A dog’s life

February 15, 2016

This morning, I was walking Harley, the Hammer of the Dogs, at the very ungodly hour of dawn. It’s the best time of day to go for an hour-long walk around Phnom Penh: you get weird Western joggers, and bar girls sloping home unloved, construction workers soaping themselves under random spigots, people selling little bags of corn for tourists to feed to the mangy pigeons, early-morning photographers, drunken sexpats, and, sometimes, for the purposes of my story, dog walkers.

At this time of year, the temperature can drop – almost – dramatically, and twice in the last two weeks, we’ve seen 19C, or 66F, in the early mornings. Which is a delight. They haven’t swept most of the streets yet at that time of day, so there’s plenty of crap for the Aweful Harley to Hoover up when I’m not looking, which, to be honest, is most of the time: my interest being in watching the sun rise gloriously over the Mekong. And then going back to bed.

Super-Wolf Harley gets to meet his little doggie pals of a morning, and bite them. And I hang out with their owners. Which is, if you like dogs, an unmitigated pleasure. There’s Tish and Joe. Lily and Valentine. Julia and Marlow. Shaan and Ivy. Sarah and Zeke. Christine and Hunter. I’ve met most of central Phnom Penh’s expat dogs. And they’re all pretty fine.

But this morning, I met new Khmer lady walking a new dog, a sweet brindled mutt. We got talking, the usual complaints about the local vets and the excellence of dogs with brindled coats. And then, two minutes later, we were discussing Khmer Rouge atrocities that she had experienced.

I don’t know how we got on to that. She was 15 when the KR overran Phnom Penh. She described, with awful clarity, her two-year-old brother dying in her arms on the march to Battambang. She had to crawl over a football-pitch-sized field of dead bodies to make it to Thailand, before being sent, as an orphan, to live in Australia. And all of this presented coolly and matter-of factly, without a trace of self-pity.

I got home, reeling from what I’d heard. I don’t know why this was. There are plenty of people in Cambodia who can tell you similar, or worse stories. Some people are happy to talk about it; many will never bring it up. I think it might have been the contrast between the prosaic quotidian morning shuffle around the palace, and the absolute horror of the woman’s story. It just reminded me, yet again, of the terrible things this country saw, and how relaxed people can be about it. You don’t get that on Shepherds’ Bush Green.

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3 Responses to “A dog’s life”

  1. Just a perfect piece. Every word. Brilliant.
    Dad

  2. nicola ellis said

    It also goes someway to exain some of the cruel crass things you so report on. I often think after reading some of you posts about Cambodia, how can people think like this. I then sit back and think, look at what these people have suffered in their generation, it is not surprising. Sad as it is but when your whole society is thrown up I’m the air, how long does it take to return to ‘normal’. The poor children is Syria……

  3. Wonderful, and very thought-provoking, piece. I really enjoyed your writing – it’s witty, yet compassionate. That opening paragraph, in particular, is superb!

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