welcome to the jungle

8.53 on Sunday evening, and outside the Sutherland-Mathur residence the traffic sounds are finally beginning to fade, signifying the end of the water festival for another year. For the last two hours it has felt like the M25 has been relocated to the street outside our house, as streams of two-wheeled traffic has hurtled past oblivious to even the slightest notion of road safety, simply fixated on heading home from three days of water, water and more water. Well, what do you expect from a water festival? I jest. It’s the three-day Big Day Out for Cambodia, and now the rural population (3 million or so) are returning en masse to the provinces, mainly by motorbike which (hurrah!) have far outnumbered the 4×4’s over these last three days, so, a veritable welter of horn honking and tyre screeching going on, but in our neck of the woods, no accidents. Amazing. There doesn’t even seem to have been any injuries from the flurry (is that the correct word?) of gunfire we heard from the street outside last night. Life sure is exciting in these parts. As a late-middle-aged-grumpy-as-hell-unfit-fat-bald white man, the water festival has little to offer me, mainly being focused around physical exertion and FUN, which I am now legally unable to have due to encroaching senility (I have the papers to prove that around here somewhere, but I can’t remember where I left them…).

However, we decided to go out earlier today and catch some of the buzz around the final day, so we exited the lofty portals of 18A to search for our trusty Tuk-Tuk driver, ‘Chairman’ Mao. The Chairman confessed in a slightly blurry manner that he had been, and was continuing to do, something called ‘partying’, although to be honest he seemed to be considerably more cogent and sober than on a normal weekday. After his usual (failed) attempt to terrify Otis by getting him to stroke his wispy beard, he entrusted our transportation to his trusty Lieutenant, a lovely and smiley chap who unfortunately is to Tuk-Tuk driving what Apollo 13 was to American confidence in NASA… and off we went! I wore my straw sunhat (Wrinkly Michael Stipe look-a-like time! In your dreams, sunshine!) and Otis wore the foam plastic Chinese mandarin hat that we bought for him on our Saturday trawl of the waterfest market stalls (we also bought him two windmills, one foam General’s peaked cap, one wind-up Vietnamese aeroplane and a ‘Tom’ cat mask – $5 well spent, we thought…). Sartorially splendiferous within our own heads if not in actuality, we headed off into the hazy heat of the afternoon, in search of….
…food!

We arrived a short Tuk-Tuk ride later at… well, not quite where we should have been, for despite the lengthy drunken instructions from the Chairman lovely Lt. Smiley-Driver overshot our turnoff so we had to go round the block one more time before arriving at our destination, Le Duo. Formerly located in a villa in the expat quarter, this little gem of a restaurant has now relocated to… to be honest, I don’t really know, but it is just around the corner from a regular haunt of ours, the SOS clinic. Great name for a clinic, eh. Save Our Souls. Thankfully they don’t take the title too literally, and apart from a considerable pile of well-thumbed copies of The Watchtower in the reception area, there ain’t much preachin’ goin’ on round these parts. We’re like family to the folks in the SOS. Coughs, colds, inoculations, fevers… whenever we feel the wind changing or when we need to have Otis coo-ed at, weighed, measured etc etc then we truck on over to the SOS and the efficient though bemusingly confusing staff therein. For example, they have largely decided to call Otis by his second name, Joseph. That’s fine by me, as long as we know who we are talking about. They have also managed to verify that his height (or in truth length, as they lie him down to take the measurement) fluctuates up and down from visit to visit. Don’t they realize that Otis has Yogic control of his musculature and skeletal framework which enables him to contract and expand his length at will, a bit like a baby version of Mr. Fantastic? … or maybe it is just that the vinyl measuring mat contracts and expands with the heat in the room … I’m sure that one day science will have an explanation – probably something quite simple – I recall we attempted to measure him when he was much younger and spent several days worrying that we had spawned a giant, when in fact the tape measure had been folded over a bit…

So, around the corner from SOS lies Italian restaurant Le Duo. Yes, that’s correct. An Italian restaurant with a French name. Only in Phnom Penh, eh. The décor is magnificently, well, magnificent. It transcends taste, being I’m sure the only pseudo-Greco-Roman villa with swimming pool, scale models of the Coliseum, Leaning Tower of Pisa and Juliet’s balcony built inside a former Kiln house in town. No competition. Service is a little slow, even by the laid back ‘hey, no worries, tomorrow will do’ standards that we are all used to here, but my goodness, the food is worth the wait, it is truly mouth-wateringly delicious, concocted from the finest fresh ingredients. Ani went for a medley of grilled and barbecued fish with tagliatelle in a duo of sauces, I had penne with asparagus and pancetta in a cream sauce, and lucky little Otis had the best of both worlds. We then allowed him to crawl to the chiller cabinet (he would most definitely have crawled into the chiller cabinet, if the lip-smacking noises he was making were any indication) to choose dessert. He made the perfect choice, bless him, a chocolate mousse trio that was simply perfect in every way and a fitting end to a magnificent meal. We washed the young master’s grubby little tootsies in the swimming pool (common will out, you know), said our goodbyes to the amiable host and went for a quick spin around Wat Phnom (or as we refer to it, ‘the estate’) before returning home. A grand way to spend a Sunday…

If you want a food-related laugh, and particularly if you have small children, please allow me to recommend the movie ‘Ratatouille’, which we all chuckled heartily at last weekend. It really is very beautifully animated and very wittily scripted, with a most unusual premise and is well worth investing in (though having paid only $1.50 for it I would say that, wouldn’t I). On a similar theme (watch the movie and you will understand), my colleague Rivann was gazing out of the office window last week when she suddenly commented on a cute mouse that was sitting on the windowsill. The Khmer are masters of understatement, for this was most definitely no mouse, rather a very, very large and maybe slightly cute rat. Later that day I was outside making a cellphone call when three of them ran past in front of me into the long grass of the garden. I mentioned this to one of my colleagues and his deadly serious response has put me into serious Daktari mode, searching for my pith helmet and jodhpurs.
‘ Maybe we should get a snake’ he said….

Mousse, mouse, rats and snakes…

It’s a jungle out there….

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Something In The Air

A little bit of extra craziness is in the Phnom Penh air at the moment. This Friday through Sunday the Water Festival takes place. Over 400 narrow rowing boats, the Dragon Boats, take part in races which start at the confluence of the three rivers, the Mekong, the Tonle Sap and the Tonle Bassac, and progress along the riverside of Phnom Penh finishing just opposite the Royal Palace. As the boats and contestants come from far and wide across the Kingdom, so to do the spectators – this year an estimated 2-3 million will quadruple the population of the central city and turn the streets in and around the centre into a riot of people, colour, music, food, fireworks, carnivals… that’s enough of that – that last section read like something from a bad travel guide and abjectly failed to convey the excitement of the festival, when throngs of people abandon their rural idyll to wend their colourful way… blah, blah and thrice blah. If you really want know about Water Festival, read or log on to the Lonely Planet Guide, which is MUCH better at that travel writing malarkey. However, it is true that the capital is reclaimed by the people for the week in which the festival falls, and of course we expats are issued with the usual dire warnings about the fate that will befall us if we venture out alone, so many of us head for the hills, or jet off for an expensive weekend in a high-rise luxury hotel or a weekend on the beach somewhere else in Asia. I hereby announce that my family and I (©Brenda Windsor, 2007) will forego that pleasure in order to get down in the ‘hood and hang out with our Khmer bro’s and sis’s. Or watch it on TV. This will be my third Water Festival, and I confess a time I love to mingle with the people and soak up the smells and sights of the provincial masses as they invade the relative calm of the capital (and close the roads to those blooming 4×4’s and Lexuses (Lexi?) that proliferate everywhere – hurrah!), but I will be sure to take care, as crime against foreigners seems to be on the increase in the city.

Let’s pause here for some gravity. Last week a young French woman died when she was struck by a minivan after falling from her moto taxi. Thieves on a speeding motorbike had tried to snatch her bag in the densely packed lunchtime traffic weaving down Monivong Boulevard, one of the main streets in the city. She resisted and apparently fell into the path of the oncoming traffic and was killed instantly. Even the normally measured (certainly in its choice of photo journalism) Phnom Penh Post ran a photo of her body sprawled in the street, with her handbag beside her, and of course no-one helping for fear of being implicated in her death. The perpetrators of the attempted crime, the driver of the minivan and the moto taxi driver who she was riding with had of course long departed the scene before the police arrived. And the police, ever aware of downplaying crime to keep their lives relatively easy, commented in their usual obliquely incredible fashion – ‘…it was obviously just a road traffic accident, not an attempted theft. The thieves did not even stop to grab her bag after she was killed.’ Duh?
So I shall take a bit more care when (if?) I wander out and about during the Festival, I promise.

I went on a bit of a minor DVD/CD splurge last week. I suppose that I have to recognize now that it isn’t just purely the obsessive love of music and movies that motivates me, but partly comfort. When I’m a little down, as I have been, then it’s a nice feeling to splash out a couple of dollars on something new, or something I’ve always meant to get. So, to avoid sinking this missive in more of the gloom and despondency that seems to be hanging around me and my keyboard of late, here is a print-out-and-throw-away guide to the interminably boring world of ‘things I have bought; why I have bought them, what I think of them, and why they could change your world for the better (or not) in my not-so-humble opinion.

• Rolling Stones CD ‘Through the vaults darkly’ – a great wee bootleg CD of rarities (including the very rude ‘Schoolboy Blues’ and a stonking (what a word!) version of ‘Brown Sugar’ featuring Eric Clapton on guitar. Forking out your $1.50 also gets you some bafflingly awful jams and for some inexplicable reason The Animals original single of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ amongst the Jagger/Richards treasure trove.
• ‘Bossa ’n’ Stones Vol 2’ CD – Yes! Bossa nova versions of such greats as ‘Honky Tonk Women’ and ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, perfect for that poolside cocktail party on those balmy evenings. Absolutely bonkers concept, brilliantly executed and performed without any passion or irony whatsoever, and real contender for CD of the year so far.
• Eagles ‘Long Road Out of Eden” CD – I will freely admit to having really liked mid-period Eagles (Desperado, On the Border, One Of These Nights), but pretty much loathed ‘Hotel California’ and ‘The Long Run’. To the loathing list we can now add this vacuous waste of the pirate CD’ers art. A dreadful waste of time all round, and I do believe that Don Henley in particular knows that… ‘Boys of Summer’ indeed…! $1.50 wasted…
• Ryan Adams ‘Easy Tiger’ CD – Ryan is just so darn prolific that his quality control sometimes slips out the window and hangs by it’s fingernails on the diddley-doodley narrow ledge just above bland and boring. This is not a bad album, but not a particularly good one either. Strangely, the track I like the most (Halloweenhead) is the one that most critics disliked the most, dismissing it as ponderous heavy rock by numbers… hmmm.
• Love ‘Forever Changes Live’ – DVD – a real favourite album of my wife and I, here recorded live a few years ago at the Festival Hall. The late Arthur Lee is heartbreakingly good, the band amazing, the songs transcendental. Otis likes to bop to it also. Great extras too. Happy Happy Joy Joy all round.
• REM ‘Perfect Square’ – another great live DVD (Germany), the chaps on top form, best version of ‘Man on the Moon’ EVER, plus a quaint mini-documentary of their visit to Stirling which really does look as if they have landed smack in the middle of ‘The Sunday Post/People’s Friend’ land. ‘Gosh Mrs McGlumphy, there’s that wee Michael Stipe, he disnae look weel, does he?’ ‘Och, dinnae worry, he’s ane o’ them vegetabalarians, is he no? Michty, a wee drap o’ Sweetheart Stout wid dae him the warld o’ good…’
• ‘Easy Rider’ – DVD – ‘set your motor runnin’ – bam-bam-bam-baam-baam!’… please don’t ask why… I used to have that poster on my wall for most of my teenage years… I still have a hankering for the freedom of the speeding sickle on the open road, wind blowing through my hair transplant and the distant rumble of the heavy metal thunder of Steppenwolf…. Probably end up having my bag snatched tho’ ….

Most of the above are in the vein of ‘classic rock’, which seems to be, as my Granny used to say, a ‘phrase’ I am going through at the moment. Or, perhaps more accurately, a ‘paragraph’. Mind you, I have been veering toward the Brazilian these last couple of days (which sounds like an extract from a football commentary or something a bit rude to do with waxing – no, not surfboards), and I now have a sizeable collection of variations on the theme of ‘Girl from Ipanema’. And I am thinking that bossa nova versions of punk songs might be a bit of a crowd puller with the jaded youth of the trendy Phnom Penh nightspots… However, the wind is changing and I think I can feel a bout of free jazz approaching from the West, with maybe a smattering of Bluegrass on it’s way when the weather clears – I’m so glad that I still love all this stuff … still crazy after all these years, eh…

Goodnight, and may your dog go with you.

Generals and Majors

Otis and I went for a long walk on Sunday morning. I suppose that technically I walked and he was pushed. He adopted the slumped relaxed position that he favours in the McClaren (Yes, how awful. We are a two-buggy family…) and away we went down the bumpy dusty backstreets of Chamkarmon en route to the green oasis of the park. The rainy season seems to be over now. The temperature has dropped a few degrees and a pleasant breeze rustled and whispered through the leaves of the trees lining Hun Sen Park. The park was relatively empty; a handful of people sitting or lying on the stone benches dotted around the perimeter, a stocky unsmiling man in a green uniform passing a metal detector in slow sweeps over the prickly grass…

A metal detector? As we strolled down toward the Independence Monument my mind was slowly mulling over the possibilities, soundtracked by Otis’s unrelenting stream of what the parenting books call ‘baby jargon’, a form of communication I actually do understand as it has real parallels to the kind of language that used to come out of me at three o’ clock in the morning as I stumbled out of whatever Thurso hostelry (usually the Central or the Sheiling) I was frequenting in my teenage years … a metal detector…Cambodian currency has no coinage, so he’s not going to be looking for those… I’m not aware of a serious landmine or UXO problem in downtown Phnom Penh… what could it be?

Then I noticed that there were police about. Lots of them. And a great deal of activity in and around the Monument. They were checking the area, prodding and poking in bushes and bins, accompanied by surreptitious puffs at cigarettes hidden in curled hands. So, that meant that there was something about to happen. Something important. Best not to get in the way then, methought. We turned around and headed away from the area. Metal detector man shouted after us ‘– aren’t you hot?’ It was not, thank goodness, a statement of lustful intent, merely an enquiry seeking an answer to that famous assertion of Noel Coward’s. Noel should have spread his geographical wings a little further – mad dogs, Englishmen, Scotsmen and their baby sons, they all go out in the mid-day sun. I really didn’t think it was that hot. I hadn’t even worn the new hat that A had bought me, which either makes me look a little like Michael Stipe or a wizened Cambodian farmer (or more accurately a combination of both), so I cheerily shouted back ‘no problem, bong, crazy Scot!’ which he chortled at and carried on sweeping.

The O and I walked past the Vietnamese monument, which has been restored very impressively since it was bombed a couple of months ago, then on down to ‘Pencils Supercentre’, a supermarket-come-shopping mall nearby, accompanied partly by some small boys who were carrying large pieces of polystyrene and cardboard boxes. I presumed that they were off to build some kind of den with these, and both Otis and I kind of wished we could join them… however we had some serious shopping to do! ‘Pencils’ is a relatively large complex, which always appears to be almost completely deserted of shoppers yet full of staff who either sprawl across the checkouts or slumber in the aisles waiting for… what? The arrival of His Majesty Otis in his Royal Buggy however means that the mostly female staff immediately come alive and get into some serious ‘baby baby baby!’ attention. We can barely walk two or three metres without another young Cambodian woman leaping out from behind a shelving unit, fawning over the O, making clicking noises with her tongue, playing a big-doe-eyed version of peek-a-boo, grabbing his arms and legs, pinching his cheek, comparing skin colour, in fact generally behaving as if Lord Buddha himself had reincarnated in the form of the Golden Boy in the Blue Buggy before them. This certainly keeps him amused, and it has to be said that he is an OUTRAGEOUS flirt when it comes to the attentions of Cambodian (and Thai and Vietnamese…) women. God, he is going to be a handful when he grows up…

So we bought the necessary, and as this is man shopping, the completely unnecessary, then headed back out across the square and through a couple of side streets and emerged… right into the middle of massed ranks of the Army, Airforce, Navy and Police. Erk. It appears that all the activity around the monument is because the King is due to arrive to snuff out the flame that has been burning for the last few days to honour independence. All the surrounding streets have been closed to people and traffic in a major security operation. And the dynamic duo of Dad and O has emerged blinking into the sunlight on the red carpet no less, surrounded by Generals and Majors and a sea of military personnel of every rank and file… A three (or maybe four or five or six) star General in a dazzling white uniform standing next to someone who must be the Chief of Police for the Kingdom, to judge from the amount of gold braid he is encumbered with, barked an order to a lackey who rushed over and indicated we should immediately go to these two top brass. Visions of impending incarceration or worse swam before me as we passed the serried rows of uniforms standing to attention and went up to the Chief and the General, who were glowering and bushy browed under their peaked caps… the lackey whispered to me ‘he says come closer…’ so I nervously did so… Otis had by now fallen deeply asleep and was blithely unaware of the situation we were in. The Chief stepped forward, stared at me for a moment, then bent forward and peered into the buggy…

“baby baby baby!’ he barked, and tickled the O’s dangling tootsies whilst a huge gap toothed grin broke out across his formerly sullen visage…

Yes, it certainly does pay to have a baby in tow sometimes, I thought that evening as I watched TV footage of the King arriving (on our red carpet!), and our new best friends, the General and the Chief of Police flanking him during the Ceremony …