• The View from Cambodia

The View from Cambodia

The Land of the Secret Sharer

Posted by Richard on Thursday, November 6, 2014

Newly arrived in Phnom Penh, I’m spending time learning my new beat. I’ve met some remarkable characters here. Most are of the washed up and battered expat variety that people the memoirs of reprobates and other exiles to tropic climes. I’m sure I’ll have grist for the literary mill soon.

The atmosphere in Phnom Penh does me good. Saigon has become a city with all the problems of rapid growth and development but none of the benefits beyond enriching the movers and shakers. In Vietnam that means the Communists and there friends and relatives. Rich Communists! Owning privately held companies and investments, and dealing with (gasp) capital. And yet every major capital development project, funded by foreign banks and stock brokers, is festooned with huge pictures of Marx and Lennin. That’s a story I might have written. And then been deported!

But I’m much enjoying PP. It’s still a sunny place for shady people. Still a backwater. The electricity goes out frequently, the streets flood with the slightest rain, nothing and nobody works very much. But the beer is always cold and the food good and cheap. Palm trees grow, rents are low and the feeling is layback. We live in a four storey house in a secure compound. The security guards in our compound think I’m a retired general or something and always salute as I pass in and out. The barmaids all think I’m a good tipper because I always leave fifty cents. The market mavens think I’m a fine fellow because I bargain with good humor and eat their fried insects. Life is fine, fine as wine.

Sorry for the slow posting. The tropical terrain tempers timeliness and turns us tardy. It’s one reason for being here. And it’s one of the last places in the civilized world where one can feel far away and long ago. At times I even feel moved to put pen to paper and write a proper letter with a proper postage stamp on a proper envelope embossed with the formerly magic words, “Par Avion.” It would arrive on your roll-top desk bearing unknown stains and the tang of the Orient, bent at the corners and frayed at the edges. And it would contain ripping yarns and daily details and news of island cannibals and eastern potentates. Perhaps a black and white photo of me and mine. But, as they say, “Ah shit. I was born too late.”

View from the top
I am personal friends with the maid servant to the second bum boy of the Prime Minister’s favorite bookie. As such I am now well qualified to advise travelers on hostelries and eating houses of repute, both ill and otherwise. Lady C (that’s the Mem Saab) and I have four bicycles and can take our visitors on a tour of the dusty roads. We can also introduce them to Dusty Rhodes, who works at the Pretty Lady Massage Parlor and BBQ. And speaking of BBQ, wait till you try the roaches on a stick. With a side of chicken feet. You’ll think you’ve died and Heaven can wait!


After one year in the Kingdom of Wonder, as Hun Sen’s domain is known in the travel biz, Lady C and I have made the move from the big 5-bath house on a hot dusty plain at the outskirts of the city to the clean and leafy streets of the diplomatic quarter. The Lao ambassador lives across the street (Mao Tse Toung Blvd), the Philippine Ambassador is around the corner next to the main Mormon church, a row of Japanese shops and cafes leads to the Nippon embassy. India, Indonesia and Myanmar are in hailing distance and Vietnam is a block away. Any way we might run we can seek asylum!

We’ve now been here a month. Our place is in a cul-de-sac called 6Z, next to a government ministry and the Cambodian senate house. Above us is a Pakistani family. Father works at their embassy. Across the lane is a Dutchman with his Vietnamese wife and toddler. We have two beds and 2 1/2 baths. And the kitchen is about the size of an average living room! All the woodwork and trim, as well as the furniture, is made by the owner who happens to be a cabinet maker.

My favorite place, by far, is the balcony. It’s very roomy and looks out over
the quiet lane. When it rains it’s just like the observation car of the E&O Express, complete with Monsoon Cocktail! We take all our meals there, including when we have guests. And we’ve been having guests every week. We also have the cocktail hour every day at about 6pm. Actually it’s the beer and salty snacks hour, but we make a daily ceremony of it and pretend that we are French colóns ordering the (non-existent) servants about, n’est-ce pas?

Strangely, the whole setup sometimes reminds me of Oakland, California, in the Lake Merritt area. Although the tropical heat can be a bit much in the Summer, the rainy season cools things off just fine. But even in Summer it doesn’t bother me. I ride my bike in the heat of day, guzzling liters of ice tea to stay hydrated.

On the job front, I’ve recently taken a position as lecturer in Journalism at Pannasastra University. In my contract, on my staff ID badge and on my cubby hole in the faculty room I am called “Professor.” Even the real professors call me “Professor”! The kids call me “Prof.” Never has my gray beard looked so apropos.

The school is one of the most modern in the country, though we aren’t talking here about a big, rich, modern country. The “big” library is about the size of the North Berkeley annex, though it does subscribe to modern internet-based research facilities and data bases. I took my second year students there for a presentation on research techniques. For half of them it was their first time in any library. I have much work ahead of me.

This being a traditional Buddhist country, every class has two or three saffron-clad monks. On attendance sheets students are designated Male, Female or Monk. Some of them are life-long monks. Others are young guys on scholarships paid for by monasteries. It’s interesting to watch them finger their beads, chant quietly as they walk the halls, genuflect at altars; and then whip out their iPhones and text their friends about the weekend.

Along with my gray beard, age creepeth upon me, my dears, though it would not seem a linear process. Recently I had both a young and an old experience in traffic. In the first I was on my number 1 bicycle, Trigger. (The back-up is Scout.) Approaching an intersection at moderate speed I spied a big, black SUV (they all seem to be black here) screaming in from the right. My response was James Bondesque and all took place in a split second. Just before he ran me down I took evasive action in a braking turn. My Medulla Oblongata, by-passing the pre-frontal cortex, immediately recognized that the time-rate-and-distance problem run by the conscious mind would lead to a collision. Quicker than thought I observed my body skillfully dump the bike, hit the pavement and roll out of Big Black’s trajectory. I regained my feet in time to hurl insults at the unstopping offender. And I was jazzed! That SOB in the SUV could have ruined my day. But I was just too quick on my Trigger.

Alas, a few days later I took what must have been my first old man fall. Again on my trusty steed Trigger. I was approaching our local European bakery and thought I might execute a sharp right U-turn into a convenient parking place. Somehow I missed the angle of the dangle and didn’t make the turn. Almost in slow motion I watched as Trigger came to a halt, started a starboard list, then fully capsized. I fell on the ground and the bike fell on me. I wasn’t hurt. Not physically. But two young men, from opposite directions, came running up shouting, Sir! Sir! One of them lifted the bike off me, the other lifted me off the ground. I mean he literally picked me up off the ground! They both brushed me off as I stood there in a daze. A daze not from the impact, but from the fact of the piddling slow motion fall. I was not jazzed. I guess from here on out I’ll have my good days and bad. But on any day I can repair to the balcony for solace, beer and salty snacks. Life ain’t so bad.

Wishing you many good days.


Big Night

I've moved out of Phnom Penh and am now ensconced in the western provincial town of Battambang. In our expat community we've had a little bit of comic drama. My friends have dubbed it "The Night of the Fucking Asshole."

You need to know that cars, and especially big SUVs, are quite new to Cambodia, at least in the consumer market. Most people have little or no training in driving, and don't even bother with a license. I have been rear-ended (on my bicycle) 7 times in Cambodia. Once by a cement mixer truck. Luckily, only one collision has been with injury. That driver was on drugs.

So to my story of "The Night of the Fucking Asshole." Half a dozen of us were seated in our favorite sidewalk cafe. My bicycle was parked in its usual place just outside the patio area, at the curb of the street. I had a bottle of Australian wine in the water caddy attached to the cross bar. A giant white SUV pulled alongside and the driver kept trying and failing to parallel park. At one point it backed right into my bicycle, knocking it over, dinging the paint job and breaking the bottle of wine. I lept from my seat and went to tend to my fallen mount (I love my bike. (His name is Trigger, after Roy Rogers' horse). I picked him up, kicked away most of the broken glass, then turned to the offending SUV and hollered, "Fucking asshole! Learn how to drive!"

Within seconds, the driver, a woman, emerged, followed by her passenger, a man, her husband. They both pressed their hands together in that prayerful gesture that, as you know, is common to people in this part of the world. Though they spoke no English, it was clear to me that they were apologising. I put my hands together like theirs and tried to make nice, even though I was still upset. In this part of the world, showing anger is counter-productive.

At this point, one of my expat friends came to assist. His name is Lucas, he's from Switzerland, and he speaks fluent Khmer (the dominant language of Cambodia). He translated for us, mainly between the husband and me, as is proper in this country. In the end, the man and I even hugged each other, and told each other "You're a fine fellow." And just before the other fine fellow and his wife left, he told me who he is. He is the Vice Chief of Police in Battambang. Lucas, diplomat that he is, in his translations had never told the Vice Chief that I had called his wife a Fucking Asshole.

And that's the news from Battambang.