Massaging; the truth

June 28, 2012

So today, I had my first ever massage. At least, the first massage I’ve ever had in a spa. As many of you might know, Blossom is a massage guru, and spends her life in spas, so I’ve heard a lot about them, but have managed to avoid ever having to set foot inside one until today.

I wanted a leg massage (who would have thought such a thing existed?) so I had to phone them up and warn them of the carnage that was going to be facing them, but they took it in their stride, as it were.

I’ve never really got the whole spa thing, and, to be honest, today didn’t convince me. Just as I’ve always wondered why, for many women, the height of sybaritic indulgence is a bath with candles around it, I’ve also never got why you’d want to be pummelled while naked and listening to un-music. Perhaps it’s some sort of atavistic flight-or-flight response, but I found being cocooned in a series of towels while jungle noises floated in from the stereo made me fearful of being attacked by an anaconda at any moment.

Perhaps for me there is a difference between being peaceful and being relaxed. I’d have been more relaxed if they’d let me play Zombie Gunship on my iPad while they ministered to me, but they seemed unhappy about that. So instead I gazed into the weave of a super-fluffy towel, listening to the faint sound of traffic in the distance outside, and wondered what I was missing.

But, to be fair, it was pretty good. The girl who had the bad luck to draw the short straw that was me was superb. And those hands! You know that mechanical cargo lifting suit that Sigourney Weaver wears at the end of Aliens, when she fights the mama alien? This girl had hands like that. She could have torn apart buildings, thrown trucks around and pulverised diamonds to dust with those fingers. It was awesome.

What was also awesome was her tenderness and gentleness when she needed it. And the fact that she seemed not to mind dealing with my feet. Even I don’t like dealing with my feet, preferring to keep them very much at arm’s length, and mine were in a particularly manky state after their recent travails. But she tended to them like she was Mary Magdalen. Such a simple thing, but such a powerful reminder of the power of touch.

One of the things that struck me was the curious intimacy of massage. After my leg, my therapist had a go at my shoulders and head, in what is probably known as a head massage. There was a lot of scalp rubbing going on, which I could have taken or left, to be honest. (I could really have left it when I got to a quite formal dinner later and discovered that I looked like Worzel Gummidge.) But during some of the face bits, the therapist would at points gently cup my face between her palms, and it felt like something tender that a lover might do. Which I found a little disconcerting, to be honest.

But on the whole, it was great. My leg felt a whole lot better afterwards. Bits of me smelled wonderful. I was cheerful and at ease with the world. There is something astonishingly wonderful, if worryingly self indulgent, about having another human being focus so totally on you for an hour. Especially for less that $20. So I’m now officially a little bit in love with Miss Jiang Theary of Bodia Spa. I won’t be rushing back, but I won’t be discounting it entirely, either.

[I’m interested to see how many hits a blog post with the tags ‘massage’ and ‘Phnom Penh’ might get. So if you came here looking for hints on sex tourism: shame on you.]

In an entirely unrelated note, here is the latest in my occasional series of Weird Cambodian Houses. I look at this little fella, in the middle of the shot, from my balcony, and every day it makes me laugh. It occupies the ground space of a station wagon, and can’t have been popular with the neighbours. But it’s home for a whole family.


Pearls and Swine

June 23, 2012

Phnom Penh used to be a rather beautiful city. The Pearl of the Orient, as everyone tells you. That may be stretching things a little, but there is no denying that the French architectural influence, filtered through a Khmer sensibility, with Chinese characteristics, produced a little city that was, once, a gorgeous little confluence of East and West. Three rivers formed a gigantic X on the map where they met and then debouched toward the sea, and the city, sitting on the west bank, was home to progressive and enlightened architectural and urban design concepts.

Pictures of Phnom Penh during the 1960s show a city with tree-lined streets, wildly diverse architecture, plazas, and open and accessible public spaces. A recent book by long-term resident John-Michel Filippi is utterly fascinating when it comes to the riches still available to those who care to look.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said in 1967 that he’d like to see his city-state develop along similar lines to Phnom Penh. Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt expressed how impressed he was with Phnom Penh’s “charm and grace” the same year.

Nowadays, not so much. In my job as property dude at the local paper, I get a ringside seat at what’s going on. And it’s not pretty. The skyline is ringed with half-completed high-rises, scattered like dragon’s teeth, testament to the rapaciousness of Korean property developers, and their inability to secure sufficient funding to build things no one wants or needs.

The latest kerfuffle in town has been with the possible redevelopment of Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium. The stadium, built in 1963 on a 40-hectare site, was formerly an old colonial racetrack on the outskirts of the city. Designed by Cambodian architectural wunderkind Vann Molyvann, the 40-acre stadium was seen “not simply as a meeting place for sport but as a symbol of Cambodian rebirth” marking a break from its colonial past. The stadium was built for the 1963 Southeast Asian Peninsular Games, which were then cancelled.  Vann’s design was stunning, and is typical of the period known as the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, between independence from France in 1958 and the awfulness from 1970 onwards.

But, despite the fact that there is about a gazillion square feet of oversupply of office and residential space in this tiny city, developers are looking greedily at the few open feet of space left. While other cities in Asia of roughly similar size have between 8-12 percent of public open space, a planner at the Ministry of Land Management reportedly suggests Phnom Penh has roughly 3.5 percent. The biggest local developers said last week they weren’t planning anything there, apart from 10 skyscrapers along one edge. So that’s OK then.

Just after dawn or just before dusk and the Stadium pulses with life: the elderly dance to Khmer pop, energetic youth cluster along the brim of the stadium; hopeful Olympic and Paralympic athletes mix with joggers of various ages, nationalities and abilities around the stadium’s field, and others simply sit in enjoyment, or sell food and drink to the visitors. It is lively, happy, uncomplicated.

I was planning to go down to the Olympic Stadium this evening and take pictures of ordinary people of Phnom Penh having a good, sociable time. Unfortunately, it turns out to be impossible to hold an umbrella while on crutches, and the rain has fallen fearsomely today. But, to anyone who thinks that it’ll be easy to snap up the stadium and build gated communities: trust me, I’ll crawl a thousand miles over broken glass to make sure that you don’t. The ordinary people of Phnom Penh deserve that.

The academic Jeff Chase quotes a local, when asked why the stadium matters, saying “this is Phnom Penh’s house for all people.”

Blossom time

June 17, 2012

Well, Blossom has left. But before anyone jumps to the wrong conclusion, she has gone back to the UK to do a course which, upon her return in two months, will make us both exceedingly wealthy (that’s my plan, anyway).

So I’m sitting now in an expensive wine bar, with her wheels barely off the tarmac, celebrating my new-found freedom with a glass of $10 syrah, and already missing her.

So here and now would be an appropriate place to say thank you for her immense efforts over the last couple of months. Ever since my ambulant abilities were so rudely curtailed by attack dragons, Blossom has been a pillar of strength; I could not have done it without her.

Obviously marriage is about teamwork. But, having physically moved well outside our usual territory to what they call a ’frontier country’, Blossom was entitled to believe that our team would consist of the two of us. And it hasn’t. Due to the vagaries of the Phnom Penh sidewalk maintenance program (and the dragons), Blossom has been doing the work of two.

Much has been little things. She has taken me to the hospital innumerable times, foraged for my medications, arranged drivers, dealt sternly with those who might have taken advantage of my etiolated state, found me a wheelchair, cheerfully made me grilled cheese sandwiches and dentist appointments, massaged my foot and got my shirts ironed, none of which I could have done myself.

As many people who know me might attest, I can be bad tempered, cynical and rude. But Blossom has taken it all in her stride, even more than usual. She has made what would have been an almost impossible situation almost bearable, and done it with grace and good humour, and I’m not insensible of the debt I owe her.

Obviously, there have been moments. What marriage doesn’t have moments? But, really, I wouldn’t have put up with half of my shit over the last eight weeks. Querelous, in pain, hot and irritable, frustrated and depressed: I am not a model patient. At the beginning, when some potentially life-changing decisions had to be made, Blossom stepped up and made them, bravely. I couldn’t have been more proud.

For the next month or two, most things have been arranged for me. A swimming pool, for building up my strength. Tuk-tuk drivers to ferry me to work and back. And an exquisitely beautiful 20-year-old handmaiden to come in and cut up my mangos for breakfast.

And when I got home this evening, to our desolately empty apartment, I found a ham and cheese sandwich waiting for me in the fridge. That’s love, that is.

So, to Blossom: thank you. We both know that I couldn’t have got this far without you. Hurry back; we have new worlds to conquer, and I can’t do it without you.


Me, Blossom and our nephew Barclay in Idaho a few years ago. Spirit, innit?

Once upon a time, there was a little kingdom, far, far away, which was ruled by a one-eyed king. The king lived in a big palace, and had ruled over his people for many years. When he was a young prince, he had had to fight many battles against cruel enemies who wanted to take over the kingdom and rule it, but now his people were at peace.

In the middle of the capital city, there was a beautiful lake, and around the lake lived at least four thousand families. They were poor, but they were happy. But one day, one of the one-eyed king’s knights decided that he should have the lake all to himself, so that he could build a lot of houses and shops, and make himself a lot of money. 

The beautiful lake, as well as being home to all the poor people, was also popular with travelers from around the world, who came to watch the sun set over the water, and with people from all over the capital city, who came to relax with their families and fly kites and watch musicians play.

But the evil knight, who was called Lao Meng Khin, was a close friend and advisor to the king, and a member of the country’s senate, so the city authorities just gave him the lake on a 99-year lease.

The evil knight’s company, called Shukaku, is a joint venture agreement with a company from the kingdom of Inner Mongolia, called Erdos Hongjun Investment Corp.

No public hearings were held on the proposal to give the rights to the 133 hectares of the lake to Shukaku. Many people said that it wasn’t environmentally wise to fill in one of the blazingly-hot capital’s main aquifers. The one-eyed king told his people there had been a proper environmental impact report, but, unfortunately, no one but him has seen it.

The knight and his henchmen subjected the families around the lake to a campaign of threats and intimidation to get them to move, and most of the poor lake-dwellers eventually accepted inadequate compensation, or resettlement to a new village 20km away from their work and livelihoods.

Of course, some of the lake dwellers didn’t want to move from their homes to make way for an up-market residential and leisure complex. But Lao Meng Khin didn’t care. He arranged forced evictions and beatings, he illegally knocked down houses, and his henchmen beat some of the protestors unconscious with bricks and batons.

Last week 13 women, including a 72-year-old, were put in prison for 30 months for illegally occupying the lakeside land and “aggravated rebellion” after demonstrating on the site of their former homes.

The sentences, after a lawyer-less, three-hour trial, prompted an outcry from other kingdoms, but the knight and the king didn’t care. They were in charge, and no one was going to tell them what they should do. They had already ignored the World Bank, for instance, which had cut off their supply of riches given to them from other kindlier kingdoms to protest against the lake plans.

Now the lake is filled in with sand: no animals or birds live there any more, no children play around its margins. There is also no sign of any building work, or up-market housing and leisure facilities. The capital city is full of half-finished private housing projects which no one wants to live in, so there is no hurry to build this one. Except for the fact that 4,000 families lost their homes to satisfy the whims of the evil knight and the one-eyed king.

No one is living happily ever after.


The sandy area in the middle distance is where Boeung Kak Lake was. Soon to be a luxury gated housing development!

The lift is working.

Suddenly life is significantly more manageable. I can get in and out of our flat relatively easily.

Having just bought a wheelchair to propel myself around Casa Me, I was reminded of a wheelchair story, which has nothing to do with Cambodia, but I thought was funny.

A few years ago, I lived on a peaceful little island in the South China Sea, a few miles from Hong Kong. I shared a large, remote flat with a great friend called Johnny, where we partied quite hard, and lived a fairly ramshackle and cheerful existence.

One of Johnny’s more useful characteristics was that he came from a family with a noble history of scavenging, and he claimed it was in his blood to collect things that other people had discarded. This meant our flat was home to any number of unusual articles that Johnny had found by the side of the road: we had a dining table, for instance, that seated 25, which we had to put on the roof it was so big.

One day Johnny came home more than usually pleased with himself: passing a house where an elderly man had just died, he had spied a wheelchair, and deciding that the occupants had no further need of it, he liberated it, and added it to our collection of furniture.

The wheelchair proved extremely popular. It meant you could go to the fridge and get a beer without getting up. Johnny and I used to have epic physical fights over who should get to sit in it of an evening. The problem was eventually solved by Johnny scouring the island for further geriatric casualties, and relieving the families of their wheelchairs when they weren’t looking. By the time we moved out, we had four or five of them, and we disposed of them by setting them on fire and catapulting them off the roof. That was fun. We also used to race them up and down the unused road behind our flat, and both became extremely proficient at wheelies and other tricks.

During the period when we only had one in the house, I was at home, by myself, sitting in it, reading. It was a cold, wintry afternoon just before Christmas, and I’d moved the gas rings out of the kitchen and into the living room to provide some warmth. Hong Kong was not well set up for cold weather.

Suddenly there was a knock at the door, and on being told to come in, about a dozen or so Filippinas entered, led by our cleaner, Josie. Apparently they were going around the island singing Christmas carols to raise money for charity, and apparently, in a late-night moment of distraction, I had told Josie I’d be delighted if they visited me. As it happened, I was not delighted at all to have a house full of proselytising Christians, but I bore it manfully, rolled myself to the fridge for another beer, and told them to do their worst.

So they fell into rank, and proceeded to sing some carols. It wasn’t bad, really. The light was fading, and their clear, strong voices filled the gloomy room, lit only by the gas rings. I sipped my beer and nodded approvingly at them.

Finally they finished, and all looked at me expectantly. That was my cue to give them some money, so I leaped from the wheelchair to find my wallet. And the ladies started to squeal, and fell about in shock: one or two even fell to their knees with their hands raised in praise to the heavens. They thought the power of their singing had wrought a miracle, and restored my powers of walking.

They had, of course, not unreasonably, seen me in the wheelchair and thought I was occupying it through necessity, not sheer laziness, and Josie hadn’t told them otherwise. It was sad to have to disabuse them of the notion that they’d channeled god’s power and created a Christmas miracle, which they so wanted to believe in. It took them some time to calm down, but eventually I gave them far too much money and bundled them out of the door, all of us hideously embarassed. I used to see some of them around the island occasionally for years afterwards; we’d quickly look away, shamefaced.

So the dust is settling on the communal elections, only the third time they’ve been held in the modern era in Cambodia, and, with the final results dribbling in, against the odds, the opposition seems to have done better than expected.

The latest figures show that all the opposition parties polled 31 percent of the vote, up from 25 percent in 2007. However, the ruling CPP is still looking pretty comfortable, at 69 percent.

A couple of days before the election, our newspaper was passed some documents from the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, suggesting that CPP heavyweights Chea Sim, the President of the Senate, National Assembly President Heng Samrin, and army chief Pol Sareoun, as well as another senator, had been named as ‘persons of interest’ in what is known as Case 003, which the government, perhaps unsurprisingly, is fiercely opposed to.

In the documents, a UN investigator said the four senior members of the CPP held positions of authority in the Khmer Rouge regime and are key witnesses to atrocities committed against ethnic Vietnamese civilians living on the border with Cambodia.This ought to be a pretty big story. Sadly, it was deemed too sensitive to run on election weekend. I might have run it, had I been editor, but I’m pretty foolhardy. However The Age in Melbourne also got hold of the documents, and they happily ran them. I guess distance lends enchantment, and safety.

Meanwhile, there were the obvious charges of irregularities over voting, with intimidation, ghost voters and electoral roll sabotage all being widely reported.

Apart from the all-too-predictable victory for the CPP, the elections were quite good fun. I watched members of a Royalist party handing out 500 riel notes ($0.12) to potential voters; no one else looked surprised. Drinking was banned across the country for 24 hours… apparently. I did not see this.

Turnout was lower than previous elections, estimated at 61 percent, from 71 percent last time: observers said that perhaps people were “tired of voting and not seeing any change.” Voters all had their right forefinger dipped in indelible ink after casting their vote, so it is easy to tell who voted and who didn’t, which is a good way of starting a conversation, although not necessarily a popular one.

There were also a surprising amount of marches going on around Phnom Penh, with thousands of people with party flags and loudhailers, on the backs of trucks and on mopeds, trailing through the streets, and trying to avoid the sporadic but torrential monsoon rains.

I watched some of these from my balcony, having made it home for the first time in six weeks. I managed to do this on my crutches without the elevator, which is still not in. There are 150 steps up to the flat, so I reckon that’s equivalent to doing 150 pull-ups. My upper body is now seething with newly-emergent muscles. But my mood is not similarly improved. I’m in two minds about who are the biggest crooks in the country, the CPP, or Cambodian lift installers.

The lift: technically in, but not in service

                                                      A lift installer, busy impressing the hell out of me, on my stairs, 10am today.

And in a rare piece of good news just in, followers of this blog might remember a piece I wrote recently about a Russian paedophile called Alexander Trofimov. Apparently he has finally been re-arrested, in Phnom Penh, and will be deported to Russia.

A police spokesman told AFP that “police arrested him yesterday (Monday)… while he was hiding with a local family,” the spokesman said, adding that the Russian “loved the family’s daughter, who is 11 or 12 years old”.

“According to policy, we will have to expel him very soon,” he added.