April the 17th

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.

800px-Phnom_Penh_Killing_Field_A_close_look_to_the_tower

Life’s a Peach

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.

The enormous Harley

The enormous Harley

 

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?

A hand up, not a handout

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.

A little girl called Vuthy Nary is presented with a certificate and a backpack for her hard work at school.

A little girl called Vuthy Nary is presented with a certificate and a backpack for her hard work at school.

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…

The pigment, and colour, gamboge

The pigment, and colour, gamboge

Barred

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?

Aussie rules?

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.

HarlsHorse

Harley contemplating his horse d’oevres.

And here is a picture of him trying to stop me taking his picture.

Harls-34

So Harley is fine, but an enormous pain in the arse.

But we love him immoderately.

Oddities

February 17, 2014

This can be a very strange country sometimes. I wrote recently about the theft of some Buddha relics from a very sacred temple just north of Phnom Penh. Well, they’ve arrested a man for the theft, called Keo Reaksmey, who reportedly believes he is “the brother of the sun.”

Keo – a gentle and kind young man, according to neighbours – would put on a white robe and sash usually reserved for nuns, and would present offerings to the sun each day at dawn. So far, just a typical loony. What amazed me is that local officials apparently believe he was given powers of invisibility and superhuman speed.

Bot Pheakday, director of a school in Khvav commune, where Reaksmey studied, was quoted by local papers as saying that Reaksmey was thought to have inherited the “powers” from his father.

“This man could run very fast, and turn invisible sometimes. I think he had magic powers,” he said, with a straight face. “His father was also wanted by the police in the past, but he always evaded capture and disappeared.”

Meanwhile, in another village in another part of the country, thousands of people are flocking to pray to eight pythons they believe can bring good luck and ward off illness.

After the pythons were caught and handed over to wildlife officers, residents of the remote village began reporting high levels of anxiety and having nightmares about the snakes, according to the district police chief.

Word apparently spread that the eight pythons were deities that had been protecting the villagers for more than 100 years.

A seven-day “ceremony of happiness” has been organised to raise the money needed to build a new habitat, back near where they were found.

A villager told a local paper that they “do not know if they are pythons or holy pythons, but villagers have had nightmares telling them that these are the deities,” he said. “Some villagers are ill right now. If the pythons are not taken back to the same place, the whole village will be faced with a big problem.” Er, yes, quite.

And finally, a group of international UFO fanatics has announced plans to build an alien embassy here in Cambodia. These people, known as Raelians, believe life on Earth is the scientifically engineered creation of an advanced alien civilisation, called the Elohim, and their mission on the planet is to prepare humanity for their eventual return.

One of the main goals of Raelism is to build a $20 million embassy for the Elohim. They want to build it in Israel, but their symbol – a swastika enveloped in a Star of David – means the movement is banned there.

So Raelians are looking eastward and have applied to the Council of Ministers in a letter addressed to Prime Minister Hun Sen. A spokesman for the Council of Ministers said that although he was not aware of the application, he would welcome an extraterrestrial movement in Cambodia. “To me, this would be great if we can start an alien movement or institution in Cambodia. We are not alone, my friend. When I tell my friends at work, nobody believes me.”

The very sensible-looking embassy for aliens proposed for Cambodia

The very sensible-looking embassy for aliens proposed for Cambodia

The group’s leader, Frenchman Claude Vorilhon, founded the cult in 1974. Controversies over attempts at human cloning in Europe have sadly led to Vorilhon’s exile from France, where there is a warrant out for his arrest.

Despite the movement’s expressed alignment with Buddhist values, since its first seminar in 2006, it has only managed to attract 10 adherents in Cambodia. So perhaps the country isn’t quite as strange as it occasionally seems.

Epically happy

February 11, 2014

Epic Arts is a charity based in the UK, China, and here in Cambodia, where they have an arts centre in the gorgeous, sleepy riverside town of Kampot. They work with the disabled, and “believe in a world where people with disabilities are valued, accepted and respected.”

You may not have heard of them, but they have some high-profile supporters and patrons, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who says of them: “I am deeply moved by Epic Arts’ determination to see lives transformed through the arts and by their commitment to fight injustices that affect people with disabilities. Epic Arts opens our eyes to our common humanity so that all of us can flourish.” Amen to that.

Anyway, someone showed me a video a couple of days ago that they made, and I can’t tell you how impossibly lovely, life-affirming and heart-warming it is. It stars 11 deaf people, 10 physically disabled, 15 learning disabled, six parents and Sothon, who is blind – you’ll know who he is, if you watch it. They’re dancing and singing along to the Pharrell Williams song ‘Happy’ around Kampot, and if it doesn’t make you grin like a maniac, then you’re probably dead.

So go on, give it five minutes of your time – Epic Arts get some money every time it gets watched – and share it around if you like it. And you will like it, guaranteed.

 

An odd week, here in the Pearl of Asia. Last weekend was great: an old and very dear friend from London came for the weekend. We had a profoundly cool time, caught up properly and insulted each others’ football teams in a mutually satisfying fashion.

On his last night, I dropped him at his hotel, chosen by me, which is new, and looks great, at about 0230hrs. At about 0730 he was banging on the door of our flat, having had all of his possessions stolen.

These things happen; of course they do. His wallet, watch, phone and iPad were all replaceable, and probably securely insured. The fact that someone made it past the rolls of barbed wire and over a second-floor balcony, without being detected by the hotel’s security staff might raise an eyebrow.

But what really pisses me off is the attitude of the hotel staff. The manager, some deeply pointless Frenchman, couldn’t care less, and actually excused himself from any discussion on the subject. The culpable security guard just laughed, even when accused. The hotel is called La Librarie, on Street 184, and I’d rather stab myself in the face with a radioactive knife than recommend that anyone stay there. Tripadvisor beckons.

The police, of course, were worse than useless, and are withholding issuing an insurance-helpful certificate, because my friend had to fly out to a range of meetings in KL and Singapore. Although they intimated that with the right payment, everything could be resolved happily.

So that was the bad.

The next day saw the launch of Phnom Penh’s new bus service, which runs the length of the city, for a mere 1,500 real, or 37 cents. The story has made the news worldwide, but that’s probably due to a huge crew of teenage freelance journalists here desperately trying to sell something, more than actual news value.

But, by god, this city could use a decent bus service. Traffic has got significantly worse in the couple of years I’ve been here: snarls and gridlock during rush hour are persistent and unpleasant. I got stuck at a major intersection a week or two ago when the traffic lights failed, and it looked like Rorke’s Drift.

So we wish the bus service all the best. One article I read suggested that there were 1.5 million mopeds here, in a city of 1.5 million, so that’s clearly wrong, as I don’t have one. And nor do too many children under the age of about, oh, seven. Everyone else does, though.

The next good thing was that the garbage collectors’ strike ended. These poor people work like Japanese beavers, for next to no money; finally they went on strike. A compromised was achieved, and everyone seems relatively happy, but for three or four days, the trash built up on street corners, and, in this heat, it can fester. Good god, but it can stink. I believe they now get $100 a month.

And finally, Blossom got a call this morning to tell us that a great friend of ours had died. He was one of the nicest guys I knew here. I last spoke to him just before he flew to Kota Kinabalu, where he had a massive heart attack: he had a great plan that involved us working together on a fun project. He was smart and serious, a gentle soul, and the world will miss him. RIP Chip.

So that was a week.

Explosive arguments

January 27, 2014

Here’s a story that doesn’t seem to have been given much play by the world’s press, but is horrible. On Saturday night in a remote part of Kampong Thom Province, 11 people were killed in a grenade attack on a pre-wedding party.

Thirty-three people were injured in the attack, and police said they have arrested a 24-year-old suspect who had an argument with the groom a few days before the party. Both bride and groom were badly injured, but survived.

Details are sketchy; it is a remote part of Cambodia, but the governor of the province reportedly said that the suspect was in love with the bride and had a history of aggression toward the groom.

“Both men loved the bride and were jealous of each other,” the governor told a local newspaper, adding that commune police had previously detained the two men and “educated them to stop fighting each other.”

Another paper went on to report that guest Morn Cithy, 27, lost her father in the attack, while her mother, two sisters and two brothers were all injured.

“I was the lucky one in my family to not get injured, because at that time, I was just standing and laughing at my father dancing,” she told the paper.

Morn said she was unable to afford a funeral, and had to bury her father in the jungle, late on Sunday.

There’s not much to add to this, or to say. It’s tremendously sad that there are enough weapons still kicking around Cambodia to make this not especially unusual. And jealousy is, sadly, universal. I can’t help feeling that it might have been given more airtime had it happened somewhere else: 11 people is a lot. [Shakes head sadly]

Meanwhile, here in the capital, the simmering unrest continues. Yesterday a dozen people were hospitalised after hundreds of workers and opposition supporters took to the streets in defiance of a ban on protests.

Led by labour unions and rights groups, protesters had gathered to urge fresh wage talks for garment workers and demand the release of 23 people detained by police during the last crackdown, in early January, which saw five people shot dead. Rights activists say police, equipped with batons and electric prods, used force on protesters, who retaliated by throwing rocks at them.

And just today another half-dozen people were hospitalised after a peaceful rally was dispersed after more than 100 military police charged, “unloading volleys of smoke canisters and swinging batons to clear away stragglers.”

Security guards – the untrained, helmet-wearing men who have been used to violently enforce the ban on public assembly in recent weeks – also joined in, reportedly clubbing those, including journalists, who didn’t manage to get out of the way in time.

It’s a lovely country, but surprisingly violent at times. Land of contrasts, eh?

A kind of magic

January 21, 2014

The charity I occasionally help out, the wonderful CamKids, is constructing a new building out at the school it runs near Kampong Speu, a couple of hours outside Phnom Penh. And it needs to: the primary school, which has been open for nearly two years, now has 250 children registered. It is miles from anywhere, out in the paddy fields, with no electricity or running water, but the children are ecstatically happy, and so are the parents, who can foresee a better life for their kids, eventually.

The new building has a couple of classrooms, some storage space and various small offices, and basically doubles the size of the school. It is being paid for by an amazingly generous donation from an American who is funding the whole thing, in memory of his late mother. My role in the project is tiny: I have to go out to the school once a month, take photographs and write up a short report for the donor describing how the work is going.

So yesterday morning, shortly after dawn, I could be found on the back of a motorbike, haring across the Cambodian countryside. The weather was just warm enough for shirtsleeves (the driver was wearing a parka) and it was eerily beautiful.

If you spend too long in glossy, urban Phnom Penh, you forget how intensely rural Cambodia actually is: life goes on much as it has for generations, apart from the odd battery-powered TV and a few plastic buckets. All around me on the dirt roads were people subsistence farming: women wobbling on stately old bicycles to market, chickens hanging off racks on the back; men climbing coconut trees; women gathering lotus flowers; men driving scrawny cattle somewhere or other; people casting nets across ponds looking for the tiny fish that live there; the scent of woodsmoke and cow dung rising up through the still air. Everyone smiled at me, the deranged-looking barang grinning happily from my perch on the back of the motorbike, wreathed in feather-light dust. It was beyond magical.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to live there: I like decent espressos, good red wine and internet access. So it probably sounds a bit disingenuous and patronising for me to bleat on about the magic of the Cambodian countryside, where life is, for many people, nasty, brutish and short.

But my main thought as we negotiated the potholes and avoided overloaded oxcarts, was that it was a Monday morning, and I wasn’t on the Central Line, fighting my way to Canary Wharf. I have never been so glad of anything in my life.

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