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.
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?