Wardrobe malfunction

November 19, 2014

I bought some new clothes the other day. Well, actually, Blossom bought me some new clothes. And it wasn’t half bad.

Back in the UK, I used to dress quite nicely, I thought. Decent leather shoes, French cuffs and cufflinks on my Jermyn Street shirts, flamboyant silk squares peeping out of my jacket pocket, and so on. But since moving to Cambodia, things have gone a little, er, downhill.

For a start, it is far too hot to wear a jacket, so my handmade linen suits sit hopelessly in the wardrobe. It is also too hot to wear cufflinks.

Secondly, this country is filthy. For much of the year, it is incredibly dusty, chokingly turbid. I used to think that travelling on the Tube in London was bad for leaving a ring of grime around your collar: Cambodia trumps that. I can’t go to the shop on the corner without coming back without a patina of sandy orange dust caked into my pores. Most public surfaces are caked in crap: you pretty quickly learn to wash your hands if you touch any surface in this country, unless you want to die of leprosy.

So at the end of the day, my once lovely shirts are stained and unappetising. We have a washing machine, brand new, but it doesn’t seem to use hot water, so shirts and trousers come out looking only marginally better than when they went in. Which isn’t great. Weird grey stripes seem to flourish on sleeves, and collars – well, the less said the better. And then added to this is the recent addition to our household of the Brindled Beast of Chaos, or Harley, who delights in swinging off sleeves and taking random high-speed chunks out of passing trouser legs. Then there’s our former maid, who liked to wash clothes in bleach, and the fact that the country seems to be full of random sticking-out nails. Oh, and you can wear flip-flops to the office? Hell, yeah! Anyway, it all makes for an eventually pitiful wardrobe.

But, as I say, Blossom prevailed upon me to buy some new clothes. And it was great. I hadn’t found anything to wear in the shops here: not being the size of an anorexic 12-year-old, sadly. I’d had a few shirts made here, from tailors who really weren’t all that inspiring, with sleeves that came down to my knees and wonky collars. But Blossom took me to a shop called Ambre, which was fantastic.

Housed in a beautiful old colonial villa, it’s run by Cambodia’s best-known fashion designer, a woman called Romyda Keth. Most of the shop is women’s clothes: dramatic gowns and blouses and that kind of stuff, but there is a men’s section, and I could have bought practically everything. Of course, none of the stuff on the racks would have fitted anyone larger than Peter Dinklage, as far as I could see, but they offered to make anything I liked in my size, Normal Human, for no extra cost. It was the last time I can remember enjoying shopping.

So I had a fitting, and two days later picked up a couple of shirts and a couple of pairs of trousers, which fitted perfectly, all for the same cost as a single one of my shirts from London. And they are all things of extreme beauty, beautifully cut and stitched, in vivid colours and wildly stylish. So now I’m getting back to a reasonable level of sartorial elegance, I think. Or will be, if I ever actually unpack them, Because they’re almost too beautiful to wear. Ah, more problems.


Watery Festivities

November 10, 2014

Phnom Penh is situated where three major rivers meet, forming (if you squint a bit) a giant X on the map. Obviously, if you’re going to have a capital city, it makes sense to have access to fresh water and a great transport network (Only Mexico City, Riyadh and Tehran ignore this, I believe).


Of the rivers, the Mekong is the most famous, but the Tonle Sap is perhaps the most interesting. It flows out of Tonle Sap lake, the biggest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. But twice a year, the river changes its direction of flow: from November to May, the river drains into the Mekong and thence to the sea, via Vietnam. But in the wet season, usually June to November, the Mekong instead drains northwards, up the Tonle Sap, into the lake.


The Cambodians, being a celebratory sort of people, mark the change of flow with a huge three-day festival, called, naturally enough, the Water Festival, which has just ended. It’s the first time I’ve seen it; in 2010 more than 350 people were crushed to death on a bridge in central Phnom Penh, so they cancelled it for a while (also the king died, and they had disputed elections in intervening years).

In the past, it has been hugely popular with the people of Cambodia: every major town sends a boat to compete in the dragonboat races, and the population of Phnom Penh was estimated to double with the influx of visitors, by about two million extra people. This year, the numbers were down quite markedly: a lot of people wouldn’t let their children come, because of the 2010 stampede. So rather than a terrible crush, crowds were manageable, and it was a happy and relaxed occasion.


Blossom and I managed to score up a rather magnificent flat on the riverside overlooking the races, and we drank beer in the shade and watched the 240 teams, often with 80 people on a boat, pounding up and down the Tonle Sap. It was colourful and faintly soporific, and a genuinely pleasant experience. Crowds milled around, vendors dodged police patrols to sell noodles and cakes and fruit, bands played and there were Ferris wheels and kickboxing displays and fireworks and everyone drank far too much and a good time was had by all.

But on the second morning, it was my turn to walk the awful dog, so I was up at dawn, being dragged around the riverside. And I was genuinely appalled to see the gangs of street cleaners collecting huge mounds of trash – the concept of recycling not having entirely caught on here yet – and pushing them straight into the river, to be carried off to the sea. It didn’t seem so much fun after that. [Sigh…] Oh, Cambodia…