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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