Getting dull

October 28, 2013

Well, we’ve just had three days of protests by the opposition CNRP, demanding recounts and an investigation into election irregularities. And frankly, I thought they were a bit of a disappointment. Despite a little hysteria before the demos (“As Opposition to the Regime Mounts, Cambodia’s Capital Braces for Bloodshed”, as Time magazine had it), nothing untoward happened. The government didn’t even put up its razor wire barricades, and they let the marchers wander around the city pretty much at will. So the CNRP gave great packages of thumbprints to various embassies, none of which were willing to comment on anything at all, and that was about it.

The general feeling in town now is that opposition leader Sam Rainsy should suck it up, take his 55 seats, and get on with being an effective opposition. Attitudes are hardening against the CNRP; businesses want to do business, people want to invest. Most of the protestors this time were poor rural people who had been bussed in; the young people of Phnom Penh, who had been so active in delivering the original substantial gains for the CNRP, were nowhere to be seen.

Blossom and I had been advised to stock up on food before the demos; I thought it was laughable, but Blossom went out and spent a large amount of money on various basics, all of which are now languishing in the freezer.

In other domestic matters, I discovered that the person who had stolen my shoes was the same tuk-tuk driver with whom I’d had the altercation earlier in the evening. It turns out that the security guard had let him into the building, told him which floor I lived on, and then let him back out, bearing my expensive shoes. I asked him what he thought he was doing, and he just shrugged. He’s since been fired, which is a shame, because he was a nice man, but since his only task was to stop people getting in and stealing stuff, I think he was a bit of a failure.

Another domestic tragedy occurred the other day, when our cleaner decided to wash a pile of laundry. This would have been fine, except we’d run out of washing powder, so she decided to use bleach instead, with predictably awful results. She meant well, and we haven’t fired her, but several of my shirts and a number of Blossom’s tops were ruined, although I guess we could wear them if we were going to a fancy dress party as aging hippies. Actually, seeing as we are ageing hippies, we could probably wear them normally. Ah, life in Cambodia … we love it.




Sok Chanphal

October 18, 2013

This time last year, I happened to be in Bangkok for the South East Asian Write Awards, Asia’s biggest and most prestigious literary prize. I got talking to one of the organisers, and she mentioned that Cambodia hadn’t entered anyone for five years. Could I, she asked, perhaps look in to finding someone for this year?

So when I got back to Phnom Penh, I set about finding someone. There aren’t many poets and writers working in this country: most people are too busy trying to get enough to eat, and the publishing industry is tiny and resource-poor.

But I put together a committee, with the head of Cambodian PEN and a professor of Asian Studies from California, and together we decided upon a young Khmer songwriter who has had some fiction published in literary journals. And this week I watched as Sok Chanphal picked up the award from Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. It was quite a proud moment for me.

Chanphal, who seems like a very nice kid, was, I think, fairly bowled over by the whole thing. He got to spend a week at the ultra-deluxe Mandarin Oriental and hang out with the other nominees, fostering literary connections and making new friends. He’s come back to Phnom Penh with a new energy for writing and a determination to write more and better.

Sok Chanphal, second from the right

Sok Chanphal, second from the right

I’m not sure, entirely, that the Mandarin, superb hotel though it is, is quite the right venue for a literary awards – the ceremony itself was an exercise in plush and pointless excess – but I’m happy that Chanphal got to enjoy it, and I’m thrilled that Cambodia is, to some extent, back on the world’s literary map. It’s another step on the road to the recovery that this country so badly needs.

I also think I’ve found another writer for next year’s awards.


In my shoes

October 10, 2013

I was planning to write this week about my love of the Khmer people, their cheerful generosity, their friendly nature, their boundless enthusiasm for life. But then one of them tried to beat me up, and another stole my shoes.

I was coming back from a night out with an old friend, and my tuk-tuk driver demanded twice the usual fare, thinking, perhaps, that I was a tourist and therefore here to be fleeced. I told him, perhaps somewhat abruptly, precisely where he could stick it, and he then tried to physically extort it from me. This was a guy perhaps slightly over five feet tall, and spindly, so I flung him into the street, and nipped though my gates. My security guard told me that he was extremely drunk. He shouted imprecations over the gates for a few minutes, then was led away. Not a problem, precisely, but a bit troubling.

I then went upstairs, to find that someone had stolen my best shoes.

I bought them back in the UK a couple of months ago, a pair of nice and not inexpensive black leather cap-toe Oxfords, which I kept on the shoe rack outside my front door.

Now we, for those of you unfamiliar with our domestic arrangements [too many of you; come to Cambodia!], we live on the next to top floor of our building, and we’re the only flat on the floor. Therefore, the only foot traffic our floor sees is people coming or going from the roof. So it must have been someone doing something on the roof. As I don’t suspect the French couple who live up there of nicking the shoes, they must have had someone come past our door, see them, and decide to nick them.

What they didn’t consider was that there is a security camera on the ground floor. The landlord’s daughter has promised to look at the footage and report back. I don’t suppose I’ll ever see the shoes again, but we might find out who did the deed, and get some measure of justice.

That said, Cambodian justice can be a bit more basic than we’re used to in the West. Living here, one is often told, if you’re in a traffic accident, to run away: if you stick around, you’re likely to be beaten to death by angry mobs, no matter who’s at fault. I refused to believe this at first, but reading the papers, it turns out to be true. Thieves are regularly beaten up by crowds: justice is done by the mob.

And while I wouldn’t, on the whole, want to see the shoe thief beaten to a pulp, I can understand the impulse.

The Sharpie Shack

October 1, 2013

I have a friend here in Phnom Penh who is known as Dom the Legend. This is because he is, in actual fact, a complete, total and utter legend. He runs a school for gifted children, and spends most of his spare time running the awesome charity CamKids. I could go on and on about his legend status, but don’t want to embarrass him if he should ever read this.

A few months ago, Dom had an idea. He had discovered, in the commune of Preaek Thmei, near his school, an old floating shack. The shack was dilapidated, and listing badly. Many of the floorboards were rotting, the roof was rusting away, it had no power and it was filthy. So Dom, obviously, decided to buy it.

Fast forward a few months, and Dom is now the owner of the shack. I don’t know what he paid for it, but it can’t have been very much. You reach it down a long, partially flooded muddy passageway, and a bit of a scramble through ankle-deep river. There is no furniture of any description. But Dom has strengthened the metal frame, replaced many of the floorboards and put new flotation barrels in. And it is a truly sensational place.

After driving for half an hour south of Phnom Penh, you park in a local family’s mud-floored compound, and buy beer and ice from the family. Then you make your way on board the shack and sit and watch the turbid brown waters of the Bassac river flow quietly past, revelling in the cool breezes, and just be.

We went out on Sunday afternoon and drank beer and ate cheese and crackers and watched the glorious sunset while playing quiz games. It was simple and unglamorous, and entirely wonderful. The only downside was that Blossom couldn’t be there, being in Bali instead. But otherwise the afternoon was close to being perfect.

Some people don’t get the shack, and think it’s an act of ostentatious madness. But others do, and are queuing up to buy plastic chairs and cans of paint, beanbags and solar lights. They get it. And so does Dom. Because he’s a legend.