durian. The Durian is a fruit which is, and here I will steal wholesale from Wikipedia, ‘distinctive for its large size, unique odour, and formidable thorn-covered husk.’ The part that should concern us regarding this particular application of the fruit, is the ‘unique odour’. What can I say? The majority of expats I have talked with on the subject seem to agree that the closest verbal approximation of this olfactory experience would be the stench of extremely ripe, cheesy and smelly socks… to be honest, I personally don’t find the smell too offensive, just slightly reminiscent of the boys changing room in Thurso High School circa 1969… but that’s another story…

Meanwhile, back at the classroom, there was a bit of a scenario going on. The Durian smell and taste had combined with the wonderful creation of a cream-and-icing-sugar horses head surmounting the cake to induce both hyperactive behaviour and projectile vomiting in many of the children who had wolfishly consumed this ‘treat’… ah, the sad lot of the early years teacher… I was glad to be at home, completely inert in bed, unable to even summon the strength to rotate the click wheel on my I-pod… yes, that’s how ill I was…

As we’ve just touched on the subject, we’ll briefly pause here for this week’s music recommendation, which is a double album of staggering wonderfullness called ‘Nigerian Rock Special – Psychedelic Afro-Rock and Fuzz Funk in 1970’s Nigeria’, which is on the Soundway label and is absolutely everything the title implies and more… simply loonpantfully magnificent! Do check it out if you yearn for the past joys of a well trodden wah-wah… ok, ad break over, back to the blog…

Saturday dawned, and we decided that although still hacking and sputtering, we would venture forth into the balmy Phnom Penh day and do a bit of shopping. In July we are going to decant briefly to New York, to attend a reunion and celebration of the Indian branch of our family tree, and of course the big question that hangs around this event, looming ominously and even larger than ‘where are we going to stay’ is ‘WHAT ARE WE GOING TO WEAR?’. Now, in my mind that had translated into ‘what are Ani and little O going to wear’, as I had already mentally commited to the universal ‘trousers and shirt, any colour’ for the formal, and ‘jeans and t-shirt, any colour’ for the informal aspects of this family gathering, hoping against hope that no-one would remember I was Scottish and attempt to force me into kilted garb… but lets face it, I’m not really built for a kilt, leaning more toward the Russ Abbott than the Mel Gibson (good Scotsmen both, eh?). However, a sneaking suspicion lingered that perhaps I might just have to make a bit more of an effort on the formal wear front…

So Saturday afternoon it was into the good Chairman Mao’s black wrestling-sticker bedecked Tuk-Tuk, first stop the Russian Market, to buy some material to construct (is that the appropriate word?) a suitable garment for Otis. We spared him the excitement of the market, though truthfully we actually spared the market the ‘excitement’ of the young Oti. He’s fifteen months old now, and at the stage where everything is in reach, by fair means or foul, and equally everything must be investigated fully and tested, tasted, prodded, pulled, poked, stretched, bent, bounced… you get the picture, I’m sure. He is, I have to say, generally very well-behaved in public, indeed a veritable charmer, but in the warren-like confines of the market where an inopportune tug could cause the very fabric of the building to collapse upon itself it’s best not to take any risks. We sweated and haggled, and came away with some very nice white linen and also some very wonderful yet bizarre material which combined skulls, swords and flamingos to startlingly weird effect… should make a very nice waistcoat for the wee chap and a talking point for the nannies…. We left the market in cheerful spirits, then Ani announced that she wanted to visit Ambre.

Ambre is an incredibly stylish designer fashion shop located in a beautiful town house in Phnom Penh. Here one can marvel not only at the rainbow-hued glamorous designs of the stunning Ms Romyda Keth, but also greatly marvel at how she can possibly stand, let alone walk, in her incredibly high heels, and indeed further marvel at the attempts of the manifold western women who are trying to squeeze into designs which are plainly targeted at the delicate sylph-like lines of the asian female form. I firmly believe that a survey would reveal the most oft-quoted line the staff in Ambre hear would be ‘do you have that in a bigger size?’. We were sheperded in, shielded from the by now driving rain by umbrellas, and entered this urbane and urbane oasis of cool. As Ani looked around the many rooms in search of inspiration I sat there feeling even shabbier and scruffier than usual as vertical feet Romyda and her team whisked and fussed around their clientele looking impossibly chic, though I was cheered that unlike the other western men there at that time at least I wasn’t garbed in the appalling uniform of long shorts and shapeless t-shirt. Ani came back to find me sitting disconsolate outside the changing rooms (that sounds bad, doesn’t it, but the truth is that this place is so chic I didn’t even realise I was sitting outside the changing rooms – none of that M&S ‘only four items at a time and thousands of coat hangers lying around’ malarkey here). ‘OK, lets go’ I ventured, gearing up for a sprint downstairs and out the door as fast as my fake Birkenstocks would take me. It was not to be.

‘why don’t we have a look at the men’s stuff’ she said.
Somewhere in the distance a muffled bell tolled. A door slammed, and a lone tumbleweed bounced forlornly past, small eddies of dust following in its wake. The silence seemed to last for an eternity. Without looking up, I replied.
‘No’
‘come on’ said Ani, ‘don’t be silly. Just a quick look, then we can go.’
I should have just wriggled away from those ensnaring words and leapt the finely-wrought bannister to freedom, but I did not. I grudgingly followed her down the steps to the mens department, trying to remain hovering just outside the door but ultimately failing and being drawn inexorably into a world of immaculately tailored suits and shirts.

Her eyes had already alighted upon a white suit racked near the door, and almost before I set foot inside had whisked it from its hanger to proffer before me… I had no time to splutter my usual stream of negatives before a tiny and pristine Cambodian man in a beautifully fitted pink shirt and white pencil thin trousers appeared, apparently from nowhere, in what to me was an eerie echo of Mr Benn’s shopkeeper. What bizarre adventure was I going to be hurled into?, I pondered as he expertly fed my unwilling arms into the crisp white sleeves. In my feverish imagination I was now firmly in the stereotyped domain of ‘The Fast Show’, of “Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width’, the ‘Rag Trade’, Grace Brother’s menswear department and every other camp cliché abounding around mens tailoring, fully expecting to now hear Khmer variations on ‘oooh, suits you sir’, ‘which side does sir dress??’, ‘let me just warm my tape measure…’ et al. What I actually received was a ruthlessly efficient fitting, interrupted briefly by a French man(ager?) who had been watching from the door and momentarily imposed his views on how to stick pins into me upon efficient pinkshirtman. In these situations, where I am clearly out of my depth and have no control whatsoever over unfolding events, I sink to using puerile humour to (mainly) reassure myself. This was no exception. Everything from mirror based attempts at humour (“you looking at me? Who you lookin’ at then?”), to every tenuous white suit related association I could muster (“haven’t you watched any Ealing films? Look what happened to Alec Guiness! Just call me scarface… Hi, I’m Tony, Tony Manero… ch’wanna dance? ‘Her name is Rio, and she dances on the sand…’, ‘lets all get up and dance to a song that was a hit before your mother was born…’, the name is Bond…Basildon Bond… I was very, very drunk at the time…). Yes, I acknowledge that Simon Le Bon wasn’t actually wearing a white suit in the video for Rio, but he should have been, shouldn’t he? Fitting almost completed, and if truth be told now feeling slightly pleased with how the suit looked expertly cossetting my elderly frame, it was clearly time to try on some shirts. A striped b & w effort suggested by Ani just didn’t feel right, and pinkshirtman re-iterated this somewhat brutally as he snatched it from my fumbling grasp… ‘Tsk tsk! Too young!’. Eventually a plain black silk number was deemed appropriate by all, and what had appeared initially to me to be an ordeal a thousand times more agonising than the comfy chair of the Spanish Inquisition was fast drawing to a good humoured close. Suit and shirt would be ready in one week, and then I would be free to do my John Lennon Abbey Road impersonation (minus the hair and talent) as much as I wanted. Yay!! All the stereotypes flitting around the dusty attics of my brain department had long vanished, and it was with an unusually cocky swagger that I made my way toward the door. As he turned from folding the garment to say goodbye, pinkshirtman smiled and provided the icing on the proverbial cake…
‘ I must say sir, you know when you wear that suit, it make you look really…’

… Cool? Dashing? Manly? Debonair?

No.

‘… it make you look really cute…’

Exit. Stage left.