A hand up, not a handout

March 24, 2014

Lovely day yesterday out at the Chbar Chros Community School in Kampong Speu province, which is run by the charity I’m tangentially involved with, the astonishingly great CamKids.

They were having a blessing for the new school building. I’d been out there a few times to do reports on the progress of the construction for the single donor, a chap from California, so have watched this thing develop from a plot of dusty ground, into a vast and elegant pair of classrooms. It doesn’t sound like much, when you look at it on the page like that, but it is, actually, a very significant achievement for all involved.

Two years ago, there was nothing there; CamKids has now built two school buildings and a clinic. Two years ago, there were no pupils; now there are 272. Two years ago there were no staff; now, doctors and dentists visit every week, and a dedicated staff of teachers instructs the kids. They are growing vegetables and have installed a bio-digester, and despite the involvement of CamKids, this is truly a community project, with the locals involved in every aspect of the running of the school. So it doesn’t follow the paternalistic model of imposing what Westerners think is best which you see so often over here: instead, it’s down to the local community to make the decisions. As CamKids says, “a hand up, not a handout.”

Most of the 272 pupils were there, with their families, and local community elders, and I could have sat there all day, just soaking up the happiness and elation that was in the air.

A little girl called Vuthy Nary is presented with a certificate and a backpack for her hard work at school.

A little girl called Vuthy Nary is presented with a certificate and a backpack for her hard work at school.

We’re currently deep into the dry season, with temperatures up into the 100s (high 30s), and it now hasn’t rained for months. It’s amazing how much the countryside has changed from a couple of months ago: whereas at Christmas the whole country was deafeningly green, now everything is sere and parched, the fields a uniform ochre as far as the eye can see, and everything is covered with a thin layer of orange dust. Soon the rainy season will be upon us, and everything will go green again. I rather like that. If you looked from space, Cambodia would be like a gigantic malfunctioning traffic light, cycling between green and orange, annually.

And did you know that the colour known as gamboge, which is the traditional colour for monks’ robes here, gets its name from Cambodia? Gamboge comes from gambogium, the Latin word for the pigment, which derives from Gambogia, the Latin word for Cambodia. Its first recorded use as a colour name in English was in 1634. You learn something new every day…

The pigment, and colour, gamboge

The pigment, and colour, gamboge



March 10, 2014

As a person who operates reasonably well in bars, I’m often asked what my favourite place to drink in Phnom Penh is. Well, here is the definitive answer. It’s on Street 51, and it’s called Led Zeppelin.

Now, you might think that that’s a no-brainer. If you know me, you know I’m besotted by Zeppelin – I want the Zep to be played at my funeral, and have spent far too many hours altogether trying to work out the intricacies of Jimmy Page’s guitar style. I used to live near Page, and always secretly harboured the fantasy that he would walk past my flat, hear me mangling his riffs, and knock on my front door to offer suggestions. One can but dream.

But Led Zeppelin, the bar, is a Phnom Penh institution. It’s owned by a middle-aged Taiwanese guy, who is, by any estimation, something of a legend, for his taciturnity. He sits at the back of the bar, scowling, behind a pair of decks, and plays early 70’s heavy metal, loudly. He almost always refuses to speak to punters, and just pulls albums, on vinyl, from his 4,000 strong collection, and subjects them on the drinkers, who seem to love it.

I’ve been going there for a while, and have managed to build up something of an uneasy rapport with him (although I don’t know his name, even now.) I don’t remember him ever deigning to speak to me; I have talked at him often.

But he does one thing that pleases me beyond measure. I once asked him, in a fit of showing-off-ness, if he had a particularly obscure track, by a particulaly obscure early 70s band. And, lo and behold, he did. And played it, loudly.

Now, every time I go in, he puts it on, and I get to soak up five minutes of Mountain playing Nantucket Sleighride, from an Japanese import album that I originally paid forty quid for in 1981. I always love it when he plays it. But every time I come in? Slight overkill, but I can’t complain.

But, somehow, this seems to encapsulate something about Phnom Penh. A foreigner is playing music that is foreign to him, in a capital city that is also foreign to him, and yet is widely loved, by other foreigners, waited on by kindly Khmers.

I’m sitting, writing this, in Led Zeppelin itself, and have heard lots of early Black Sabbath, UFO and Iron Maiden, all of which send me back to my teenage years, while sex-tourists poke their heads in looking for whatever they’re too feeble to get back home.

The owner of the bar is apparently an ardent Taiwanese nationalist, and gets together with the Taiwan diaspora in Phnom Penh on Chang Kai Shek’s birthday to wear military uniforms and denounce the mainland – he might have missed the boat on that one.

My brother the bar maven would be horrified by how little he’s taught me: there are no infusions of artisanal tequila drunk through bone luges; no selections of hand-curated Peruvian bitters. And the loos would make a pig blush in shame.

No, it’s beer, scotch or gin, nice people and great music. A bar that has cheap drinks and weapons-grade heavy metal, in Phnom Penh? What’s not to love?