February 29, 2012

So I was going to write about finding somewhere to live in Phnom Penh. We spent our first working day calling and driving around and seeing a variety of fairly crappy flats. I was quite blasé, and in no particular hurry, but Blossom (I’m trying out nicknames) had some definite priorities (a view, a gym, free internet) was quite driven. So we spent Monday looking. And ended Monday a little deflated.

Apartments fell into two categories: wildly expensive but beautiful, or amazingly cheap and vile. Either you got super-clean expat hellholes, meant for diplomats and the NGO crowd. They ran at about $1,500 per bedroom. Or it was questionable Khmer apartment subdivisions, up reeking staircases inhabited by nippy Pekinese dogs, where you might just be a bit close to reality.

There is a lot of new building going on, and we saw a couple of monstrously huge places, quite far out of town: $500 would get you a living room the size of a tennis court, and two or three bedrooms, but they weren’t all that appealing. And they all came furnished. And we may as well be honest: me and the general Khmer population have slightly different ideas about interior design. We could probably leave it at that. So I had envisaged a short article on ruched gold lamé curtains, crystal chandeliers and tiled everything.

But then I went off to a job interview, and came back to find that Kitten had put down a deposit on a place. And she was right. So, we now have a flat, which we move in to next week. It has two bedrooms, a large kitchen and a generous terrace. It’s on the sixth floor of a brand new building: they’re taking the bamboo scaffolding off right now. There is a lovely breeze. Internet and cable TV is free. The view covers the west, north and east of Phnom Penh. It looks over the Royal Palace, with the river in the distance.

Oh, and we’re paying about £350 a month. Which is pretty much what our sock in Shepherds Bush brings in per week. I’m sitting here adding it up on my fingers, and I’m still not seeing the downside.


Hitting the Ground

February 29, 2012

As the crow flies, it is 6,200 miles from London to Phnom Penh (or an oddly pleasing 10,009 kilometres). As the super-budget traveller flies, it’s 28 hours door-to-door, a brutal day-and-a-bit of queuing, impertinent and soul-crushing security checks, endless duty free shops and all the other accoutrements of torture that make up airline travel today. It struck me at about hour 20 that any friends who come out to see us are going to have to really want to see us. We’re going to have to lay on fire-eating tiger shows, banquets and possibly give sight to the blind to justify their investment in getting here in terms of both time and money.

Thoughts on Going

February 27, 2012

On announcing recently that, despite being well-launched upon my middle years, I planned to decamp from west London and forge a new life in Indochina, I inevitably faced a barrage of questions, all of which were basically: ‘why?’

Mostly, this was an easy question to answer. Solid economic growth, a young and fascinating society, gentle and funny people, sunshine, mounds of fruit, the purchasing power afforded by renting out my awful flat in Shepherds Bush, the lack of children to hold me back; most people nodded understandingly when I put it like that.

But as I struggled to articulate in easy pub-conversation soundbites what was driving me to uproot myself and My Angel (my wife Susan) from the familiar, I started to become aware that there was more to it than just the lure of an easy life in a warm climate. So here are some other thoughts:

I was flicking through a magazine the other day, and came across an advertisement for a particularly ugly watch, which was on the wrist of Nicole Kidman. I don’t know why, but this annoyed me rather a lot. I mean, what the hell does Nicole Kidman know about watches? Isn’t it enough that people go and see her formulaic films, without her having to leverage her fame to manipulate the intellectually uncurious into buying things they don’t need?

And how much bloody money does she need, anyway? The monstrous greedy oxygen-thief should cut down on patting herself on the back for being reasonably easy on the eye, and do something worthwhile, instead of endlessly riffling through the pockets of the general public.

So anyway, I thought that if a simple magazine advertisement can rouse me to such rage, I’d be better of going somewhere where I didn’t see so many.

I also think I’ve got to a stage in my life where the idea of making a difference, even if just a little bit, is much more attractive. The Scottish novelist Alasdair Gray often uses the line: “Work as if you were living in the early days of a better nation.” I think Cambodia, which is basically a bit over 30 years old, could be a better nation than many, and I’d prefer to be part of that, rather than sucking the last drops of blood out of the corpse of the consumerist, capitalist west.

I don’t know what I might end up doing to help in Cambodia, but there’s no shortage of work to be done, and it shouldn’t be hard to add some credit to my karmic account.

The concept of modesty has, oddly, become a concern of mine recently. Essentially the Khmer people are a modest people, and 15 years of living in Britain has made me more aware of the importance of modesty. I know that makes me sound like an old git, which of course I am, but the appalling cavalcade of people in the UK who are prepared to shed their modesty in exchange for fame has left me fatigued and faintly nauseated.

From soulless publicity vultures like Jordan, to contestants on Big Brother, or the cast of programmes like The Only Way is Essex, from the non-stop glorification of the private lives of footballer players and the nightclub-dwelling harpies who prey on them: the more I see of it, the less I like it. If there are celebrity gossip magazines in Cambodia, I won’t be able to read them; if there is a Khmer Max Clifford, he won’t be irritating me.

I could continue to list the things that enrage, sicken or bore me about life in the West, but as this move is about getting a bit more positivity in my life, I won’t. There are millions of things I love about England, and I’ll miss them terribly. But if we’ve only got 800 months to spend on this planet, then I demand more adventures, more change, more fruit and more sunshine. I’ll keep you posted.