Candy Dead

August 25, 2012

So, an interesting few minutes just now. 

I had asked Mr Sokha, my saintly landlord, if he could put a picture hook up for me. I thought this would be politic, as it’s his wall, and he’s always running about with a tool belt on, leading me to think he built this place all by himself. And, I hoped, it might help him to ignore the terrible gouges I’ve made at ankle level throughout the flat with my unrestrained wheelchairing. 

So, I asked him if he could do this about two weeks ago. He finally turned up to do it today, and, sadly, his DIY skills had been somewhat overestimated, by me, at least.

Now, I can do a bit of DIY. Putting in a picture hook would take, oh, I dunno, about three seconds. But today’s performance took about an hour. We had a hammer drill, rawlplugs, lots of bits of bent wire, extension cords, tape measures, carpenters’ pencils, you name it. 

The picture I wanted to put up is, I think, the single most expensive thing I’ve ever bought in my life, a Craigie Aitchison print of sumptuous beauty. It had taken me a lot of effort to get it out here to Cambodia, and it represented, to me, my commitment to this country, and to being here and not somewhere else. 

But, obviously, Mr Sokha knew nothing of that. It looks, to be honest, like a crayon drawing of a dead dog, done by a five-year-old. So he, not unreasonably, kept tucking it under his arm, or gripping it in his teeth, as he flailed away at the wall, while I looked on nervously.

So I told Lyta, his neice and my right-hand woman, that, just in passing, the picture cost me somewhere in the region of a year’s rent. Mr Sokha, on hearing this, removed it from under his arm and looked at it, then looked at me. 

I don’t think there could have been a clearer or more precise moment of clarification of the madness of the value of art. We both laughed, long and hard. 

So the picture is up. I wonder how long it’ll stay there; you have to be optimistic. I am. I told him, via Lyta, that next week I want him to remove a wall sconce, so I can put up a vast photograph of a Phnom Penh street scene I’ve fallen in love with. He nodded enthusiastically at the news. He, almost certainly, thinks I’m mad. 

Isn’t it great, the cultural melange?


August 25, 2012


Running to stand still

August 19, 2012

So, I’ve been thinking about chickens over the last few days. I quite like chickens. I used to have to look after a small herd of them, and they were easy to deal with. Newly-laid eggs are a minor miracle. And a happy chicken is a delicious chicken.

Miserable chickens don’t taste nearly as good. Especially battery-reared ones, fed on fishmeal, which taste distinctly … fishy. So, anyway, I’m all in favour of being nice to chickens.

And so are the people at PETA. I think the people at PETA are generally well-meaning, but morons. My feeling is that if you can catch and kill an animal with your bare hands, then you can eat it. (That’s why I don’t eat tigers.)

But anyway, some people from PETA held a protest this week in Phnom Penh, by climbing into a metal cage outside KFC, to draw attention to their ruthless treatment of my galline chums.

Cambodia is a country beset with problems. Endemic corruption, non-existent healthcare and education, chronic, grinding poverty, sex-slavery, disease – you name it, if it’s bad, it’s here. So to focus on the state of chicken farming seems, to me, to be slightly missing the point, like complaining about the softness of the loo paper on the Titanic. (And the chicken KFC uses here apparently comes from the US anyway.)

So these two clueless PETA nimrods climbed into a cage outside KFC on one of Phnom Penh’s main boulevards. A few bemused people watched them – at the most the crowd was estimated at 11. Eventually the police turned up and arrested them, before realising that they were simply westerners who happened to be dumber than a box of rocks, and sending them on their way.

A clearly baffled police spokesman said “We wanted to know the reason for the protest because it’s strange. In Cambodia, no one wants to be caged, but they got into the cage by themselves.”

And on the subject of making a rod for your own back, I’ve started going to the gym. Only because I’m working on walking, and need to use an exercise bicycle and a pool.

But I’ve been reminded why I don’t like gyms, and haven’t set foot inside one since I was 15, and discovered I could choose snooker as an option for Games, rather than the weightlifting I was doing.

Gyms are horrid places. Mine, like all of them, I suspect, is full of weirdly overstuffed men gazing lovingly at themselves in the mirrors as they flex their overinflated biceps. And the music is epically terrible.

And the running machines. I really don’t get them. My gym is surrounded by grassland, and has large windows. So these preening tossers take a taxi across town so they can look at fields while running on a $5,000 machine to do something they could do for nothing five feet away. Do these people not understand the concept of cognitive dissonance? If you like running, why not run somewhere? Run to the gym, have a shower and be done with it. It just seems like your hobby got commodified, and sold back to you. Idiots.

So I was sitting glumly on the old exercise bike (I promise you I’d be riding a real one if I had two good legs) and pondering how I’d improve the gym. More armchairs, I decided. No gay eurodisco music. Books. Then I remembered that such places exist. They’re called libraries.

And on that pretentious note, here is a picture I took the other morning of the Moon and Venus. I thought it was kinda cool.

No news; some views

August 11, 2012

I was going to write about Deputy Phnom Penh Police Chief Phuong Malay, who has been in a truly tiny amount of trouble this week, for suggesting that a woman who miscarried after being kicked in the stomach by a policeman during a land rights protest might like to have sex with him to replace the child. But, mindful of the pleas for me not to be too depressing, I won’t.

Instead, I bring you Phnom Penh Landmarks From My Balcony, Part One of a series of one.

Phnom Penh is undergoing a convulsion of development, with new buildings being thrown up everywhere you look. From my spectacularly central eyrie, I can see almost everything that tourists come for; in six months time, I suspect I won’t be able to see any of those things.

So, in the name of history, here are some landmarks, and my view of them.

This is the Central Market, or New Market, or Psar Thmey, which is a truly wonderful building. This was while it was being renovated recently.

And this is my view of it.

The Vann Molyvann-designed Independence Monument.

And the bit of it I can see.

Phnom Penh’s most important temple, Wat Onaloum.

And Wat Onaloum from Chez Moi.

The home of the king of Cambodia, the Royal Palace. The king has just ordered the six-lane road in front of the palace to be closed to traffic, because he doesn’t like traffic noise. It’s done wonderful things for congestion on neighbouring streets. He gets about by helicopter, mainly. Probably made of ivory.

And the Royal Palace from my balcony.


And, finally, just for the hell of it, this is what dawn looked like this morning:





Back in the saddle again

August 8, 2012

Well, I made it back to Cambodia, despite the best efforts of a number of airlines and airport operators. It’s good to be home.

This is the point where I should reflect epiphanically on the differences between the UK and Cambodia; sadly, I can’t. Both countries are exactly as I remember them. Britain is currently convulsed with the Olympics, like a child putting its fingers in its ears and singing, to block out the things it doesn’t want to hear, and who am I to gainsay that? People have worked very hard to have two weeks of sport to enjoy, and if they want to shut out the rest of the world and concentrate on showjumping and waterpolo success, then why not? If they want to trivia themselves into irrelevance, then be my guest. I’m all for happy Brits. Just don’t bother buying a newspaper there right now, if you want some news.

Back in the Penh, practically no one knows about the Olympics, being mostly too busy getting enough to eat. My gifts of Olympic-themed keyrings and the like got quizzical but cheery responses, but if I’d brought back an armful of high-calorie meals and distributed them along the airport road, I think I might have made a more positive difference.

And the good stuff about Cambodia has, unsurprisingly, stayed the same. Apart from the baking heat, I found myself laughing and joking with strangers within 30 seconds of being wheeled off the plane. Blossom’s bougainvillea looks magnificent. The Sokhas seemed delighted to see me once I made it back to Chez Moi. Which was nice.

After years spent living abroad, I knew how the last 10 days would go: too little time with anyone; too much time spent running (hobbling) from place to place trying to cram everything in. It was wonderful to see people who matter to me; it was sad to miss others.

To everyone I did see: thank you. You were all great, and I appreciate your time and your care. To the person, who wishes to remain anonymous, who cooked me pork chops and Yorkshire puddings: truly, that was a highlight. To the people I didn’t get to see: next time, for sure. Or, just get out here. You wouldn’t regret it.

Well, the word on the leg is that it’s all good. My genial long-bone trauma specialist in Oxford said that the Cambodian surgeons did a fine job, on the whole. (“What’s that scar there?” he asked, pointing at the 25-stitch monster down the front of my leg. “I’ve never seen that before. No need for that at all.”) The bone is 95 percent healed, the bolts seated nicely in place (“Typical French-trained surgeons, going in through the tendons rather than around,” he snorted) and it all looked, to his practiced eye, well and happy.

I still can’t walk, though. It turns out that I’ve forgotten how to; the muscles and joints have withered and atrophied to such an extent that if I try, I cross the room flailing about as if I were on fire. A few weeks of extensive physiotherapy should sort that out, I’m told. So the long nightmare isn’t quite over yet; it is, however, much closer to ending. And apparently I shouldn’t even limp.

Being back in the UK is odd; comforting to see family and friends and get looked after a bit, after the last tough Blossomless weeks. But I miss Phnom Penh. England is Olympics-obsessed, but the country is just beginning to realise it isn’t going to win very much at all: at least Cambodia doesn’t have unrealistic expectations.

Other things I miss:

When I last flew in to Phnom Penh, it took exactly six minutes to get from my seat on the plane to sitting in a tuk-tuk. And they let Blossom into the baggage hall to help me with my bag.

It took me four months to learn my first Khmer swear word. Usually this takes less than a day. I think this says something about the natural modesty and good-natured attitude of the Cambodian people.

This is a selfish one, but I don’t care. I can take my $200 shirts and have them copied, stitch for stitch, for $7. Plus about the same for the material. I’m starting to have trouble closing my wardrobe doors.

One of our coterie of tuk-tuk drivers is called ’Expensive.’ He is not. Our cleaning lady is called ’Hot.’ She is nice.

Lots of buildings in Phnom Penh have airplane warning lights on their roofs. It’s a sweet idea, but a bit pointless. There’s a building further down my street with one: it has seven floors. If a plane is coming in that low, it’s curtains for everyone, light or no light.

Sometimes, if it’s a breezy night, I’ll wake in the morning to find the hallway carpeted with bougainvillea flowers from the balcony; dozens of purple and carmine petals strewn in little drifts. It’s never a bad way to start the day. (Until I plough through them in the wheelchair, tracking streaks across the marble floor.)

Geckos. How can you fail to love having tiny green dragons skittering about on the ceiling? And eating those insects? I couldn’t have invented a better system myself.