Monday, September 21, 2009

TROPICAL ISLAND GETAWAY: NO BIG BUCKS, JUST A BIG BAD BUS

Surrounded by the the deep blue-green of the Gulf of Thailand, i pause and lower the dripping paddle along the length of the kayak. Waves lap gently against its lurid yellow hull. Ahead, a small island curves upward from the horizon like a convex lens, a small window on a dense mound of green foliage.

Looking back to the Sihanoukville coast i appear to be equidistant between the two landfalls. My shoulders and arms ache, but in the warm sun and the cool breeze, it is an agreeable enough sensation. Even with my myopic vision i can make out a fuzzy strip of sand on the leeward side of the island. My glasses, along with my camera and towel, are stowed in a waterproof bag, in the entirely probable event that i should capsize.

Having never driven (ridden? wrestled with?) this type of kayak before, i wasn’t quite sure how i would go. The last time i attempted to paddle one of these long floating things was in an estuary off the North West Cape in Australia. A long and extremely thin craft, it was lent to me by a local oyster farmer, and i soon found there was an art to maintaining one’s balance on it, as it had all the lateral stability of a cylindrical floating log. At one point, a fellow kayaker paddled past as i was floundering about in the warm estuarine waters, trying to get the vessel righted and retrieve my paddle.

“You’re swimming here?” he asked, astounded, as he glided effortlessly by. “Aren’t you afraid of the sharks?”
“Pardon?” i spluttered.
“This a breeding ground for tiger sharks,” he explained. “And it’s breeding season.”
In as casual a voice as i could muster, i replied: “Oh, no. Sharks don’t scare me.”

He shrugged, and paddled on toward the mouth of the inlet. Of course, as soon as his back was turned, i clambered aboard and set a new water speed record as i flailed my way to the nearest shoreline.

“Sorry mate,” said Richard the Oyster Farmer, in his broad Australian drawl, when i returned his three-metre fibreglass death trap. “Shoulda mentioned the Noahs.”

The kayaks for hire on the shores of Otres Beach, Sihanoukville are much more sensible beasts. They come in two versions. One is wider and shorter than the other, for added stability. But having previously and rapidly mastered the art of keeping a narrow kayak upright, while escaping the circling tiger sharks, i felt confident enough to hire the faster, thinner version.

Otres Nautica, one of the many beach shacks that line the farthest and most laid-back of the beaches along Sihanoukville coast, rent them from $3 per hour to $8 for a half a day. For a two-person kayak, you are looking at $4 and $10. And unless you’re on steroids, half a day is plenty. You’re here to relax, remember. So if pumping seawater is not your thing – if you are more a fan of smooth sailing – you can rent a Hobie cat for $10 per hour or $30 per half day. However, as many of the islands of the coast are surrounded by submerged rocks, the Otres Nautica guys ask that you don’t try to beach one of their catamarans on the shores of an unfamiliar island.

But with its shallow draft, a kayak will get you just about anywhere.

And there are plenty of islands a short distance off Otres Beach to choose from – Koh Khteah, Koh Chrahloh, Koh Russei (Bamboo Island) and Koh TaKiev lie dotted about within a small distance of one another, down the coast and around the corner to the waters off Ream National Park. Given the only upper-arm exercise i get these days is lifting the occasional pina colada to my lips, i set my course for the nearest island, about two kilometres offshore. The coral-rich waters here are ideal for snorkelling.

The solitude, slow roll of the waves, the sun and the sand: it is a soothing antidote to the mad, turbulent flow of Cambodia’s boulevard traffic and highways. And with two- to five-dollar rooms in Otres’ many beach shacks, it is a cheap and cheerful way to escape.

But speaking of highway hell, you do need to factor Valium into your holiday budget. Because until the airport is reopened at Sihanoukville, the only realistic option of getting to the coast is by road. A share taxi is one option. A little blue pill and a four dollar bus ticket is another.

Valium. It’s not that I am an advocate immoderate self-medication. It’s more a question of avoiding the total nervous breakdown inevitably results from the travails of being fully conscious during the horrendous, horn-blasting, music-blaring, blind-corner-overtaking, zig-zagging trajectory through Highway 4 armageddon.

But it’s worth it to get to Otres Beach.

Buses leave from the station near Psar Thmei from around 7am, with fewer departures as the sun nears its zenith. Sorya, Mekong Express and Paramount are among the better services, but when traveling with Aunty Val, comfort becomes less of an issue. It takes around four hours to arrive amongst the indescribable squalor of downtown Sihanoukville. The first thing to do is get the hell out of there. As you alight from the bus, motodops descend upon you like flies on the proverbial. One of them can get you out to Otres Beach for around two dollars.

If you also wish to shuttle back and forth to town, or visit Victory Hill, Ream National Park or surrounds, a better bet is to leg it around the corner to DD Canada on Ekareach Street. Here you can hire a scooter for three dollars a day with your passport as a deposit. And while the proprietor will not win any awards for courtesy, the motos are in as-new condition and are well-maintained.

As I near the island, i am confident enough of not capsizing the vessel to unclip the waterproof bag and fetch my camera and glasses. Wow. When you see the greenery – huge, old trees and dense undergrowth – you realise how much of the Cambodian coastline has been denuded of its tall timber.

I run the kayak onto the sandy beach with a satisfying crunch.
A genuine tropical island getaway.

So. Return bus tickets, $8. Valium, $9. Two days moto hire, $6. Fuel, $2. Kayak, $8. Two nights’ accommodation on the beach, $10.



Getting three sheets to the wind on rice wine with the local fishermen: priceless.

Unedited version of an article published in
7Days "Weekend Escapes", Issue 5, August 28-September 3, 2009.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

NICE GIRLS

A Khmer girl sits down in the seat in front of mine on the bus to Kampot. I’d seen her as i waited to board the bus. I was bleary-eyed and she was holding a giant yellow styrofoam esky. She smiled at me. I smiled back. Well, you’re forced to, really. Although sometimes i don’t. I just won’t. Sometimes i’m in a bad mood. I’ll just glare.

Or sometimes, when a pushy motodop grabs me by the arm, saying “Sir motorbike” - as they all do, as if they were some ragged army of kings intent on beknighting me as a two-wheeled lord - sometimes, when this happens, i’ll turn on them and explain to them slowly and clearly that if they touch me again they will wish they had never been born. But these moody occasions are rare, and usually a result of me suffering an undiagnosed tropical illness, or just having just been robbed, or having been stung on the knee by a Cambodian Wasp, or sometimes a combination of all three. Usually i’ll just smile and say, no thank you, or point to my own motorcycle standing nearby with a shrug, as if to say, well, there’s nothing i’d like better than to get on the back of your woebegone scooter and pay for the privilege of you getting us both lost, but unfortunately, look there, i have my own motorcycle. I can get my own self lost, but thank you sir for your kind offer.

But there’s something about taking a journey, by bus, train, plane or spacecraft that opens you up to romantic possibilities. Something in the way we move. So instead of glaring, or sticking my tongue out this esky-belaboured girl, i smile. Sticking your tongue out seldom works, anyhow. Least not with the girls at the Heart of Darkness, least not after a certain hour in the morning. They’ll just stick theirs out straight back at you, and wiggle it up and down provocatively, before coming over to whisper some sordid proposition in your ear. Or so i am told.

I’m carrying a small satchel of hand luggage, all that i need for a four-and-a-half hour bus trip and a four day alleged ‘holiday’, which, of course, involves shooting for The Paper. A selection of medications for various eventualities, a book by Haruki Murakami, socks, jocks and two shirts, a pair of khaki shorts in case i’m called upon to do an emergency impression of Steve Irwin, a notebook and pen, and a camera to shoot the Kep Jungle Dance. I’ve missed the early Thursday bus, having been up all night with a certain businessman attending the opening of a new nightclub at Phnom Penh’s biggest casino, NagaWorld, an occasion formally ritualised by the smoking of a foil of heroin in the club’s toilets, followed by crazy dancing at the new Darlin’ Darlin’ club, then crazy dancing at Riverhouse, then more crazy dancing with certain unnamed yet wholly infamous journalists at the Heart of Darkness bar and then, needless to say, following the downhill slide from there to Howie bar to shoot pool and thence to Walkabout. Walkabout is the dregs. Old prostitutes interspersed with older white barang, and worse: nobody who can even beat me on the pool table. On average, one Westerner dies each month at Walkabout. It’s like a retirement home for the misbegotten, misplaced and depraved. And each time someone dies, the cops turn up and money has to be paid. I heard a tale of the owners being busted by the cops early one morning as they laid one carefully wrapped Western corpse out by the rubbish skip on Street 19 - but i stress this is an uncomfirmed report, coming as it did from a totally unreliable source, i.e. a former AFP foreign correspondent. Anyway, i missed the bus because my bag and medications were still at this certain businessman’s apartment, not because of any complications at Walkabout. But it was a late night.

After being unable to get hold of the certain businessman by phone, owing to him being in a meeting, i eventually made the long trip up the several flights of stairs to his apartment and lo, one of the girls lets me in. I retrieve my satchel, and make the one o’clock bus. As we’re sitting in our seats, waiting for the alleged one o’clock bus to leave, hopefully some time before two, the girl in the seat in front turns around and smiles at me, offering what looks like an open packet of fetuccini. Its plastic wrapper is decorated with a picture of a smiling crab. She says something in Khmer and I nod, and say thank you in Khmer, and remove one of the strands of smiling crab pasta. She shakes her head no, and using sign language, insists that i take the whole packet. I shrug, thank her again, and take the whole packet. I read the label. It is artificial crab flavoured strips. Of course. What else would it be.

I try one. Dang, these are good. Like potato crisps, only longer, thinner, hotter and with more flavour. And tasting exactly as you’d expect an artificial crab to taste.

The junk food here is just the bomb. Take the iced coffee. It comes in a can. And it’s just that. It’s actually got coffee in it, and plenty of it. You can get it black, or with milk. Compare this with the cartons of "iced coffee" you get back home, wherein the only coffee flavour you get is what has leached through the packaging from the drawing of the coffee bean on the label. By a kind of process of graphic osmosis. A bland milky baby food for a society of bland milky babies. And did i mention the cuttlefish crackers?

I munch through a few artificial crab sticks. The bus begins its interminable blaring of horn as it inches forward through the crowd. The girl and i stumble through some Khminglish phrases, in which we establish that we are both going to Kep, and that we are both on holiday. She shows me a tiny picture of herself on a massive laminated A4-sized card, which proclaims that her name is Kali and she is a security guard. Here’s a match made in hell, i think. I introduce myself as Mark, which is my name, and show her my accreditation from The Paper, which is hanging around my neck - a document which, for some reason, she finds hysterically funny. Perhaps it’s the glasses. She offers me a carton of apple juice. I say no, i have some water, thank you, but she insists. I feel i should offer her something in return. I rummage through my satchel, and come up with a packet of Valium, which i proffer tentatively. She declines with a polite shake of her head.

Me, i take two. I know what these bus trips are like.

When she wakes me, just before Kep, a strand of artificial crab dangling from my lips, she points out the window and says something which obviously means she is getting out. I ask her to wait, and rip the map out of my Kep guidebook. I draw a circle around Kep Lodge, with a big arrow pointing at it, and write “Kep Jungle Party, Friday. Your official invitation. Mark.” And hand it to her.

I wave as she stands with her giant styrofoam esky on the side of the road. As she waves back, she nearly drops the esky. She laughs. The bus lurches forward. The horn blares.

Of course, when she turns up at the party on Friday, looking nice, with hoop earrings and makeup and a red and black top and a couple of friends, i’m so wankered drunk and so intent on winning every single game of pool that i all but ignore her. I can be such an idiot sometimes.

“I go now,” she says, late in the night, with a forlorn look. “See ya,” i say, and play a left-handed shot on the number three nestled on the cushion, rolling it into the top right corner pocket. Oh, i can be a thoughtless, insensitive tool sometimes, harbouring all the grace of a wooden mallet saying goodnight to an egg. And she is such a Nice Girl too.

I know she is a Nice Girl, because of when we got saturated the night before.

I’d just gotten off the bus and made my way to the Lodge. Nothing like free accommodation in a quality establishment. I'd barely made myself at home in my bungalow, by eating all the chocolates in the bar fridge and smoking a huge pipe of meth, when who should knock on my door, but a complete stranger.

“Mr Mark, a girl at bar to see you, Miss Kali,” he says, and disappears.

She has a moto, and is taking me to dinner. At least i think she is offering to take me to dinner, but it is arranged through translations by the barman, who seems to think we are going out for dessert. Which makes no sense at all, because i haven’t eaten all day, apart from some artificial crab strips and four packets of chocolate. Dessert should be preceded by a dinner, surely. Obviously something has been lost in translation. Are we going to the crab market, famous for its non-artificial crab and Kampot pepper? No, she is taking you to another market, far away, in Kep City Proper, the barman explains.

As it eventuates, Kep City Proper is indeed a long way from the Lodge, and is marked by two enormous gold-coloured chickens, or at least what look like chickens, which stand in front of the municipal offices. Other than that, it is identical to the rest of Kep. Beach, jungle, overgrown, abandoned and burnt out shells of 60s modernist beachside villas, cattle roaming the potholed streets, and ramshackle roadside stalls. And it is at one of these aforementioned stalls that we dine.

We barely negotiate the clay track from the Lodge and make it onto the bitumen beach road before we run out of fuel. Typically, Kali lets me know this through a combination of giggling and pointing, but i’ve run out of fuel often enough on my own self to know what is going down. Luckily, we’ve just crested a hill, so we roll about a kilometre through the light rain to what looks like a family squatting in a tin shed on the side of the road. That’s because it is a family squatting in a tin shed on the side of the road. She negotiates the purchase of a cool drink bottle of fuel, for which she refuses to let me pay, and we head on.

Dinner is an hilarious affair. The rain starts coming down harder, and the family who run the roadside food stall, who share at least half a dozen teeth between them, attempt to put up an umbrella, installing it on a three-legged steel tripod. Or at least it was a three-legged tripod until Kali put a rock on top of one of its legs it to stop it blowing away, suddenly reducing it to a two-legged tripod. More giggling. The umbrella then collapses, with Kali inside it. I order mi sup mowan and assist one of the family members with his conversational English.

“You lived here long?” i ask.
“Yes, long time,” he says. “Thirty years.”
“Wow,” i say. “Thirty years. That is a long time.”
His friend points to an enormous mansion across the road, all lit up and surrounded by a high, lighted wall. “He lives over there,” he says.
“Wow,” i say. “That looks nice.”
They both explode into laughter.
“No, i don't, i live in a hammock on the beach,” he explains.

After stumbling about like a christmas tree character in a pantomime play, Kali emerges from the green folded canvas umbrella, throws it aside, and sits downs next to me. I talk with the pair of jokers about hammocks, rocks, benches and soup. Kali gets up and goes to talk with one of the women. The soup arrives. I’m famished from my allnighter, having eaten only thin strips of artificial crab and four packets of chocolate since the night before.

“Your girlfriend, she go now, but she come back,” the sup chef suddenly says, and i notice Kali is on her moto.
“I do hope you are coming back,” i say, raising an eyebrow. She giggles and rides off into the night. I set about eating my bowl of chicken noodle soup with some gravity. And chopsticks.

Chicken, Khmer style, is prepared, i imagine, by killing the chicken and chopping and pounding it into small pieces with a heavy cleaver. The aim is to get as many small, pointed shards of bone into each piece of meat as possible.

“Mmm, chnganj,” i nod, expressing just how delicious the meal is. I pull a shard of bone out of my gums. The sup chef’s gold tooth gleams as he smiles in fluorescent glow of the roadside stall.
It’s still raining, and it’s getting cold. The mi sup mowan is hot, and, apart from the skeletal remains, extremely tasty.

When Kali comes back, she has on a warm jacket, and offers me a t-shirt that proclaims that it is quite a good idea to try to eradicate TB and is two sizes too small. I put it on over my existing t-shirt. I feel slightly warmer, at least on an emotional level.

The 75 cent soup is followed by a delicious 25 cent dessert. I don’t know what the ingredients are, only that these roadside jokers have done something amazing with fruit, covered it with shaved ice and condensed milk and it is chnganj. It starts really hammering down, and we retreat to the cover of the stall to finish our desserts.

Kali procures some plastic raincoats, which are worse than useless, and we ride back to the Lodge. She stops at the family squatting in the tin shed on the side of the road, where we’d bought the bottle of petrol earlier, and hands them a package. Something she’s bought for them at the markets. They nod in appreciation. I have no idea what it is. All i know is that by the time we arrive back at the Lodge we are completely saturated. I get off the moto and Kali waves goodbye.

“Don’t you want to come in and get dry?” i ask, making the motions of towelling dry my chest.
She stares at me as if i have just asked her if she would like me to strip her naked and ejaculate on her tits. Which, in Khmer, i suppose i very well might have. But i would have meant it in a nice way.
She shakes her head no, and smiles. “Tomorrow, party, i see you,” she says. And rides off into the rainy night.

And that is how i know she is a Nice Girl. And that is why i felt like a wanker for totally ignoring her at the Jungle Dance. Well, almost totally. I did dance with her, and i believe i did buy her a drink. However my bar tally for that night, as i found to my chagrin two days later, stood at 16 black russians. Plus a bottle of Ginseng wine and half a bottle of Cuban rum back at the bungalow, where i smoked reefers with the French girl.

Because of course, the French girl, Mikhaila, was always due to arrive at the Lodge on the Friday. And stay until Sunday. And i've never really understood the expression about birds in the hand and birds in the bushes. Because the French girl, whom I met at Chinese House while waiting for Miss Lulu Wayward, was, is, and always will be, one of the most sublimely beautiful women i have ever met. And also a Nice Girl. A Nice Girl at the bar, a Nice Girl on the dance floor, and a pool cue in the hand is worth two Nice Girls in the jungle.

Sure, Mikhaila wants to save the world. Sure, she’s vegetarian, rarely eats, rarely speaks, and has a weird black bead on a thin wire pierced through an angular high cheekbone. And carefully mussed long black hair. Sure, she’s exotic. And sure, i’ve never seen her drunk or anything other than casually elegant. And sure, she’s French and speaks English like she is laying crazy paving. In that French accent of hers. But so what?

Because after i'd filed my lazy jungle story on Saturday morning, we had ourselves a time in the afternoon, tearing up the trails of Kep Mountain on a 100cc Honda Dream, a ridiculous unit for such a trek, through rivers and over rocks, taking in waterfalls and views that simply went on forever. We visited a beautiful building called Le Bout du Monde, which translates as something like the house at the end of the world, which it is, looking out over jungle, through vines and plains of coconut trees to the islands. Everywhere on this looped jungle trail, it seems, we look out to a vista of jungle, sea and islands. We hole up high on the mountain path in a ramshackle hut as the tropical rain hammers down, peeling and eating rambutan and loganberries, smoking, and tentatively revealing our plans and individual dreams of the future.

We come down to visit the sailing club, and climb around the sea wall to sneak into the closed, private resort of Knai Bang Chatt.

The last time i went out with the French girl was after an allnighter on mushrooms, on Anandi’s river cruise. I hadn’t heard from Mikhaila for three weeks, since we’d met at Chinese House. There, she’d stood next to me to order a drink. I was waiting for Lulu. I’d asked her if she thought there was such a thing as the perfect cocktail, and, if there were, whether it would be a dacquiri, and she thought i’d said something entirely different, and our discussion eventually converged on the idea of going out on her dirt bike one day into the countryside for a ride.

“Can you ride a dirt bike?” she asked.

Can i ride a dirt bike.

Three weeks later, and not a peep. And there i am at Touk bar, about to go down to board the boat, with my friends who are all high on mushrooms, and my mobile rings, and a bizarrely accented voice says, “Thees eez Mikhaila from ze Chinese House. We can leaves tomorrow” and i’m thinking who the hell is this? And why are they trying to sell me canned leaves?

“We drank ze dacquiris together?” she says. Oh! Mikhaila. But what does she think? That i’ll just drop all my Saturday plans to go out riding in the countryside with her?

Of course she does. Of course i do.

“Tell you what. There’s a boat leaving in ten minutes, across the road from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club on Sisowath. Get down here and we’ll go for a cruise.”

Does she make the boat?

Of course she does. That’s what i like about her. She’s a bit of an adventurer. And she owns a dirt bike and rides like a demon.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

BUDDHIST HELL


Photo from Buddhist Hell by Miss Stephanie Mee, who is now, alas, in Bali with Juanita The Former Lifestyle Editor


Miss Wanderlust and i are going to Buddhist Hell. This is the place where our souls will be kept in constant torment for misdeeds in our former lifetimes.

All i can say, in our defence, is that we were awfully hot and dusty after that dirt bike ride, and the impromptu shower with the large washing bowl was entirely in order. What was perhaps entirely out of order were our antics with that golden reclining Buddha statue. But he looked so peaceful and happy, almost as if he were begging to be clambered upon.

And although i still believe the photograph has immense artistic merit, it will not be posted here.

I wrapped myself in a Buddhist robe to dry. It was hanging outside one of the monk's cave apartments - although there were no monks to be seen on this part of the mountain. Thank god for small mercies. However I now have it on good authority that we will come back as slugs to be trodden on accidentally by Buddhist monks.

On arrival at the foot of the mountain, before the climb and our well-earned shower, we lay about in a pagoda and chatted with the monks, the nuns, and some random villagers. Well, Miss W did. I just lay almost comatose on a straw mat on the cool tiled floor, resting my poor monkey arse after hours on a combination of dirt bike and Valium, while she chatted away like a native. The nuns then sang her a lovely, lilting Khmer song, and asked her to do the same. Which she did. And did it very well. My oh my, this Miss Wanderlust is a girl of many hidden talents. Although while we were showering, some were perhaps not so well hidden as others. But i digress.

Miss W then translated the villagers' request for me to sing them a number. I sat up and looked about, confused. Are these people insane? Do I look like a Cambodian jukebox? I'm recuperating here, for Buddha's sake. Can't you see i'm having a relapse? But they would not take no for an answer. Not having any Khmer love tunes at the forefront of my repertoire, i figured Mexican was about as close to Cambodian as i was likely to get. At least they are both north of the Equator. So i launched into Warren Zevon's Carmelita:

I hear the Mariachi static on my radio
and the tubes they glow in the dark
and i'm there with her in Ensenada
and i'm here in Echo Park

Oh Carmelita, hold me tighter,
i think i'm sinking down

and i'm all strung out on heroin
on the outskirts of town.

Which seemed as appropriate a song as any. Well, it was either that or the Ramones' I Wanna Be Sedated - but i didn't have my ukelele. The nuns seemed to like it, especially the part where i pawn my Smith Corona and go to meet my man, who hangs out down on Alvarado Street, at the Pioneer Chicken stand.

We climbed the mountain, and met some more nuns on the other side. Miss W somehow convinced them to make us soup.

And we ate it like the ravenous, lost, wandering souls that we are.

Miss u, Miss W.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A VOYAGE OF DISCOVERY

Thank you, Miss Helen Randy, for your succinct observation.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

LUST, DUST AND THE SEARCH FOR ENLIGHTENMENT

For some reason, i was thinking we were just going for a quick burn around the village. On the borrowed 250. Maybe say hello to some of Miss Wanderust's Kampuchean friends, then back to the hut to crash out for the rest of the day. But perhaps that was just the Valium talking. And the fact that we'd been up all night. But once we hit the Battambang railway line - after coffee on low stools at a wooden roadhouse shack, hours of meandering dirt roads, rice paddies, coconut palms, and one road that simply ran straight into a lake - i realised i was not going to get any sleep. No. Not today.

Today we are riding out in search of enlightenment, seeking to find our way to a mythical, remote Buddhist mountain to visit monks who live in caves. To meditate, to sit atop boulders and soak up the time-space continuum, like a strawberry daquiri through a giant cosmic straw. If all goes according to plan, that is. Which it doubtless won't. But still, it's good to have a plan.

Miss W stops to ask directions from a couple of locals busily engaged in loading a nori train with sticks. A nori is one of those bamboo rail carts that motor up and down this almost disused railway line. Don't ask me why they are loading it with sticks. I've long since abandoned all hope of understanding how people eke out a living in this country; the whys and wherefores of their quotidian grind generally elude me. These two i suspect of being into speculation. Investors; they've picked up these sticks cheaply while the market is in freefall, only to sit on them and bide their time, waiting for the inevitable recovery of the global stick market.

The couple are friendly, but of course i don't understand a word they are saying. I've been living in the Penh too long, where you can get away with "turn left, turn right" and "watch out!" (an indispensable phrase when riding on the back of a moto) "how much is that?" and "too expensive!" And, of course, mi cha mowan, which is Khmer for chicken and fried noodles. Mmm. Chicken.

But i digress.

When you live in a village, however, it's another story. Wanderlust, over the past year working as a district schoolteacher, has pretty much mastered the tongue. The girl comes back with more vague secondhand directions, points in the direction of some distant mountains, climbs on the back of the bike, and we continue on our confused way. I drop the clutch, throttle on hard, and power away, clicking up through the gears. We're flying again, heading on through the sunshine and light on this benzodiazepam-fuelled dirt path to enlightenment.

It's insanely sunny, this wide open road. Are we literally heading for enlightenment, i wonder? Or just sunburn? Is this the one true path? We are, according to the girl, headed for a Buddhist pagoda, a huge phnom capped by an immense boulder, in the dead centre of nowhere, where monks live in caves, nuns make soup, and all is peace and light. Me? I'm not insensitive - i just don't care. I do love a motorcycle trip, even more so with a girl on the back. I'll just try to avoid running us off this wooden bridge and into that rice paddy, that's the way. Watch those potholes. Ooh, that's a big truck. I'm having fun. Enlightenment? It can wait.

The bike coughs and splutters, and i switch to reserve. There will be a village ahead somewhere with fuel in those one-litre glass cool drink bottles. 3800 riel, or about 90 cents. And maybe we can get some water. I'm parched. We come to a large stone archway over the road, and a T-junction. Turn right! Wanderlust shouts, flailing a vague, checkered-sleeve arm. A few kilometres down the track we come to a small village - in fact nothing much other than a wooden, tin-roofed shack - and pull up in a cloud of dust. Chickens scamper as curious kids appear from nowhere, munching cobs of corn. An old lady smiles us a toothless smile and says something in Khmer. She is clearly happy to see us.

We drink a couple of gallons of water, and stash a litre in Wanderlust's backpack. I down a tin of Red Bull, surprised i haven't yet dozed off at the handlebars. However, i'm not too happy about the sunburn. I've had my bare arms stretched ahead of me in a horizontal position, like some kind of speeding somnambulist, for the past two or three hours under this harsh tropical sun. They have turned a worrying shade of red. And without a helmet, i can feel my face taking on the unappealing incarnadine tinge of a boozed up Brit backpacker on Bondi Beach.

Wanderlust, at least, has a long-sleeved shirt, a pink krama and Jackie O sunglasses to protect her skin; her skin, delicate, young, smooth, soft, supple, elastic...

But i digress.

We fuel up the beast, and she does a bit of bartering with the villagers, managing to procure a long-sleeved shirt, hat, and a scarf for her scorched driver. Laughing, they throw in a rather delightful pink hat to match her krama and shoes. Thus outfitted with fresh supplies and bedecked in the style of your typical Cambodian weekend explorer, we mount the trusty steel steed and sally forth.

The road winds upwards, and slowly increases its rate of climb. There are no more villages, but we see the occasional oxcart and moto. The foliage is beginning to thicken. We pass under another large archway across the road. Beside it, caught in perpetual mid-stride, stands an impressively gigantic concrete elephant, an escapee from some long-forgotten concrete jungle. Two children sit underneath in its mammoth shade. The road continues upward.

Can this really be the path to the Buddhist mountain and enlightenment? Or is the truth far more harsh and tangible?

…/ to be continued

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

MISS WANDERLUST

I’m exhausted, I say to Juanita the Lifestyle Editor. Too much sex. Too many drugs. I think I need a hobby.

Juanita glances at me over the partition between our computers.

Well, she says. How about rock and roll?


Two rounds of tequila shooters at a quarter to five in the morning in a rowdy strip club is a sure sign that I might just be up all night. The taxi to Kampong Chhnang is booked for 5am, and Miss Wanderlust and I are supposed to be in it. I’ve promised her she will be back at her village in time to take her English class at 7. But after a couple of tequilas, my American friend is back on the bar, pole dancing with the girls. She’s leaving next week. She’s going home. She doesn’t want to go.

I sit at a booth with Finch and Syd, who are drinking, and laughing at my attempts to procure a glass of water from the bar girls. No, I’m not buying you a drink, i say. No, I’m not interested in your services. No, i don't want a beer. I’m here to look after my friend. I’d like a glass of water please.

I’m parched. It’s been a long night, and what we haven’t smoked simply isn’t worth smoking.

The taxi will be outside my apartment in five minutes, I shout to Wanderlust on the bar. She nods, continuing to dance, doing the bump with one of the bar girls. Let’s go, I yell.

No, she shouts back over the appalling dance music. I’m staying here. She keeps dancing.

Wilful.

If there’s one word that describes Wanderlust, it is wilful. I met her at Equinox, where she was drinking water, and she appeared completely sane. But it has been one long wilful escapade since she turned up poolside at Blue Lime thirteen hours ago, without a swimsuit, but with some nice off the hook sake. After languid swim, a few swigs from the ceramic Japanese bottle, many many a cocktail, a bite of street food, some 50% rum from the Martinique Islands with coconut and chocolate at Dodo Rhum, followed by a party at Katarina’s apartment, a beer or two at Meta House, where we met the creator of Eastenders, then more cocktails at Fly, then more partying at Katarina's, then more cocktails and machetes at Café Ya,

followed by more partying at Katarina's, we found ourselves at Candy Bar. But from what I understand, it is crucial that my young friend makes it back to her village to see her students before she gets her flight home in a couple of days. She gyrates her hips with one of the girls. I don’t think she is prioritizing at the moment.

I again attempt to coax Wanderlust down off the bar. Finch and Syd, again, laugh. You’ve got no chance mate, says Syd. My phone rings. It’s Veary. Mr Mark, your taxi is here. He waiting. Where you?

We’ll be there in five, I shout into the cell phone. I return to the pole and take Wanderlust by the arm, and she leans down as i shout into her ear. I’m leaving. See you later.

I head for the door. Mark, wait, she says, climbing down from the bar top. Let’s go. Come see my village.

We ask the taxi driver to stop awhile riverside, as we lie on the low granite wall and wait for the sun to rise over the Tonle Sap. Long wooden boats motor by slowly in the still orange light. The American standard hangs limply overhead, just one of a string of flags that line Sisowath Quay. The sun is taking too long, we decide. Wanderlust flicks her cigarette. We leave in the taxi, eating rambutan, drinking beer. I pop a Valium. I figure I can get a quick nap in the car, and another while Wanderlust takes her class.

You’re my cousin, she tells me on our way up Highway 5. From America. I’ll have to explain you to my adopted Khmer family, she says. An American cousin? Oh god, this is just wholly inappropriate on a whole range of levels. I take another swig of beer. We talk, we eat. We don't sleep.

The taxi arrives gets us in just before seven. I am introduced briefly to the Cambodian family, as Mark, her American cousin, then led up the wooden stairs to Miss Wanderlust’s room. Wide wooden floorboards. Clothes, backpacks, posters, running shoes, food, bottles. A guitar. Make yourself at home, she says. I’ll be back. She changes and leaves in a brief whirlwind. I take another little yellow pill. I imagine it will be a fairly sedate day, pottering about the village. I fall asleep on the bed.

She shakes me awake. Let’s go, she says.

It seems like I’ve only been asleep ten minutes. How long have I been asleep? I ask. Ten minutes, she says.

I sit up and look around. My mind has a fuzzbox connected somewhere between my eyelids and my brain stem. A phaser is inline with my ears.

My class didn’t turn up, she says. But that’s Cambodia. No means yes, and yes means no. She bounces on the bed. Let’s go.

Uh - where are we going?

Well, she says. Can you ride a dirt bike?

…/ to be continued

Friday, July 10, 2009

BACON AND PEANUT PASTE SANDWICHES

JULY RECIPE OF THE MONTH
With thanks to Barb Coddington

Fried bacon and peanut butter sandwiches. I have never made this, and the propane can on my single burner stove is empty and i don't have the necessary 30 cents to have it refilled. But if i did, i would, if i could.

PREPARATION TIME
Not take long.

INGREDIENTS
Serves 1
2 slices of bread
1 piece of bacon, rindless if you prefer
Peanut butter, or peanut paste, depending on your hemisphere

RECOMMENDED WINE
A Puligny-Montrachet white should do.

METHOD
Fry bacon. Butter both sides of the bread with peanut paste. Put bacon in the middle.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

GUACAMOLE AND PICTURE TOAST

JUNE RECIPE OF THE MONTH
With thanks to Lulu Wayward

Guacamole and picture toast. Sure, you can just cut open an avocado and spread it on a bit of toast - there’s nothing wrong with that. And while I do believe I should be able to draw a salary simply for getting out of bed in the morning, that doesn’t mean I’m lazy. No no no. But by laying claim to being a creative genius, I’ve put myself in the situation where I must, every now and then, do something creative. So in this month’s recipe, I am going to combine finger-painted toast with avocados and cilantro to create something exquisitely and vaguely Mexican.

PREPARATION TIME
It’s not the Sistine Chapel. It’s toast and dip. 10 minutes.

INGREDIENTS
Serves 2
A few slices of raw toast
2 large Haas avocados
2-3 tomatoes, depending on size
Half a large red onion
Cilantro, cumin, chili and lime juice to taste
Extra wedges of lime and salt
Oh, and a smidgen of garlic

RECOMMENDED WINE
Tequila. It's Mexican for 'wine'.

METHOD
Put Beck's 'Guero' on the stereo, take the middles out of the tomatoes and dice finely. Then close the Facebook window of your browser. Let’s face it - you’ll not get anywhere with this recipe with Facebook running. Part of the reason why I have become so utterly bone idle lately when it comes to blogging is…well, you know the reason. And why should fiddling about with tomatoes be any different? Or avocados? I’ll just get the pips out of those avocados when something either interesting or uninteresting will happen on Facebook. It’s the same with trying to write while at work…for example, Miss Wayward’s chat window will open up, with the words “I’m bored.”

And then the guacamole will go out the window. Or the front page of the paper will be put on the backburner.

Either way, it spells devastation in the kitchen.

“I might do some work...or I might make a necklace out of paperclips and pretend to read something relevant,” Lulu muses. “Choices, choices.”

While she may seem angelic, I have the devil’s own time concentrating once she starts talking about paperclip jewellery. Or goats. Concentrate. Think about the stuff they put in cartons of apple juice. Concentrate. Once you manage to get the pips out of the avocados, don’t toss them in the bin. Put them aside for later, after the washing up, and then rub them lovingly in your hands. My friend Sarah Toa swears by it. The oil in the avocados will work wonders on your skin.

“I accidentally went out with those Canadian chefs last night,” the Lulu window informs. “We were talking about goats and stuff.”

Fuck the goats, concentrate. The task at hand. Spoon out the luscious avocado, and combine it with the finely chopped onion and garlic in a large bowl. Mash it up with a fork. Do not, under any circumstances, use a blender. If you use a blender, the ghosts of one million Mexican mamas from times past will come and haunt the shit out of you. I have this on good authority.

Now, add the cilantro, cumin, chilli and lime juice to taste. If, like me, you have no idea what cilantro is, use coriander. Now for the exquisitely creative part.

Before you put the toast in the toaster, wet your finger under the tap and draw a little pattern on the bread. You could try a Mexican sombrero. Or i guess the eyebrows of Frida Kahlo would be easy, though you might have to employ your middle finger to get the required thickness. Use your imagination. Draw something Mexican. Try a nice pastoral scene of a drug lord shooting up a border town.

Now although I’ve claimed that I was going to do something creative, by now you will have realised that this was an outright lie. In my defense, I must point out that I don’t own a toaster in Cambodia, nor is there one in the office. So these samples of picture toast were simply culled, à la most blogs of note, directly from the Internet. But that's no excuse for you not to make your own. And while i realise retro video games have very little to do with guacamole, fuck it. Life is full of surreal juxtapositions.

“Turned up at an important meeting with some Korean businessmen today, unknowingly still wearing my paperclip jewellery,” Lulu says. “Realised halfway through. Still, one must persevere in maintaining the illusion of sophistication, innit.”

Spread the dip on the toast and away you go. Use the extra wedges of lime and salt to down the tequila. And close that fucking Facebook window.

Monday, May 04, 2009

TWO FRONTAL LOBOTOMIES, PLEASE

It was around that time i had my eyebrows blown off in a bizarre mining accident.
There were too many of us. We were in the bush, and little by little, we went insane. We worked hard, pulling twelve hour shifts, drilling, sampling, putting in grid lines - but once we finished work there was really nothing much to do except drink, smoke, or blow things up. Or sometimes, all three. The Broad Arrow Tavern, the set of the 1971 Googie Withers film Nickel Queen, was 30 kilometres down the track, and we'd go there for Sunday sessions. The nurses would come up from Kalgoorlie. We'd drink, play pool. Then back to work.

We were out looking for gold. Camped at a place called Ora Banda in the Western Australian goldfields. Prospectors, like my grandfather, had been looking for gold around there since Paddy Hannan struck it rich in 1893. And there was plenty of it. But it was not all gold and glamour. Part of the job was running the camp, and keeping a tidy camp meant disposing of rubbish. So we would throw it down the old mine shafts, and every now and then, pour a gallon of petrol down there and burn it off. For entertainment value, we'd sometimes throw in a half-full, sealed drum of fuel as well, and sit back with our tinnies, and wait for it to explode dramatically into the night sky. One time, during a routine burning off operation, the burning rag i threw at the fuel-filled mine shaft didn't quite make it into the hole. So i wandered over to complete the job. Needless to say, the fuel vapour in the shaft exploded and knocked me onto my back.

I walked back into camp, and ran into one of the geologists, a fellow by the name of Swan. "What was that noise?" he asked. "Sounded like an explosion."
Oh, nothing, i said. Just burning off some trash.
Swan stared at me for a moment. "Sacre blurter," he said. "You've got no eyebrows."
I had no idea what 'sacre blurter' meant, but Swan was always saying it. He was always putting small rocks into his mouth too, sucking them, and then looking at them under a lupe.

I never really understood geology.

Every now and then, there would be something much more interesting to do, something that didn't involve rocks or garbage. Like the famous 1985 Nurses' Cocktail Party. The poor things. Posted out there in the sticks to serve a year in Kalgoorlie - they were almost as sexually frustrated as we were. Almost. They invited all the miners for miles around.
It was always going to be a messy affair. But it was elaborate. They hired a piano player, and filled the entire hall - which, interestingly, was downstairs from the nurses' dormitories - with tables, each table holding a different array of spirits and liqueurs, along with glassware and carefully hand-written recipes for an enormous range of cocktails. Little plastic graduated cylinders used for dispensing medicines were standing by for good measure. I turned up with Bernie, who set about showing the nurses how to really mix a cocktail, à la Tom Cruise, dispensing with the dispensers, twirling bottles through the air, pouring liquor from a great height, and creating knockout drinks.

The piano player's name was Swifty. He was 66 years old, bald, wrinkled, with huge bags under his eyes. A hand-rolled cigarette dangled perpetually from Swifty's lower lip, somehow defying gravity. Swifty could play anything. You could request any song, from the past, present or even future, and Swifty would nod sagely, ash dropping from his smoke, and continue playing his particular version of ragtime blues. I don't remember him stopping for more than half a beat the entire night.

Needless to say, i moved from one table to another, intent on working my way through each cocktail recipe, and i became somewhat inebriated. Well, this is what we were here for. It's not exactly sex and drugs and rock and roll, but this is the bush. Allowances have to be made.

One of the nurses zigzagged over to the table where i was trying to mix a Flaming Lamborghini.
"What happened to your eyebrows," she said. She was drunk. I was drunk.
"Lost them in a poker game," i said.
She seemed pretty. Tall, dark hair, dark eyes. I noticed she had legs.
"Let's get a drink," she said.
"Good idea." I knocked back the Lamborghini without setting fire to it. I'd decided to avoid playing with matches. We staggered across the hall to find Bernie, who made us his specialty: the Frontal Lobotomy. We had a few of these. Things were spiralling out of control. There were people dancing by the piano - no, there were people dancing on the piano - as Swifty continued in his inimitable style. A couple were making out on one of the tables, the liquor pushed off onto the floor. I suddenly realised i was having trouble standing up. I reached out to the nurse for stability. She mistook this for an act of intimacy, and kissed me wetly on the mouth. "Let's go upshtairs," she slurred.
"I very much doubt i can make it up even a single flight of stairs," i said. At least, that's what i imagined i was saying. It came out more like, "Mrrgh skkk dlb." Clinging to each other for mutual support, we perambulated like a dizzy quadruped towards the foyer, where a wide staircase curved upwards to the nurses' quarters, and, no doubt, carnal bliss.

We paused in the fluorescent-lit foyer to study the swaying staircase. This was going to be difficult. We kissed again, and she began to undo my belt. I tried to take off her dress, and got it part way over her head before we both fell over onto the floor.

When the police arrived, one of them prodded me gently with his boot. By this time, the nurse and i were entangled head to toe on the linoleum, where i was attempting, with no great success, to perform cunnilingus. I'm not sure how long we had been there, or whether we had fallen asleep at any point in the interim.

"Come on, mate," the police constable said. "Looks like you've had enough."
"Enough?" i mumbled. "We were just getting started."

Friday, May 01, 2009

FASTING

MAY RECIPE OF THE MONTH

Drink some water. Don't eat anything. Do this for a few days.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

iCHICKEN

APRIL RECIPE OF THE MONTH

Warm chicken salad, with watermelon, feta and pepitas. For when you’ve had enough curried chicken amok to last a lifetime, you’ve got the lonesome lovesick blues, and you feel like falling asleep with your face in some really classy food without burning your nose.

Doctor Abigail's chicken-free version.

PREPARATION TIME
Cooking time is around thirty minutes to half an hour, longer if you are on Valium. You'll need scissors, a corkscrew, and maybe some razor blades. Anything sharp will do.

INGREDIENTS
Serves one person and a refrigerator
Half a chicken (as Kierkegaard once said, half a chicken is better than no chicken at all)
100g pepitas
Half a watermelon-sized watermelon
250g feta cheese
Sesame oil
Juice of two limes
Sea salt and cracked pepper

CHOOSING A WINE
The phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty rejects the rationalist view of an autonomous subject who can make fully objective decisions. On the other hand, he rejects determinist views of the world as constituted of solid objects, including our bodies, which follow hard causal laws. For Merleau-Ponty, people are ambiguously free. People are neither completely determined by the things in which they are embedded, nor are they completely independent of them. Thing-person interactions are ambiguous. One cannot determine how much an action or response is self-motivated, motivated by the thing itself, or by previous interactions with things that influence the current interaction. I hope this helps.

METHOD
Make sure you have a corkscrew handy. Like W.C. Fields, i was once stranded without a corkscrew and had to survive on nothing but food and water for days.

Open the wine. If your hands shake as you do this, it could be a sign of malaria, or worse, that other tropical malaise, the dreaded delirium tremens. Either way, it might be best if you were to open the wine and let it sit and breathe while you mix some pre-drink drinks. I recommend Valium with a gin and tonic chaser. This should cover all the bases.

Knock back the G&T&V and mix another. Now, plug in the iPod and dial up some music. Because there is no way you should be fooling around trying to turn over an LP twenty-two minutes from now. You know you’ll either scratch your record really badly or fall asleep and wake up with grooves on the side of your face. Use the iPod. Try Floating Into The Night (1989) by dream pop artist Julee Cruise.

While you are still capable, grab a pair of scissors and cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces. Mind your fingers. Heat up some sesame oil in the pan and throw in the chicken. It should make a sound like a high voltage transmission line on a humid day. Meanwhile, slice the watermelon into wedge-sized wedges.

When the chicken is nearly done - and make sure it is done, don't get me started on pink bits at this point - throw in a handful of pepita seeds, those green things that come out of pumpkins. Did say 100g? I’m not really good at estimating the weight of anything that is not a white powder. Let’s just call it a handful, shall we? Once you’ve browned the chicken and pepitas, throw it into a large bowl and let it cool for a while. You’re making a warm chicken salad here. Now is the right time to get started on the wine. Pour out a generous splash.

Women. Don't get me started on women...

Once the chickeny pepita stuff has cooled a bit, toss in the watermelon and crumble the feta, then squeeze on the lime juice. Be generous with the lime juice, the sea salt, and the cracked pepper. Hmm. Is the word 'generous' really applicable if it is only for your own self? Surely not. So instead, be greedy with the lime juice, the sea salt, and the cracked pepper. Serve up however much you think you can eat before you float off into the night. Grab some cling wrap and, à la Bad Boy Bubby, cling wrap the rest and put it in the refrigerator. Because tomorrow will be another long, lonely, and generally soul-sapping day in which you will once again require sustenance. But then, maybe tomorrow you could ditch the self-pity and try something with mushrooms. The mushrooms here in the Penh are, by all reports, magic.

Drugs. Now don't get me started on drugs...

Sunday, April 19, 2009

SURROUNDED BY ALLEGATORS

Khmer New Year in Kampot. It was just fantastic. And i'm not talking about the barbecued ribs.

The holiday in the 'Pot with my fellow journalists was, allegedly, wild. Unfortunately i remember nothing. But since returning to work the stories have been flowing thick and fast: many, varied, and unrelenting. Because journalists are known for primarily two things: the ability to tell stories, and alcoholism. So naturally, we took to a holiday in a well-stocked bar like crayfish to raw sewage.

Apart from purportedly holding the Bodhi Villa bar in thrall with a stolen guitar and stolen tunes from Warren Zevon and the Ramones, the Art Director also, according to eye-witness reports, danced semi-naked with a topless midget who had walked into the Villa in the early hours, straight to the bar to order a joint, and, after it was allegedly consumed, challenged A.D. to a near-naked dance-off á la Zoolander, but without the underpants. Here i must stress the word allegedly. These journalists are slippery customers. Especially when they are oiled up with body lotion. One of them even claims that i confessed an undying love to our Lifestyle Editor, Juanita, but by part way through the second morning i had regained my senses...

I awake, naked, in a room above the bar, alongside our Supplements Editor, and begin a search, traipsing the length and breadth of the Villa, for my missing clothes, only to find them on my return in a sodden heap next to my bed. Sensibly, i elect to pull on swimming trunks, return to the bar, and breakfast on a fruit shake with two shots of Creme de Bananes.

It is at this point that i begin to pull focus. Finch. The spectacles. Last night's skinny dipping and its subsequent consequences. Clearly, it is time for me to go freediving at the bottom of the Kampot River. Finch, our illustrious deputy chief editor, lost his spectacles the previous night while trying to swim upriver from the floating pontoon to his bungalow while carrying a bottle of Pimms and two glasses of ice. And now i must, i simply must, find his spectacles: my bar tab is dependent upon it. For although things are spiralling rapidly out of control, Finch has offered a cash reward.

Photo: Tracey Shelton

"I'll give you twenty dollars if you can come up with my glasses," Finch yells, somewhat recklessly, from the bar. This is Cambodia, where twenty US dollars is the equivalent of five bottles of Russian vodka. And while i am already haplessly diving and groping about in the mud in two fathoms of water at the bottom of the river, the prospect of ready cash pushes me to lift my game. I clamber up the pontoon and accost Zoë - easily the skinniest of the last night's skinny dippers - who has just returned from another of her legendary cross-river swims. I put on her swimming goggles. We are, after all, professionals. After the next dive i come up, having held my breath right to its limit, only to crack my head on the bottom of the pontoon. Air - wherefore art thou, air? I have little time to ponder why all Cambodian rivers are about as transparent as a Eugene Ionesco play as i search in desperation for the surface. Eventually, fighting panic, i think laterally, swim sideways, and come up, thankfully gasping a lungful of the languid Kampot air, by the speedboat.

I hoist myself up onto the steps, and notice a beautiful young woman lying on the pontoon, half in and half out of her bikini. She seems vaguely familiar, this sunlit blossom of ladyflower. But i must not be distracted. My further inebriation may depend upon my success. I dive again, and again, and again, and i find some glasses all right - a sorry-looking pint mug, and two wine glasses.

"Those look like the glasses i was carrying last night," yells Finch, and drags on a cigarette. This is a valuable clue. I do some quick calculations. Figuring on the lighter weight of his spectacles, the direction of last night's current (today it flows in the opposite direction, with the incoming tide) and the direction in which the beautiful young woman from the pontoon is now swimming, i set a trajectory like a catenary and dive again. Against all odds, there they are, sitting upright on the bottom of the river, as if Finch had casually got up to switch off a reading lamp. I come up next to the bikini girl. "I found them," i whisper into her startled, wet, and yet somehow sublimely beautiful face.

When i casually stroll up the gangplank wearing Finch's spectacles, an air of stunned disbelief descends upon the bar. Zoë steps forward. "I just want to shake your hand," she says. "This is unbelievable." I'm sure her disbelief stems mainly from the idea that she may not get her goggles back, because she takes these from me quite deftly during her brief congratulations. Finch, too, looks momentarily gleeful, then morose.
"I guess i owe you twenty dollars," he says.
"You got that right," i say.

The promised $20 reward goes toward paying my bar tab, which is extensive, even though, apart from the Chuck Norris cocktails, and a few Black Russians, and the morning heart-starters, i imagine i have spent the past twenty four hours drinking only from my smuggled $4 bottle of Bacardi rum, which i allegedly last night drained and threw into the river, before spending the next half hour asking people if they had seen my bottle of Bacardi. Again, i stress: allegedly.

The bikini girl comes up and dresses for breakfast, and it is then that i suddenly realise that i have indeed met her before and the only reason, in a somewhat ironic and bizarre twist, that i didn't recognise her on the pontoon was because she didn't have her clothes on. She is, as it turns out, the inimitable Lulu Wayward from last week's performance of the Vagina Monologues. A play which of course i didn't go to see, owing to my Freudian castration anxieties, but we really needn't go into that at this juncture. However we did publish Lou's picture in The Paper, a fact which Lou was not remiss in drawing to the attention of her Spacebook acolytes: "Lulu Wayward is congratulating the PP Post for choosing to print the ugliest picture of her in the entire world - what did I do to you?!?!"

And indeed the picture did not do her justice, because Lulu is absolutely fabulous - only a whole lot funnier, and with a greater capacity for alcohol and cigarettes than Joanna Lumley. All she needs to do now is work on her accent. It's just way too London. We get to talking, and the allegations continue. I am surrounded by allegators, so it seems. As Lou recounts over breakfast, i met her last night, for the second night running, introduced myself, for the second night running, then asked where she was from, to which she replied "South of England... near London" and to which i, apropos of nothing at all, responded, "Well, you can go fuck yourself." And the previous night, Lulu continues, i invited her, again shortly after introducing myself, to an impromptu modelling shoot the following morning. Now this, like the skull of the Hunchback of Notre Dame when he doesn't have his mind on the job and is struck by two hundredweight of solid brass, rings a bell.

"Yes, i do remember that," i say, putting my hands up to my head. "But you never turned up."
She shakes her blonde head and lets out an exasperated sigh. "Yes i did," she says.
"You so did not - i was here at the bar waiting for you at 7am," i say.
"I was here at six," she says. "You said six."
Now this is the sole mental image i am unable to erase from my memory. And i wasn't even there.

Lulu then begins to recount a very interesting theory. "And you know what else?" she says. "Whales. Whales beach themselves because they are driven by evolutionary forces beyond their control, which make them attempt to walk on land. And if Darwinism is correct, which it indubitably is, eventually one of these hapless creatures will harness the requisite genetic mutation to manage to do just that, and stumble up the beach into oncoming traffic..."

I interrupted her in amazement, pleased to hear that my postmodern evolutionary theories on apsirational whales have finally reached a wider and more appreciative audience.

"That's amazing!" i say. "Where did you hear that?"
I am, naturally, incredibly curious about the six degrees of separation through which she has stumbled en route to my theory. Lulu stares at me blankly for a moment and says, "You were talking about it to me last night. And I must say it's the biggest load of fucking bollocks i've ever heard in my entire life."
"Well, you're only young," i proffer.

And it was only when she started talking, over a cheeseburger with cheese at the Rusty Keyhole later that night - about the preposterous Klang Beer challenge, the man-eating piranhas, the rules that apply to fucking goats, gastronomically adventurous spiders, dead dogs and the fact that the human body is an amazing thing - it was only then that i knew i was in love.

Photo: Tracey Shelton

Which of course i had forgotten all about by morning. Because i'm pretty sure i introduced myself to Lulu all over again later that evening, and it is statistically probable that again i told her to go fuck herself. "South of England... near London? Well, you can go fuck yourself." And this morning, i remember nothing. But such is the nature of the 'Pot, the Villa, and those god damned Black Russians.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

THE JEFF BUCKLEY SCHOOL OF SWIMMING

Taking a few capsules of pure codeine and lounging around the pool for a day before the race was probably not the best training regimen for a eight-hundred-and-seventy metre river swim.

Halfway across the river, as i choke on another lungful of the muddy Mekong, and its currents do their best to drag me down and across the border into Vietnam, i begin having second thoughts. In fact, what i am having is more along the lines of an existential crisis, but this is no time to split hairs. I am thinking this enterprise would best be filed under the heading "It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time." Deciding to enter the 14th annual Mekong River Swim. Having a number drawn on my arm with a thick felt pen and wading out into these warm waters, my feet squelching alongside 150 other, slightly more seasoned, quite obviously more fit, and almost certainly better-prepared swimmers.

In a bar with Kate Liana in the early hours of this morning i decided how i could not only do this swim, but do it easily. I had an epiphany over a Kahlua on ice, as i came to the sudden realisation that even though i can hardly swim at all, suffer chronic asthma, am prone to panic attacks and on the wrong side of a mid-life crisis, all i needed do was to put my mind to it. This, so it seemed, was simplicity itself. Time after time, when an athlete wins an Olympic gold medal or sets a new record for the clean and jerk, she will explain the secret of her success: "This is proof that you can do anything at all if only you put your mind to it."

I switch to backstroke. This has the added advantage of giving me a more line-of-sight approach to my frantic prayer-making. My second thoughts are returning, bringing with them, like unwelcome mental gatecrashers, some menacing third, and even fourth thoughts. Because, in the harsh light of day (and this sun is indeed very harsh: it is the kind of sun that Richard Brautigan must have been suffering under when he wrote: "The sun was like a huge 50 cent piece that someone had poured kerosene on and then had lit with a match, and said, 'Here, hold this while I go get a newspaper,' and put the coin in my hand, but never came back") the problem with this "proof", elucidated so regularly and with varying degrees of articulation by our sporting greats, is that it simply doesn't hold water. Unlike my fucking lungs. If one person wins, how is this proof that anyone can do it? Statistically speaking, a sample size of one is hardly what you would call representative. What about the other ninety-nine hundred and ninety-nine people who also put their mind to it? I look up from my backstroke to find i have been swimming in a slow circle.

After helping Kate Liana finish her final pot of beer, and agreeing with her that yes, we should indeed totally do brunch, and agreeing to meet her at the boat first thing in the morning for the swim, i went home, lay on the bed, and put my mind to it. It was simple. All i needed to do, when i turned up for the swim in a scant few hours, was to focus my thoughts on the opposite bank of the river. Then, if these Olympians were right, my mind would somehow carry me across to the other side like a kind of mental ferry, without the tedious physical reality of kicking or paddling coming into it at all.

In the 13th annual Mekong River Swim, last year, the circling boats had plucked one sorry "competitor" from the opaque waters of the Mekong in the final stages of drowning. He had been drinking heavily the whole of previous day and night, and had, so the story goes, only left the Heart Of Darkness bar that morning with barely enough time to fetch a towel on his way to the river. Of course, nobody had thought to prevent someone so obviously and totally inebriated from entering the event. Such an idea, id est, limiting someone's freedom, could scarcely have been entertained. This is, after all, Cambodia.

"If i don't make it, i want my 2009 Mekong River Swim t-shirt to go to my son," i say to Zoë, as we stand waist-deep in the river awaiting the gun. Zoë is speaking to me again, and has seemingly forgiven my trespasses of several days ago when i tried to abduct her, strip her naked and strap her to Russian military hardware for the purposes of Art. She has adopted the defensive approach deployed by many of my female friends: let us just assume he is joking. Of course, Zoë doesn't realise that the peril which i face is utterly real: she swims a kilometre or two every morning at the pool at the Himawari Hotel, so for her, a 870m swim is nothing. A swim that is, for me, like a jet aircraft dropping, all aflame, to dramatically disintegrate on impact with the water, is for her just a drop in the ocean. She has no idea of the circumspect solemnity with which i impart this information: "If i don't make it..."

Zoë is covering the swim for The Paper, in the time-honoured Gonzo style of immersing herself in her subject. The metaphorical gun is fired by someone shouting "Go!" (are these organisers really so hopeless that they can't find a loaded pistol in Phnom Penh?) and we splash forth, a human flotilla of flailing limbs, goggles, and funny rubber hats.

Needless to say, the Lord answered my prayers, otherwise this post would have been cranked out by the Electric Nerve phrase generating machine (which can easily replace me as a writer because, as Scottish journalist Gilbert Adair notes - a writer whose own translation of the French book La Disparition by Georges Perec into English is faithful to the original in that it does not contain even once the letter 'e' - "writers these days don't write, they process words") and my Mekong t-shirt would be in a Fed Ex box on its way to my by now completely orphaned son. But it was not to be. After giving up putting my mind to swimming, after giving up the idea of fixing a picture of the opposite bank firmly in my mind, and beginning to actually swim, after another fifteen minutes or so in the water, I finally manage to haul my sorry ass up the clay bank - only to find not only can these alleged "organisers" not find a gun in Cambodia, but they can't even even find enough drinking water for 150 competitors - after i stumble up the clay bank, looking, bleary-eyed, through a thin film of water pollution, disillusioned, and not quite stone motherless last but, instead, sincerely grateful to the morbidly obese, blind, retarded girl who may take that honour but a few strokes behind me, after thanking the Lord (and my finishing the swim is clearly proof of Her existence), a whole 32 minutes and 16 seconds after the invisible gun, after i stumble up the bank into the middle of nowhere only to find an old Khmer lady trying to sell me a silk krama (like where do you think i keep my money, lady? Up my ass?) i begin to wonder why i didn't take more advantage of the organisers' completely lax approach to testing for performance-enhancing drugs.

Zoë did it in 14. But for me, 32:16 was a personal best. For a Mekong River Swim. Which, of course, is proof that you can do anything at all if only you put your mind to it.

These days i'm putting my mind to returning to the saltwater pool at Blue Lime, to continue my training regime. Only this time i need to be far more disciplined. The codeine will have to go.

Clearly, what we need at Blue Lime is opium.

Friday, April 03, 2009

MANGOES, MODERNISM AND MADNESS


I always knew sooner or later i would end up in the ghetto.

Having stopped to photograph some kids framed by a long, dark corridor, i turn to find the rest of my group has vanished somewhere inside this labyrinthine, bleak, and decades-old experiment in social housing. Like most 1960s modernist low-cost apartment blocks, the White Building will end its days as a slum. But it lasted longer than most. It even outlasted the death of modernism, the sudden and final throes of which came on 15 July 1972, according to postmodern architect Charles Jencks. That was the day the prize-winning Pruitt-Igoe housing development was demolished in St Louis. Thirty-three eleven-storey buildings, 2870 apartments, and, on the original plan, not one playground.

Ah, but the premise and the promise! Better living through architecture. Le Corbusier. Mies van der Rohe. The power of the minimal, the rational, the positive. Modernism. Such a grand, progressive project. A project which ultimately failed to account for the fact that life is, well, kind of messy.
But in Cambodia, no building is so messy as to be unlivable. I walk to the end of the dank corridor, which smells faintly of urine, past a couple of doors open onto squalid interiors, to an broad and high breezeway between the blocks. While not exactly lost, i have no idea where i am heading. They must be in here somewhere. I'm on a tour of Khmer New Architecture, and am beginning to feel that a walking tour of Phnom Penh - at this time of year - is one of the more arcane forms of madness.

I wipe away the sweat and take another sip of water. Colourful bedspreads hang over the rails of the stairwell. A small shop is set up on the floor outside one of the apartments, vending the basic stuff of life. We've just visited a tiny school downstairs, the only education option for these kids, all of whom work - some picking over the rubbish dump, some doing heavy manual labour. Some young Khmer men, shirtless, are leaning against the stair, joking amongst themselves. Perhaps wondering what this barang is doing on their block. The answer, as usual, lies in my curious and Quixotic tendencies. As one reader of The Nerve confides: I will just think of you as the Knight of Lost Causes. But, lost cause or no, it has been difficult not to notice this huge, decaying apartment block, given its proximity to my workplace.
The offices of The Paper are housed in the Grey Building - one half of this pigeon pair of Vann Molyvann buildings on the Front du Bassac. My office looks out over this buzzing, blackened hive, out over a no-man's land of desolate rubble from the recently demolished Dey Krahorm community. A little over two months ago, 600 thugs and riot police, seemingly working at the behest of the developer, descended on this poor community to ruthlessly evict them by destroying everything in their path. Because we simply must have another shopping mall.

Phnom Penh (Cambodia). 24/01/2009:
Police aiming a straight-shot tear gas gun during the final eviction at Dey Krohorm.

©John Vink/ Magnum

Maria, who runs a photography project in the White Building, says it is next in line for destruction. "We are not aiming to save this building, its future has already been written," she says. Maria gives cameras and photography lessons to its inhabitants, who faithfully document their frankly astonishing lives. "It's difficult to tell people they have to stay here, in a building that's falling apart. No-one wants to be here. The building was designed as a social housing project - the biggest in South East Asia - but what it has come to represent is the complete opposite." I swelter up another flight of stairs, searching fruitlessly for the others in my party. An old man points along a corridor.

The beautiful, minimalist, staggered-block designs of Vann Molyvann's Grey and White buildings have long since been effaced. The high-end version, the Grey Building, constructed from granite, had its open terraces and uneven skyline filled in, to create an ugly monolothic box that is now the Phnom Penh Centre. Which has been painted white. The White Building, in an ironic twist, has meanwhile turned grey in its tropical environment. I find the rest of the group deep in the concrete intestines of the White Building by following the sounds of music: they are crammed into a tiny apartment watching some bizarre performance art.

Vann Molyvann, Cambodian protegé of Le Corbusier, studied at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, returning to his homeland in 1956. With the patronage of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, he then set about building most of the city's landmarks. The National Stadium, Independence Monument, the State Palace, the Institute of Foreign Languages, the 100 Houses Project ... and a nice house, Knai Bang Chatt, on the beach at Kep, which you can see here when you click on "Concept". Or go on the virtual tour, drag the cursor around and get dizzy. Go on. Vann Molyvann and the other New Khmer Architects turned what had become a dirt-road backwater into an elegant capital city of wide boulevards and vaulting public buildings. In Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture 1953-1970 Helen Grant Ross describes the results: "Roofs fly, weights lift off the ground, and concrete, crazy paving, louvred walls, light and shade play in the tropical climate." Yes, indeed they do. Or did.

Shoes, sandals and the ubiquitous flip-flops lie scattered outside the door. It seems there is some Apsara dancing going on. Until this point, i haven't been privy to any Apsara. I wander in and sit cross-legged on one of Vann Molyvann's concrete floors, and watch as the girls elegantly twist and turn before these grimy yellow walls.

"Apsara dancing!" Kate Liana splutters when i tell her of the day's events, as we swim languidly in the saltwater pool paradise that is the Blue Lime. "Was it torture?"
It was hard sitting cross-legged on that concrete floor, i must admit. I should get along to some of Liana's yoga classes. But torture? "I thought it was ok," i mumble defensively.
"How long have you been here? You'll get sick of it soon enough, don't worry," she says, smoothing aside her long hair. She takes a sip of her cocktail. "How can they call it dancing, anyway?"
"What do you mean?"
"Apsara dancing - it just runs those poor women through a series of poses designed to reinforce their status as demure and submissive," she explains.
I suppose they did look rather - i don't know - subservient?
"I thought the music was nice," i say, meaning, in fact, "But Kate, if it weren't for these submissive and subservient women, i wouldn't have any slaves. Who would clean the tiled floor in my kitchen? Who would do my laundry? Jesus! Remind me to ask my maid if she does Apsara dancing. Sometimes there's just nothing on TV."

In 2001, Vann Molyvann's Olympic Stadium was sold to a Taiwanese developer, who reneged on a deal to renovate the modernist gem as part of the deal. Instead, he filled in the hydraulic ponds that were designed, like the famous moats of Angkor Wat, to drain away the monsoonal rains. Filled them in with a series of shoddy, low-rise retail buildings. And if it's not Taiwanese Trash going up, it's Korean Nouveau Bland or Chinese Baroque. In 2007, Vann Molyvann's elegant National Theatre building was torn down after it was sold to a private developer. And the beautiful, fan-shaped structure of the Chaktomuk Theatre is now also in the hands of a private developer.

Van Molyvann. He's still living in Phnom Penh now, but must be well into his eighties. But when the Golden Age of Khmer architecture came to a brutal end in 1970, with the coup d’état led by the American-backed General Lon Nol, Vann fled to Switzerland. It must have been painful for him to watch the events that then unfolded. Year Zero, 1975, the Khmer Rouge - no fans of cities - marched into Phnom Penh and evacuated the entire population, driving them out of the city, out into work camps in the country, into a prison without walls. They abolished cities, they abolished money. And that was just the start.

"They took Cambodia from a country in the process of development to a communal society without the slightest vestige of the modern or the urban," Vann Molyvann said. The Khmer Rouge even attempted to blow up some of his buildings. But the present threat of development is far more dangerous. It is a powderkeg on a short fuse set to cause far more damage to these stunning heritage buildings.

"The buildings survived being abandoned better than they've survived being misused," says Helen Grant Ross.

I peel a mango. Everything in this country is up for sale: its land, its heritage, its people. Cambodia: where everything is permitted but nothing is legal. Prostitution is illegal but endemic. Marijuana is illegal, but it is a commonplace for a barman to roll up a scoob of Cambodian red and pass it around the bar. Just as happened at the rhum house last night, where i had ducked in to escape the rain.

"It's just mango rain," says Remy, pointing out the open shopfront at the heavy downpour. "It is not rainy season until June." Three Frenchman are sitting around smoking and parlezing Français. Remy, behind the bar, serves me a rum cordial, this one flavoured with coffee. A joint goes around. I realise one of the two Stefans is a work colleague. The other Stefan, who runs Factory on Street 140, describes the night three thugs armed with machine guns tried to force their way into his house over some disagreement.

"My girlfiend and I, we were hiding under the table," he says. "There were three locks on the front door, they broke the top one, pow, then the middle one, pow, and started on the bottom one. I knew if the bottom one went we were dead," he says, matter-of-factly. "I could see the machine guns through the gap in the door. Luckily the last lock held. Lucky for me."

Or Cantina bar, where that affable Californian, Hurley, introduces Liana and i to the famous war photographer, Tim Page. Who immediately passes me a joint. Framed war photographs and kitsch posters from Mexican movies grace the walls. Hurley's Cantina sign, above our heads, is made from bent and welded barrels of guns, including the always dependable AK47. "Always aim for the center of the seen mass," advises ex-Army friend and travelling companion, Raoul. "And when shooting women or children, don't lead them by as much...they run slower." And you might think he is joking.

Page is searching for the remains of his friend, the opium-smoking journalist Sean Flynn, son of Errol, who disappeared in April 1970, while travelling by motorcycle in the Cambodian countryside. Flynn and Dana Stone, on assignment for Time magazine and CBS News respectively, were captured by communist guerrillas and never heard from again.

"It's disappointing, when months of painstaking research takes you out onto a limb, where you reach a point where someone knows someone who was there when they were shot, but then it transpires that that person was also later shot, and the branch just breaks, you are back to the starting point, back on ground level," says Page. He talks at length, and it's interesting stuff.

Tim Page's portrait of Sean Flynn
from www.andybrouwer.co.uk/blog

But this is Phnom Penh, and there's always something more interesting to do. Like going out and partying at a lesbian wedding dance on board a boat on the Mekong River.

But that, as they say in the classics, is another story.