The icing on the cake

April 30, 2012

Google Alerts drew my attention to an article last week on Cambodia that got me thinking, and I thought I’d share the essence of it (- I won’t link to it: it was on a website I loathe, and I refuse to drive traffic to it. It was also abysmally written.).

It was about a new charity enterprise in Phnom Penh; a café that caters to Westerners while offering training and employment to local women. Now, there are plenty of places doing that sort of thing here in Phnom Penh. Restaurants like Romdeng and Friends are famous for taking the desperately needy and teaching them a useful trade which tourists can feel good about. They do an excellent job.

But this new café offers a slightly more esoteric skill for local women: cupcake decoration. Yes, this café (“an unexpected urban oasis in which your eyes and taste buds can feast on world class, magically-decorated cupcakes, cakes and cookies”) offers 12-week training sessions after which the women “receive a Hospitality Certificate with a specialty in Cake Decorating”. Then, “over the next year or two”, somewhere unspecified, “the women become world class cake decorating and sugar-craft professionals”.

So here’s my problem: there’s absolutely no doubt that Cambodia desperately needs education and training, and than any employment is better than none. But ‘sugar-craft professionals’? Is that really what this country needs? Shouldn’t we be concentrating on doctors, nurses, engineers and teachers?

Or have I got this wrong? Is this a good and valid way of trying to empower this country?

I don’t much care for cupcakes. As The Guardian’s Charlie Brooker put it recently: “Cupcakes used to be known as fairy cakes, until something happened a few years ago. I don’t know what the thing was, because I wasn’t paying attention. All I know is that suddenly middle-class tosspoles everywhere were holding artisan cupcakes aloft and looking at them and pointing and making cooing sounds and going on and bloody on about how much they loved them. I wouldn’t mind, but cupcakes are bullshit. And everyone knows it. A cupcake is just a muffin with clown puke topping … Actual slices of cake are infinitely superior, as are moist chocolate brownies, warm chocolate-chip cookies and virtually any other dessert you can think of. Cupcakes are for people who can’t handle reality.”

I’m sure most rational people would agree that cupcakes are a fad. So are they something we should be training people to decorate, to pin their future on? A few years ago we might have been teaching them to be Tamagotchi programmers, or Rubik’s Cube mechanics, after all.

The café was founded by “a mother of two from Brisbane, Australia, who found she could use her passion for cake decorating to provide economic opportunity for vulnerable women in Cambodia … with the affirmation and encouragement of her church”. I’m sure she’s great, and cares deeply about what she’s doing here.

But the sheer obnoxiousness of a bunch of self-righteous religious Queensland housefraus deciding that what Cambodia really needs is savagely overpriced cupcakes, notable for their “whimsical and sophisticated design” rather than just having a bake sale and sending the proceeds to a proper charity, makes me shake my head in sorrow.  But I’m willing to be corrected. Anyone who has any thoughts on this, I’d love to hear them.

And on the subject of Cambodian women, I came across the following video the other day, made, I think, by the country’s Ministry for Women. It’s utterly sweet, and well worth three minutes of anyone’s time. If this doesn’t make you smile, you’ve probably got icing for brains.


Myths and leg ends

April 27, 2012

I apologise for the incoherence of the last post, which I’m going to blame on all the drugs, and on smacking my head on the ground hard enough to need an MRI. But I’m quite a lot better now, and I’m finally out of hospital. It was a surprisingly poignant moment, crutching my way out of the cool, white, sterile environment of my hospital room and back into the loud, hot, pungent and chaotic streets of Phnom Penh. It felt doubly like going home.

I would just like to note that the Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh is a fantastic institution, and all the wusses who get evacuated to Bangkok don’t know what they’re missing. The staff was knowledgeable, kindly, attentive, helpful and amazingly friendly; the place was super-clean, and I can’t imagine being better looked after. There was a language barrier, and I would have been in a lot more trouble without Blossom’s constant care and attention. (She tells me the ER was quite Crimean, but I was apparently too busy telling the doctors that I’d been attacked by a dragon to remember) My leg now looks like a prop from the Cambodian Chainsaw Massacre, but I think that would have been the same anywhere in the world.

So Cambodian medical care isn’t nearly as bad as it’s made out to be. Although the steel rod in my leg comes from the US, I was proudly told, “from Washington State, USA.” To which all I could think of to say was “That’s great. I adore the Pacific North West.”

So now we’re embarking on the next, rather unexpected phase of our Cambodian adventure. The lift still isn’t in at our flat, and the latest date for its installation is a month hence. But the landlord has offered me a room in his home on the ground floor, so I don’t have to hop up six floors. I don’t think I’ll take him up on it, though. But life is going to be a bit tough for a while.

But I’m hoping that this will be the last time I write about my difficulties with my extremity in extremis. The next six weeks will be hell, and every aspect of my life will be affected, but, really, having to shave while balancing on one leg and not being able to carry a cup of coffee are just minor inconveniences. Estimates suggest that between one in 230 and one in 300 Cambodians have one or more amputations, the highest proportion in the world. I can still earn a living, and I’ll heal. In that context, in this country, to complain would be, I think, tasteless.

Give me a break

April 22, 2012

Last Friday night, as we were preparing to go out to dinner, Blossom upbraided me for having a rip in my boxer shorts. ”Who’s going to know? It’s not like I’m going to be in an accident and have a bunch of nurses notice the state of my underwear,” I said.

Fate duly considered itself tempted.

So I’d been pottering along the street, on my way home, when I tripped off a high curb on an unlit corner, and fell over. I tried to get back up, but my right leg wouldn’t work, and I did a faceplant into the road, to my great consternation. Eventually I managed to pull myself into a tuk-tuk and got home, where I stepped out and promptly hit the deck. The landlord heard me, and got Blossom, and they rushed me to the nearest hospital. Tibian and fibia both broken; I’d need a steel rod and screws inserted, stat.

Cambodia doesn’t have a stellar reputation for the quality of its healthcare. Most expats have good medical insurance, with evacuation options to get you airlifted to Bangkok or Singapore. But, for various complicated reasons, I didn’t have access to my passport. I was also in quite a lot of pain. So we decided to do it here.

All of the surgeons spoke French, so we discussed our options in my feeble schoolboy facsimile of the language, and then they wheeled me off, to the operating room, and spent two hours playing Meccano with my lower limb. So far, so good. The big worry is getting an infection, so that’s being carefully monitored. I’m on various drips, and have a catheter inserted somewhere fairly unexpected. The nurses are wonderful and smiley and seem pretty competent; I have to have salvos of injections every few hours, but they’re done very gently.

Actually, my leg hurts like a bugger. My surgeon doesn’t seem to be a big believer in pain meds, and my piteous cries for Vicodin or pethidine go unheeded. Which is odd, because I’m paying for this. It is fairly cheap, though: about $800 for the op, and $150 a night for the spiffy room.

Oh, and they cut my torn boxer shorts (and trousers) off with a pair of scissors. So at least that’s one less thing to worry about.

The price of justice

April 18, 2012

In my job, I have to deal with a lot of property developments; Phnom Penh is full of half-built grand skyscrapers looming above the skyline. Last week I had to write a story about a new development on Cambodia’s south coast, on an island called Koh Puos, or Snake Island. It turned out I’d actually stumbled across the island last year, and had been horrified by what the developers were trying to do to this pristine little patch of paradise.

But as I researched the development, and made a few calls, a far more horrifying story emerged; one that seems to have much to do with the state of Cambodia today.

In 2006 the Cambodian People’s Party, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, was approached by a Russian property developer who wanted to buy an island. So they let him.

Alexander Trofimov created a Cambodian shell company to buy Snake Island. With money seemingly no object, he said he would also link the island to the mainland with a 900-metre suspension bridge. No figures were published, but the number $300 million was often bandied around. No one knows where the money came from, but Cambodia has consistently refused to sign up to international money laundering agreements. No one knows where much of the money has gone, but Cambodia is, sadly, famous for the scale of its corruption.

Trofimov produced a book of seemingly cut-and-pasted designs that he said would encompass a $200 million resort consisting of 900 villas, a dolphin aquarium, two hotels, a shopping centre and a marina – all crammed onto the tiny island. The website for the project looks fabulous. The bridge is now complete.

However, the project was slowed considerably when it emerged that Alexander Trofimov wasn’t who he said he was, but was in fact called Stanislav Molodyakov. This fact emerged after he was charged with raping 19 underage Cambodian girls aged between six and 15, some of whom he found when they were collecting cans on the beach to sell. Molodyakov also turned out to be on the run from Russia, and wanted by Interpol for sex offences against six children under the age of 10 in Russia.

ImageStanislav Molodyakov

Luckily for Snake Island, two more Russian businessmen seamlessly emerged to take over the project, representing a Cypriot holding company that, it later transpired, had owned the Koh Puos project from the start.

Luck was also on Trofimov’s side; he went to trial, and was eventually sentenced to eight years, although he faced up to 20 years on each charge. This might help to explain why there are quite as many paedophiles as there are in Cambodia. The judge accepted that Trofimov had paid as little as $5 and as much as $2,000 for sex with girls but he reduced the sentence “because he apologized and, as a foreigner, did not know the local laws.”

Even more luckily for Trofimov, he was released after just four years, after being granted a royal pardon. It was noted after his release that he hadn’t served the hardest of times: he had been given an especially comfortable private cell, and was frequently allowed out for the evening.


Once out of prison, Trofimov promptly disappeared. Interpol are still looking for him; the Russians want him, and an arrest warrant has been issued for him in Cambodia. The local police claim, somewhat unconvincingly, that he’s in Vietnam or Thailand. But really, if you were a predatory paedophile with access to stacks of cash and friends in very high places (a royal pardon!) where better to be than Cambodia?

This makes me sad.

If you know where Alexander Trofimov is, I’d love to know.

Water, then beer

April 11, 2012

I know many of you might be waiting for more news on the ‘bin baby’ story, but I’m proceeding slowly with getting more details and protecting peoples’ privacy. It’s a wonderful, if heartrending, story, and deeply moving, but I’m not going to sensationalise it. There are too many cultural nuances that I don’t fully understand yet at play. But I’ll keep you posted.

Instead, here are a few random things: Our landlords came for the rent the other day. They also gave us five pounds of green mangos, and an invitation to a party, which we couldn’t read, as it was in Khmer.  It turned out to be a huge event, to celebrate the lives of the landlord’s parents. And we got to go to all of it, which was profoundly touching.

The day started with the parents climbing up a stupa erected on the pavement outside our flat, and being ritually bathed and purified.

Then a cohort of monks led several hours of chanting. This was rather mesmerising; after a while I thought I was hearing elements of dub reggae and Belgian techno music.

In the evening there was dinner for 300; they blocked the road and erected tents along the street.

Blossom with Theary and Lina, nieces of our landlord.

Then there was dancing, into the small hours.

This is our landlord Mr Sokha, gettin’ on down.

I ended up being hand-fed pieces of questionable meat by the local chief of police, who now loves me, and offers me beer every time I see him. Even when I’m on my way to work.

This is part of my random series of strange houses in Cambodia.

This is apparently a house, for people to live in, built by some rich businessman for his family. Personally, I think it looks like it ought to be the Great Hall of the People in North Korea, but no, it’s a family house.

We went on an architectural tour of Phnom Penh later over the weekend, and what was most noticeable was how many of the old buildings had been taken over by squatters after people flooded back to PP following the Khmer Rouge era. Beautiful French colonial hotels, churches, schools; all were now partitioned into tiny makeshift spaces holding whole families. Which makes this particular house look wrong on far too many levels.

Little Things

April 5, 2012

I was on my way home from work, sitting regally in a tuk-tuk as it wove its way through the endlessly fascinating rush hour traffic. At one point we got stuck crossing a busy boulevard, and a knot of motorcycles formed around us.

I found myself looking directly at a girl on a moped, about three feet away, who was looking at me. We were both just blankly staring, in that distracted, mind- somewhere-else way that one does, when we both noticed we were looking, by default, closely at each other. The was a pause of about two seconds while we both evaluated the situation. Then she just smiled, a big, happy, life affirming smile, from ear to ear.

I smiled back at her, and then the traffic loosened, and we went in our respective directions. And I was thinking to myself: ‘I love this country’.

Back in England, smiling at a stranger in the street would be probable cause for a bout of fisticuffs. But here, the natural inclination is to smile, to be happy, to be welcoming, accepting, cheery.

It was only a little thing, a tiny and insignificant moment. But, it seems to me, that the little things add up. And a smile from a stranger in London can put a spring in your step. Here, where everyone smiles at you, it makes you bouncy all day long.

I’m writing this sitting in a quiet bar (called The Pub, which makes life easier for both me and Blossom: when I say I’m going to the pub, she knows where I am) where the lady behind the bar, after pouring my beer, silently offered me a huge slice of the green mango she was eating. Which was delicious. Such a small thing, again, but the little things add up. They add up to living somewhere with simpler values, where people are inclined to like one another, and to treat each other well. And I love that.

Later: A few minutes after I wrote the above, the nice lady behind the bar proudly showed Blossom and I a picture of her baby. ”How old is she?” we asked. ”I don’t know. I found her in a rubbish bin behind Wat Phnom seven months ago.”

As I said, the little things add up, to become big things. It took Blossom 10 minutes to stop crying.

This is a story I’ll probably be pursuing.