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.

Finding posts near the user using Geo Mashup

If you’re not someone using WordPress, this post is not going to be of any interest.

Brian over at Fitzroyalty asks whether it’s possible to order content on a blog relative to reader’s location. It is. Here’s how, or at least here’s how to add a button to the sidebar/menu on a WordPress blog that:

  • Detects a user’s location
  • Finds a list of posts that is closest to the user’s mobile location using the Geo Mashup plugin

I know that this is a terrible hack to get something done quickly. I’m not much of a coder and I’m sure that there is a better way to get this done using Geo Mashup, but as far as I can find, nobody else has done this before.

Here’s how to do it.

1. Get the Geo Mashup plugin, enable and geotag your posts.

2. Get a PHP plugin that lets you execute PHP in posts and enable it. (You could of course, write your own custom template and put the PHP straight in, but as I said, this is a quick fix).

3. Go to Pages > Add New and add a new page. All you need on it is:

[geo_mashup_nearby_list near_lat="<?php echo ($_GET["near_lat"]); ?>" near_lng="<?php echo ($_GET["near_lng"]); ?>" limit=10]

4. Name the page whatever you like and save it. It won’t work yet. Copy down the URL.

5. Go to Appearance > Widgets. Add a Text widget to your menu wherever you want the “Find Posts Near Me” button to appear.

6. Give it a snappy title like “Nearby”, then in the text box add this code:

<script src="http://www.YOURWEBSITE.com/wp-includes/js/jquery/jquery.js"></script>
<script type="text/javascript">
function initiate_geolocation() {
function handle_errors(error)
case error.PERMISSION_DENIED: alert("user did not share geolocation data");
case error.POSITION_UNAVAILABLE: alert("could not detect current position");
case error.TIMEOUT: alert("retrieving position timed out");
default: alert("unknown error");
function handle_geolocation_query(position){window.location ="http://www.YOURWEBSITE.com/LOCATIONPAGE/?near_lat=" + position.coords.latitude + "&near_lng=" + position.coords.longitude;
<button id="btnInit" >Find my location</button>

Replacing “www.YOURWEBSITE.com” with your URL and http://www.YOURWEBSITE.com/LOCATIONPAGE/ with the location page you made in step 3.

7. Press “Save” to publish the widget.

8. Enjoy! In theory, if anyone has a browser that runs HTML5 (pretty much every modern browser) when the button is pressed it will read the user’s location, ask for permission to use it, and then send that to the map page, listing the posts nearby in order of distance (as the crow flies). This doesn’t store the location anywhere.

Feel free to use/improve this code. If I was a better coder, I’d build it into a plugin. Don’t contact me for any suggestions to add to this. I have no idea what I’m doing.

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

Your funds buy my food security.

The Jonas family grows pork that makes most other pork taste like that foamy pizza topping ham-substitute. If you’ve ever planned to cut down on how much meat you eat and then reward yourself with the best, this is it. You’ll remember where you were the first time that you ate it. Tammi Jonas is a friend, so that completely colours my view of their success and probably, the bacon.

But to paraphrase Amartya Sen, there’s no such thing as an apolitical food problem, and the problem that they’re solving agrees with my politics.

Maybe it’s me getting older, but I’ve started thinking more about food in the long term rather than day-to-day eating. Guaranteeing the future supply of the food that I want to eat is just as important as eating it in the short term. Part of that problem is how to put a relatively small amount of capital upfront to ensure that it happens. As much as I can do that at my local butchers or supermarket with what I buy in the short term, there is no transparency of supply.

So here’s a rare chance to support mine and your own food security. The Jonas’s have a crowdfunding campaign up at Pozible for a small-scale boning room and refrigeration. Funders are rewarded, quite literally, with pork.

I hope that it is the start of something much bigger.

“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

“At worst, it’s an ugly manifestation of foodies’ deep-seated disdain for the poor.”

“However good the illusion, would anyone really mistake Moto’s BURGER with cheese for the fast-food familiar? No more than one would confuse an Andy Warhol silk screen of Campbell’s soup cans with Campbell’s soup.”

But it is not 1962, a petit four is not a silk screen, and McDonald’s burgers are not merely a symbol of commercialism. In 2013, fast food and junk food are heavily burdened with class connotations: They have become practically synonymous with poverty and its attendant aesthetic problem, the so-called obesity epidemic. To target them for artistic critique is to take a potshot at the proletariat. To put that “art” on plates and serve it to upper-class foodies is to flatter their sense of deserved social superiority. At best, modernist chefs’ fake fast food is a lazy, meaningless rehashing of pop art tropes; at worst, it’s an ugly manifestation of foodies’ deep-seated disdain for the poor.

From LV Anderson’s review of Alison Pearlman’s book, Smart Casual: The Transformation of Gourmet Restaurant Style in America.


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.

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