Rip It Up

…And start again. As I get older (losing my hair, many years from now, will you still be sending me a Valentine, birthday greet – stop it! Be still, my Beatling heart…) I start to have so many more of them. Preconceptions, that is. Rip them up and start again, or at the very least leave them at the door, that will be my new philosophy.

On Saturday we had a somewhat cultural day, firstly visiting the International School of Phnom Penh International Day. Ani wore her Sari, Otis was decked out in his wee kilt with Sutherland Clan crested kilt pin, and I looked like an American. That is, until I took the Stetson off, then I just looked like a white male, 50-ish, medium build, receding graying hair, no distinguishing features… ‘He just looks like any outa town rube’ Kincaid sneered as he crudely rolled the body over with the toe of his badly scuffed boot. Brett stopped and lowered the camera from his eyes which narrowed with disdain as he squinted at Kincaid. ‘Never forget, Mr. Kincaid, that this was someone’s son, maybe someone’s father… we should show some respect, no matter how hardened we’ve become down the years…’ Kincaid shrugged, embarrassed at this outburst from the normally reticent photographer, and spat his chewing tobacco from the side of his mouth into the same dirt where John Doe had struggled for his last gasps of air…

Sorry, got sidetracked there briefly. Yes, in the riot of colour that characterized International Day I was a mild protest of drabness. However, the day, or rather the morning we spent there, was extremely entertaining and well worth the $5 entry fee. (Note to self; I’m becoming just a little obsessed with vfm these days… a worrying trend – gone are the carefree days when I would go out and splash $10 on trivialities…) The food was good (excellent somosas!) and the performances were exemplary. Ani’s class did her proud in their gosh-gee-whiz-aren’t-they-cute way, by performing a very strange piece about hats and monkeys. Unfortunately I missed the apparent highlight, as I was informed by Ani, which was three (female) senior students performing a hula dance. Apparently every male in the audience resembled the big bad wolf in that old Betty Boop Little Red Riding Hood cartoon, eyes out on stalks and tongues dragging on the ground. At that exact time my eyes were also on stalks and my tongue dragging on the ground in the International Food room, where I had just encountered the Belgian chocolate display next to the New Zealand chocolate cake…

Otis drew his usual admiring glances and was his usual charming self as we flitted from country stall to country stall. The face of the woman in the room dedicated to India was a picture as I informed her of Otis’ Indian heritage. You could read her mind ‘… this man is crazy; he comes in here with the whitest baby in the world and expects me to believe that the child is part Indian…?’ So we did the rounds, nodded and smiled, piled as much food as we could under the buggy then rode off into the mid-day sun…

We did a little shopping in the afternoon, going to the Russian market to buy some winter clothing for Otis. The temperature has dropped to around 20º in the evenings now, and is hovering around 30º during the days so we thought it time to get him some long sleeved woolens and mittens and scarves to ward off frostbite. Ha ha ha. No, but we are returning to dear old blighty soon, and it is apparently a bit chilly around those parts, so time to stock up on the winter woolies. That done, we went off to the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) so I could finish typing up my dispatch to send it out with the Reuters journalist on the last chopper before the sun set and the rebels mounted their assault on the Palace under cover of darkness… Or alternatively I could have a Tiger beer and a poke of chips. I settled for the alternative. It’s hard to imagine what places like the FCC must have been like ten or fifteen years ago. Probably pretty horrible actually, bursting at the seams with gung-ho foreign correspondents and their ever expanding egos. As a younger man, I used to imagine myself one day having an ‘Our Man in Havana’ type existence, rushing about in a hot place in a crumpled linen suit mopping my brow with a monogrammed handkerchief and masterminding incredible feats of espionage in a kind of bumblingly endearing James Bond manner, whilst confounding those damned journalists at every step. Pretty much what I do now actually, albeit more in the manner of the drunken elderly ex-consul lampooned by The Fast Show…

I had noted earlier in the week that the First International Rock Festival of Phnom Penh was to take place in the Titanic (!) restaurant on 1st December. And it was free. Major VFM, no less. The cynic in me leapt at the opportunity to spend some time guffawing at what the First International Rock Festival of Phnom Penh would present for our edification. We were promised a German band called Diva International, fronted by a Debbie Harry type singer and influenced by Bowie and Iggy, a ‘nylon punk’ band (!) from Thailand called Bear Garden, and PP’s own Thom Thom (or Josie and the Pussycats as I call them). Oh boy… a German punk band called Diva International… the laugh-o-meter was cranked up and ready to go! I used to be a big fan of German music of the early 70’s – I would go round to my friend Eric’s house (where and how are you now, Mr. Law?) to listen to Aamon Duul II and Can and Neu and Tangerine Dream. These albums were serious pieces of work, with fantastic cover art and great titles – ‘ Dance of the Lemmings’, ‘Tago Mago’, ‘Monster Movie’, ‘Phaedra’… then came the wonderful Nina Hagen, eventually she gave way to the still tolerable Nena and her 99 Red Balloons and then, as far as I was concerned, it all went wrong. It seemed as if most of Europe didn’t quite get punk right, and Germany were no exception. Die Totden Hosen. Oh Holy Jebus, somebody please tell them that the UK Subs are not the kind of role models to build a career on… so German rock music and yours truly drifted apart at that point, until…

…now! It’s 8pm in the quite wonderfully but bafflingly named Titanic Restaurant (considering it is perched on a jetty at the riverside – visions of the whole shebang sliding slowly into the dark waters as the bands play on swim before my eyes ), and I have just missed Thom Thom. Not to worry, they are playing an acoustic gig later this week so opportunity to catch up then, but as I arrive a rap duo, a young man and an older man, both Cambodian, are performing a rap about genocide to the smallish crowd of mostly German expats. Some people are enjoying a Saturday evening meal, apparently oblivious to the frenetic rapping and scratching coming from the dynamic duo on stage, who I find out are DJ Sday and his young protégé, MC Curly. This is their last number for the moment, then Curly introduces Thai duo Bear Garden, a young woman playing bass and singing and a young man playing a vintage Casio mini keyboard. They’re pretty good, a little like a cut price B52’s crossed with Sadistic Mika Band ,and I find myself doing some on the spot restrained Dad dancing to their plinky-plonk rhythms and bass popping. Good stuff. Another rap from Curly, who is now genuinely amazed at the gathering crowd, and then he announces Diva International. Nothing happens for about five minutes, then the black clad rhythm section amble on, look about them a bit then walk off stage again. Perhaps they are a little upset at the neon sign above the stage that somewhat erratically flashes the words ‘Titanic Band’ and variations thereof above their heads in electric blue. A young man with dark curly hair and a permanently worried expression is obviously the band’s gopher, and he rushes over to fix whatever has been displeasing them so much that they have telepathically communicated it to him before retreating. They return, and now they are four, skinny guys dressed in black with low-slung guitars. Where is Debbie Harry soundalike? Utilizing the old ‘dramatic pause before entrance’ routine perhaps? Well, no. It’s clear that as the band start up that there is no female front person, just the skinniest of the skinny foursome with low slung Telecaster untouched round his neck, see-sawing his microphone and stand up and down in the grip of first number nerves, cigarette smouldering in his left fist and laconic Lou Reed/David Bowie vocal tics firmly in place. They are good. I eat my thoughts. They are really, really good. All you could really fault them on would be the horrendously cheesy between song patter. Every cliché is being expounded, and I don’t really think it’s worth wasting your or my time repeating them. Come on, put your hands in the air and ROCK AND ROLL if you agree with me. Are you having a good time reading this? I can’t hear you… come on, are you having a good time??!! Hello World, are you ready to rock tonight? One, two – more monitor… Yeah! You’re the best crowd who has read my blog ever! I love you! Goodnight! I’ll be back!!

There is one deeply surreal moment when the singer shouts from the stage ‘hey…. anyone here tonight from… Bristol?’ but all becomes clear when moments later they lurched into a growlingly electric version of Portishead’s “Glory Box’. Curly Roadie is kept endlessly busy attending to the whims of the singer, who cannot plug his guitar in, light a cigarette, pick up a plectrum, turn up his amp or indeed wipe sweat from his own brow without help, but that’s ROCK AND ROLL isn’t it, and he is forgiven as they are so good. It’s a short set, but they win two encores and get MC Curly and Roadie Curly to join them in a scrappy yet exciting jam at the end, and their whole veneer of distant cool and arch pretension has long since dissolved in the sweat lashing from them. I congratulate the singer as they come off stage, telling him how much I enjoyed their performance and how good the cover of ‘Glory Box’ was, and he puts me exactly in my place and reinforces that I need to really keep an open mind when it comes to perceptions or preconceptions about music (or indeed anything) – ‘Thank you’ he says ‘ it’s really difficult to do this when it’s not your own language’…

On another subject, Orange Juice (spot the easy connection) once had a whimsical wee ditty called ‘you old eccentric’, and thinking about that got me wondering, where are the eccentrics of my generation? Maybe I’m not thinking quite hard enough, but have my generation not spawned any George Mellys, Ivor Cutlers or Spike Milligans? The only one worthy that I can think of right now to follow in those hallowed footsteps would be old irascible John Lydon, but there must be more – write in with your ideas, and we’ll put together a list of current great eccentrics to give us hope and inspiration when the real world becomes a tad too crazy for our own good.

In the meantime, be good, clever or both at the same time (sound of sock full of custard hitting brick wall).

Thank you and goodnight from Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia.

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….

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.

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

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 …

Hey there, little insect

As I sit here munching contentedly on a rather large bowl of Coco Pops (the more observant among you may wonder ‘ how strange, at 6 o’ clock in the evening…’, but the reason will be revealed… later!) my thoughts meander in the direction of food. I know Coco Pops are not really ‘good’ for you, but I feel they are a real comfort food. They help me to get through the feeling-sorry-for-myself times, such as now, when I am really, really missing my wonderful wife and my beautiful baby. Yes, I do have feelings and I am not ashamed to admit to them. I hope you are beginning to sniff a little, and are blinking back that tear forming in the corner of your eye. I did warn you all that things might become a little maudlin over the next week or so, so you really ought to have stocked up on the Kleenex…
Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, food… a colleague who had traveled to our office in Kampong Thom came back the other day with a gift for Rivann and Maly, my two female project officers here in Phnom Penh. And what did he bring… some perfume? Some silk? Some beautiful flowers?
No. He brought a bag of fried insects. Crickets, to be precise. Oh wow. However, the women were over the moon. Apparently there is something about the Kampong Thom crickets, they have that little ‘je ne sais quoi’ that sets the little fried beasties apart from the other delicacies that abound in Cambodia (chicken feet, anyone? Come on, lets not fight over the beak… tell you what, I’ll swap you two deep fried tarantulas for one duck embryo – look, it’s got little tiny feathers on its wings… yummy!) . The reality, of course, is that the ‘eat anything that crawls, swims, flies or walks – and waste no part of it’ approach is very much rooted in the poverty that still grips much of Cambodia.
Poverty is no excuse for well-fed westerners ‘though, and I have to confess that my experience of insect eating is very limited. I have accidently swallowed a couple of midges and a few flies in the UK; over here I have managed one cricket (eaten under the influence of beer), and a handful of ants (not recommended – Mowgli, don’t listen to Baloo!). I still find it a little disconcerting watching people munch away on things that most people in the west veer away from as scary and/or disgusting…
Rivann invited Maly and I for lunch today. Not really being much enamoured with the thought of snake gizzard or frog liver (do frogs have livers?) I was relieved to find we were lunching at the Paragon Centre, a shiny new(ish) shopping mall near the centre of town. It does not remind me in any way of what must be the greatest shopping experience in the world, the Paragon in Bangkok. I will blog another time on the wonders of the Bangkok Paragon. For now, let us return to its smaller and quirkier little brother, here in Phnom Penh. My $2 plate of fettuccini with stir fried vegetables and pepper pork was substantial and wholesome, and washed down with a large glass of chocolate iced coffee, which ensured that I hurtled through the afternoon with manic intensity and eyes pinned like a speedfreak. And that is why I am unable to manage any more than a bowl of CP’s tonight. Or perhaps just two bowls. Uh-oh, I can feel the steely glare emanating across the miles between from A even as I munch…

…. and I forgot to mention fish head soup… but that is a story for another time….

listenng to – ‘dancing days’ Led Zeppelin
‘roll on down the highway’ Bert Jansch

missing – my sweetheart and my little boy… so much

Watchin’ the river flow…

…so we are in a Land Rover Discovery, weaving like quicksilver surfers through the dense and frankly unpredictable early afternoon traffic of northern Phnom Penh toward a meeting at the office of the national landmine authority when suddenly the drugs take hold… no, what really happens is that my boss slips the best of AC/DC into the stereo. At the traffic lights the waiting motodops and tuk-tuk drivers are suddenly startled by the crunching metallic chords of ‘Highway to Hell’ blasting bass-heavy from our skull-and-crossbone emblazoned vehicle. I’m sure the panic that flared briefly in their eyes was partly due to the fleeting thought that perhaps Keith Richards had finally decided to visit PP…The day is becoming more and more surreal – this morning, a long conversation (in a meeting) about one of our field operatives who was hospitalized with broken ankles after hitting a car with his motorbike. “So lucky, to escape with such minor injuries” say we foreigners, nodding sagely. A little later we discover that it was actually a cow that he hit… earlier, shaking his head in profound disbelief one of my colleagues emerged from his office “those bloody termites have eaten my in-tray” he said as he forlornly poured himself a cup of coffee.

So when we arrive at the venue and find a spread of chocolate chip cookies, brownies and miniature pate rolls laid on for us, who is surprised? When one of the presenters repeatedly pulls the plug of the projector out mid-presentation, causing an eager Australian lady (who appears to be the only person who can work the thing) to vault over the table each time it happens, who raises an eyebrow? The strange becomes the commonplace in this fantastic city.

I was people watching at the river yesterday, awaiting Mr. R whom I was going to buy dinner for to thank him for his help with the little O’s party. The elephant strolled by, as it does most days at about 4.45 and swarms of foreigners raced alongside it, snapping photographs frantically to remind themselves… of what? Ray Davies was probably right, that “people take pictures of each other, just to prove that they really existed…”
I was too busy with one of my favourite sports, which is observing the passing streams of traffic and counting the number of passengers on one moto. My record sighting to date is seven, which was on the airport road one night last year. Of the seven, two were seated on the front mudflap facing the driver. Two and three are most common, but you can spot the occasional four and five, and the much rarer six. There is also the game ‘most unusual object being carried on a moto.’ My winner so far is a palm tree (admittedly only about five metres tall), ‘though the lavatory pan with cistern and piping attached runs it a close second.

Mr. R arrived and we repaired to the Pop Café, where the most delicious Italian food (the penne with meatballs is out of this world!) is served to you by the Cambodian Stevie Nicks and her be-frilled sisters, and then on to Hurley’s Cantina to observe the bad behaviour of foreign journalists covering the Khmer Rouge trials in all their technicolour (yawning) glory, whilst an old ex-soldier bearing a remarkable resemblance to Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry does a peculiar shuffling dance dressed in what appears to be a 1940’s pinstripe demob suit decorated with braid and medals…

If the tourist office is looking for a slogan to sell the city to potential visitors, might I suggest this –

‘Phnom Penh – never knowingly boring.’

Listening to – ‘Bitches Brew’ Miles Davis
‘Give me back my man’ B-52’s

Really missing – my beautiful wife and baby boy XXX

Memory of a Free Festival

‘…the sun machine is comin’ down, and we’re gonna have a party…

Elsewhere, Phnom Penh
Friday night in Phnom Penh, a city where the live music scene has yet to show the massive blossoming that the fine arts has over the last few months. But tonight we are in ‘ waiting for a bus’ syndrome land (is this a peculiarly British way of putting this? – please ask if you don’t understand). In a city where one or two gigs a week is the norm, tonight there are at least a dozen going on. It’s the ‘fete de la musique’ , organised by the French Cultural Centre, so around many venues in town the sound of (live ) music will bring the hills alive with songs they have sung for a thousand years.
Mr R and I are intending to sample some of these audio delights, and number one highlight will of course be the punk-indie-mash-up-with-the-ramones-live at Rubies wine bar… but first… to Gasolina…

Gasolina is heaving with a crowd of beautiful people (mainly French) and their beautiful children who are behaving rather like a cross between the Lord of the Flies and the Lost Boys when we arrive. Mr R admonishes one young chap who is attempting to burn the place down by waving leaves through the flames of one of the many decorative torches burning in the grounds – he smiles at us and moves his mayhem elsewhere…
A large-ish PA is set up, and the process of sound-checking is going on. I have to say that my experience of hiring sound systems and engineers in PP has not been good, certainly in the live music arena. Generally the equipment is pretty good, but the ‘engineer’ sent along with it is simply the guy who drives the gear around from venue to venue… and so it is tonight, as we are treated to howls and squeals from the PA as the engineer continues to break so many of the cardinal rules of sound mixing that I begin to think that no, this is actually pretty good, and we are witnessing the early development of Industrial music in Cambodia (eat your hearts out, Throbbing Gristle).
Then the performance starts, and the first act are really pretty amazing. A small group of guys from Mondulkiri who have moved to PP and are camped out opposite the National Assembly to protest at their land being torn from them to make way for apparently government sanctioned ‘commercial development’. They are singing about this injustice accompanying themselves on small gongs, a hypnotic, ancient sound… then they unleash their secret weapon, the youngest member. I don’t quite know how to describe this… his voice was like a cross between a kazoo and a buzzsaw, but delivered with the pitch and tone of a castrati – simply unbelieveable. Mr R commented that Andy Kershaw would have been blown away, as we were.

After that, some Japanese drummers,powerful, physical stuff,who then conducted an impromptu workshop for the kids (saving us from immolation in the process)and also jammed with a French musical collective whose name escapes me but were also pretty good. They carried on playing on their own, bringing to mind Les Negresses Verte. We had listened, drunk and eaten, so now onto elsewhere.
‘Elsewhere’, to be precise, which was deeply surreal. A cocktail lounge jazz/soft rock trio on a huge stage with lights performing ‘no woman no cry’ to a crowd of expats and wealthy Khmer kids loungingaround an illuminated swimming pool… no, I am not making this up. We had arrived near the end of their set, so it was a quick ‘fly me to the moon’ and a ‘your love is king’ where a young woman from the crowd who really, truly, believed she was Sade locked in the body of a much larger person was hauled onstage to deliver her impersonation, just too, too surreal…so off we went in our trusty tuk-tuk to Rubies – Punk rock here we come!
Well, no. Man in pork pie hat programming random tracks from a computer over the sound system here we come. Some very good music, granted, but no thrill, no threat, no Ramones live, no punk, no style… major dissapointment of the night. Sorry.
Tuk-tuk again to the final destination for us, Talkin’ to a Sranger, where we encounter the Blue Geckos. Despite the fact that I was quite beered up by now and had christened them the Grateful Undead I really enjoyed their down-homey backporch take on things and their eclectic musical choice and delivery – anyone who plays ‘tequila’ is alright by me… thumbs up for Blue Geckos.
…and so Mr R and I said our goodbyes and staggered off in opposite directions, with the memories of a pretty good evening of music behind us (no Glastonbury, granted – but warmer, drier, at least as eclectic, and pretty funny in parts), and the promise of a good night’s sleep and a Saturday spent with the hangover from hell in front of us.. just like the old days…

listening to – Tom Petty ‘Wildflowers’ (very quietly)
missing – my wife and baby, very much.

The Human Touch

After living for two years in Cambodia I have pretty much forgotten what it was like to live in a country like the UK with four distinct seasons, albeit in Northern Scotland often in the same day. Cambodia has only two, the rainy season, which is roughly June-November, and the dry season, December to May. So now we are in the rainy season. Unfortunately for the farmers who eke out a subsistence living growing rice in the provinces, so far this rainy season there has not been much rain. Some unseasonal downpours at the beginning of May resulted mainly in a spate of deaths from lightning strikes (graphically reported in the local press), but not much in the essential irrigation needed for the rice paddies. This is seen as inevitable, as the royal bulls (!), aided and abetted by the royal fortune tellers, have predicted a bad harvest for this year, and provincial Cambodians are mostly very superstitious and resigned to whatever fate is cast for them. 

I’m very, very fortunate that my work allows me to visit the provinces on a regular basis, as it is so easy to feel removed from reality in Phnom Penh. True, there are many sights in the city that evoke all those white western liberal guilt trip feelings, but it is only by traveling to the rural heart of Cambodia that a true sense of the horrendous poverty that still affects much of this country can be experienced. In many areas the approach to farming is still medieval in western terms, and people literally live from day to day. They do not starve, but they do not thrive either. There is usually just enough to eat, and no more. Healthcare in remote areas is very often non-existent. Often when we visit villages they will bring sick children to us, as if they equate our white professional appearance with some medical skills or knowledge. On a recent visit to a rural orphanage to visit some friends who are spending a year overseas volunteering, my wife and baby and I were shown a very sick HIV+ baby. As we stood around the tiny, fly-covered bundle that was sharing a cot with another child it became apparent that he was not moving or breathing. Little Dominic died in front of us that day, as I held my own baby boy in my arms, and that is something that I cannot, and will never, forget. In the west we are largely shielded from the daily realities of life and death by the distancing effect of the TV screen… another starving child in Africa, another dead Tsunami victim on a beach, another nameless victim of an indiscriminate bomb or landmine… it all blurs into the ‘oh, bad news again – isn’t there anything good they can talk about’ syndrome. Inconsequentiality becomes the norm, there is no space for ‘reality’ other than the ‘Big Brother/I’m a Celebrity…’ sideshows… Reality is something else, it is chillingly and sickeningly real, but do you know,I am really grateful that I have been given the opportunity to go out and actually face some degree of reality myself. I can only sincerely hope that it is somehow contributing to making me better at being a human being… we all need the human touch…

As that greatest of twentieth-century philosophers, Dave Allen, said – ‘goodnight, and may your god go with you…’

 

 

 

 

vege-tables

Smiley Smile! Today Otis ate his first solid food (pureed carrot) and learned to ‘swing his pants’ in a Trevor and Simon stylee, to the accompaniment of some of that ‘dang hippety-hoppity music’ that gets played ’round these parts. Big thanks to our friend Ben, who departed these shores on Sunday to return to the USA, but before he did he donated his ENTIRE music collection to my hard drive… over 100 Gigabytes (whatever that means… how many LP’s is that?). Ben has amazingly eclectic taste (regular readers will know how cool he is) and I am very excited at the musical delights that lie ahead… Kiss greatest hits in particular. I’ve been known to ‘play Kiss covers on the jetty in the summer’ as Wilco sang, amongst the many crimes against music I’ve commited (and continue to commit). Perhaps we can incorporate something like ‘I wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll All Nite’ into the next (and last, for the time being) Scary Uncle gig. Scary Uncle have developed into a minor legend in Phnom Penh, despite having played much less than a handful of gigs. We were (are) a two-piece, myself on guitar (and to tell the truth, it probably would sound better if I actually did climb onto the guitar and jump about on it rather than try to play those things that Ulf Goran calls ‘chords’) and ‘singing’, and yet another Ben, the wonderful Ben R, on bass and enthusiasm. Ben is one of the world’s leading monkey anthropologists and a damn fine fellow to boot, although I sometimes suspect he views my more enthusiastic fret mangling as some kind of throwback to my simian past… his son, Tane, is also Otis’ hero, as he is at the ‘running around and causing havoc’ stage of babyhood – Otis gazes awestruck at Tane’s ability to run rings around pursuing adults as he attempts to redistribute the contents of a potato chip bowl to needy ant colonies. Tane and Otis are also Voodoo brothers, but that, my friends, is a story for another time…At our first gig in the truly wonderful Zeppelin Rock Cafe (supporting the even more wonderful Betty Ford and the GT Falcons) we even managed one of those transcendental rock ‘n’ roll moments, when, just about to start our last number, a chap leapt out of the audience and enquired if we needed a drummer.. ‘what do you know?’ I said ‘what d’you wanna play?’ he said’do you know any Violent Femmes”yep!”Blister in the Sun?’ ‘Yep!’…. and he did… he was a fantastic drummer… then he faded back into the darkness from whence he came… it was one of those nights that has passed into folklore, so much so that even Asia Life magazine, the SE Asia equivalent of Time Out reported us as being an Irish/English version of the White Stripes- not bad for a mostly drummerless Scottish/Australian outfit… Take a look at the photos in my media for the sad evidence… Ben R and family are off to Vietnam soon, so who knows what will happen, maybe some long distance rehearsing by Skype, or maybe I will finally take the plunge and perform solo – if you’re out there Michael (and I think you are…), I really wish I’d listened more carefully to  Bert Jansch and Leo Kottke and all those other guitar toters albums you used to have instead of sneering at them… now where are my Ulf Goran and Bert Weedon chord books….

‘she started dancin’ to that fine, fine music, her life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll’ (Lou Reed)