June 24, 2014
I was reading a new biography of the American writer John Updike over the weekend, and was surprised to learn that he had visited Phnom Penh in 2007. Surprised, because he had always seemed to be such an insular, American sort of writer, whose only forays outside the country had probably been sunny golfing trips to the Caribbean.
I was even more surprised to discover, after a bit of digging, that Updike had written a poem about Phnom Penh. Updike’s skills as a poet are often overlooked; despite occasional talk of him being ‘the American Larkin’, he clearly lacks the sort of bilious cynicism, dour pessimism and discontent that makes Larkin so great. Instead Updike’s poetry is often dismissed as being light and ignorable, and its engagement with the everyday world in a technically accomplished manner seems to count against him.
So I sought out the poem, and reproduce it below, as part of my hunt for great writers’ work on Cambodia. It should be noted that it is a sonnet, which is far more difficult to write than you might think.
French touches linger in the shopworn streets-
Art Deco market like a Pantheon
in flaking mustard stucco, balconies
of lacy ironwork, and boulevards
whose breadth translates as logique pure beneath
the rush and buzz of fragile motorbikes
where four can ride, the smallest sound asleep,
the mother’s smooth legs dangling in high heels.
Life has returned to avenues Pol Pot
once emptied with insane decrees; a school
employed as torture house has now become
a museum where the soon-to-be-dead
stare mutely from the walls. A savage dream
of order melts into a traffic jam.
June 16, 2014
Driving down to the coast last week for a spot of thoroughly undeserved R&R, I was struck by the economic progress that Cambodia has made over the couple of years that I’ve been here. Where once Russian Confederation Boulevard was lined with grubby old buildings and vacant dusty weed-infested lots, recently it has taken on a new lease of life. Russian Boulevard is the main road from the centre of town to the airport, and practically every car manufacturer who sells here has opened a showroom on it.
Toyota, Hyundai, Nissan, Dacia, Honda, Mazda: all of them now have gleaming showrooms, which all seem to be relentlessly empty of buyers. Even BMW has a showroom, and Porsche is in the process of building one. Yes, Porsche. The Cayenne 4X4 seems to be the most popular model, built as it is for nominally tough road conditions, which describes most of Cambodia’s roads.
But I was completely astonished to hear that the latest manufacturer to announce the opening of a sales office here is Rolls Royce. “Nobody would believe that such a luxury car would come to Cambodia,” said Minister for Industry and Handcrafts Cham Prasidh, who was present for the announcement of the new showroom. Well, count me among those who are somewhat surprised by the news.
According to the World Bank, Cambodia’s average per capita annual income is just over $1,000. Looking at the prices of the Rolls Royces they plan to sell here, it seems difficult to square their ambitions with the reality of the country. Your average Cambodian, if they wanted a Roller, and could save, let’s say, half their annual income, would be able to drive one off the lot in the year 2914. Actually, you’d have to factor in another 47 days just to fill the tank up. Because a Rolls Royce Silver Wraith will cost you $450,000 in Phnom Penh.
The story made newspapers around the world: “Luxury Cars for One of World’s Poorest Countries” was the gist of the story (actually, absolutely everyone ran the AP story) but no one really looked at it particularly hard. But I think it’s worth repeating: these cars cost 450 times the average annual income here. Just to put that in context, if Rollers had the same relationship to GDP in the UK as they will do here, they would cost $16.785 million. Or a shade under £10 million.
A spokesman for the company said five Rolls-Royces have been sold in Cambodia since 2005. I don’t know where he got those figures from, but it is actually quite easy to buy a Roller here: I’ve just priced a clean second-hand one at $90,000 from a dealer on Norodom Boulevard, and although they’re not exactly common, you do see them around.
I guess you can see the logic of Rolls Royce’s move: BMW, which owns the company, are looking to keep shareholders happy by announcing expansion plans: on paper it probably looks quite good, opening a showroom in a country with 8 percent per annum economic growth might seem like shrewd business. And of course, there’s no denying the cachet and prestige that accrues to those locals who can afford to buy a Roller. But with grey market ones available for a third of the cost, you’d have to be pretty thick to part with all that cash. I had to interview the official Range Rover dealer a while ago, who told me with a straight face that a new car from him started at $168,000. I had priced a second-hand one for $35,000 while on the way to see him. I asked him how many he sold a year, and he quickly changed the subject.
So, Rolls Royce is opening a showroom in Phnom Penh; it’s sure to become a favourite of lazy photojournalists, who can shoot ragged kids playing in the dirt with a backdrop of 160-mile-per-hour teak-and-walnut encrusted overlord carriers to accompany the usual “Phnom Penh – City of Contrasts” drivel. But it will be interesting to see how the business goes. I’ll keep you posted.
June 5, 2014
So, I’m back in PP. And it’s great.
Different from the UK, but great.
So, in the UK, I had a wonderful time, some of which involved lying snuggled underneath a duvet, watching raindrops chase each other down the windowpane, before I got up and ate bacon and eggs and fried bread, courtesy of my saintly mother.
But back in Phnom Penh on my first morning back, the awful dog, Harley, had other ideas. At 0500hrs I was woken up by the little shit trying to debride my arm. So 0515hrs saw me tottering up our favourite walking street, little plastic bag firmly in hand.
But it wasn’t half bad. The thick golden sunlight was slanting through the trees, casting long shadows from the monks on their way to the temple; woodpeckers and pink-necked pigeons cooed in the trees. Street-sleepers were waking up slowly, rolling up their hammocks in preparation for another day of not very much. The ochre walls of the Royal Palace glowed softly in the early morning light. It wasn’t as hot as it would get later in the day, the unrelenting heat which seems to be going on rather too long this year. It was beautiful, and exotic, and home. All in all, it’s great to be back.
And at least it was my choice to come. The papers when I got back were full of the news that Cambodia is close to a deal with Australia to accept some of that country’s asylum seekers. I wrote about this a couple of months ago, hoping it was some kind of a joke. It now looks as if it is, in fact, true: “A statement posted on what is purported to be Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Facebook page suggested that Cambodia may be close to signing off on the deal to resettle more than 1,000 refugees from Australia’s Nauru island detention centre.”
Cambodia has since admitted that it will take refugees from Nauru, but only if those seeking refuge “volunteer” to be resettled here.
Australia’s Nauru detention centre currently holds more than 1,100 asylum seekers, predominantly from Muslim-majority countries such as Iran and Pakistan. It’ll be interesting to see how many of them “volunteer” to come to Cambodia. Watch this space.
May 18, 2014
Back in the UK for a few days, I’ve been interested by the things that have struck me, after a couple of years in Phnom Penh. The country is, on the whole, much the same as when I left; cold, expensive, obsessed with competitions on the television (cooking, baking cakes, auctioning antiques, running guesthouses – practically every sphere of human existence can be turned into a tv competition). I don’t miss it much.
But it’s little things I’ve been noticing. In Phnom Penh most shopping is done in the local markets, which are piled high with dazzling pyramids of fruit and buckets full of miserable looking fish. But there a few supermarkets. I try my best to avoid them, as I loathe shopping, but occasionally I have to venture in, and I don’t enjoy it. They remind me of a post-apocalyptic morgue: they smell a bit off, somehow, like a gang of rats have died under a chiller cabinet. The shelves are thinly stocked with mystery brands of Vietnamese cornflakes and deformed cuts of unappetising-looking meat. Underworked and almost certainly underpaid young women lurk at every aisle corner, being bored. The fruit is shabby, the beer expensive and the lights too dim.
So on my first day back in the UK, I drove my mother to the local Tesco supermarket on the outskirts on town. And was astonished. Vast and gleaming, packed to the rafters with goods, I was truly staggered by the sheer amount of stuff to buy. The fruit bears no relation to seasonality; Washington State cherries, Guatemalan avacados, Kenyan guavas, and fascinatingly bizarre hybrids like nectarcots, which are a cross between nectarines and apricots. Ready meals of every possible type crowd the shelves, chocolate and butter and pies and crisps and cereals, curries and beans and cake, ice cream and pizzas and sandwiches, all rising up to the ceilings in a sleek cornucopia of branded consumerist decadence.
Most people in Cambodia don’t get enough to eat. Unicef says that 45% of Cambodian children show signs of moderate or severe stunting. If we imagine that Phnom Penh’s 1.5 million people need between 2,100 calories (women) and 2,700 calories (men) per day, that means that Phnom Penh needs some 3.6 billion calories of food energy per day. There were far more calories that that on the shelves of one mid-sized Tesco. It makes my mind boggle.
Another thing that struck me, is that people here are actually quite nice; generally polite, helpful and accommodating. I’m sure it wasn’t like that when I left. I remember groups of young men spitting on the pavement and staring covetously at my mobile phone, 13-year-old girls trying to mug me in the street at 3:00 am, berks with BlackBerrys knocking me off the pavement, shouty drivers; there was a general depressing rudeness and lack of civility about the place. But this time, no one has been casually rude or aggressive; on the contrary, train staff, bus drivers, shop assistants, pedestrians, bar staff and waiters – all have been great. Perhaps a few years of economic depression have knocked some of the edges off people, and convinced that its nicer to be pleasant,especially if you work in a service industry. But that seems a bit facile. Perhaps it’s just me.
But I’m still not moving back.
April 17, 2014
Today, the 17th of April, marks 39 years since the Khmer Rouge finally took Phnom Penh and emptied all of its population out into the countryside. I thought I’d mark the occasion by finally making the trip out to the Killing Fields. It was, as you can imagine, utterly depressing.
First, a little explanation, for those of you who don’t know: there are two main KR death sites associated with Phnom Penh. The first is a former city centre elementary school known as Toul Sleng, or S21, which was a processing site for “spies” and enemies of the regime. It was one of at least 150 processing centres around the country. Some 20,000 people are believed to have passed through S21 to be tortured.
After S21, the prisoners were taken by truck to a site on the southwest of the city, known as Cheoung Ek, but better known as the Killing Fields. There, they were murdered, usually by a hoe to the back of the skull (to save on ammunition). Babies had their heads dashed against a tree.
When I first came to Cambodia, five or six years ago, I visited S21 with a good friend. Afterwards we went to lunch and drank three bottles of red wine in almost total silence. I’ve never been back.
So I wasn’t much looking forward to the Killing Fields, but I figured I had to go at some point, and the anniversary seemed like a good day to do it. But it wasn’t much fun.
The centrepiece of the Killing Fields is a 60-metre stupa, which is filled with 9,000 skulls. It’s even more depressing in person than it sounds. The tree they smashed the babies into is also quite profoundly moving. But otherwise it’s really just a rather calm orchard on the edge of a city. It makes one reflect on Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’, until you spot a shin bone poking out of the soil, and then it makes me furiously angry.
So not a happy day today. But it’s crucially important to remember those who died, and the scale of the tragedy in Cambodia. Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
April 7, 2014
Sadly, very little of note has happened here recently, which is why this blog has been a bit moribund of late. What once was exotic has become the quotidian, I suppose, and trying to mine my life for metaphorical blog gold has become increasingly difficult. But still we strive…
We have a new member of staff chez nous. She is called Pich, pronounced ‘peach’, and she’s an absolute treasure. We got in touch with an employment agency who asked us precisely what we wanted. “To work on the days I’m in the office; clean, cook, and love the dog,” we told them. Three days later, they turned up with Pich.
The timing could have been better: I have just changed jobs a bit, and now no longer have to go to the office. I’m typing this in a café, hiding out while I leave Pich to hose down the house and pacify Harley. But she is a godsend. She works 9-5, three days a week. She cooks dinner for us, plays with the beast, who loves her immoderately, cleans everything, sews up my Harley-rent shirts, cuts up mangos and papayas, runs errands and does everything we can think of, smilingly and happily. She works 24 hours a week, or 96 hours a month. For $100 a month. I feel tremendously guilty about this – I earn 20 times her salary, and I do sod all. But she seems fine about it. I wonder if there will come a time when I get used to dirt-cheap slave labour. I hope not.
On the Harley front, he continues to grow at an astounding rate: he’s practically Godzilla-sized right now, stalking through the streets knocking down tall buildings with his huge snout. I think the verb ‘monstering’ was invented for him, as that’s what he does to everything that gets in his way.
We had a scare the other day though; Pich called in a panic to say that Harley was in a bad way, and I got home to discover his head was swollen up like a basketball, and he was having trouble breathing. The vet seemed to think he had tried to eat a bee or a little scorpion and had paid the histamine price. We got him back that evening, all recovered.
That should have been that, but his head swelled up again later that night, so we had to find the emergency vet, and he had to spend the night in doggie hospital. It’s curious how badly this affected Blossom and I; neither of us was particularly cheerful when the boy was away, and the relief when we reclaimed him the next morning was palpable. Thank god we don’t have any children.
In other news, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, or JICA, has spent many millions of dollars and a great deal of time trying to upgrade Phnom Penh’s sewage system, by digging up the roads and installing new pipes across the city. This would be great, except they provide the money, but not the expertise, so the results are decidedly mixed.
There is a sewer opening just outside our flat. But now, instead of sucking down floodwaters, it pumps sewage up into the street, where it sits, stagnant and mephitic, full of unspeakable things, rotting in the dank sunshine. Our cadre of tuk-tuk drivers sits amidst this foul shin-deep brew, without even the benefit of a decent breeze to shift the stench. No one seems prepared to do anything about it, and with the rainy season just around the corner, it’s only going to get worse. First-world problems, eh?
March 24, 2014
Lovely day yesterday out at the Chbar Chros Community School in Kampong Speu province, which is run by the charity I’m tangentially involved with, the astonishingly great CamKids.
They were having a blessing for the new school building. I’d been out there a few times to do reports on the progress of the construction for the single donor, a chap from California, so have watched this thing develop from a plot of dusty ground, into a vast and elegant pair of classrooms. It doesn’t sound like much, when you look at it on the page like that, but it is, actually, a very significant achievement for all involved.
Two years ago, there was nothing there; CamKids has now built two school buildings and a clinic. Two years ago, there were no pupils; now there are 272. Two years ago there were no staff; now, doctors and dentists visit every week, and a dedicated staff of teachers instructs the kids. They are growing vegetables and have installed a bio-digester, and despite the involvement of CamKids, this is truly a community project, with the locals involved in every aspect of the running of the school. So it doesn’t follow the paternalistic model of imposing what Westerners think is best which you see so often over here: instead, it’s down to the local community to make the decisions. As CamKids says, “a hand up, not a handout.”
Most of the 272 pupils were there, with their families, and local community elders, and I could have sat there all day, just soaking up the happiness and elation that was in the air.
We’re currently deep into the dry season, with temperatures up into the 100s (high 30s), and it now hasn’t rained for months. It’s amazing how much the countryside has changed from a couple of months ago: whereas at Christmas the whole country was deafeningly green, now everything is sere and parched, the fields a uniform ochre as far as the eye can see, and everything is covered with a thin layer of orange dust. Soon the rainy season will be upon us, and everything will go green again. I rather like that. If you looked from space, Cambodia would be like a gigantic malfunctioning traffic light, cycling between green and orange, annually.
And did you know that the colour known as gamboge, which is the traditional colour for monks’ robes here, gets its name from Cambodia? Gamboge comes from gambogium, the Latin word for the pigment, which derives from Gambogia, the Latin word for Cambodia. Its first recorded use as a colour name in English was in 1634. You learn something new every day…
March 10, 2014
As a person who operates reasonably well in bars, I’m often asked what my favourite place to drink in Phnom Penh is. Well, here is the definitive answer. It’s on Street 51, and it’s called Led Zeppelin.
Now, you might think that that’s a no-brainer. If you know me, you know I’m besotted by Zeppelin – I want the Zep to be played at my funeral, and have spent far too many hours altogether trying to work out the intricacies of Jimmy Page’s guitar style. I used to live near Page, and always secretly harboured the fantasy that he would walk past my flat, hear me mangling his riffs, and knock on my front door to offer suggestions. One can but dream.
But Led Zeppelin, the bar, is a Phnom Penh institution. It’s owned by a middle-aged Taiwanese guy, who is, by any estimation, something of a legend, for his taciturnity. He sits at the back of the bar, scowling, behind a pair of decks, and plays early 70’s heavy metal, loudly. He almost always refuses to speak to punters, and just pulls albums, on vinyl, from his 4,000 strong collection, and subjects them on the drinkers, who seem to love it.
I’ve been going there for a while, and have managed to build up something of an uneasy rapport with him (although I don’t know his name, even now.) I don’t remember him ever deigning to speak to me; I have talked at him often.
But he does one thing that pleases me beyond measure. I once asked him, in a fit of showing-off-ness, if he had a particularly obscure track, by a particulaly obscure early 70s band. And, lo and behold, he did. And played it, loudly.
Now, every time I go in, he puts it on, and I get to soak up five minutes of Mountain playing Nantucket Sleighride, from an Japanese import album that I originally paid forty quid for in 1981. I always love it when he plays it. But every time I come in? Slight overkill, but I can’t complain.
But, somehow, this seems to encapsulate something about Phnom Penh. A foreigner is playing music that is foreign to him, in a capital city that is also foreign to him, and yet is widely loved, by other foreigners, waited on by kindly Khmers.
I’m sitting, writing this, in Led Zeppelin itself, and have heard lots of early Black Sabbath, UFO and Iron Maiden, all of which send me back to my teenage years, while sex-tourists poke their heads in looking for whatever they’re too feeble to get back home.
The owner of the bar is apparently an ardent Taiwanese nationalist, and gets together with the Taiwan diaspora in Phnom Penh on Chang Kai Shek’s birthday to wear military uniforms and denounce the mainland – he might have missed the boat on that one.
My brother the bar maven would be horrified by how little he’s taught me: there are no infusions of artisanal tequila drunk through bone luges; no selections of hand-curated Peruvian bitters. And the loos would make a pig blush in shame.
No, it’s beer, scotch or gin, nice people and great music. A bar that has cheap drinks and weapons-grade heavy metal, in Phnom Penh? What’s not to love?
February 24, 2014
A recent proposal from Australia to the Cambodia government has people here in Phnom Penh agog, as well as most Australians of even the slightest liberal viewpoint.
A proposal from the Australian Foreign Minister that Cambodia resettle refugees seeking asylum in Australia has been greeted with hilarity here.
Speaking to the press on Saturday, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong revealed that his Australian counterpart, Julie Bishop, had made the request in talks with Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh, a proposal that the government was taking “very seriously”, he said.
Now, it’s easy to mock the proposal: most economic migrants would find Cambodia’s nonexistent welfare system, health care and education a bit of a black mark. An average daily wage of $1 is probably not what they were looking for when they got on the boats to go to Oz.
But genuine political refugees are unlikely to be particularly safe here. In 2009, Cambodia sent 20 Uighur refugees back to China after they were smuggled into the country by a Christian group. The 20 Uighurs said they were fleeing persecution after a crackdown that followed riots in western China.
The deportation, in the face of protests by the United States, the United Nations and human rights groups, came two days before China signed 14 trade deals with Cambodia, worth approximately $1.2 billion.
Before being deported, several of the asylum seekers told the office of the UNHCR that they feared long jail terms or even the death penalty. At least two of them have since been sentenced to life in China’s lovely prison system. Information on the others is unavailable.
Sarah Hanson-Young, an Australian Greens party senator and immigration spokeswoman says “Sending refugees to Cambodia is neither a sustainable or reasonable response to the fact that people seek safety from war and terror by coming to Australia.”
Cambodian Center for Human Rights president Ou Virak told a local paper that Cambodia had a “horrible” refugee rights record. “We don’t have the financial capacity but we also don’t have the political will [for] refugees who need protection, especially when most refugees are of a political nature,” he said.
Meanwhile, people have been asking me about the progress of Harley the puppy. Well, firstly, we’ve decided he has oppositional defiant disorder, which is described as “an ongoing pattern of anger-guided disobedience, hostility, and defiant behaviour toward authority figures that goes beyond the bounds of normal puppy behaviour.” Yep, that’s Harley.
He’s also become enormous. Here is a picture of him considering whether to eat an entire, real, horse. Honestly.
Harley contemplating his horse d’oevres.
And here is a picture of him trying to stop me taking his picture.
So Harley is fine, but an enormous pain in the arse.
But we love him immoderately.