Daylight robbery

January 27, 2013

I love working in a newsroom. The unholy levels of cynicism, mixed with daily helpings of the worst the world has to offer, keeps me very entertained. You just have to laugh, a lot. When coupled with trying to get to grips with a country as broken, corrupt and generally foreign as Cambodia, it becomes almost irresistible. Although the sheer scale of the corruption and injustice here does grind a bit after a while.

 

But yesterday I had my mind boggled by a story so ludicrous as to make my head nearly explode. There had been a bank robbery in a tiny town a couple of hours outside Phnom Penh. The armed raiders (access to assault rifles here is NRA-paradise easy) got half-way through, but, somehow, the police turned up to foil it.

This led to a stand-off, where the robbers barricaded themselves in the bank, with hostages, and proceeded to take pot shots at the law. In Hollywood, this is the point at which some troubled but savant hostage negotiator would roll in and save the day. But this is Cambodia. The filth opened negotiations by shouting at the bank, and were given a demand: the robbers wanted some crystal meth.

Crystal meth, for those of you unacquainted with it, is a form of amphetamine, wildly popular among the underclasses worldwide. It is a horrible, jangly drug, which gives you manic energy and enthusiasm, but leaves you prone to poor impulse control, mood swings and terrible judgement. You wouldn’t want to deal with a librarian on meth, let alone a gang of cornered robbers with hostages and AK-47s.

So what did the local police do? Yes, that’s right, they gave them some.

You might wonder how the Cambodian police came to have instant access to a pile of crystal meth. If you knew the Cambodian police, you probably wouldn’t. But you would have to wonder about the thinking behind giving a gang of violent criminals a drug quite so viciously unpleasant, in a situation like that. It’s not like pouring petrol on a fire: more like firing a depleted-uranium-tipped Exocet rocket into one.

Eventually the robbers ran out of meth, and the police had to send to Phnom Penh for some more. Late in the evening, the robbers asked for motorbikes; when these were provided, they rode off into a rubber plantation, fell off, and were arrested.

There was a lot of laughter in the newsroom as the story filtered in. But a lot of head-shaking too. What an extraordinary country.

 

Respect

January 20, 2013

I’ve just come back from paying my respects to Cambodia’s late King-Father Norodom Sihanouk. This wasn’t necessarily an obvious thing for me to do, being something of a republican, but a lot of people from my office were going, and they asked me, so I thought it would be seemly. I was slightly thrown when I was told we were to meet at the Royal Palace at 0730hrs, but manfully bore up under the pressure, and was there on time, in a newly purchased black tie and wearing a little enamel badge with Sihanouk’s picture on it, with a big black ribbon attached.

Actually, the night before, in a bar, I had tried to persuade a bunch of foreign journalists that they would be mad to miss our little outing; that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of a bit of history, and they couldn’t be very good journalists if their spirit of enquiry didn’t extend to getting out of bed early for once in their lives and so on. So there was a little cohort of cold and hung-over foreign hacks looking murderously at me the next morning, because I’d quietly peeled off and got a decent night’s sleep.

One of the reasons I had decided to go, apart from the solidarity aspect, was simply the chance to see inside the Royal Palace, a vast leafy walled complex in the heart of the city. Normally, you have to queue for hours with hoi polloi and pay $3 or so, which I objected to, so my only glimpses inside thus far had been via Google Earth.

A few years ago I got to go into Buckingham Palace, and went with much the same motivation – to see what the interbred parasites were doing with what should be the peoples’ house. And I was amazed. By the space. Should Queen Elizabeth ever want to hold a polo match indoors, she has rooms where you could do that. Indoor Test match? Yeah, second ballroom on the right. It did little to assuage my burning sense of injustice. And the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh was much the same, if a bit more tropical. Behind those walls, these people have some major space.

It seems like one of the great signifiers of pointless privilege is having acres of space you never use, especially when there are poor people bedding down on the streets outside your palaces. And vast amounts of money, ridiculous military uniforms, stupidly long names and titles, and a lack of intellectual distinction.

But anyway, we trooped past vast manicured lawns and gaudy Thai-Chinese baroque buildings with curling eaves and finials mounted atop of spires. We had to take our shoes off, and file, slowly, into a white-silk padded room with Sihanouk’s rather dinky casket in the middle. The room was freezing cold, which I suppose is what you need with a dead body in this climate, and which would have been nice, if it hadn’t been so early in the morning, and cold anyway.

There was a spot of genuflecting, and then everyone got a few seconds with an elderly prince who was on shift. He was rather sweet: we wai’d each other, and he took my hand warmly and thanked me for coming. I’ve no idea who he was, except that he was from the Sisowath side of the royal family, and my colleagues were ecstatic about it. So that was nice.

 

Some subjects, loyal or otherwise

Some subjects, loyal or otherwise

They burn Sihanouk in a couple of weeks, in an astonishingly elaborate crematorium they’ve just spent $5 million on building, in one of city’s few parks. Authorities are expecting four or five million people to turn up to watch. Cunningly, a few weeks ago, I booked a hotel room overlooking the site; probably the best-placed room in all of Phnom Penh, so if anyone knows any media organisations who need a camera position and have tons of money, I’m the man to talk to. It’s got a decent-sized balcony, although not royal-big.

The art of evanescence

January 6, 2013

It’s impossible to go to India and not be entranced: the country is such a riot of colour and noise and smells that you can’t fail to be transported by something every day. On my most recent trip there, I was seduced by what are called rangoli.

These are colourful designs in the doorways and courtyards of people’s homes, made of chalk or rice flour, which are created anew every morning by the woman of the house.

The area of Tamil Nadu where we were is very keen on rangoli, or kollam, as they’re known there, and almost every home, from the gorgeous old palaces which cluster in some of the villages, to the meanest shacks, sports wildly colourful doorway floor designs, which are new every day. Generally they are done just after dawn.

A rangoli

A rangoli

Rangoli are a very Hindu art form, and are often startlingly complicated, with an astonishing variety of shapes and symbols and colours. I would get up every morning to watch a rangoli painter called Mahalakshmi create a new one for the hotel where we were staying, and it was breathtaking: her imagination and her artistry. The only tools she used were her hands, which poured the flour in graceful swoops and lines, filling in blocks of colour with a supernatural deftness.

Mahalakshmi at work

Mahalakshmi at work

What I think I liked so much about rangoli is how they seem to celebrate the idea of living in the present. Works of art that are made to be destroyed and remade differently the next day; they’re beautifully fleeting, and seem to say something about the human spirit.

Another rangoli

Another rangoli

There is also a theory that the coarse rice flour can be eaten by ants and birds, so inviting other beings into one’s home, and acting as a daily tribute to the idea of harmonious co-existence with other creatures. Which is nice.

Mahalakshmi's hand

Mahalakshmi’s hand

What a great country.