Originally sent: 2 February 2006
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.
Originally sent: 29 December 2005
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?
With the advent of the cronut, humanity has entered a new golden age of pastry. Freed from the shackles of tradition, patissiers can now start a craze by pouring any number of unrelated recipes straight into the deep fryer. Uninspired? Let the random pastry generator do the work of original human thought.
You should go cook:
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Originally sent: 22 November 2005.
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.