Thursday, February 26, 2009

MONKEY MAGIC

The bumper sticker reads: "Honk if you want to see an AK47 fired out a car window." The black Hummer hums along just ahead of my moto driver down Preah Monivong Boulevard. And i do mean just ahead: my driver's handlebars almost scrape the rear quarter panel as he weaves along looking for a few empty centimetres of passing space. I have a sudden flashback to the time i was driving my '62 Spitfire down the Mitchell Freeway, just behind a biker with "Coffin Cheaters" emblazoned across the back of his jacket, when my horn suddenly came on for no apparent reason and stayed on. I mean, i can laugh about it now.

I've told my driver i'm in a hurry, and he is obligingly honking and passing everything in sight as he speeds along the wrong side of this four-lane road. We pass the Hummer without incident, then almost have a head on collision as we turn left into oncoming traffic, but of course i'm used to that by now. All the drivers cut the corner as they turn, just so they can ride directly into the oncoming traffic on the steet they are turning into. It's a kind of national sport. I rummage around in my pocket to find my mobile, and punch a Recently Dialled Number.

"Is that Mean Harean?" i ask, as the driver squeezes at high speed through an impossible space between a rubbish truck and a street vendor. The female voice on the end of the line says something i can't make out. There is a disconcerting echo on the phone. I assume that i am speaking to the head of HR, so i persevere. "It's Mark Roy here. I'm running a little late. But i'll be there soon." My words echo back to me, jumbled up with a heavily accented voice which for all i know could be quoting me the price for an ounce of gold in Borneo. "Yes, ten minutes, i'll see you then," i say, and hang up.

You might think it a little loose, taking off to a foreign country with almost no money on the off chance of securing a job with an international daily newspaper. And then turning up to your interview late, and without a CV. But fuck it. This town doesn't make it any easier. I mean, you'd think that any premises advertising 'quality colour laser printing' might in fact be able to produce just that, rather than a faded, striated black-and-white mess that looks like it was spat out of a well-used 1970s photocopier using dirty dishwater as toner. Which, in all likelihood, it was. And when you leave your one-and-only business shirt with the laundry to be washed and ironed two days earlier, you would hardly expect to be still standing there, twenty minutes before your job interview, while they decide to switch on the iron. I stand and watch. There is little else i can do.

"Where you go?" asks a moto driver standing nearby.
"Well, i am supposed to be at the Phnom Penh Post by 11a.m," i say resignedly. I glance at my watch. It's 10.45, and the office is on the other side of town. "Preferably wearing a shirt."
"Ah, yes, i know where that is. We get there no worries."
This sounds promising. "It's on the corner of Sihanouk and Sothearos boulevards," i advise.
"Yes, yes, i be there many times." He waves his hands dismissively. Obviously it won't be a problem.

So it comes as something of a surprise when five minutes later he stops just a few hundred metres from the laundry in front of a large, yellow art deco building, just east of the shrine at Wat Phnom.

"What the fuck is this?" i ask politely.
"The Phnom Penh Post Office," he says.

They have recently introduced helmet laws in Cambodia, for which the moto driver is grateful as i smite him on the side of the head.

The new helmet laws here only apply to drivers, not passengers. Moto taxi drivers carry one helmet and one helmet only, and that's for them. It's a curious arrangement, but one to which you soon become accustomed. Just as foreigners can be pulled up and given a ticket for riding a motorbike during the day with their headlights on, so Khmers blithely ride about at night with their lights switched off with no fear of being pulled over by the police. There is an ineffable and arcane logic to it. Ah, you've got to love the place.

Against all odds, the job interview goes swimmingly, and the CEO shakes my hand and gives me a ticket to their work function at the Foreign Correspondents Club. The function is being held this Friday, and will include free food and drink. This is a good thing, especially when you are down to your last forty dollars. Remind me to wear clothing with capacious pockets. I'm living on about $12 a day coming in through eBay. My room is $4, a meal is around $1.50, and a litre of water is $1. It's a pity the pinball machine deal fell through, because that would have brought some welcome pocket money. But people here will go around stealing integral components, like transformers. It can't be helped. $12 a day means i can live. Not comfortably, by any means, but i can live.

Then this morning i realise i have $12 Australian coming in per day - while all my costs are in US dollars. Ouch.

It's time to cut costs, i decide. Who says i am not a rational human being? First, i decide to sleep all day so i won't spend any money. At nightfall, i set out on foot and find a cheap Khmer eatery across the road from the casino at Boeung Kak. Stainless steel tables, plastic chairs: above us only sky. The menu has an English translation of sorts, offering such delicacies as sautéed frog with red curry pasted, and that perennial favourite, sweat and sour pork. I'm tempted to try the fried swamp cabbage with chilli, hold the eel - but instead i opt for a very tasty chicken noodle soup for a dollar. On the table is a big jar of sliced garlic and chilli and some fish sauce. Mmm. I lash out on a glass of sugar cane juice.

On the way home i am inexorably drawn to the Boeung Kak Drinking Shop. The name "Drinking Shop" piques my curiosity. I walk in and browse the shelves. Only $6.50 for a whole litre of rum? How long has this been going on? A shot of rum here is a dollar fifty, and there are around thirty-three shots in a litre. Yes. This should cut my costs considerably.

And with cigarettes at only fifty cents a packet, it's almost worth taking up smoking again. I could save a fortune.

The next day i'm gazing, as usual, out the window of my tiny fourth floor room, across the mosque to the lake, when i see a troupe of six monkeys scampering across the rusted corrugated iron roofs. They look in windows and frighten the backpackers, jumping up and down excitedly, before clambering along some electrical wiring to the roof directly below. The monkeys just wander about wherever they like, doing whatever they like, with no-one to disturb them. They drop onto a balcony and begin messing with a washing line. One of them pulls down a bra, pulls it over his head, and then wraps it around his chest. He gets bored of this, drops it, and they jump onto an adjoining roof before dropping out of sight between the buildings. Monkeys. Ha. Funny. I pour a couple of fingers of the Baïta Rhum, add some orange juice, and knock it back. Breakfast of champions. Now, time for a swim. Not in the lake, of course - it is polluted beyond redemption. But the freeflowing antics of the monkeys have given me an idea. I pack a towel and walk around the corner to the 4-star Phnom Penh Hotel.

I stride into the lobby like i own the place. Always stride into the lobby like you own the place, i decide. From now on this will be my mantra. Stride into the lobby like you own the place. The air conditioning is simply luscious. I bet they even have hot running water here. And cakes! I walk by a glass display cabinet filled with fancy cakes. I haven't seen a cake since Brunei Airport. I walk down a long corridor, past the entrance to the casino, then circle back past some very expensive-looking shops on an almost impossibly shiny polished wooden floor. I see a sign pointing to a spa and health club, so i meander in that direction. I've brought a small plastic bottle of iced tea with me, filled, of course, with French rum. Because the more of it i drink, the more money i save. Brilliant. Next to the entrance to the spa is a sign in elegant brass lettering, pointing up a flight of stairs, which says simply: "To swimming pool".

After a few laps in the cool turquoise water, i hop out and lie back on the sun lounge. I figure i must be saving a couple of hundred dollars a day lying here. I sit up for a sip of iced tea. Yes, one could get used to these cost-cutting measures.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

THE LOST PINBALL MACHINES OF KAMPUCHEA

I find the dust-covered, rusted Williams Whirlwind beneath a crumbling vinyl tarpaulin under a house in the back streets of a Cambodian port. From all accounts, it is the last remaining pinball machine in the country. I'm trying to figure how cheaply i can buy it and transport it across country to Carlo's rooftop bar and grill, 550km away in Siem Reap. The Whirlwind's owner is in jail. Perhaps a carton of cigarettes would be useful.

I returned to Sihanouk Ville from Kampot after learning of the possible existence of the pinball machine from a seasoned Dutch traveller i met in a bar. To the uninitiated, this may seem to be an almost random pursuit - to travel the South East Asian highways in search of pinball machines - but i can assure you this strange compunction has a completely rational explanation. Well, almost.

No, it's not that i am a pinball wizard, nor am i even much of an aficionado of the silver ball. It's just that, well, i have this friend, Carlo. Carlo has Special Needs.

I travelled with Carlo and Raoul in Bangkok during the 2006 military coup. Before he took off to Cambodia to find work as an industrial designer. Like many Westerners who take off to Cambodia with the intention of finding recognised employment and building a stable career, Carlo instead opened a bar. As the owner of the rooftop bar and grill XBar Asia in Siem Reap, Carlo now indulges in the depravities of pig racing, ice lugeing and vertical skateboard riding while screening open-air movies and hosting bands such as the Foo Fighters. But the simple pleasures of pig racing and hosting American rock stars is no longer enough for Carlo. His insatiable thirst for decadence drives him to want more and more. His jaded pleasure centres can now only be assuaged by the procurement of not one, but two pinball machines.

"You coming to Cambodia?" Carlo asks. "Pick us up a couple of pinball machines on your way from the Thai border, will you?" Which, on the face of it, seems a reasonable request, and one that any self-respecting mezzano such as myself would normally have no problem accomplishing. But there are certain complications.

Firstly, the Khmer Rouge relentlessly destroyed every trace of Western domination that they came across during their four-year reign of terror. And a pinball machine is a classic symbol of the Western hegemony, with all the bells and whistles.

Secondly, the few machines that managed to survive the Khmer pinball purge, and most of those brought in subsequently, were snapped up three years ago, when a travelling American entrepreneur scoured the country's dens of iniquity and bought them all up, selling them to collectors on eBay at great profit.

Thirdly - just how popular can coin-operated machines be in a country that has no coins?

While getting steadily more drunk in the downstairs bar of Blissful (with its notice that promotes 'No Drugs No Weapons No Prostitutes' - clearly a sign that one man's Bliss is another man's Boring) i stumble, quite literally, upon a lead. I'm drinking the strangely sweet and potent Mekong whiskey, which at a dollar a shot represents an attractive brew for the travelling cheapskate. Dieter, my inebriated companion, regales me with tales from the old days, back in the nineties, after the UN-sponsored election brought some semblance of normality to the country in 1993. From politics the conversation follows a natural course, flowing like the Mekong, to pinball machines.

I know where there might be a machine, says Dieter. There was this bar in Sihanouk Ville - it's owner was thrown in jail a couple of years ago ...

I grab a bus the next morning, and wind up with a room upstairs in a wooden hut on Otres Beach, south of the port town. Here i sit and write, lounging on a beach chair sipping vodka and coconut juice and talking to passing French women in bikinis. But this cannot sway me from my mission. I finish my drink and get on my hired moto.

The Corner Bar is on Victory Hill, a sleazy part of town near the port, a balls-out-rock'n'roll kind of street packed with girlie bars and the kind of sad, misbegotten perverts that give expats a bad name, i.e., 'sexpats'. The bar upstairs, where the alleged pinball machine was last sighted, is being refurbished. The new owners know nothing about any pinball machines.

The previous owner left a couple of years ago, says one of them.
I heard he was thrown in jail, says the other. Ask Johnno downstairs, he might know.

Johnno Downstairs is out, gone to the Embassy to pick up a delivery of imported food. He will be back in an hour, the bar girl tells me. I wander the street in search of some food. I find instead a Caucasian man, sprawled on a piece of cardboard in front of an empty shop. Hideous open sores fester on his legs, his hair is grown long and wild, and he is covered in dirt. He stares at me with vacant eyes. It is a troubling sight. This will be me in two weeks, when the money runs out. I walk past the promise of dancing girls at La Tropicana and the Taxi Club, past the French bar at Le Barometre, before settling on a curry amok and a couple of pints at Retox. The evening is coming on and the bar girls are coming out.

After the hot tofu curry, i head back to the Corner Bar. Half a dozen young Khmer men are having a party in a tuk tuk across from the bar, drinking from a plastic bottle full of spirits. One of them jumps out and approaches me, flashing a palm-sized bag of gunja. You like? You buy? he asks. Awtay akwun, i say. No, don't like, don't buy. Smoking gunja at this point could only confuse things. I'm on a mission. I can't be stumbling about the streets of Victory Hill like some stoned fucking hippy.

Yama? he proposes. Now, this is an interesting development. My trusty travel guide describes yama, from the Sanskrit यम, meaning death, as a drug that "provokes powerful hallucinations, sleep deprivation and psychosis" and warns all travellers to steer well clear of it. I order two, and go into the bar to find Johnnno Downstairs. My man dashes off, promising to return with the goods in twenty minutes.

Yes, i remember the pinball machine, but i don't know where it is now, says Johnno. The owner is in jail. You need to talk to his friend, Heinz. But i don't know where he is. You might try Rudi, he runs the German bar above the guesthouse down the road. He points.
The bar has a great view of the bay, terrible Eurotrash music, and no customers. No staff, either. Apart from the disco music, it is deserted. I go back downstairs and see a blond man in a black sleeveless Rammstein t-shirt taking directions from one of the restaurant staff. He sets out across the road. I follow him. This must be Rudi.

Rudi, i shout. He jumps.
Ja? Wie gehts?
Entschuldigung sie, bitte, i say, before realising that my high school German will not stretch far enough to ask for directions to a long-lost and possibly imaginary pinball machine. Perhaps i could deploy the only other German phrase i remember from those wasted high school years: Du bist so röt wie ein Krebs. Which means, of course, You are as red as a lobster.

It is doubtful the phrase would serve any useful purpose under the present circumstances. I switch to English.

I'm looking for Heinz, who may know the whereabouts of a pinball machine which used to be above the Corner Bar, i explain.
Of course, no problem, says Rudi, as if i'd asked for directions to the bus station. I know the bar. The owner is in jail.
He thumbs through his mobile phone.
I will give you the number for Heinz, he says.

The number is engaged. I walk back to the Corner Bar, and my man pushes a plastic bag with two red pills into my hand. I slip him some money, and walk with him over to the tuk tuk party. One of the men offers me a cut-off water bottle, the bottom filled with what looks like fish sauce. One of the others hands me a skewer with some unidentified fried meat impaled on the end of it.
Awkun, i say, and dip the meat into the fish sauce. This provokes an outburst of hilarity.
What? i ask, glowering.
Is whiskey, one of them says, pointing at the strange brown liquid. Ah. Still, never apologise, never explain. I chew the meat, and down the rest of the weird-tasting drink. They offer me more. I carefully extract one of the yama tablets from my pocket and wash it down with some of this home-brewed liquor. It's time to see just how accurate the Lonely Planet travel guide really is.

By the time i am following Heinz on my rented Honda Dream through the ever diminishing backstreets of Victory Hill, i am beginning to feel a little strange. Perhaps it was that fried meat. The scooter, as promised on its shiny decal, does indeed handle like a Dream. That is, surreal images are looming before me and i have no idea where it is going to take me next. We are barrelling at high speed along a winding, narrow dirt footpath, where women sit chopping unidentifiable victuals and men are engaged in that most popular of pasttimes in South East Asia: squatting on their heels. We pass through some huge wrought-iron gates and ride up to a small house on a large block. A blue, dust covered VW convertible sits under the house.

I have no idea where i am, but i am suddenly feeling omnipotent and strangely light-headed. Heinz has started babbling about his friend. He is in jail, you know.
You don't say.
It is all political. He was framed by his enemies. Ten years. Ten years in a Cambodian jail - can you imagine? But it is going to the Supreme Court. I can't say any more.
I wasn't asking.
Heinz looks about furtively.
Other than this.
He walks up close to me, and holds my gaze.
This is a dangerous country, my friend. You can get your throat cut here for fifty dollars.
Wow. That's a bargain, i blurt out. I am beginning to feel a little dizzy. My mouth has gone dry and i feel like the red ants from the jungle have returned to crawl about the insides of my eyes. Heinz goes inside the house and returns carrying a large meat cleaver.
Now i show you, he says.
Right. I'm wishing i hadn't had those last two pints.
He walks over to where a bundled tarpaulin is held aloft by four rusted legs, its blue bulk taped roughly together with clear packing tape. He cuts quickly through the tape with the cleaver and pulls the decaying vinyl away.

It's a pinball machine.

All i can report, at this stage, is that it was a Whirlwind. All the rest is a blur.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

IT'S A JUNGLE OUT THERE

Our English-speaking guide explains we will have to take the long way through the jungle, because the trail passes through a Buddhist hermitage set high on the hill.

"The monk there, he magic man. He meditate now, we cannot go through."

He points to the rough bamboo archway, decorated with colourful flags, which marks one trail leading up the hill to the left. One of the flags must be monk for Do Not Disturb. Reluctantly, we take the trail to the right. We see no more villagers dragging bundles of freshly cut bamboo, and the banana and papaya are replaced by dense, tall timber, vines and palms. We are above slash-and-burn country now, heading into the deep jungle. With a six-hour trek ahead of us, my shirt is already drenched with sweat after only an hour.

Up ahead, setting a cracking pace, is our Khmer guide, who speaks no English and smokes constantly. He wears long trousers and a long-sleeved shirt over a t-shirt. Obviously it's a bit nippy for him this time of year. He's purloined my Wilderness Equipment backpack to store our vegetables, rice and extra water, and given me his smaller bag. Which, with its confusing pockets and worse than useless zips that continually burst open, is so annoying that i feel like flinging it into the trees. As i grope around fruitlessly for a water bottle in one of the hidden compartments, i trip over a vine.

As you may have guessed, i don't go trekking for the alleged fun of it. I'm chasing a story on the privatisation of Bokor National Park. Sokimex Petroleum, who are building a resort here, closed the only road in two months ago. The only way to get to the previously deserted French town of Bokor Hill Station, where the new development is taking place, is on foot through the jungle. The French colonialists built the outpost from 1917 to 1921 high on a mountain plateau, at an altitude of (my knees tremble at the thought) 1080 metres, as a way to escape the heat, the mosquitoes, and the lumpen proletariat. Many Khmer labourers died building the road up to the grand hotel, casino, post office, palace and night club.

Apart from the two guides, there are six others on this jaunt, who are apparently mad enough or bored enough to be taking this trek for pleasure. Apart from the two Ukrainians, who clearly just made a wrong turn somewhere on the way to their hotel.

Above the whoop-whoop of the gibbons, the birdcalls and the thrum of insects, we hear another sound. It is music, played on what sounds like a bamboo angklung. It's coming from the other side of the valley. We stop to listen. It's a magical sound.

"I thought you said he was meditating," i say to the guide. We press on. The two Ukranians are a decidedly odd couple. One of these Cossacks is wearing Thai fishing pants, high on his waist, with his t-shirt tucked into the waistband. His feet and ankles protrude from the bottom of his wide-bottomed trousers like stilts. The other one seems to have taken his style pointers from the Aki Kaurismäki film Leningrad Cowboys. The Ukrainians have made no attempt to communicate with the rest of the group and always stand slightly apart, whispering together like as though they were some kind of Communist fucking spies. The stilt-walker carries what appears to be a laptop satchel. The fat one in the cowboy outfit is constantly complaining to the skinny one. All the swear words are in Ukrainian, so i have no idea what he is saying, but i imagine it goes something like:
"This one more fine mess you gotten us into, Igor," Yuri says as he climbs another sandstone incline, struggling to remove a thorny vine from his cowboy hat. "How much further this gypsy fleabag hotel is? Where the godforsaken tour bus?"
Still, it can't be easy booking a tour when you speak no English and the tour operator speaks no Ukrainian. Even i understood the part where he said we must wear sturdy shoes. These two are struggling along in thongs. Yuri mutters to himself as he negotiates another fallen log.

We lunch at a waterfall. A myriad of butterflies flit and sit on the flat, grey sandstone rocks, their wings upright like a flotilla of yellow sailboats in the shallow pools of water. After a simple meal of rice and vegetables, Daniel from Oxford lights an enormous spliff, which he shares with me and a young Californian who goes by the unlikely name of Troyce. We swim, wash off the sweat in the waterfall, and laugh as the Ukrainians stand and mutter about the decadence of the West.

The climb gets dramatically steeper, and under the influence of the profoundly strong ganga, things get a little weird. Visions from countless Vietnam war movies i'm sure i never watched begin screening in my head. Fallen trees are marked here and there by machetes, and there seem to be tripwires and ambushes at every turn. I put my hand around what looks like a sturdy tree, only to have it crumble away, and suddenly my hand covered with a swarm of small, red, savagely biting ants. Large, mud-like bees nests appear in the trees. Our guide points as a short, black snake slithers from view. Paul, a Yorkshireman and amateur botanist, points out what looks like your garden-variety palm, the kind of thing you would have by the pool – except for those clumps of two-inch long needles sticking out of its stem. Occasionally we hear the jet-like whoosh of air from the large hornbills wheeling invisibly overhead.

Suddenly our Khmer guide stops. We are standing in a piece of jungle which looks a lot like all the other pieces of jungle we have pushed our way through. How can he tell where he is going, i wonder. It is when he begins backtracking that i decide he probably can't. It was disconcerting enough earlier in the day, when two members of our party, along with our translator, caught up with the rest of us at a rest stop, looking even more sweaty and shaken than usual. "Are we glad to see you," said the Englishwoman. "I thought we were lost." The English speaking 'guide' nodded his head. "I was sure we were lost," he said. "I was calling out, but i couldn't hear you." How very reassuring.

The Khmer guide stands motionless, looking up another trail. Then he nods his head and barks something to our translator, beckoning us over. "Is OK," says the translator. "He know a shortcut."

Oh, sure.

"Is two hours from here instead of four. But is steeper." Steeper? How the fuck can it get any steeper? We soon find out. Yuri mutters to himself as he scales a vertical pile of rocks ahead of me. I pray he doesn't slip in those damn flip-flops because he will take me out with him on the way down. Higher up i see our erstwhile guide, walking casually up the scree, using his hands not – like the rest of us – to find purchase in a handhold, but to light another cigarette, which he puffs on gaily as he disappears from view on his sweat-free ascent. Hours later, as we emerge drenched and exhausted to sprawl our weary bodies about on a mountaintop trail, he stands waiting like a polite elevator attendant. I take off my shirt and wring out the sweat

We trek across an open plateau to reach Popokvil Falls, "the waterfall of the swirling clouds", where a truck from the ranger's station is supposed to pick us up and drive us the remaining eight kilometres to Bokor. Of course, it doesn't turn up, because Sokimex Petroleum have long since banished the rangers from their base in the old hospital at Bokor Hill Station. Or, as it is now officially referred to on the Cambodian Ministry for Tourism website, "Bokor Resort". Which sounds much like Sokha Resort, where the owner of Sokimex Petroleum, Kem Sokha, privatised the best beach in Cambodia. Another curious fact i noticed on the Ministry's website was that there is no listing for Bokor National Park under the 'National Parks' link. If you click on it you get a page which reads "under construction". Later, when i photograph the cement factory built within the national park to supply concrete for the new development i realise just how accurate this is.

Not surprisingly, no truck arrives from the non-existent ranger's station. But we do get one man on a battered scooter. He begins to ferry us, one by one, up the horrendously pot-holed and boulder-strewn "road" to our accommodation. I do some calculations and figure that even going as fast as he can, on that road, it will take about six hours to get us all to the station. We can walk it in about two.

We start walking. The man on the scooter returns, this time accompanied by another man in camouflage gear on a red scooter. He wears an RCAF badge. Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. He is army. So i am not surprised when i later learn Sokimex Petroleum have the Cambodian military working as private security on this project. And that, under their company policy, we are not supposed to be here at all. The army officer looks us over carefully before continuing on his way.

The accommodation is basic. Three double bunks in a room. Given there are seven of us, plus the guides, it is fortuitous that two of our party are a couple, or two of us very soon would have been a couple.

After exploring the hill station we lie, exhausted, in our bunks. Apart from Paul, who sets off on a quick jog around the lake. That way madness lies. Yuri, having successfully negotiated a six-hour jungle trek through some difficult terrain wearing thongs, falls and hurts himself climbing out of his top bunk. I learn some more Ukrainian.

At dinner, Yuri is unimpressed by the simple fare. Rice, steamed vegetables, and a bit of beef. The rice and vegetables are delicious. I don't know about the meat, because Yuri serves himself first, carefully spearing all the beef from the large bowl with his fork, and piling it up on his plate. He spends his dinnertime complaining to Igor through mouthfuls of beef.
"This hotel very bad, Igor," i imagine him muttering. "My backside very sore from scooter. Why we come here, Igor? Falling down buildings here everywhere. Everywhere, these falling down buildings. Why we come here? We have same falling down buildings at home, in Ukraine."
We don't know when we are due to leave in the morning. It depends when the bribed driver of the steel-tray truck can make himself available to torture and pummel us on a bone-shattering judder down the pile of rocks that passes as a road to the mountain trail. We sit on the steps of the ex-ranger's station, looking out across the excavated lake to the abandoned hotel, casino, church, and the rest. Crumbling into the thick foliage of palms, vines and wild, thorny raspberries. The water tower, like a spacecraft that dropped this strange, vanished civilisation onto this remote mountain plateau. The original casino, perched high on a sheer cliff which drops off into a mist-shrouded jungle, was moved to a building closer to the lake. Too many people were losing all their money at the tables, buying one last drink, and taking a lonely walk outside into oblivion.

We sit and look at this abandoned playground of the rich and suicidal. We discuss the proposed resort, which would redevelop these buildings and build a huge, 5-star Vegas-style hotel and casino in a large tract of cleared land between the church and the monastery perched on the cliff in the distance. Our translator goes inside and returns with a glossy Sokimex Petroleum calendar, filled with artists' impressions of the impending resort. The colourful, airbrushed view across the lake shows bright, renewed, Lego-like buildings, a promenade peopled by happy and rich strolling couples, a Vegas-style casino, a fake Disneyesque waterfall and - believe it or not - an artificial volcano, complete with exploding red lava.

Yuri looks, incredulous, from the lurid calendar to the desolate scene before him. He looks from one to the other and back again, again and again, before shouting something at his comrade in Ukranian. I'm not sure, but i think it went something like:

"You see, Igor? They think we fools! This place nothing like brochure."

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

JUNGLE CURRY

FEBRUARY RECIPE OF THE MONTH
Cambodian pangolin jungle curry.

PREPARATION TIME
Cooking time is nearly an hour. Clearly, we are not fooling around here. And catching a Cambodian pangolin can take ages, because they have been hunted almost to extinction to assauge the arcane and insatiable urges of the Chinese billions. So make it easier on yourself. Use chicken.

INGREDIENTS
Serves 2
1 tablespoons peanut oil
500g kg chicken legs, skin on
3 red chillies
1 cup coconut milk
½ cup chicken stock
1 kaffir lime leaf
fish sauce, to taste
thai basil, julienne green onions, bean shoots and fried shallots
garnish with steamed rice and lime wedges
coconut halves for serving, go on

Jungle curry paste:
1 teaspoon shrimp paste
1 teaspoon green Kampot pepper, fresh from the fields (or tinned, why not - we've already skimped on the pangolin)
1 tablespoon shaved palm sugar (shaved, mind you - the last thing we need is hairy palm sugar - hairy palms being the first sign of madness)
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
¼ cup green curry paste
(the second sign of madness, apparently, is looking for them)

RECOMMENDED WINE
The inherent spiciness of this dish can be offset by a little residual sugar in the wine. So shall we have a dalliance with a 2008 Alkoomi Frankland River Riesling? Or perhaps try a flirtatious little gewurztraminer? What the hell, let's down a flagon of muscat.


METHOD
Fill a couple of tumblers with muscat. To make your jungle curry paste, wrap shrimp paste in a sheet of foil, place in a hot wok or frying pan and cook on both sides for 2 minutes or until fragrant and dry. Remove and set aside to cool completely. Then get out the old mortar and pestle. Remember to swish out the residues of whatever drug concoctions you've been grinding up lately. Sudden and inexplicable hallucinations ruin too much fine cuisine. Pound the shrimp paste and peppercorns in a mortar with a pestle until well combined, then stir in remaining ingredients. There you have it, jungle curry paste. Now if only we had a pangolin.

Heat the oil in a wok over a medium heat. Cook your chicken and chillies in batches until browned all over. Don't worry if it's not cooked through, we'll deal with that red herring later. Just take another swig of muscat and remove the chicken. Add the curry paste and cook over a low heat, stirring until fragrant. Stir in coconut milk, stock and lime leaves, then return the chicken to the pan.

Put some vinyl on the stereo. I recommend Brian Eno's 1974 classic Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). Play side one, which begins with Burning Airlines Give You So Much More, followed by Back In Judy's Jungle.

Simmer uncovered until side one has finished and the sauce has thickened slightly. The chicken will have cooked through by this time. Pink chicken is the last thing we need. Worse than hairy palms. Serve the curry in half a coconut. It's quaint. Garnish with combined basil, onions, bean shoots and fried shallots. Turn over the record and serve with rice and lime wedges. Not the record, the curry in those coconut shells.

Get stuck into the muscat again, so by the time Phil Manzanera's one-note guitar solo kicks in during The True Wheel, you'll be trolloped enough to believe this is a rare display of true genius. Which, of course, it is.

This recipe was culled from the pages of that perennial magazine of doctors waiting rooms from Shark Bay to Ulla Dulla, the Australian Women's Weekly.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

ARCHITECTURE TO DIE FOR

Kampot, southern Cambodia. You've got to love a town where one of the major activities listed in the guide book is "going for a stroll". Because not only am i proud of my bipeduality, but i am also an unabashed fan of decaying French colonialist architecture. So evenings here spent strolling the bars peppered around the river and the old bridge are, for me, evenings well spent.

The vaulting art nouveau, art deco and modernist architecture here took a hiding in the civil war of the 1970s, but even when burnt, blackened by tropical fungus, in a state of semi-collapse and riddled with bullet holes, these buildings still retain their charm. I would argue that, like the patina of strife on a piece of antique furniture, this aesthetic of decay has improved most of these works. Part of the magnetic appeal of these two- and three-storey buildings - at least, of those left standing - is in their movement, like a shell on the back of a hermit crab, into a postcolonial, subversive space within our eclectic twenty-first century.

A riverfront apartment is home to a Sri Lankan restaurant or cocktail bar, a former sprawling market houses an improvised indoor volleyball court. Regular 1960s row houses, in the street where i am staying, are brightly redecorated with Khmer shrines and Chinese feng shui. Ministries of Economics are turned to massage schools, and former palaces have become squats.

I hire a three dollar scooter - welcome to the cheap seats - and ride down to nearby Kep, the seaside town which became known as "The City of Ghosts" after the Khmer Rouge systematically destroyed most of its beautiful, sprawling homes and murdered the occupants. They were fierce Maoists, intent on destroying the bougeoisie and their elitist, rich lifestyles. Ironically, their egalitarian motives are being usurped by those connected with the current government and other rich Khmer elites who are returning in droves to Kep. In Cambodia, prime real estate is everywhere being snapped up by those with ties to Hun Sen's ruling party or those willing to pay them their ubiquitous kickbacks. No longer so ruthlessly equitable, it seems the people's party has traded its Maoist caps for baseball caps and is embracing a corrupt version of the free market. And is there any other version?

The shells of many of these former palatial residences still exhibit architecture to die for - quite literally. After exploring a ruin on a beach lined with coconut trees, i ride the rest of the way into Kep, stopping outside a grand set of wrought-iron gates, broken and held together by barbed wire. The remains of a manicured garden stretches from these rusting gates to a bombed-out palace. A squatter is sitting in one of the glassless windows on the ground floor, smoking. He motions me in.

It takes a hefty shove to creak the gates open. Chickens peck at scraps and smoke from a cooking fire wafts across the grounds. There is laundry hung across the foyer and a ragged blue tarpaulin is stretched across the high-ceilinged verandah. Inside, most of the beautifully painted ceramic floor tiles have been chipped away, and charcoal and wood is stacked by a handrail-less, wide stone spiral staircase that leads to the floor above.

Like many of the Khmer, the man appears to know only two words of English. "One dollar," he says. Everything here is one dollar. A short ride on the back of a moto: one dollar. A bottle of water: one dollar. The opportunity to photograph a squatter in front of a palace in the City of Ghosts: one dollar. I peel off some US currency and ask him to pose for the Rolleiflex in front of his beautifully decaying home. His arms crossed.

I climb the spiral stair and wander the eerie, empty rooms, faded walls covered with graffiti, messages carefully painted in Khmer script, and, on the façade that looks out over the ocean, bullet holes.

When i return downstairs, the squatters are nowhere to be seen. The front gates are closed again, and a tour bus is driving by. Tourists openly gawpe at me, standing at the front of the palatial residence. I'm glad it's only tourists, and not the Cambodian police or military. I might have had some explaining to do - some of the properties have 'no trespassing' signs on them, and probably not always in English.

Back in Kampot, i sit writing in my notebook at the Honey Bar, a couple of blocks from the mish-mash reconstruction of the old bridge. The town is described in tourist guides as 'soporific' - and it does have the languid feel of the riverside town. Less of the pummel and froth of the seaside town of Sihanouk Ville. It is laid back and cosmopolitan. And, speaking of cosmopolitan, the cocktails here are two dollars. The honey trap of the travelling alcoholic ...

Faded yellows and blues against the blackened stone, orange lichen, tropical foliage and broken pavements and streets. Everywhere the tuktuk, scooter and bullock. Why am i so drawn to this aesthetic of ruin?

I take another draught of the white rum. The answer is self evident.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

LIFE IS CHEAP, TOILET PAPER IS EXPENSIVE

Finding the motorcycle gang was never going to be easy. The Lone Brothers clubhouse, located in a backstreet bar run by the first biker club in the country, was a long walk up a karaoke street in the north-east quarter of the southern Cambodian coastal town of Sihanouk Ville. The national port of Cambodia, Sihanouk Ville is renowned for its brazen daylight bag snatches, the brutal skullduggery of its moto and tuktuk drivers, the overwhelming depravity and debauchery of its visitors, the smouldering piles of garbage on its roadsides, and its beautiful islands and beaches.
Now when i say this street is filled with karaoke bars, i don't mean to imply it is in any way civilised. For karaoke is simply a revenge attack launched upon the West by the Japanese in reprisal for their loss of the Second World War. But the Japanese have at least made some concessions in this warfare. Although they systematically bombard most major Western cities with this aural shrapnel, at least it comes out with English subtitles. But this Sihanouk Ville street, with its shanty bars and blaring Khmer karaoke music, is such a brutal assault on the senses that it must surely contravene the rules of warfare under the Geneva convention on atmospheric detonation. Worse, the street has next to no signs in English. And, walking back, after the power suddenly goes out and i am plunged into a heavy and humid darkness - the entire hellish scene lit by a mere half moon - things did get a little weird.

Walking up the hill, as the sun sets over Gulf of Thailand like a slice of orange sinking into a blue jelly and absinthe cocktail, i watch a woman driving a bullock and some calves in circles around a field. I have no idea why. But then, i don't know why there are large flat boards on the side of the road holding what appears to be slowly drying mounds of human excrement, either. Some of the foibles of the human soul must forever remain a mystery to me. All i know is i am glad to escape the bar down the hill, where i stopped to ask directions and quench my thirst with a simple Angkor lager on tap. At 50 cents, these ice cold beers were so hard to pass up that i had several.

I was greeted in the bar by an old, shirtless Dutchman wearing shorts, weird-looking tattooed symbols, and a hat.
"Have some of this," he says, offering a joint.
"Don't mind if i do," i say.
I cup my hands carefully to create a handformed chillum, placing the joint between my first and second fingers. What do you give the man who has everything? Penicillin. Can't be too careful nowadays. I hand the thick smoking reefer back to the barfly as the barman pulls my pot of beer.

"Geek," the Dutchman says, proffering a wizened hand.
"Mark," i say.
"You know the principle of Om?" Geek asks. "Mark, I once saw my foot covered entirely with bees! They communicated with me using the patterns of Om. As the Queen of my country once said: 'Nature is under control but not disturbed' - but she is a liar. A liar! And how do i know? I tell you the truth now - because i have seen this with my own eyes! Mark," he says, grabbing my leg, "You know, if you look under the paw of a dog, what do you find?"
I shrug my shoulders, perplexed. I don't know. A fucken paw print, maybe? I can't seem to find any coherent thread in Geek's story. I might be forgiven for thinking these rambling propositions are merely a string of non-sequiturs issuing like steam from the boiling brain of a demented crack head. But you never know. Perhaps i am missing some mystical truth.
"You see the soul of a baby, only sideways," Geek explains. Nope - demented crack head was right on the money. "You know the universe is vibration. But Mark," he says, jumping to his feet, "They took the stem of these babies only to cure the Queen of the Netherlands, like this," he lunges at me and grabs my skull, "From here to here!" he makes slashing motions at my forehead and neck. "If a baby is cut it will bleed to death! And I was in the prison for fourteen months! This tattoo here, these three lines, these represent the three kingdoms of heaven!"

I take a sip of my beer, and glance around, surreptitiously, for an escape route. Geek stares at me through yellow prescription glasses, with clear, round bifocal lenses set into the bottom. He has his head tipped back, peering at me through the bifocals with his pinpricked pupils, checking to see that i am still paying attention, or, at least, still seated on the bar stool next to him. He continues with some rant about the eye of God. I nod from time to time. The beer is not bad. But poor Geek is clearly a nut bar. Definitely he has had too much of something. I zone out as he continues his frenetic and garbled concoction of animism and drug-fuelled symbolism. A girl is singing songs of love on the microphone next door, in competition with some bizarre coconut rap coming from across the street. Bamboo and vines form a screen on one side of the bar, and down the steps in the tiled pavilion some Khmer boys knock ivory balls around on a billiard table. Bicycles and motos criss-cross the dusty dirt street out front. Late afternoon sun illuminates the motes as they drift lazily under a circling roof fan.

Eventually i manage to peel myself away from this mad Dutchman, who continues his rant regardless of the fact that the bar stool next to him is now vacant. Instead, i strike up a conversation with the Khmer barman. It is a short conversation, as i expect he has limited English, and involves me using hand signals to order another pint and to ask if he knows anything about a motorcycle club somewhere in the street. I spread my arms wide and imitate the sound of a Harley Davidson. He nods. "Oh yes, they up the street, way up, four hundred metre. You see big bike. Where you from?" he asks, staring at the red Maoist star on my black cotton bag. "Canada?"

The questions here are always the same. Where you from? Where you go? Ah, if only i knew. It is too deep a philosophical point to even begin to fathom. I shrug my shoulders, resigning myself to the postmodern philosophical position of Whateverism.
The barman tells me the biker bar doesn't open until after dark. I finish my beer and order another.

For some reason, i had supposed the Cambodian biker club would be frequented and run by Cambodians. But the only Cambodians in the bar are the bar girls. Klaus is German, about fifty or so, with a leather vest laced up at the sides, a skull cap, and a big handlebar mustache. He is drinking black coffee. A Honda Shadow leans idly outside the front of the Lone Brothers' compound, underneath their 'colors' - a skull and crossbones with red and blue flames exploding out each side. The girls stand, equally idly, around the bar.

The bar menu advertises hard rock, hot girls and cold beer. I opt for the cold beer. So how hard is it to start a motorcycle club in Cambodia, i ask Klaus. The land where everybody, except the cops, gets around on a scooter.
"Is not easy. We are Cambodian chapter of the Thailand Lone Brothers MC," Klaus explains. "We have now six members."
Six?
Klaus looks down into his coffee. "But one rides a 250cc trail bike." Two of the other members, it seems, ride 600cc Honda Shadows, like the one parked outside. But there are club members with a couple of larger bikes, he assures me.
And when is your next ride?
"We maybe go for a ride together in June."
June? I blow some froth across the bar. I was hoping to put together an article before June.
"Is not easy getting all our members together," explains Klaus.
Can't be that hard - there's only six of you.
"Our President runs another bar. He is busy there. But we were going to this weekend go for a ride to Thailand, to see the motorcycle show, five thousand bikes will be going there from all around. We were going to go there."
And? What happened?
"Is not easy." Klaus stares sheepishly into his coffee. "But we ride to Kep before."
Kep? The seaside tourist town of Kep is a leisurely two or three hour drive down the coast, through the Elephant Mountains. You can get a nice feed of crab there. I'm starting to think these guys don't exactly bring a town to its knees when they rumble into town. Or, in the case of the 250, sputter into town.
OK. So they are not exactly the Hells Angles. And maybe riding big fuck off bikes in Cambodia is not for everybody.
"Riding to Phnom Penh, it is the cows that are a big problem," admits Klaus. "And the slower scooters, they do not use their lights. And the roads not so good as Thailand."
Maybe the bar and biker club is just part of their retirement plan. A beefy, if somewhat aged biker on a big black machine pulls in a bit later, and a few younger-looking heavies in tatts drop in to quaff the beer and squeeze the women.
The Lone Brothers bar. Hot girls, cold beer - and apparently they do a hearty goulash soup. I order another beer.
As the town's power fails and the lights go out on my long walk back, i hear some girls calling at me from somewhere in the darkness. "Mister! Mister!" Several sets of hands grab me and lead me, blind in more ways than one, into one of the now darkened bars. "You sit!" They thrust me into a chair and begin to massage my head, shoulders, arms, legs - and, as one of them pulls off my Blundstones - feet.
"Where you from? Where you go?"

Sunday, February 01, 2009

PICKLING THE LIVER

It was probably the vodka shooters that sent me over the edge. I certainly wouldn't have bought a cotton shirt covered in green elephants if i was sober. But then, when you're drunk, green elephants hold an irresistible attraction.

Speaking of ridiculous shirts, i got a message from Safari Bob today. "I can relate to the hangover, I experienced a nasty bout on New Year's Eve-eve. I had to stay in Java for New Year's exploding from both ends when I should've been on a bus back to Bali. You'd think drinking a bottle of Chivas Regal at karaoke the night before would've killed any bug I had, but it went too far and the purging began. Another learning experience chalked up."

I too missed my bus. It was probably the vodka shooters. We live and learn. Well, we live.

After putting away numerous beers with my streetside som tum, then more still with vodka salt and lime at a streetside bar - where they always provide you with a girl, even when you just want a quiet drink - i stagger back towards the flophouse, stopping only for a couple of beers at Cheap Charlies, the open-air corner bar favoured by expats and tourists. But just before i reach the Suk 11 flophouse, i spy a fake old English pub, The Pickled Liver. Right next door to my suite. Featuring a picture of George Best on its coat of arms. Again, if you are drunk, a picture of Georgie Best is irresistable. Because normally, of course, i wouldn't be seen dead in a fake old English pub, but then normally i wouldn't be wearing a shirt covered with green elephants. I stumble inside and order a pint.

There is a game of pool happening at the far end of the bar, a very serious affair between a couple of pink Englishmen and two swarthy fat men, who look like they could very well be in the oil business. They have enough of it in their hair. The barman presents me with my beer in a glass with a stem. I stare at it, mollified. "You've got to be joking, mate," i expostulate, with most of the expostula ending up on the beer mat. "That's a sheila's drink! Did you hear me ask for a shandy? Can you put it in a proper glass?" It's amazing how these Ocker mannerisms come to the fore when you are away from home. And pissed as a newt. I turn my attention back to the the pool game. I'm feeling a little woozy, like i have been dropped into a scene from The Adventures of Barry McKenzie. I stifle an almost irrepressible urge to chunder on the Englishmen.

The barman simply tips the amber ale from the sheila's glass into a schooner glass and hands it back to me. The two men in the moustaches appear to be winning, playing a very reserved game; each shot taken with a soft, even touch to run the ball up toward a pocket. How civilised and sedate. It's like Pot Black, minus the hired suits and bow ties. I watch the match with scorn. I am inebriated enough to believe i can take the winners on playing left handed with the schooner balanced on my scone. So when one of the pink punters inadvertently downs the eight ball, i pounce. I ask an innocuous looking lad standing next to me if he plays, and if he can partner with me against the oil sheiks. "No, no," one of the sheiks says, jabbing a finger into his hairy chest. "You must play me. I am Mustafa. This is Abdul." He gestures at his partner. I nod at them both and shake hands. "Mark," i say.
"What?" says Abdul. "Muck?"
"Yes, Mark," i slur. "It means son of the god of the edible seaweed."
"Twenty baht," says Mustafa, indicating the green baize. "You must pay."
I grab some change from a bar girl. From nowhere, a small boy appears and takes my coins, quickly and professionally racking up the balls. Just as quickly, he disappears. Kids. I shake my head in dismay. I must admit W.C. Fields was onto something when he said "Anyone who hates children and animals can't be all bad." I take up a cue and give the triangle of fifteen a mighty thump. A ball goes down in the corner pocket but it is all a blur. Even standing still looking at the rest of the balls, lying stationary on the table, it is all a blur. What don't you say to a policeman when you are pulled up drunk driving? "Are youse two twins?"

I check the chute to see if it was a big or a small. One of the sheiks comes over. "I am supposed to break because I win," he says.
"Bit late for that, Abdul, i already sunk one."
"I am Mustafa - he is Abdul," he says. He bends down to look in the chute. "OK," he says magnanimously. "You play on. You are on these," he indicates the bigs. What? I check the chute again. It is a solid yellow ball with the number '1' on the side.
"I don't think so champ, i'm on these." I point to the smalls. His mate comes over to check. He crouches down, and nods.
"Thank you, Mustafa," i say.
"I am Abdul - he is Mustafa," he says. Either way, i am allowed to continue. I take a swig of the brew and follow my usual set of rules for playing pool drunk. Rule number one: adopt an air of extreme and totally unjustified self-confidence. Rule number two: hit the balls as if you want to place them about forty-five feet beyond the pocket.

After a few minutes, these tactics begin to pay dividends. When Mustafa sinks the white, it seems the game is mine. I've sunk about five balls to his one, and now i have two shots. I hold up two fingers, not in a rude way, but just to check. "Two?" i ask. The sheiks nod. I sink a ball off the first shot and line one up over a pocket on the next. I move around the table to knock it in. A hand grabs my cue.
"Two shots only."

I look at him, incredulous. "I just sunk one," i protest. "If you sink a ball you get an extra shot. Them's the rules, Abdul."
"I'm Mustafa - he's Abdul," he says. "You have two shots only."
I look to his friend in mute appeal.
"The American is right," he says. American? "He has another shot."
"Thank you, Mustafa."
Abdul says nothing. I think they know now that i'm mixing up their names deliberately. Basic psychology. I go to the bar and take a hefty chug of beer, in the belief that this too will somehow psyche out my opponents. (In the morning, i think differently). I chalk the cue, and swagger over to the table to knock the number six into the pocket as if i were trying to hit it into some time next week. I miss my next shot completely - a touch too much swagger in the elbow. But Mustafa misses his easy pot and sets me up. I belt the last one down and take aim on the black. With five of Mustafa's still on the table, there is no clear shot. The pair stand and watch intently. I belt the black and watch as it pinballs around the cushions before finding a centre pocket. Ha! Too easy. I thank Abdul and Mustafa and head for the bar to start psyching out my next opponent. A French Canadian girl is hovering with her 20 baht. I've seen her hanging around the flophouse. Cute. "Rack 'em up," i say, waving at the table. The young boy appears again.

Abdul shakes his head. "You lose," he says.
"What?" i wipe the foam from my mustache.
"You lose. You did not choose a pocket."

The kid racks up the balls as Mustafa chalks up his cue. Tsk. I figure that kid is way too young to be hanging around bars racking up pool balls. It's a disgrace. Why isn't he out peddling his arse on the street like the rest of them?

I bid farewell to the French Canadian girl, and to any chance of becoming a mountie.