Messin’ with the Kid

… so I’m sitting next to this young monk, and he’s nodding, smiling and somewhat enthusiastically pointing at my trousers. We’re perched on the edge of a reservoir in the first gallery of Angkor Wat and have been bonding over bottles of water and our growing mutual disbelief at the behaviour of many of the mostly Asian tourists who are milling around in front of us. One group have just re-enacted what appears to be the curtain call from ‘A Chorus Line’ on the steps leading up to a prayer area, oblivious of the chanting kneeling people, heads bowed in supplication just metres from them. Another two men are poised in what they believe are Olympic diving positions on the plinths adjoining the prayer area as their friend pushes people out of the way to get the best angle on this momentous pictorial. I’m still not quite sure what my trousers have to do with gaining the approval of the monk, as his English is somewhat faltering and my Khmer is still disgracefully lacking (now if he had been a monk driving a moto or a tuk-tuk we would have had less problem communicating – I can do all the ‘left, right, straight ahead, thank you’ stuff pretty convincingly now. However, I have yet to see a monk driving either of those vehicles…), so many and curious thoughts are flitting through my mind. Does he like the cut of the material? Maybe he was a tailor before the priesthood called… does he want to swap? That rather appeals to me, entering the temple as a crumpled, white-clad, bumbling Palin-ish figure, kroma draped around my neck for mopping the waterfalls of sweat mingled with sunblock that cascade down my face, leaving as a saffron-robed meditative, perhaps a tad incongruous in my socks and Timberland boots. And white face. Then realization gradually dawns as he continues gesticulating. I am almost the only man there not wearing shorts. Or a singlet or ‘muscle’ t-shirt. His approval is down to my seemingly modestly appropriate apparel. I smile and nod agreement with him. I don’t do (and never have done) the shorts and muscles bit. The unkind amongst you will sneer and say, ‘that’s because he hasn’t got the legs or the muscles for it’ and you will, of course, be absolutely right. But even if I did, I wouldn’t. I am a firm believer in the archetypal Graham Greene-ish Englishman abroad (Scottish variation, of course) look, linen suit, cotton shirt, something to mop the brow with, Panama hat and ‘thank you so much, a large Gin and Tonic would be most welcome…’ to follow. I find myself wondering what my companion would have made of Tomb Raider dear Angelina and her somewhat racy costume… I raise my bottle of water to my new young friend; smile and grin at the changes all around, pick up my guitar and play, just like yesterday, get down on my knees and pray…

A new restaurant cum pub has opened in Phnom Penh, close to the holy shrine to the founder of the city, Wat Phnom. It’s called ‘Wat Sup’. Yes. Witty, eh? Foreign owned, of course. Sums up the attitude of many to a culture or religion that they simply don’t understand, or don’t want to understand. Angry of Angkor despairs at the way that so many tourists trample all over the cultural sensitivities of a people in order to get the best shot for the family album or the digital slideshow or the back garden son et lumiere or whatever, but maybe that’s the way the world is now, one great theme park that once you’ve paid the entrance fee you can do whatever you damn well like with… I shouldn’t moan, really. I’m as much the insensitive tourist as the next man or woman, albeit without the grotesque shorts or inappropriate cleavage (that of course could be an untruth, as many of you will not have seen me in the flesh for some time now… perhaps I look like Genesis P. Orridge now…). Please don’t think that my temple visits were all about sitting around grumbling either, as they were not. I had some very spiritually uplifting moments of peace and serenity amongst the ruins also. A potted résumé of the birthday weekend follows, to avoid boredom (mine) each paragraph will be lovingly pastiched in the style of a well known author… have fun guessing!

On that day, which was a Friday, the old man, James, packed the suitcases and waited for the taxi with the child. When it came it was not the usual driver.
‘You are not the usual driver’
‘No. His wife is sick’
‘Ok’
They drove to pick up the old man’s wife, and then out into the provinces. When they arrived in Siem Reap, they could not find the hotel.
“I do not know where it is’
“Neither do I’
“Maybe we should call them and ask for directions?’
‘That would be good’
They did so, and soon the dark limousine pulled into the dusty car park of the Pavillon D’Orient, which was to be their home for the next three days. Tired from the journey, they unloaded the car to the sounds of the surrounding crickets and frogs murmuring a welcome…

oh god what a wonderful hotel with a pool and lord knows what lovely staff lolloping around thisway thatway everywhim catering. ah saturday no sitaround day we had an earlystart, up with the lark and away to the temples queues like whoknows clogging and otis coughing and a spluttering in the back. the bairn is ill, ani’s ill and I’m not as chipper as I should be but lollapolulu we’re here to see some temples and by lord that’s what I’m going to do Angkor Wat what Wat what an amazing site and sight over the causeway we go lord so many people oh my this is certainly not dublin quick talking to get the better of the temple kids sharp as pocket knives could talk you into buying anything you don’t need but yes we’ll have a coke and a seven up nicely chilled if you don’t mind two dolla please mista and on to the bayon crumbling yet splendid a bit like yersel’ I can hear ani thinking too hot in the mid morning sun so back to the hotel for a resty rest rest….

Of the further exploration of the temples, and of the repast enjoyed by all that evening.

Upon awakening from their mid-day slumbers, the formerly weary travelers, although still wracked by wheezes and coughs, decided they would further explore the manifold splendours of the temple complexes surrounding the town. Mr. James summoned the carriage by means of his cellular telephone, and once Ms Anita and the young master Otis were ensconced in comfortable positions in the rear, Mr. James took position at the front with the driver and they began the trip. ‘What ho! What magnificence!’ These and many other similar cries passed the lips of Mr. James with increasing frequency during that afternoon. Although his wife and child were pale of countenance and in plain sufferance of the ague, or some such malady, they too expressed wonder at the glorious antiquities unfolding in front of them. Mr. James found several moments of incalculable peace in particular during his exploration of the temple known as Ta Phrom, a wondrous sight whereupon the jungle had encroached upon the very buildings in a manner which could only be described as organically magnificent. He sat in splendid isolation for five full minutes, contemplating the wondrousness of the scene around him and finding some inner solace in the still calm surrounding that holy place. All too soon it was time to return to the hotel, thence to dine, which they did in the splendour of the nearby Alliance café, and in the French style so much enamoured of the high-born. “I do say, Ms Anita, that was the most splendid filet mignon I have ever eaten.’ remarked Mr. James, chuckling as he observed the young master Otis attempting to catch the tails of the restaurant cat and her kittens as they played under the table ‘I’ll warrant one would be hard-pressed to find a better restaurant in all of fair France!’ he exclaimed loudly for the benefit of the many customers and the owner who stood nearby. ‘Oh, Mr. James, you are such a card!’ observed his wife, if one might say just a little embarrassed….

Sunday. The first time I laid eyes on the National Museum in Angkor I was impressed. Very impressed. It was my birthday. A man needs to treat himself once in a while, and why the hell not on his birthday? So I climbed the steps up to the entrance hall and went in. The attendant was the usual smiley character in a yellow jacket with the name of the museum stitched across the front in red. Twelve dollars lighter I was standing in the room of a thousand Buddha’s. “Buddha can you spare me a dime” I thought. I’ve always been cynical. Dames like that in a man. I wandered through the galleries, each one more awe-inspiring than the last. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not big on culture. Hell, one headless armless statue looks like another, just like one headless armless stiff looks like another. But this was something else. Did it change me? Hell, no. I’m too old for change. It impressed me though. That was really something. ‘You English?’ That was the dame in the museum shop. ‘Nah, pretty close.’ I said. Never give too much away. You know what careless talk does. I bought a present for the kid then called my cab driver. Back at the hotel my wife and the kid were still sick. I let them rest, then called the cab again. We needed to get out, the four walls were closing in. First stop, the Dead Fish Tower. Reminded me of the warehouse where Pretty Boy Kaminsky’s mob all bit the bullet courtesy of the trigger happy boys from LAPD and thanks to a tip off from me. They were scum and deserved it. No dead fish here, but a pit full of live crocodiles for the kid to taunt. After a burger that was so rare it was running around the table, we called the cab again and headed to a high class joint, the Raffles Hotel, for a couple of cocktails. You could tell by looking at the rubes and dames in there that this was not going to be two shots of redeye for a dollar fifty. Hey, the kid liked running around joints like these so who are we to stop his fun? He’s only a kid. My wife wanted to get back to the hotel. She’d been acting kinda edgy. I wondered if the mob had got to her. I started to feel edgy too. I didn’t have a piece with me. That’s a no-no when the lead starts flying… she called me to come to the hotel reception. My mouth went dry. This was it. The hit was on, and I was the schmuck in the firing line. I turned the corner, wondering how much I would feel as the slugs started to rip me apart…
‘Happy Birthday to you…’ My wife, the kid, all the staff, lined up with a birthday cake and balloons. I could have cried. But I didn’t. She’s kind. She looks after me. That night we went to a classy French joint, Le Bistrot. It’s good to eat well and in good company. I’m no saint, but I’m lucky that I’ve got people who love me and care for me. Hell, I love them and care for them too. Later, back at the hotel, I settled down with a fancy drink and loosened my metaphorical private eye tie. ‘You know James, that was such a good birthday…you’re a very lucky man’ I reminded myself, before that big sleep drew its dark veil over me…

Thanks for inspiration (and sincere apologies) to Ernie, Jimmy, Charlie and Ray, and once again thank you to Ani for arranging what was a wonderful birthday weekend and to Oti for, well, for being Oti!

Thanks also to all who sent birthday wishes… I do appreciate them very much, despite appearing to be a curmudgeonly old cynic…

See you next time, take care…!

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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….