Sunday, March 28, 2010


The Prince D'Angkor Hotel. King Sihanouk himself and his royal entourage are rumoured to have stayed in this four-star resort in the French Quarter of Angkor Wat's tourist mecca town. So why shouldn't i? Never let poor accommodation get in the way of a good story, i say.

Held at XBar in Siem Reap, the second annual Porkula 1 is an event on Cambodia's social events calendar not to be missed. Or so i tell my senior editor when i request two return air tickets plus expenses to cover the event for the social pages. Thankfully he is so deeply involved in his own personal crises, as he lurches from one disaster to the next, that he scarcely notices any requisitions i file for supplies, or claims i make for expenses. I mean, i didn't even make it to the Tonle Sap lake to file the story on the seasonal snake harvest after my interpreter failed to turn up at midnight at the agreed bar. But i still had the expenses in my hand. And after a while, the barman had most of the expenses in his hand as meanwhile i fell out of a tuk tuk on my arrival at the Pontoon nightclub in the early hours. But such is the nature of journalism.

So when i booked Elvira and i into a deluxe suite at no charge at the Prince D'Angkor, it is on the somewhat surprising premise that i would write a feature article on their hotel. Surprising in the fact that i did eventually write a feature article on their hotel, for which they were very grateful - so grateful in fact that they allowed me back six months later, with a murderous and meth-addicted bar girl in tow, to write another one. And they even gave us a better suite. But when i was there with Elvira, i very nearly didn't file anything at all. I was lucky remain in a sanguine state long enough to collect sufficient notes to file any kind of story whatsoever.

You see, Elvira, fresh off the plane from a London-based motorcycling magazine, is very keen on her marijuana. But then, she is very keen on a whole number of things. There is no shortage of enthusiasm or energy with Elvira. It radiates from her in the newsroom like shrapnel from a landmine as she hurls instructions about like ninja stars. Oh, but i'm a big fan of shouting in newsrooms. It's up there with pig racing, believe me.

It was because of Elvira's predilection for the herb that we wound up at a happy pizza shop near Pub Street a few hours before the chequered flag was due to fall. There is a whole street of these herbal pizzerias. In typically Asian fashion, all the shops of one type tend to be concentrated in one area - be it plumbing supplies, carved wooden sword shops, or eateries. If you walk down this particular street you will see a sign with a happy face proclaiming Happy Pizza, followed by another with a happier but more stoned-looking face, tongue lolling, which is the shopfront for Extra Happy Pizza. Then there is Ecstatic Pizza, with a caricature on the shop display with a face like a necrophiliac making love to Janis Joplin. I think we eventually ate at We Are Totally Off Our Fucking Tits On Ridiculously Barmy Pizza Which Is Pretty Much All Marijuana With No Actual Nutritional Value Which Is Why We Are So Fucking Happy Pizza. Or something along those lines.

The pizza was my first mistake. It was upon checking back into the hotel suite, in preparation for the races, that the panic struck.

"Oh, god, what if there's nobody there tonight?" i wail at Elvira. I'd been up to XBar the night before for a quiet drink, and believe me, it was a quiet drink. There was, apart from me, only two people in the bar. And they were the bar staff. At the time i figured i was just early. A quiet night. XBar is open late, and warms up as the other bars close down. But tonight, after the four slices of Extra Happy kicked in, i am paranoid.

"What if nobody comes?" i repeat.
Elvira is playing around with the buttons on the console by the bed, switching the lights on and looking around the room to see where they come on, then switching them off again.
"Oh this is good. And look, you can turn on the television from here." She switches the TV on. A frantic Khmer melody fills the room, and we watch as a heavily made-up woman in a bright green dress begins to methodically destroy our remaining peace of mind. "Do you want room service?" Elvira asks. "I'm hungry. Where's the menu? Oh, here it is. How about a drink?"
She goes back to the buttons, and starts pushing one button relentlessly. "Where's the make-up room?" She looks to the bathroom as she presses the button, but to no avail.
"Who am i going to photograph if no-one turns up?" I shake my head. I can't come back with absolutely nothing for Monday's page 17. Anything i write on the hotel won't be published until the magazine comes out. I need social pictures, with a story on an event. "I suppose i could just photograph the pigs," i say.

Elvira doesn't appear to be listening. She is talking to herself and the TV is very loud. I go to the bedside table to study the console. There are buttons for the bathroom, the sofa and balcony, the bed left and right, the main room, and the make-up room.
"Where is the make-up room?" i ask, and pressing the button.
Elvira is now looking at the menu. "What do you want from room service? I'm having the filet mignon and a Bloody Mary."
"Do you think i could just shoot the pigs?" I ask. After all, she is the National News Editor. She must have some news sense. "I mean, they've all got names. And sponsors. If no-one actually turns up for the racing, i suppose we could just publish a social page full of pigs' faces with their names underneath. What do you think? Would anyone notice? I'll have the pasta marinara. And an Asahi. Maybe there's one in the fridge." I press the make-up room switch again, and it glows green. I look around. "I would have thought it would have been above the dresser, where your jewellery is."

The make-up room switch is my second mistake. Because there is no light above the dresser. Meanwhile, Elvira has changed channels, and a different woman is wailing loudly on the television, now tuned to a long-running Cambodian soap opera. Someone is beating her, slapping her back and forth across the face repeatedly with an open hand. This seems to go on for quite some time. I take the remote from Elvira and press MUTE. The slapping continues, only silently. Elvira picks up the phone and orders the food, then begins to ramble something about the motorcycle magazine, hashish, and narrow roads. In my mind's eye, i'm picturing the Out and About page full of pigs' faces, with their names captioned neatly underneath. It should work. But i'm starting to feel paranoid. I haven't had pot in ages and the happy pizza has hit me like a sledgehammer. There is no way i can go out to a bar. There is no way i can even leave this room. What if there are people out there? I try the make-up room switch again - on, off, on, off - but nothing in the room is changing. Except Elvira's ranting has now increased to a full-blown holler to fill the void left by the mute tv. "Test riding a Ducati, now there's a job. I remember one time out on one of the back lanes, i'd just crested a hill, when -" I point the TV remote at her and press MUTE, only half-joking. "You're ranting," i say. "The windows are open, all the lights are on, the TV was on full - we must be making one hell of a racket."
"Oh, did i tell you? I'm ADHD," she says. "Whenever i take marijuana, i just go ballistic."
I sit down suddenly on the bed. There is a knock at the door. "That was quick," she says. "I'm starving."

I open the door on two short, identical-looking Khmer maids who stand staring silently at me with an accusing glare. White towels in hand. No trays of food and drink. Here's trouble, i think. They just stand there, staring at me.
"Please - sir - turn down - room?" one of them says, eventually, in halting English.
"Of course. Yes. I'm sorry." I shut the door on them and walk back into the suite.
"Where's the food?" asks Elvira.
"Maids," i explain. "I told you. We're making too much noise. They want us to shut up. Oh, god, there's no way i can go out tonight. The room is spinning." I sit down on the bed again, wishing i could make it to the bathroom and splash cold water on my face. I'm suddenly extremely thirsty, and my mouth and throat are parched. "I need a beer. I'm totally paranoid. No-one is going to be at the pig racing. Where's the camera, anyway? Oh god, a page full of pigs' faces."
"What utter nonsense," says Elvira. "It's the deluxe suite. We can make as much noise as we damn well like. What did they actually say, Mister Paranoid, if you don't mind me asking?"
I mimic the maid's voice. "'Please, sir, turn down room.' Maybe we can get away with it, just this once. Maybe it's actually a brilliant idea. It's just what this town needs. Like when i ran a one-off shooting page in Carnarvon, with a picture a dead and bloodied goat someone had shot, after Bazza forgot to file his fishing column." Elvira pauses for the first time since we returned from happy pizza. A strange look comes over her face
"Oh god," she says.
"Turn down room. They want to turn down the fucking bed!" She walks briskly over to the console beside the bed. "The fucking hyphen!" she moans. "Why are there no decent sub-editors in this godforsaken country?"
"What are you babbling about?" I walk over and stare at where her finger is pointing, accusingly, at the lit "Make-up room" button.
"There is no make-up room. We've been asking them to make up the room."
I pause as this sinks in. There is another knock at the door.
"No," i say. "We've been asking them to make up the room, then not make up the room. Then make up the room. Then not make up the room."
Elvira begins to laugh. "Make up the room. No, actually, don't. On second thoughts, do. Yes, make up the room."
"No, don't make up the room." I collapse into a fit of laughter. "Make up the room." Elvira staggers to the door to open it for the room service waiter, who enters with two silver trays. We are falling about the place, unable to stop laughing. There are tears rolling down my cheeks.
"Those poor maids," i sputter. "I said, 'Yes, of course' and shut the door in their faces." We clutch our sides, unable to control our laughter. Not so much, i suppose, because doing things to annoy hotel staff is so very funny. But more because there is a good reason why they call it 'happy pizza'.