I have seen the Bulgarian Ambassador

Originally sent: 2 February 2006

About this series

Happy Australia Day and Lunar New Year!

M and I celebrated by going to the Australian Embassy function at Phnom Penh’s most expensive hotel, Raffles, and drinking imported stubbies of Victoria Bitter at their expense. Thanks again, foolish Australian taxpayer. The Australian Embassy paid Raffles to serve the traditional Australian buffet of miniature hamburgers and noodle soup, which as I recall, is generally what I toss on the barbecue each year.

The event also gave M a chance to bail up embassy staff to ask why the Embassy hadn’t made any comment about her organisation’s director being unjustly jailed by Hun Sen when every other organisation in town has given the Cambodian Government an earful. To Hun Sen’s credit, he did let M’s director and a few other political detainees out on bail as a “gift” for the opening of the new American Embassy fortress. As I indulged in a small beefburger or three, M schmooozed her way up the ambassadorial chain as far as Third Secretary, which is a solid achievement given that they were far more interested in the free booze, but in doing so we both missed the chance to meet the Bulgarian Ambassador to Cambodia. To give you an idea of the Australian Embassy’s pulling power, he was by far the most important guest after the local government crony. Apparently, Bulgaria boasts an unbroken diplomatic relationship with Cambodia; a superhuman feat given that diplomacy wasn’t one of the Khmer Rouge’s greatest assets.

On the subject of things that are of Bulgarian diplomatic vintage, M and I bought our own 1970s Vespa from a previous volunteer which seems to run just well enough for me not to be constantly swearing at it. The 150cc two-stroke engine sounds like you’re riding two whipper snippers that have been lashed together which hopefully strikes unbridled fear into the hearts of the surrounding motorists. My workmates asked me why I bought an old motorbike when I could buy a either a new Korean Honda rip-off or a newly-stolen real Honda from Vietnam for a similar price. My answer so far is “no idea”. They all ride things with an electric starter and no clutch whereas I’m trying to give Asia’s stupidest traffic a greater degree of difficulty and own a bike that nobody wants to steal. After a few weeks of riding it, I don’t know how I’ll ever live without it.

I quit my job yesterday which gives me a great sense of catharsis after a few months of not being busy. I’ve got a new marketing job at AMK Cambodia, one of the larger microfinance institutions in town. If anyone wants to know any details regarding the Cambodian monkhood and HIV/AIDS, the time to ask is now.

Your tax dollars buy my aid junket

Originally sent: 29 December 2005

About this series

After getting back here from Australia, I had a trip to Sihanoukville for Australian Volunteers “In Country Meeting” which I could only describe as an “utterly pointless AusAid-funded junket”. I used those exact words on the evaluation sheet of the meeting, so hopefully it will filter back to AusAid so they’ll know that AVI are spending your taxes on my weekend at the beach. The highlight of the weekend was getting a free pack of everyone’s favorite panic buy, Tamiflu (now 38% effective against flu, says the instructions) and eschewing workshops for a beachside bar that served pina colada by the bucket. Once we’d taught them that there is no Creme de Menthe in pina colada, everything went smoothly.

We’ve acquired a motorcycle from our friend H while he’s in Hawaii, so M and I are learning to ride on a 250cc Suzuki Grasstracker with a sticker that says “Big Boy” on the side. H left me with the single instruction “phil: basically, don’t crash and you’ll be fine”, so I’m managing to follow it so far when I’m doing laps of the block. We’re buying a vintage Vespa from another volunteer when they leave in the New Year, so it will be a fairly large step down in terms of raw power and credibility in the eyes of our local motorbike taxi drivers. Riding a motorbike is just like riding a 200 kilo bicycle that goes at 100 kilometres an hour. It’s a whole lot more fun than driving a car, in my vague recollection of what driving an automobile was like.

Christmas had a boozy, secular carapace filled with four kinds of meat. We bought Australian lamb shoulder for the first time since we’ve arrived and despite eating a lamb meal each day while we were in Australia, it was still outrageously delicious on the barbeque. M even cooked a monstrous Christmas pudding the week before. It takes a special commitment to the cause to boil a dessert for 7 hours in the tropical heat. To give you some idea of its mass, the ten friends we invited over for Christmas dinner polished off one third of it. Cambodians have embraced Christmas as they embrace all things Western: as a mark of success and modernity, rather than something in the spirit of ecumenism. The lack of hype surrounding Christmas here is a positive; going to work on Boxing Day, not so positive.

To fill in my time at work when I’m not looking for another job, I’ve started ranting about local food at www.phnomenon.com, mostly as a vanity project. As you’ll notice, I’ve done a fairly slack job of reviewing any Khmer food so far, but an in-depth job of reviewing the beer.

We have a vague plan for New Year’s that involves staying in Phnom Penh and drinking the leftovers from Christmas. Is there anything you can make with bad Thai-brewed brandy?

Selling raw human misery to Quincy Jones

Originally sent: 22 November 2005.

About this series

My bizarre marketing task for the month has been deciding how to suitably horrify Quincy Jones.

For those of you playing at home, Quincy Jones is the all-time most nominated Grammy artist with a total of 77 nominations and 27 winning Grammys. He has won an Emmy and seven Oscars. He’s the man who wrote the Austin Powers Theme, made Will Smith famous on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and composed the world’s funkiest organ-driven title track for “They call me Mr. TIBBS!”. To top this off, he’s one of the few jazz musicians that I like from the bebop era that didn’t burn down their career in a blaze of heroin addiction. At the behest of UNICEF, SCC are taking him to experience as much raw human misery as he can stomach for two and a half hours to try and take a percentage of the profits that he made selling a hundred million Michael Jackson albums and Lesley Gore’s 1963 teen hit, “It’s My Party”.

The initial meeting with UNICEF to plan Quincy’s visit was strange in the extreme, partly because I was the only marketing person there and saw this purely as a sales exercise, partly because the whole group of us had become so inured to the suffering that we can use it comfortably as a marketing tool. Head UNICEF guy wanted us to show the visiting party a “range of Cambodian families” which after much discussion was decided that UNICEF wants us to display:

1) A family headed by someone with AIDS, dying in a dirt-floor shack;
2) A family where person from 1) has died, but family still supported;
3) A child-headed household/kids with AIDS.

We allotted 30 minutes per family.

I have a much more cynical trick up my sleeve because I’m the only person that knows who Quincy Jones is – and I like that marketing is a dirty sport. A few of the orphans and vulnerable children (known in the aid business as “OVC”) are learning Khmer traditional music at SCC’s pagoda in Siem Reap. When we throw some monks into the mix, surely that will make Quincy bleed cash.

As instant karmic penance for doing aid industry dirty work on behalf of monks, the next day I got hit by a Landcruiser while I was riding my bike on the way to the office. It’s much less serious than it sounds. I was stationary at a crossroads and the Landcruiser hit me from behind while it was trying to barge its way around the corner. I’m thankful that they didn’t stop and either try to extort some cash from me or shoot me for denting their car. I obviously look like the sort of person who can afford to buy whatever sort of retributive Cambodian justice I feel like.

M’s parents were here for three weeks: in between working, we did all the Cambodian provinces which aren’t too scary, too wet, or too poor to have anything at all in them. To fit in our travels, there are 6 public holidays in November: 3 consecutive days for Water Festival, 2 for Independence Day, 1 for the old King’s Birthday (Hail, Sihanouk!). By juggling my leave the right way, this month I will spend 8 days at work.

About a million Cambodians from the rural provinces come to Phnom Penh for Water Festival to pickpocket the rich white folk and serve as the butt of rural/urban divide humour. They were all at the Phnom Penh’s only mall when I went there, to see escalators and air-con for the first time. About half of the kids would jump on the escalator before their parent, so the parent – bewildered by the foreign mechanical stairs – would hold on to them. This resulted in momentum knocking them over and the oncoming stairs thoroughly shredding the children, while the Phnom Penh locals would revel in rural/urban divide humour that watching kids fall into a meat grinder creates. The vein of Cambodian physical comedy runs deep.

We missed everything for which the festival was famous: live appearances by the new King (Hail, Sihamoni!); dragon boat racing and the associated drownings; a million rural people using Hun Sen Park as a urinal. Instead we caught a taxi to Kampot, which has a rotting colonial cliff-top casino ghost town (Bokor); and Kep, which has the tastiest seafood in all Cambodia.

Bokor was where the French elite went to acclimatise to Indochina before the locals formed their own substitute for European colonial rule, and as they did with anything on a hill in Cambodia, turned it into a gun emplacement. Building Bokor casino would have had the same degree of difficulty as building a quaint French village by hand on top of one of the 12 Apostles using only an infinite amount of disposable Cambodian labour. Judging by the leftovers, beachside colonialism looked like it was a whole lot more fun and profitable than my postcolonial development junket.

Faux Pho

Originally sent: 10 October 2005

About this series

Pchum Ben, a holiday to appease the spirits of the dead, happened last week. Most Cambodians leave Phnom Penh to give offerings of food at their local pagoda to ensure that their deceased relatives don’t return from the grave to stalk the earth as a hungry legion of the Undead. I’ve been told that there is a type of ghost that can take possession of you while you sleep and detach your head and innards from your body, and then float about using your entrails to consume unsuspecting victims and livestock. Pagoda offerings apparently sate their bloodlust for the year.

The good news for non-believers is that firstly I get 3 consecutive public holidays, so could get a boat down the Mekong to Vietnam to avoid the local undead; secondly that the Buddhist monks get to eat their fill of the offerings and then bring the leftovers to work for me. On a good day, I get banana-leaf packages of sticky rice that surrounds a delicious banana/bean filling and on a bad day, I get banana-leaf packages of sticky rice that surrounds a fatal raw fish/salmonella filling. Both are identical from the outside and their true nature is hidden by the odor-masking properties of banana leaf. Picking the wrong one feels like your stomach has been taken on a entrail-detachment joyride by a poltergeist.

Partly due to the expense of flying anywhere, we decided to sail to Ho Chi Minh City. For $20 we were promised a bus then boat straight into the Mekong Delta bird-flu territory, a night’s accommodation, tours, then a bus to Ho Chi Minh City. My workmates thought that for that price we were being sold into slavery. We were also promised that we could get our Vietnamese visa in 24 hours which I still can’t believe happened.

The boat to Vietnam was fairly uneventful. Kha Orm Nor at the Cambodian border has the silliest border post I’ve seen, insofar as it is the only one I’ve seen with an Olympic-quality badminton court. When the boat arrived there, M thought that we were stopping at a riverside resort for lunch; the Cambodian immigration guys had a level of joviality that could have only been brought on by an excessive amount of either badminton or extortion. They laughed so hard when I spoke some Khmer to them that they didn’t even bother looking at my passport before stamping me out of Cambodia. Just down river, the town of Chau Doc is the preferred launching port for petrol smuggling into Cambodia and so the border guards must be getting their fair piece of the action. Vietnam subsidises their fuel, Cambodia doesn’t, and so a canny Khmer smuggler can make as much as $1 a day in arbitrage depending on how quickly they can row.

Chau Doc has all the ambiance of a 15th century smuggling port and thankfully we were only staying for a night and far enough from town to not be conscripted into a life of river piracy. Near the hotel was Sam Mountain, which was predictably spruced up with shrines to practically every faith; unpredictably it was covered with giant concrete dinosaurs and mermaids, possibly presaging a return to animism for Vietnam. The next morning, we got our dose of authenticity by having someone canoe us about the Mekong so that we could point our cameras at unwary floating fish farms, pagodas, and the local Cham Muslim people.

Apart from doing the sights of old Saigon, the real highlight of getting to Ho Chi Minh City was eating vast quantities of Vietnamese food which we could then wash down with the local coffee. One of the weirdest things I’ve been missing from Melbourne is Vietnamese noodle soup () from Mekong Restaurant on Swanston Street; a desire made even stranger because there is a Vietnamese restaurant about 5 minutes away from our house in Phnom Penh to which I have never been. As an indicator of how much we ate, the only piece of Vietnamese language I learnt was “pho” which is actually pronounced more like “fur” than “poe”. I also make guest appearances as the wanker that orders in French. Very little of the pho lived up to Mekong’s extremely high standard, even though most of our two days in HCMC was spent wandering about trying literally every restaurant and cafe we saw.

The only place we actively sought out was a restaurant that specialised in barbecue that one writer has described as “filthy top-shelf meatporn“. Animal genitalia was a dining option, along with the usual array of rodents, reptiles, arachnids, and Bo Tung Xeo after which the restaurant is named: marinated beef chunks that you lightly sear on your own white-hot table top barbecue. After inspection of the live snakes, we opted for the beef with a side serve of goat flesh. It was so juicy and tender that my next purchase in Phnom Penh will be deworming tablets.

M judged our bus ride home as the worst that she has ever been on, and she’s been on a bus ride on the road that is legendary as the worst in the world (La Paz to Rurrenabaque, Bolivia). The last 60km from Neak Luong to Phnom Penh took about ten hours to cover, seven of which were spent queuing for a ferry. We would have been slightly better off swimming the river, buying an ox cart to drive us home and then barbecuing our means of transport as a Pchum Ben sacrifice. The bus was made all the more excruciating because the travel agent we’d booked through in Vietnam lied and didn’t book us seats, so we got one seat and one plastic chair in the aisle. M managed to strongarm her way into a seat when the previous occupant got up to have a vomit. It got that nasty.

Other than our weekend travels, I’ve been doing feelgood, humanitarian work that you see in UNICEF think-of-the-starving-children brochures: distributing schoolbooks to children with AIDS. It is more depressing than rewarding as many of the kids or their families will be dead before the school year ends, although I did get a superb moment of ecumenical irony when I realised that we were using Buddhist monks to distribute cash from a gay Christian church to Muslim school children. It is annoying that it is so easy to find money for these sort of projects rather than finding money to pay our accountant a decent salary, so that more of these sort of projects are possible in the first place.

Addendum: 2012

After I sent this group email, a few of my friends emailed me back to say that I should publish them because they had started forwarding them on to their friends.

I’d been kicking around the idea of starting a food blog for a few months but after their emails I registered the URL phnomenon.com, named after the subject line of the first group email that I sent.

Keeping it Riel

Originally sent: 23 August 2005

About this series

M and I recently has four day weekend in Bangkok which was great for all the wrong reasons: my personal highlights were going to the movies; eating Mexican food, smallgoods, and two and half pork-fuelled hours of yum-cha; and staying in a carpeted room. M picked the hotel because it was the home of Thailand’s best Mexican restaurant, Señor Pico’s of Los Angeles. The good Señor did not disappoint, and as you can see, we’re becoming the very picture of jaded expats. We even started marvelling about how clean and beggar free Bangkok is, which was a stark reminder that we’ve been living in the world’s fifteenth poorest nation for quite a while.

As for the authentic Thai tourist experience, we’ve already torn the Grand Palace, Emerald Buddha, Huge Reclining Buddha, and Chatuchak Market pages out of our pirated Lonely Planet. They’re the same as Cambodian attractions only ten times larger and made from solid gold rather than chicken wire over bamboo.

My adventures with the monkhood have continued to reach new levels of surrealness. SCC’s three monk leaders sang me “Happy Birthday” in English when I came to work on the morning of my birthday. They even had the words almost correct, they sang:

Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday to me
Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday to Mr Phil

I have discovered that the reason that monks are the essence of serenity is that they’re taught to meditate while walking slowly and serenely. If they don’t walk serenely enough while they’re at their pagoda, they get beaten with a length of bamboo by an older, more serene monk, which is allegedly the way of both Theravada Buddhism and cheap kung-fu films.

I also had my best interaction with a monk so far: he’s in his 40s (which is rare for a monk, as the Khmer Rouge did their best to chop up the guys in robes) and I asked him what he did before he was a monk. He said he was a miner until he was 15 when he joined the monkhood. I asked what he mined for (there are a few sapphire mines around town and some marble quarries). He said: “I mined for tanks, trucks and sometimes people, but not trains.”

Previously in this series: They can’t drink the alcohol or woo the ladies

“They can’t drink the alcohol or woo the ladies”

Originally sent: 27 June 2005

About this series

I’m in Battambang: which is famous across Indochina for its decrepit colonial French architecture, raunchy statues of garudas having their way with apsaras and a state of sleepiness that gives the lack of English expressions for somnolence a bad name. Since the Khmer Rouge stopped firing rocket-propelled grenades at the public transport on the way to Siem Reap, there is no reason for most people to detour via Battambang on their way to Angkor Wat, unless you’re like me and Ausaid is paying me for it.

My revelation for this week is that people eat the leftovers from our bin. I don’t know what you say to someone when you catch them eating your rotting dinner out the front of your house; my gut reaction is to set the hose on them. I guess it is marginally better that he eats it there than picks it from wherever the garbage truck takes it. I’m starting to wonder if there is anything left there by the time the garbage truck arrives.

Contrary to popular belief, the locals don’t have a stronger gastrointestinal fortitude; they just get sick more often and more severely. Over half the staff where I work have already used up their entire allocation of sick leave for the year and I blame it on their compulsive desire for weird food. While I was in Siem Reap, the two workmates I was with insisted on going to the same Khmer restaurant every day for fermented salty fish salad despite us all being quite ill after the first lunch. From that point on I avoided the fish and watched them both get sicker and sicker as the week progressed. Cambodians are pretty keen on both my favourite and least favourite modes of meat preparation: deep frying and fermenting. I’ll let you guess which is which.

M got sick a few weeks ago from something random and tropical, thankfully nothing egg-laying, flesh-eating or combination thereof. When we consulted our handy Traveler’s Health Guide that came with the kilo of prescription drugs we brought with us, it warned against eating salads, predatory reef fish, crustacea, ice, and dairy produce; all of which we had eaten for the previous lunch on a boat trip. The previous day’s boat tour had been cancelled and so there was speculation aplenty as to how long the barracuda had been sitting in the lukewarm Esky. Obviously, not long enough to be considered fermented.

On the monk front, it turns out that they’re the same as most other Khmer people except as the admin assistant at work lovingly put it,
“They can’t drink the alcohol or woo the ladies”. They consequently do seem obscenely interested in my drinking and wooing habits, especially because they’ve found out that firstly, I not only drink beer but I know how to make it; and secondly that I live with someone I’m not married to. I did see one of the monks slap our tea lady/cleaner on the ass the other day but I’m lead to believe that this is acceptable workplace behaviour rather than a misguided attempt at wooing.

My understanding is that being a monk in Cambodia is much closer to doing national service than joining the priesthood: you get to wear an absurd uniform with a large group of other men and if all goes well you’ll be out in a year or so, albeit completely indoctrinated. Despite Buddhist doctrine to the contrary, the monks in Cambodia are not charitable. Practically everything that gets donated to them goes towards building increasingly grandiose gold-plated pagodas rather than say, feeding the poor so they don’t have to eat from our bin.

The pagoda where SCC is located in Siem Reap cost $US1 million to build and is of average size. There are 4000 pagodas in Cambodia, which means that at least US$4 billion of the Cambodian economy has been sunk into infrastructure whose sole purpose is to further drain the pockets of their local constituents. I’m no longer horrified that Phnom Penh’s only casino is located next door to Cambodia’s most important Buddhist training school. I’m sure that some of the pagodas run orphanages or schools simply because the monks lack sufficient armaments to cleanse their pagoda of street kids.

The UN has about US$200,000 set aside per annum to encourage monks to volunteer for charity to try and change this parlous state of affairs. The monks of SCC are using some of it to pay for their Business degrees with the ultimate goal of leaving Cambodia for the West as soon as possible. Non-government organisations call this “capacity building”.

Previously in this series: Ratspotting

Ratspotting

Originally sent: 12 May 2005.

About this series.

I spotted my first rat on the way to work this morning which was the size of a small pony. It was headed in the direction of my house. Things bode ill.

I’ve just finished my first few weeks of work and it has been incredibly hard and exhausting. I’m the only native English speaker and despite the excellent language skills of my compatriots, I’m still not sure if people understand me or are just agreeing with me to save face. In the process, I swear that my ability to speak Khmer and English is rapidly declining. My position description is ill-defined and so I’ve spent most of the time meeting with people in the vain hope that they can tell me what I was hired for.

I seem to have been hired in lieu of getting cash from AusAid to pay for the projects that I should be working on (marketing income generating activities and the organisation generally). So at this stage I’ve got no funding to immediately implement anything at all. I’ve still got to meet with the chief accountant to see what I can squeeze out of the existing budget until the next round of funding in July. On the up side, everybody seems overwhelmingly pleased to have a Westerner to display at meetings and I do get the standard Cambodian two hour lunch break.

SCC, the organisation that I’m advising, is doing some fascinating work using Buddhist monks to implement HIV/AIDS prevention and care activities in Phnom Penh, Siem Riep (near Angkor Wat) and Battambang – so there will be monk stories aplenty in the coming months. I saw a monk smoking a cigar while talking on a mobile phone but didn’t think that it was prudent to take a photo because it was during a staff meeting with him.

To keep myself busy outside of work, I’ve bought myself a mountain bike for the regal sum of $35 so that I can immerse myself in the sheer lunacy of peak hour in Phnom Penh at speed. Rumour has it that you drive on the right hand side of the road but I can neither confirm nor deny this. Right of way is granted to whomever has the heaviest vehicle travelling at the greatest speed, regardless of signage, red lights or any other man-made barricades. Despite driving like the possessed, everyone acts courteously when you cut them off or run them down.

Speaking of barricades, if you have a wedding, you can erect the marquee for your hundred guests across the entire street in front of your house to further mar the flow of traffic. One was built on my way to work complete with separate catering tent, golden stupa, styrofoam Angkorian ruins and traditional Cambodian gamelan band; all scenically located within vomiting distance of the miasmal open sewer. Short of building the marquee directly over the top of the roiling sewer, there wouldn’t be a worse place in Phnom Penh to spend a few days in a tuxedo or wedding dress in the 40 degree heat.

Apart from the catering tent.

180 degrees of housing

M and I moved into our house about two weeks ago. Our landlord lives next door and he is the nicest man in Phnom Penh, possibly because we pay him ten times the monthly Cambodian minimum wage for our house. When we arrived, he had already done about four of the tasks that we thought would be a real hassle with our substandard Khmer, like refilling the gas bottle and getting some spare keys cut. Another expat lives upstairs. The bathroom is a vision in lurid maroon. The whole house is tiled, so we can just hose the place out when the dust gets unbearable.

My two favourite beers at the moment are Love Beer (because let’s face it, who doesn’t? It even tastes like love) and Black Panther Stout (because The Man can’t keep the black beer down!). I’m also a bit partial to ABC Stout because their advertisements feature a Cambodian guy who looks like James Bond pimped out like Snoop Dogg. Confusingly the two top-selling beers here are Anchor and Angkor. Thanks to the infinite wisdom of Khmer pronunciation, “Anchor” rhymes with “ranch or”; and “Angkor” rhymes with “Anchor”. Angkor also means about five different things depending on how you pronounce “or” and thankfully none of them are mortally offensive when you slur drunkenly. You really can’t go too wrong either way, when it costs $9 for a whole slab.

In corruption news, the Cambodian Government just signed a 30 year agreement leasing Choung Ek – the Killing Fields Memorial and grimly popular genocide tourist attraction – to a Japanese company for $15,000 a year. The site is currently clearing a $20,000 per annum profit, not to mention that for better or worse, it is a vital piece of the Khmer peoples’ public heritage. My only guess here is that the Government knows that some sort of tourism apocalypse is headed for Cambodia (like a bird flu outbreak or a Commonwealth Games) because the tourism market has been growing at 100% per annum for the last 4 years. I smell a rat larger than a small pony.

Previous post in this series | Next: “They can’t drink the alcohol or woo the ladies”

I like your old stuff better than your new stuff.

I get this, often.

Writing was more of a priority when I was virtually unemployed in Cambodia with no responsibility whatsoever rather than holding down a full time job that I enjoy and being a somewhat responsible parent. Circumstances have changed a little.

Like anyone who writes, I’ve got a whole lot more unpublished old stuff.

Group emails are what convinced me to publish. It took me almost a year in Cambodia before I was convinced that anyone would care about anything that I wrote on the back of about half my friends saying “you should publish this”. So I’m going to publish the original pre-Phnomenon group emails in weekly increments. The first one, out this afternoon, is from almost exactly eight years ago. It’s where I got the title for my blog from. Most of the early ones make me feel like I was much younger then and worse at stringing words together in a coherent fashion.

If you like my old stuff better than my new stuff, it will be like communing with the dead. Reading back through it makes me realise I’m a completely different person now. Some of that is better, some is much worse. You get to decide which.