Empty calories

May 18, 2014

Back in the UK for a few days, I’ve been interested by the things that have struck me, after a couple of years in Phnom Penh. The country is, on the whole, much the same as when I left; cold, expensive, obsessed with competitions on the television (cooking, baking cakes, auctioning antiques, running guesthouses – practically every sphere of human existence can be turned into a tv competition). I don’t miss it much.

But it’s little things I’ve been noticing. In Phnom Penh most shopping is done in the local markets, which are piled high with dazzling pyramids of fruit and buckets full of miserable looking fish. But there a few supermarkets. I try my best to avoid them, as I loathe shopping, but occasionally I have to venture in, and I don’t enjoy it. They remind me of a post-apocalyptic morgue: they smell a bit off, somehow, like a gang of rats have died under a chiller cabinet. The shelves are thinly stocked with mystery brands of Vietnamese cornflakes and deformed cuts of unappetising-looking meat. Underworked and almost certainly underpaid young women lurk at every aisle corner, being bored. The fruit is shabby, the beer expensive and the lights too dim.

So on my first day back in the UK, I drove my mother to the local Tesco supermarket on the outskirts on town. And was astonished. Vast and gleaming, packed to the rafters with goods, I was truly staggered by the sheer amount of stuff to buy. The fruit bears no relation to seasonality; Washington State cherries, Guatemalan avacados, Kenyan guavas, and fascinatingly bizarre hybrids like nectarcots, which are a cross between nectarines and apricots. Ready meals of every possible type crowd the shelves, chocolate and butter and pies and crisps and cereals, curries and beans and cake, ice cream and pizzas and sandwiches, all rising up to the ceilings in a sleek cornucopia of branded consumerist decadence.

Most people in Cambodia don’t get enough to eat. Unicef says that 45% of Cambodian children show signs of moderate or severe stunting. If we imagine that Phnom Penh’s 1.5 million people need between 2,100 calories (women) and 2,700 calories (men) per day, that means that Phnom Penh needs some 3.6 billion calories of food energy per day. There were far more calories that that on the shelves of one mid-sized Tesco. It makes my mind boggle.

Another thing that struck me, is that people here are actually quite nice; generally polite, helpful and accommodating. I’m sure it wasn’t like that when I left. I remember groups of young men spitting on the pavement and staring covetously at my mobile phone, 13-year-old girls trying to mug me in the street at 3:00 am, berks with BlackBerrys knocking me off the pavement, shouty drivers; there was a general depressing rudeness and lack of civility about the place. But this time, no one has been casually rude or aggressive; on the contrary, train staff, bus drivers, shop assistants, pedestrians, bar staff and waiters – all have been great. Perhaps a few years of economic depression have knocked some of the edges off people, and convinced that its nicer to be pleasant,especially if you work in a service industry. But that seems a bit facile. Perhaps it’s just me.

But I’m still not moving back.