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…

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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…