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…

There is a light that never goes out

I have to warn you now that this entry is almost certainly not going to be funny (- are they ever? You flatter yourself, James!). Sometimes we have to get a little serious to allow ourselves the luxury of humour in our lives…

Living the relative comfort of the expat lifestyle in Phnom Penh it’s easy to forget the recent troubled history of this beautiful country that is Cambodia. Here in the city, or to be more accurate, the central part of the city, the expat community can indulge themselves with some of the finest restaurants in Asia, and quite possibly in the world, or watch the crimson sun set sipping an extravagant cocktail gazing from a colonial balcony over a riverside that would not disgrace the French Riviera. One can stroll around the park in the balmy early morning or calm stillness of early evening. The younger and more resilient can dance until the dawn rays push their fingers into the dark recesses of the myriad designer bars and nightclubs that cater for their hedonistic excesses – oh, for the endless stamina of youth again! If staying at home is your choice, then the non-working waking hours can be filled watching high quality DVD’s of the latest releases for the princely sum of $2 each, perhaps accompanied by a takeaway – how about ‘pavé de boeuf avec pommes frites et sauce bordelaise’ for $6 from ‘Commé a la Maison’? Wash that down with an $8 slab (24 cans) of beer, take a bit of a break to listen to some new music on that $1.50 cd you bought from the Russian Market, and you have the makings of a great start to the weekend…

Yes, the expat life can be quite idyllic… and then the ghosts of the past that still whisper through these streets and howl through the countryside decide to remind us that we too are only passing through these moments…

This week has seen the arrest of two prominent members of the Khmer Rouge and the hospitalization of a third, pending his arrest. Ieng Sary, the former Foreign Minister and his wife, Ieng Sirith, one of the few women to rise to prominence in the Khmer Rouge as the Minister of Social Affairs and the sister of Pol Pot’s first wife, were arrested at their home in Phnom Penh, literally just around the corner from my house. Neither we nor many of our expat neighbours had any idea that the elderly couple with the black Toyota Landcruiser who lived quietly in their expensive villa had been amongst the principal architects of Cambodia Year Zero and the horrific genocide that followed. Khieu Sampan, the former Khmer Rouge head of state, suffered a mild stroke at his home in Pailin the day after those arrests, but his attempt to go (escape?) to Thailand for treatment was thwarted by the government who flew him instead to Phnom Penh where he remains in hospital… his arrest, it now seems, is imminent. The ordinary Cambodians I work with seem almost embarrassed by these arrests. For the intense media coverage, and the looming trials, stir the graves of the dead and the troubled spirits rise to haunt the living once more.

Young people I know laugh when discussing the ‘regime’ as it is often called. This is not inappropriateness, it is simply the only way they can deal with the overwhelming nature of the evil that stalked Cambodia, an evil hatched in the intellectual hotbed of the Cercle Marxiste des Etudiantes Khmer in 1950’s Paris, that fermented throughout the 1960’s and came into bloom with a sickening stench of death and decay in the 1970’s… the KR have touched the life of everyone here, all have tales that they keep locked inside because the pain of the memory is unbearable, either as a victim, directly or indirectly suffering, or as a perpetrator haunted by the indelible memory of the acts they committed.

Part of my work involves editing translated testimonies and case studies relating to persons whose lives are affected by what we in the business call ERW, or Explosive Remnants of War. ERW refer to landmines, UXO, cluster munitions, small arms and light weapons (mortar bombs, rockets, shells, ammunition), anti-vehicle mines… Up to 4,000,000 of these (there is no accurate estimation) litter the Cambodian countryside, literally putting the actual fear of death into some of the poorest communities in Asia. Access to farmland, land for resettlement and basic social amenities and infrastructure is denied because of the very real fear of death or injury. Most anti-personnel landmines are not designed to kill (adults that is… young children are generally blasted apart), but to maim and disable, which they do with chilling efficiency. Each case study recounts tale after tale of the legacy left by the Khmer Rouge and the warring factions in the conflict that raged here for three decades… people wryly thank the US Department of State for helping to fund the clearance of UXO they dropped on Cambodia during the secret bombing in the 1970’s… a woman talks of how the despairing cries of her young son prevented her from selling her baby daughter to a Thai couple in order to raise enough money so that her other children could eat… a beautiful young woman tells how her life was blown apart when she stepped on a landmine and became an outcast in her village as a worthless amputee… however, the one thing that unites all of these individual stories is that somehow those that survive do so because they have hope, hope for a future that will be better…

I was sitting in the latest chic designer café with my boss the other morning, and our conversation revolved mainly around the arrests. Not the high-ranking Khmer Rouge who had been taken into custody, but the arrest this week of three persons for the murder of Chris Howes and Houn Hoerth. Chris worked for our organization, and he and Hoerth, his interpreter, were kidnapped and killed by the Khmer Rouge in 1996. I cannot and will not comment about he case in any detail, as the legal process is still ongoing, but please investigate further for yourselves through the wonderful medium of the Internet.

The hope that finally there may be justice for Chris and Hoerth will, I pray, bring some kind of peace for their families. My own father and my grandmother were murdered by a drunk driver in 1985 – Scottish justice brought some relief from the pain of their deaths, but like the ghosts that haunt this beautiful land and its wonderful people the memory is never far away… when I look around me at my Cambodian friends I realize just how difficult it actually is to make any sense of this world sometimes… we are all so different, yet essentially we are all the same…

Make of that what you will…

May your God go with you

Take care

J