Goodbye 2012

December 31, 2012

So, it’s that time of year, when we reflect on the highs and lows of the previous 12 months, in a spurious attempt to impose some sort of retrogressive order on the siege of randomness that is our lives. Or mine, at least.

I’ve only been in Cambodia for 10 months, but I think that’s long enough, and it’s been busy enough to count as a full year. So, for what it’s worth, here are my highlights and lowlights of a year in The Kingdom of Wonder.

GOOD:

CAMBODIA:
One of the poorest and most corrupt places in the world. Beset by general horribleness, sex slavery, endemic corruption, appalling poverty, malnutrition (yes, really): this is what is known, patronisingly, as a ’frontier economy’. But, by god, it’s brilliant. I’ve never met nicer people. Their default position is to smile, and try to help. And if I have to exist on this planet, that’s a default position I want. Life being entirely too short.

BLOSSOM:
Picking her up from the airport after she’d been in the UK for two months. Priceless.

NEW YORKER:
They commissioned three pieces from me. John Updike used to work for them. It’s not much, but it pleased me.

PROFESSIONAL ACCEPTANCE:
The paper I work for is kind of a half-assed affair, run on a shoestring, by people who do a brilliant job on a budget of nothing, and care deeply about what they do. I wandered in, with a slightly sexy-looking CV, and they took me seriously. After years of being micro-managed by time-serving corporate dipshits, the paper here lets me do what I want. If I want a particular headline, that’s my call. Don’t like a story? I’ll spike it, and no one calls me on it. Because I’m the boss. I love it.

MANGOS:
I’ve sometimes thought that mangos represent one of the very, very few plausible arguments that could be made for the existence of god. Our landlord, the saintly Mr Sokha, has a smallholding in a neighbouring province, and often brings us back a bag of his own mangos after he’s been there for the weekend. Each mouthful is a minor miracle, like a spoonful of rich, sweet golden sunshine. They make you glad to be alive.

A mango

A mango

KEP:
If you haven’t been, you should. This is the view from the Sailing Club, where I’m having a big party in a year or two. Book early to avoid disappointment…

The view from Kep's Sailing Club

The view from Kep’s Sailing Club

KEP II:
Just taking a motorcycle through the fields and villages, and getting lost, and being constantly humbled by the people we stumbled across. I remembered something important about the one life we have to live here, and how I don’t want to spend it on the Tube going to Canary Wharf. I wish more people could see this.

FRIENDS
I went back to the UK in August, and traded upon the goodwill of my friends, who picked me up, put me up and generally made me feel very humble. Thank you to all of them. And no disrespect to people whom I didn’t stay with or see; there’s always next year…

FRENCH RESTAURANTS:
The legacy of the French in Indochina nowadays seems to be a disturbing number of French people cluttering up the place, and some seriously good restaurants. Foie gras, cote de boeuf and a decent bottle of Pomerol, for under $100 for two? Count me in.

BALCONY:
We live in one of the taller buildings in Phnom Penh, with seven floors, and we’re on the top. From our balcony, we can see for miles in most directions, across the low-slung city, east over the lazy sweep of the mighty Mekong river towards Vietnam, west past the airport where the occasional plane gently touches down. We watch the weather roll in from the Mekong Delta, and the brilliant stars coruscating through the night. Quite magical.

Some dramatic sky action from the balcony

Some dramatic sky action from the balcony

BAD:

KIDNEY STONES
Exactly the kind of thing you’d wish upon your worst enemy. I’ve never been so miserable. Like being harpooned through the lower torso, having one was a major low-light in my entire existence on this planet.

An alternative to a kidney stone

An alternative to a kidney stone

BREAKING A LEG
The moment when I tried to stand, and my leg jutted out at an odd and unnatural angle, moments before my head hit the pavement, concussing me, wasn’t a high point in my life. Apparently I eventually made it home, dragging my foot behind me, and announced that a bit of a kip would see me right. Optimistic, me.

BAD NEWS DOCTOR
A particularly bad moment was when my surgeon told me that, no, I’d misunderstood him, and instead of six weeks on crutches, it was going to be 16 weeks. Depressing.

So, on the whole, a pretty good year. Bring on 2013.

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Vipers and other snakes

December 25, 2012

I was delighted to read recently that nine new species of creature
previously unknown to science have been discovered in Cambodia in the
past year, out of a total of 126 stunning species discovered in the
greater Mekong region as a whole.

Perhaps the coolest of these is the ruby-eyed green pit viper, which
as well as having a great name, looks completely awesome.

Ruby-eyed Green Pit Viper

Ruby-eyed Green Pit Viper

However, it’s going to have to watch its step. Cambodia apparently has
192 critically endangered and vulnerable species, according to a
report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. These
include the magnificent pangolin, of which I shall speak in the
future.

Most of the newly discovered creatures were small and unprepossessing; frogs and bugs and so on, which are completely fine, of course, but which probably wouldn’t get anyone to come out here on safari.

Sadly, there is no shortage of unpleasant creatures in human form in
this country. The government, for starters. And every week sees yet
another elderly European in court for sex offences against children.

I was thinking about the human flotsam that washes up on these sunny
shores the other day when a friend of mine from a prurient British
newspaper turned up in town, doing a story on an English woman who had
died, on her honeymoon, back in January.

At the recent inquest on 27-year-old Kristy Cadman-Jones, her
31-year-old solicitor husband was pointedly asked by the coroner: “Did
you kill your wife on honeymoon?”

The man had claimed he had woken one morning in the couple’s Phnom
Penh hotel room to find his bride cold and dead. He claimed to know
nothing about her death, until finally admitting that they had met a
couple in a bar the night before who had given them a bag of cocaine,
and that Kristy might just possibly have had some of it.

Distraught, he nevertheless managed within hours to call their
insurance company in the UK to claim on her life insurance, although
he later said it wasn’t him, and he didn’t know who had made the call.
He also had her body embalmed within 48 hours, destroying any chances
of toxicology reports being done back home. The coroner ruled that she
had died of a heroin overdose, his finding bolstered by a report that
the police here had found a number of syringes littering the room. My
journo friend spoke to hotel staff, who confirmed that the couple
seemed “permanently out of it.”

Lawyer

Lawyer

Now, I’ve been in one or two bars in Phnom Penh, and I’d say the
chances of meeting strangers handing out large bags of cocaine is,
sadly, absolutely zero. However, every year a number of foreign
junkies wind up dead here in cheap hotels, unused to the purity of the
smack this close to the Golden Triangle, and on a major transhipment
route. Even the Lonely Planet guide warns travellers not to mistake
heroin for cocaine, although you’d have to be the Number One stupidest
person on the planet to do that.

While I’m sorry for the dead woman, I’m irritated as hell at the way
that people use this poor country as a playground. It doesn’t help its
reputation. And it doesn’t help the place when sleazy junkies like
Damian Cadman-Jones think they can waltz in, do whatever they want,
and get away with it.

I definitely prefer ruby-eyed green pit vipers.

Lucky for some

December 19, 2012

Ah, good old impunity. The 30th of March is celebrated in Cambodia, if that’s the right word, as ‘Impunity Day’ by human rights organizations. On that day in 1997, a brutal grenade attack on an opposition party rally in central Phnom Penh killed at least 16 people and wounded more than 100.

On the day of the attack, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit was deployed at the demonstration: the elite military unit, in full riot gear, not only failed to prevent the attack, but was seen by dozens of witnesses opening up its lines to allow the grenade-throwers to escape and then threatening to shoot people trying to pursue the attackers.

Rather than catching or punishing anyone, the government has handed out high-level promotions to several known human rights abusers in Cambodia’s armed forces and national police – including at least two linked to the 1997 attack.

And the impunity continues – almost any day of the year sees someone in this country enjoy impunity, in the sense of freedom from any risk of being punished for doing something wrong or bad. Yesterday was Chhouk Bandith’s day.

A vicious cretin

A vicious cretin

This charming character was formerly the governor of a town called Bavet, in the southeast of the country. In April this year he was charged with the offence of causing “unintentional injuries” for allegedly shooting three women during a protest at a factory making Puma sportswear. (Protesting being bad for business.) He was identified by multiple eyewitnesses. Yet yesterday the ludicrously lenient charges against him were dropped.

The courts declined to elaborate on why exactly they decided not to proceed. No one else has been charged with anything.

“I’m almost speechless,” said Cambodian Centre for Human Rights President Ou Virak. “This guy walks out of the car, fires his gun into a crowd of workers, and gets to be a free man. Nothing is based on the implementation of the law.”

The three young women who were shot, one in the back, were asking Puma for 50 cents a day for food and $10 a month for transportation.

The three women shot by Chhouk Bandith

The three women shot by Chhouk Bandith

Deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division Phil Robertson called the decision “an indictment of the entire Cambodian justice system. Essentially, the idea is: buy time, let it drag out, and after a certain amount of time, you just whitewash it. He should have been charged with attempted murder in the first place. It’s a travesty of justice, another case of impunity running rampant. If you know the right people, you can get away with anything,” said Robertson.

One of the three young women, 18-year-old Keo Near, told a local paper that she had no intention of dropping the case. “I know it’s hard to get justice in this country against a powerful person, but I will continue to file complaints until the end of my life.”

Weather, or not

December 17, 2012

It’s one of those easy clichés, that Brits talk about the weather a lot. Along with queueing (the longest word with the most amount of vowels in a row in the language, fact-fans), bad teeth and terrible food, it’s something that defines us.

I’d always largely ignored it, just chalking it up to what’s known as phatic communication, which is just conversation for the sake of making friends. But reading UK news websites from 10,000 miles away, its becoming clearer to me that Britain’s weather is, in fact, spectacularly and uniquely shit.

For people who live there, crap weather is a fact of life, and largely put up with. For observers from the outside, the headlines about rain, floods, snow, hypothermic pensioners and winter fuel bills seem, well, odd. If an alien had to choose a terrible place to live on Planet Earth, based on climatic conditions, the UK would be pretty high up the list.

Some of this might be due to Brits’ cheerful moaning. And it might have got worse thanks to anthropogenic global warming: I couldn’t say. But I can confidently say that hardly a day goes past without a UK newspaper reporting on how awful the weather is, how some Devon hamlet has been washed away or how the country’s transport system has been paralysed by a snowfall.

Here in Cambodia, the weather is also tricky. Last year, hundreds of people died in truly terrible floods. In the rainy season, for people with a borderline existence, life can be touch-and-go. But at least no one is going to die of hypothermia.

Rain

Some rain in Cambodia

Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s savagely, unforgivingly, unremittingly hot. I’ve always thought that the Khmer Rouge’s insistence that everyone dress entirely in black was one of the ultimate proofs of their lack of humanity, akin to smacking yourself in the face with a tyre-iron. Under the Cambodian sun, wearing black is madness (although driving a black Range Rover is considered terrifically cool…).

It’s now the ’cool season’ here in the kingdom of wonder. This is nice. I woke up the other morning to discover that I’d turned off the fan in my sleep during the night, it was that cold. But not that cold: I don’t possess a top sheet, let alone a comforter, duvet or a blanket. For my balcony coffee in the morning, I’m wearing a t-shirt this month, much to the relief of my neighbours, I’m sure. But that’s about as good as it gets. The locals, who are weirdly well adapted to the furnace-like conditions, are wearing gloves, cardigans and warm vests. I’m sweating marginally less.

April and May are just around the corner, bringing with them appallingly supercharged sunshine. But I don’t mind all that much. Sitting on the balcony, with a mango and a cup of decent coffee, enjoying Californian weather, seems to me to be OK, compared to shuffling along frost-encrusted streets, wearing 17 layers, battling sleet and torrential rain. Sorry about that, everyone.

Bah humbug

December 9, 2012

It may come a no great surprise, that I don’t much like Christmas. I’m not religious, I don’t like cold weather, I don’t need any presents and I don’t need an excuse for gluttony.

“Oh, it’s for the children,” I’m often told. Well, sod the children. If they can’t vote, can’t beat me up, and don’t have any money, then, quite frankly, I’m not very interested in their opinion.

So I came to Cambodia, a country with 96.4 percent of the population staunchly Buddhist, with high hopes that I’d be able to avoid the orgy of pointless consumerism. (The Guardian newspaper once gave away some wrapping paper designed by the artist Mark Wallinger that just had the words ‘Jesus Christ’ repeated on it over and over. I found that particularly appropriate for how I feel about Christmas.)

Jesus Wrapping Paper

But no, Et in Arcadia Ego. The stationery shop a few doors down from chez moi started selling plastic Christmas trees a week ago. I can’t imagine who’s going to buy them: we’re in a pretty Khmer neighbourhood, and I’m certainly not in the market. Clearly they think they’ll sell: I think they might be mistaken.

My local beer shop is festooned with tinsel and fake snow. I’ll repeat that: fake snow. No one in this country has ever seen snow. They don’t go to midnight mass, or fetishise buying each other socks and book tokens. They don’t understand about the baby Santa dying for our sins. And, actually, because of that, I think I can forgive them.

One of Phnom Penh’s trendier streets, which is packed with boutiques selling hand-made chocolates and awful dresses, owned by bored European housewives, decided to have a ‘Christmas Fair’ last weekend, and I accidentally ended up walking along the street as it was going on. There were lots of fake Christmas trees and little stalls selling the same old crap as inside the shops. I was offered a glass of gluhwein and some hot roasted chestnuts. It was 82 degrees – I checked when I got home.

But the most surreal thing was two Santas who were wandering through the crowds, feebly ho-ho-hoing. Obviously no one had told them that Santa is a fat git: the two guys in the suits were Khmer, and had typically Cambodian physiques: ie, they were stick thin. Their red suits flapped off them, while their long white beards threatened to drop off with every ‘ho.’ I had to laugh. They may have bought in to the whole Christmas thing, but they still didn’t quite get it, and I love that.

Anyway, I’m going to southern India for the holidays, just to make entirely sure I can ignore the whole monstrous event.

Finally, I’d like to finish with a quote. For some months I have been working with someone whom, I must confess, was something of a trial. Trying to be charitable, let’s just say that I wasn’t convinced that he was the intellectual powerhouse he so loudly told everyone he was. Anyway, our professional relationship has just ended, quite dramatically, much to my satisfaction.

I was considering how to eulogise my relationship with this guy, when I came across a board on Pinterest devoted to odd things found in Asian newspapers. Most of the bizarre things on there have been written by my fat nemesis, including this gem of a quote.

“If you look around at the faces of Cambodians who survived the Khmer Rouge period you can see there’s no nostalgia for communist terror and mass killing.”

Indeed.