The things we leave behind

September 25, 2012

When I was clearing out our flat in London, there were a few things that didn’t really fit properly anywhere. Valuable books and pictures went to my sainted and long-suffering mother, with vast thanks. Ordinary books, photos, kitchen implements and so forth went into a padlocked cubbyhole under the stairs, to be retrieved when needed, which is probably never. That’s one of the nice things about moving so dramatically across the globe: you find out what you really need. I brought one bag out here (admittedy the same huge one as that fetishist British spy was found zipped into in the bath a couple of years ago) and was refreshed by my zen-like sense of non-attachement. Sort of.

But there were a few things that were difficult to work out what to do with. One was my guitar amplifier. Since I never gig, or record, or, in fact, do anything anymore, this huge Peavey Bandit, which I bought when I was 15, seemed surplus to requirements. But, by god, I loved that amp. I maintain that it would blow out your windows if you pushed it past 8, volume-wise. I grew up with that amp, pushing it to practice sessions in a wheelbarrow at times, because it weighed a metric ass-load.

But I never used it, not in the last 10 years. So a smart friend, who owns a warehouse with space to house it, offered to take it off my hands. He apparently hopes his son might want to use it in a few years. I hope so, but I imagine that tube amps will be about as useful as fax-machine polish in the future.

Another deeply valued thing was my bicycle, and I gave that away too. I originally got it from a gang of bike-obsessed thieves, who had spent innumerable evenings putting stolen parts together in an effort to create the perfect bike, then had grown up and got real jobs. It had stupefyingly smooth wheel bearings, a titanium seat post, cranks and derailleurs and a headset that were non-pareil, but it looked like shit, deliberately.

I used it for 10 years in London, and it was a perfect ride. I once forgot it for a week against some railings outside Victoria Station, and it was still there when I went back, it looked that crap. But it was probably worth £1,500 in parts alone. I gave it to a friend who probably just wanted a way home that night, without springing for a taxi. I miss it.

The big thing I gave away on moving to Cambodia was my stereo speakers. I’m quite keen on music, and these speakers were wonderful: I’d smuggled them into the UK from the States to avoid paying duty on them, and they were punchy, crisp and very, very loud.

So, anyway, I was stewing a bit about my music recently, and finding myself in the grip of a sort of musical lassitude. To be honest, I was wondering if the music mojo had deserted me. I might be too old. The rebellion at the heart of proper music might be passing me by. I’m practically ancient now: the rebellion isn’t nescessarily that sustainable.

But then a wonderful thing happened. Back in the UK in August, I saw the friend I’d given the speakers to, with the stipulation that I wanted them back, and the confident expectation that I’d never see them again. And, to my infinite surprise, he’d brought them with him, and cheerfully handed them over. So big respect to Richard, for being a man of his word, and an awesome friend.

So I lugged the speakers back to Phnom Penh, with some difficulty. And life suddenly became more complete. I’m sitting writing this on my balcony, in a warm breeze, listening to my album of the month, Weather Systems by Anathema, loudly, and mentally hugging myself with happiness. If you love something, set it free, and if it comes back, then it was meant to be. According to loonies, and Hallmark Cards. But my speakers, and by extension, music, have come back to me. I’m slightly worried about what to dream of next.

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Ceiling alligators

September 20, 2012

One of the things I hadn’t given much thought to before moving to Cambodia was the difference in the fauna and flora between Phnom Penh and Shepherds’ Bush. (although I’ve just got an email from my property agents in Shepherds’ Bush, asking for many hundreds of pounds to sort a cockroach infestation in a neighbouring flat. They couldn’t handle the cockroaches in Cambodia. I believe my karma is probably eternally compromised, the amount of them I’ve dispatched. Handy things, crutches, sometimes.)

Obviously I’d been aware of the differences between the two countries to some extent: the baskets of deep-fried tarantulas you get offered at bus stations was a bit of a giveaway that there are some odd beasts out here. Riding a motorbike along a mountain road near the coast, Blossom and I were surprised when a length of discarded rope in the road lifted one end of itself up and blew out its hood, to reveal itself as a 12-foot cobra. But most things seem generally benign. Until last weekend.

I love geckos. Truly. But there is a gecko-variant that exists out here, called a tokai. These are geckos writ large, and they’re beautiful. But big.

I had suspected there was one in the vicinity for a few days. Geckos, cool as they are, crap whenever they feel like it, and blowing gecko shit off the balcony table is a usual start to the Cambodian day. But I’d noticed a number of droppings that seemed to be of a different scale: think Oxo cube rather than rice grain.

Finally, the beast revealed itself, appearing on the ceiling, like a candy-striped crocodile. I thought this was OK, if slightly unnerving. No one wants a crocodile on the ceiling, but I thought I could co-exist with it. Cambodians maintain that having a house tokai is very good luck, but that might have more to do with taking the easy option, rather than admitting that there’s a multi-dimensional crocodile roaming the premises.

So we entered a state of uneasy co-existence. Until it decided to station itself at the doorway of Blossom’s room. This thing could comfortably have eaten a small dog, and it refused to leave its post. I live on the balcony mainly, and the beer lives in the fridge, so I had to pass within inches of this quasi-komodo dragon, fangs dripping with poison, with an evil leer on its pointy face, quite often.

I wouldn’t have minded too much, if Wikipedia hadn’t told me that they can bite, and won’t let go unless you submerge them in water. Not having a full bath near by, I was at a bit of a loss.

So I was reduced to throwing a variety of plastic forks at it through the bedroom window, in an effort to make it relocate itself. This did not work, tokais being seemingly impervious to plastic cutlery, no matter how well aimed. Eventually I manned up and shouted at it while waving a sarong menacingly, and it departed.

It turns out that Lyta, my major-domo, had let herself in to the flat the day before, saw the beast, and turned tail and fled. So, auspicious or not, even the seasoned locals don’t mess with tokais.

There is no moral to this story, except for the possible interpretation that I’m more cowardly than I’d like to think. But fear of the unknown is surely a bigger problem than lizards. Even if they’re the size of alligators, and look poised to eat you. It was an experience, and I’m up for that. So hurrah for tokais.

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The giant tokai of death. Obviously this picture doesn’t really give you a sense of its massive size, but, believe me, it’s monstrous. Really.

Good times?

September 16, 2012

I got a phone call this afternoon from a contact I’ve been cultivating, with the news that he’d managed to secure me an interview with Japan’s biggest investor in Cambodia. This is a man, whom, as far as I can work out, has never given an interview before in his life, yet is worth billions, and is pumping quite a lot of that into this poor country. So I was quite pleased at the news.

I told my contact that I owed him a drink, and he said he was already in a bar on the riverside. I looked at my watch (1530hrs) and said I’d see him there. Because until some grown-up works it out, I’m my own boss. Leave the office mid-afternoon to go and drink? Get treated like an adult? Hell yes.

It was a hazy, cool and overcast afternoon, and as my tuk-tuk chugged up Sisowath Boulevard, I found myself gazing happily at the tendrils and curlicues of the roof of the Royal Palace, extending below the canopy of tamarind trees. A warm breeze was blowing off the Mekong, carrying the essence of garlic and roast pork from the barbecue sellers lining the river’s edge.

For a moment, I forgot where I was, lost in a blizzard of sensory happiness. “I’ve managed to arrange my life to a point where it’s this magical?” I thought to myself. “Bloody hell.” Buddhist temples, exotic smells, wildly odd food, professional autonomy – it’s a long way from prep school. And I’ve actually made it.

I’ve been accused recently of somehow insulting people who haven’t managed to live here, because of my enthusiasm for this country. Now, if I gave a single solitary what brainwashed sheeple thought, I’d probably be miserable on the Tube in London right now, living the standard unthinking.

But, in fairness to those who think I give Cambodia an easy ride, because it’s magical, I’m happy to acnowledge that it has its downsides. Last week, in a bar, the question “so what brought you to Cambodia?” of an expat teacher brought the answer “Doing Asian chicks,” to which I nodded understandingly, while backing carefully away towards the door.

Talking today to my editor about a story that hasn’t been widely reported, he mentioned that it could involve death for any reporter. “He killed his own brother to get his hands on the family money, you know,” he said, talking about a businessman of Richard Bransonian stature here. “Shot him in the head, himself.” There’s press freedom, and there’s living. It can be a choice, out here.

But for all that, I wouldn’t change a thing. This place isn’t for everyone, and I don’t judge anyone for it. But for me, jungly temples, the smell of incense, smiley people, warm breezes, super-abundant fruit and life informed by Buddhist philosophy make this like somewhere I’d like to believe I dreamed of as a child.

I wish that the way the western world is set up, with mortgages and school fees and credit card debt strangling movement and creativity, wasn’t the way things are. I think most of the people I count as my friends would prosper and make this world a better place if they could aim their energies here, rather than the moribund consumption-obsessed western world. But we work with what we’ve got.

But, for a moment today, looking at the roofs of the Royal Palace peeking through the mist and the trees by the river, laughing with my tuk-tuk driver, life was close to being as good as it gets*. And how often do you get to say that?

*Dear Fate, please don’t consider yourself tempted.

Ros the Boss

September 1, 2012

A standard feature of cocktail-party chit-chat here is the question “So, what brought you to Cambodia?”

It’s a fair question – this isn’t an easy place to be, in many ways, and discovering people’s motives for coming to an intensely poor and underdeveloped country gives you a pretty good insight into their character and motivations quite quickly.

My answer to that question, quite simply, is ‘Ros Sereysothea’. She changed my life.

It was a tiny little thing, to begin with, and yet has ended up altering the course of my life very profoundly. One lazy Sunday a few years ago I was flicking through The Observer, and came across an article by Nick Kent, the fabulously dissolute music journalist, about the Cambodian music scene of the late 1960s.

As he described it, the influence of American Forces radio, leaking over the border during the war in Vietnam, had a profound effect on Cambodia, which was, at the time, progressive and enlightened and enjoying something of a cultural renaissance. Suddenly all the musicians in Cambodia were listening to The Doors and Hendrix and the Beach Boys, and they liked it.

So these guys took all these new sounds, and mixed them up with their Khmer stuff, and all of a sudden had this weird hybrid, of microtonal singing and psychedelic surf pop.

“That sounds kind of cool” I thought, and almost forgot about it. But didn’t, quite, and ended up looking it up online. And became, instantly, smitten.

There is nothing in the world quite like the Cambodian rock ‘n’ roll of the 1960s and ‘70s. It is unearthly, yet recognisable. These guys would take old staples, like House of the Rising Sun, or Black Magic Woman, and turn them into something else entirely. It is as if someone had taken Californian music, and sent it to Mars to be re-imagined.

So I got really quite into this, and tracked down everything I could find by these musicians, and began to delve into their stories. And, though that, I began to learn more about modern Cambodian history.

The most compelling story was that of a young woman called Ros Sereysothea, but her story is also the story of all of these remarkable musicians, in many ways. She was born into a peasant family in Battambang Province, got noticed for her astonishing voice, moved to Phnom Penh, became the country’s biggest star and helped to kick-start a wonderfully self-confident musical and cultural revolution. Then, in April 1975, the Khmer Rouge won the civil war, and everything went horribly wrong.

Ros, apparently, spent the next couple of years digging ditches and starving and pretending to be anyone else. Eventually, the KR discovered her identity, and killed her. Along with one third of the country’s population. In one of the most evil periods that mankind has ever visited upon itself.

The same went for all, and I mean all, of the other musicians. All of them. Murdered. Not overdosing in seedy hotel rooms, but taken outside and killed, with an axe to the back of the head. For the crime of being a musician.

“Wow” I thought. “There’s a story.” And a while later, I had to take up a pile of accumulated holiday time, and decided to go to Cambodia, to see what I could find, and maybe write a book about Ros Sereysothea.

What there might be to find was: ‘nothing’. The Khmer Rouge killed everyone, and burned everything else. No records, no archives, nothing. So my book was somewhat stalled; I’m still considering it, but am not sure I can do justice to the scale of the crimes that went on here, and I’m not sure I want to try. I don’t want to exploit the incredible, indescribable suffering that this country went through – it’s not mine to use like that.

But I fell in love with Cambodia on that first trip. With the people, the culture, the climate, the sense of being on the verge of something new. So now I live here. Because of Ros Sereysothea. The Khmer Rouge might have murdered her, but, I hope, something of her lives on. She deserves that.

I adore the music that was left behind.  The wonderful Dengue Fever, from Los Angeles and Cambodia, are keeping the flame alive. The Cambodian Space Project are also doing their bit. But there are people like Pan Ron, who is my heroine, who made music in the late 1960s that prefigured dub reggae and heavy metal, and astonishes me every time I listen to her.

These people weren’t just ciphers in some bien-pensant western book-trolling author’s imagination: they were here in Phnom Penh, walking these same streets as I am now. And then they were killed, for being artists.  They deserve to be remembered.

Reading over this little disquisition, I’m not sure I’ve adequately rendered how important Ros Sereysothea and her fellow artists have become to me, how profoundly important it is that musicians aren’t murdered in the name of ideology, and, in the end, how much fun the music is. Dive in, if you have a moment, and let the light triumph over the dark.