Saturday, March 28, 2009


"There's enough material in Phnom Penh to keep you going for a lifetime...which can, of course, be quite short over there if you fuck up with the wrong people."
- Raoul.

It is typical of the way things work in Phnom Penh that i only met one of my fellow journalists at The Paper after working here for two months. And that was only because i ran into him in a bar. He is obviously from the classic school of journalism - one of those hacks who does all his writing in bars and only comes into the office to claim expenses. Still, i figure if you're going to learn, learn from the experts.

And there is no shortage of bars in Phnom Penh in which to hone my journalistic skills. So far i have worked my way through the first half of them, along with the first half of that axiomatic expression, "We live and we learn". I may be in a foreign country, but a lot of the terrain i am covering is, sadly, familiar ground. Like doing Wholly Inappropriate things whilst inebriated.

I should have learned long ago that tranquillizers and alcohol are not one of life's more scintillating options. I'm not sure why our lifestyle editor was handing them out in a bar in the early hours of the morning, but from what i understand, it was because somebody had, Wholly Inappropriately, handed them to her. My job was to hand them on to somebody else - anybody else - like a hot potato. Rather than wash them down with my eleventh Black Russian. I'm not sure what happened after that, but the Cambodian girls who work in the shop downstairs from my apartment reported that my girlfriend brought me home at 4am, which is strange, because i don't have a girlfriend. Other than that, i know for a fact that i sent some ludicrous text messages, including one to a very nice American girl saying i wanted to bite her, and another to a work colleague asking him to accompany me in search of the happy pills. I don't remember anything at all from 2am, after the Stilnox kicked in, until 5am, when i managed to bring myself around. But i am pretty sure i came home and frightened my (probably now former) flatmate Zoë as i crashed about the apartment, taking powerful stimulants, while attempting to persuade her to accompany me to the Kambol shooting range to pose naked with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

"That is Wholly Inappropriate, on a whole range of levels," is what she said.

Looks like it is barge-pole range for me with Zoë from now on.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


With the mercury pushing a hundred in the old money it's not a good day to be stuck at the track sporting a hangover, no money, and severe bruising. Another motocross bike roars angrily past over the humps, its rider holding on grimly, clearly barely under control. I take a step back, firing off a few frames as the sound of the two-stroke drills into my skull. I’m spattered with mud and wet with sweat. And still labouring under the illusion that being a photojournalist is a somehow glamorous occupation. I can’t wait for them to spray my lens with champagne so I can get the hell out of here, back to lakeside, and book up a jug of beer. But the final race is five hours away. As another rider roars by i'm covered in yet another layer of fine brown dust. God, i need a drink. But water costs money.

Living in the cheap and somewhat notorious district of lakeside has its advantages, for sure. My four-dollar room has a view over the mosque and the lake, and of course the swimming pool at the four star hotel around the corner is an added, if illicit, bonus. No-one there will question a barang in his underpants. The lakeside food is cheap, and i can run a tab. But there are problems. One is the water pressure, or lack of it. Three days now without water in my room. The other problem is the drugs. They are simply too cheap.

While the sale of drugs and women is endemic in Phnom Penh, it is completely out of control at lakeside. Around the city, a moto or tuk tuk driver will ask, with descending likelihood of success, if you want a tuk tuk, if you want a massage, if you want to go to the Killing Fields, if you want gunja, if you want a woman, or if you want to go to the shooting range and fire at a pig with a rocket-propelled grenade. I wonder how an average tourist’s tour of the city would go if they simply accepted at random every outing a tuk tuk driver proposed. It would be an interesting day, to say the least.

But out at lakeside, the tuk tuk and moto drivers dispense with these frivolities. Coming back home from a pubcrawling boozefest, I stumble past these touts as they lie in wait, lining the narrow lane, with its combination of makeshift bars, third-world Khmer squats, and the open corridors of guest houses facing out onto a polluted lake.

“You want ganga? I have. Skunk. You want cocaine? Ecstasy? China white?” The moto driver shadows me with his urgent whisper, as I head past The Wanderer towards Moskito Bar. Out on the guesthouse boardwalks, backpackers lie on their couches and hammocks, whiling away their nights in a never-ending carousel of marijuana, cheap beer, and cheaper women. The idea that someone might want a lift out of lakeside is not high on this moto driver’s radar. “You want Ecstasy? I have. Yama? I have.” And, judging by his endless palaver, the immensity of his pharmacopeia stands in stark contrast to the paucity of his vocabulary. Moskito Bar is quiet, a couple of black guys drinking to hip hop. So i decide to investigate the depth of this tuk tuk driver's stocks.
“You have ketamine?” I inquire.
“Yes, yes, I have, you want?”
“No. I’m never touching that shit again in my life. What do you think i am, crazy? How about amphetamines?”
“Yes, yes, I have.”
“What about dimethyltriptamine?”
“Yes, yes, I have.”
“Yes, yes, I have.”
“Magic mushrooms?”
“Yes, yes, I have.”
“How about a bag of dust from the surface of the moon?”
“Yes, yes, I have.” I am beginning to doubt his sincerity. I know, for instance, that what the locals sell here as cocaine is either heroin or ketamine laced with speed. As reported in the newspaper only recently, a couple of Western tourists found this out the hard way. The two men were found dead in their hotel room, bleeding from the nose, with a packet of pills “to cure erectile dysfunction” and a pile of white powder beside them. There is a slight difference between the diluted cocaine of New York and London and 100 per cent pure horse. A difference which can put a real downer on a fun night out. Or a gay night in, as the case may be.
“I don’t believe you.”
“Come, come, I show you. I have room. You see.”
Ever curious, I follow him into the darkness, down the winding back lanes of Boeung Kak, past the high concrete wall of the mosque.

We come to a rickety walkway over the water, between wooden-walled huts, where the drug dealer holds his mobile phone down low behind him, barely illuminating the broken planks and gaps in our path. In dim living quarters people are lying about on mats or cooking on the floor. A skinny dog brushes past my legs. Through a window, lit by a low watt bulb, an old man is drawing a bow across a strange, tall, stringed instrument in meditative melancholy.

The dealer stops for a moment to shake free a short, loose plank next to a flimsy door. He reaches into the cavity and removes a plastic shopping bag. He pushes open the door and motions me inside. An old lady nods at us and steps outside the room, which is about the size of an ensuite bathroom, but with fewer amenities. He picks up his young child and points to a dirty mattress on the floor. I sit. He puts the child on his knee and opens the plastic bag, handing me a formidable bag of marijuana. “Skunk,” he says. I open it and take a whiff. It is better than most. Most of the ganga here is hay, but some is so strong as to be positively hallucinogenic. This is export quality shit. The usual hay is for the domestic market. Next, he produces a pile of small plastic bags, densely packed with various substances. He introduces them to me one by one. It is an extensive supply. Some fat crystals of meth. Brown, flat circles of opium. A thick bag of amphetamines. Red yama pills. Some other pills, which he claims are ecstasy, but could be anything. Some blocks of hashish. Another bag, full of soft white flakes, which he says is cocaine. It does look like cocaine. But being relatively naïve when it comes to illicit drugs, i am unable to put my finger on what exactly this is. I try putting my finger on it anyway. It tastes bitter. Who knows? I am but an innocent abroad.

“How much for the crank?” i ask.
“Twenty dollar.”

Outside the door, he hands the money to the toothless old lady and hides his stash back behind the broken plank.
“Where you go now?” he asks.
It’s about 1am. Some friends will still be out drinking cocktails, pursuing various depravities at Pontoon, the floating nightclub on the river, tethered to the ex-casino boat Mekong Queen.
“I drive you.” He goes inside and picks up his child. We walk back through the squalid labyrinth, back to the main lane, back amongst these missionaries, mercenaries and misfits. His moto is outside The Wanderer. He sits the boy up front, where he leans happily on the handlebars. I slide on the back and we set off to riverside, and the thrilling frivolities of Pontoon.

Heading past the big roundabout at Wat Phnom, the daytime haunt of elephants, monkeys, tourists, and four statues of the Buddha, he suddenly comes to a halt. On a dark stretch of road.
“What’s up.”
“No gasoline sir.”
“You’ve run out of petrol.” I sigh, and look around. We’ve just passed a couple of massage parlours and a supermarket, but up ahead all is quiet. From here to Pontoon is maybe a five minute walk, and I’m pretty sure I know the way. I hand him a couple of thousand riel. “Get yourself some fuel, champ. I’ll walk.” I head east, towards the river.
After walking about twenty metres, I run into a group of four Cambodian men. They launch into a familiar spiel. “You want ganga? You want girl?”
“No, thank you.” I try to keep walking, but one of them moves in front of me while another grabs my arm. This is unusual. Touts here hassle you relentlessly, but they rarely touch you. Unless you pay for it.
“Good ganga. Skunk.”
I shake my head no. “Awtay, awtay, awkun.” I point down the street. “Sohm toh. Pontoon. Leah heouy.” Having made my goodbyes, they release me and I walk on. But something is wrong. My wallet is missing from my back pocket. I turn around to see one of the men, about ten metres further down the street from the others, hiding something under his top. I walk towards him. He breaks into a run. I run after him. He circles back towards his friends. I start chasing the pickpocket around and around in circles, while yelling “Police!” but of course there is nobody to hear. His mates do their best to get in my way. There’s only about forty dollars in the wallet, but, having consumed quite a few pints of beer, I’m more worried about the happy powder. What will the girls at Pontoon say? They will be unimpressed.

The thief is screaming and shouting as I chase him in an ever-diminishing spiral. Suddenly one of the men appears in my peripheral vision, off to the right, running at me, swinging something. It hits me hard on my left shoulder. Really hard. As I stumble, the thief throws my wallet onto the bitumen. The gang runs off up the street, into the dark. I drop to my hands and knees, winded, and pick up the wallet, emptied of its cash. I put a hand to the wound on my shoulder, feeling the damp stickiness of blood. Bastard, I mutter. That moto driver set me up. I stagger ruefully to my feet and start the long walk back to lakeside.

So this morning i am sore, sorry, and stuck at the motocross. My left shoulder bears a huge bruise and a nasty cut from the chain or buckle or whatever the hell it was that stopped me. The nice woman from the internet café, who treated my wounds at lakeside last night, suggested I go to the doctor - but of course, my medical insurance expired three days ago. And the thieves just took the last of my money. You go to police? she asked, as she applied the antiseptic.

Hmm. I can just picture it. The police will ask me what was stolen.
“Apart from the cash? Well, they took my drugs, didn't they, the bastards.”
“Can you give me a description?”
“Sure. It was about a gram, white powder, allegedly amphetamines.”
“No. Of your attackers.”
“Oh. Well, there were four of them. Four men. Cambodians.”
“What were they wearing?”
Here I would pause to search my memory.
“Well, as I said, it was dark – but they were clearly wearing way too much makeup. And miniskirts. Cheap jewellery. And the one who took my wallet had on a halter-neck blouse, in a rather fetching turquoise. He was carrying a chain-mail handbag.”

I wince as the internet girl rubs some tiger balm on my bruise.

“No, I don’t think I’ll be going to the police,” i say.

Damn those ladyboys.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


for Doctor Abigail

Lime marinated beef salad. Served on a banana leaf to save on the washing up. For those with an eating disorder (i.e. vegetarians) this recipe is simply ideal. It's so easy to spot the meat - that'll be the red stuff - and push it to one side to create a luscious peanut salad. And it's as close to a vegetarian meal as anything you're likely to find in Cambodia.

Allow 30-40 minutes for marinating and then a minute or two to simply toss together, like two homos in a tryst.

Serves 2
200g beef (or kangaroo if you are in the lucky country) sliced thinly
1 stalk lemongrass, sliced thinly
1 chilli, sliced thinly
100g bean sprouts
50g roasted ground peanuts
1 clove garlic
juice of 3 limes
palm sugar, salt and fish sauce to taste
mint and basil, roughly shredded
4 leaves saw mint, sawed into 1cm pieces

Forget the wine. This is the tropics. Try some French Baïta rhum and ginger cordial with a slice of lime over ice. Get a couple of these going while you put some vinyl on the stereo. I recommend Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band's 1969 classic Trout Mask Replica.

Slaughter a bullock. Procure the rest of the ingredients from the market, and take a ride home through the narrow streets in a cyclo, soaking up the smells of the street stalls and the fresh tropical rains.

Combine the lime juice, lemongrass, garlic, saw mint and chilli to create a marinade. Season with salt, sugar and fish sauce to taste. Having created the marinade, congratulate yourself by mixing another ginger rhum. Or two. Put the beef in the marinade and leave it for 30 to 40 minutes. This, along with the washing up, is the easy part. Turn up the stereo and wander out onto the balcony, rhum cocktail in hand. See what's going on down there on the street, beneath the bougainvillea. Those Cambodians, what are they up to? And why don't they have a word for "vegetarian"? Hmm. Life's complexities are many. Too fucking many. Flop in the hammock and roll up some Cambodian red. Then let the lime juice marinade go to work work on the beef as the rhum and gunja goes to work on your brain.

After half an hour or so of cooking remotely from your hammock, wander, dazedly, back into the kitchen and flip the record. As the ceiling fan circles overhead, drain and squeeze the meat to remove all the juice. Toss with basil, mint, coarsely ground peanuts and bean sprouts. Serve it on the aforementioned banana leaves, on a rattan table on the terrace, topping up with ground peanut, basil and mint. Garnish with searing circles of chilli.

You realise the gunja has done its work properly as you tear into the fresca meat. The red Cambodian sun sinks at the edge of the street, down by Heart of Darkness bar, as the sounds of the tuk tuks and vendors float up from the street. Another long warm tropical night is in store. It might be a good night to get out on the streets, once the moon comes up. Maybe wander over to Fly for a blue margarita and a swim in the lap pool, or maybe even Sharky bar.

Or maybe roll up some more red.