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.