Scambodia

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There was hardly anyone on Soi Rambuttri that early in the morning, except the taxi drivers who doorstepped me as usual:

You wan’ taxi? Where you go?”

“Cambodia.”

That shut them up for a minute, but no longer than that; one of them followed me down the street:

“I take you Cambodia. Fi’ thousand Baht.”

But I had already paid 250 Baht for a seat in a minibus driven by a lunatic. On the motorway, driving as if getting away from a bank job, pulling right up – just inches away – to the car in front, then lurching out to overtake. On a single-track road, about to overtake a pick-up when it pulled out to overtake the truck in front, then overtaking the pick-up while it was overtaking the truck. There was another truck in front of that and a third speeding towards us, but somehow squeezing between them.

Once, a barrel fell off a trailer and bounced straight towards us, but the driver swerved round it with an unconcerned flick of the wrist. Once, he lost control, briefly, on gravel and had the minibus sideways but opposite-locked it back into line like a racing driver.

A few hours of this, punctuated by gasps and screams, then waiting forever and forever and forever: to get a visa, to be checked through the Thai border, and then checked through the Cambodian border down the street.

The agent warned us not to trust Cambodian ATM’s. “Maybe it give you cash, maybe it keep your card, and it take you one week minimum to get it back.” No, he said, “My advice, get the cash you need for one week, two week, however long you stay, at Thai side then cross over Cambodian side and change at the border. Best rate in the country.” I wondered why none of this was in the guidebook, but everyone else went to the ATM and withdrew a bundle of Bahts and, like a dull-witted sheep, I got in the queue behind them: I fell for it too.

The bus to Siem Reap would be there in an hour, maybe longer. It would then take three hours to get there. “But if you want I arrange taxi.” I fell for that one too, along with a bunch of girls from Lisbon.

The whole border crossing is a racket. I should have realised it was. Everyone is in on it; everyone gets a piece of the unsuspecting travellers, from the agents through the money-changers to the taxi drivers. But I had not yet finished being ripped off.

I have a hotel, very cheap,” the agent said.

Course you have, I thought: a favour for a mate at best, an outright scam at worst. But I glanced at the brochure he thrust at me, out of politeness.

 “Aircon, WiFi, just 400 Baht one night.

I looked but could not see the catch I expected. It was £7 and the place looked fine and even if it was nothing like the pictures, I thought, I could put up with it for three nights.

Where you from?” asked the jolly man from the hotel.

UK.”

“I am from CK – Cambodian Kingdom. Which area in UK?”

“London.”

“Lavly jabbly.

That’s quite good. Is Jamie Oliver on TV here?”

“Who?”

“Where did you hear ‘lovely jubbly’?”

“That is what they say in London? Lavly jabbly?”

My room was not ready yet, he said, but they were putting me up in another hotel and he would pick me up in the morning, lovely jubbly. It was a characterful old colonial villa.

There was no coffee at the hotel and I was half asleep when he came to collect me. He told me they were still getting my room ready – still? – but I could drop off my bags and he would take me to the temples so I did not have to hang around waiting, lovely jubbly. That’s nice, I thought, and shuffled sleepily around Angkor Thom, dreaming about coffee. Then I finally got a cup – filthy stuff – and my brain woke up and told me that I had been stupid again.   

The two-day temple tour I had somnambulantly agreed to was costing me 500,000 Riel, or 4000 Baht, or £70, or ten nights’ accommodation. The agencies, I saw later, were charging 100,000 for the same tour in a minibus. Like Cambodian coffee, it left a very nasty taste.

I had booked three nights but could not wait to leave Siem Reap and as soon as I got back from the second day of my exorbitant temple tour, I checked out and got a bus to Phnom Penh. The hotel tried to say I had overstayed and had to pay more, but I told them they had screwed enough out of me already.

Then I discovered that evening that, while I was on my temple tour, they had stolen all of my Riels, most of my Bahts and a lot of my emergency Dollars from the pouch I left in the safety deposit box. Lovely fucking jubbly.

© Richard Senior 2015

Phnom Penh’s Ghosts

 “Phnom Penh city wakes up early to take advantage of the cool morning breeze before the sun breaks through…. Street vendors push food carts piled with steamed dumplings, smoked beef teriyaki sticks, and roasted peanuts along the sidewalks and begin to set up for another day of business.”

Loung Ung, First They Killed My Father

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Phnom Penh is still recognisable, forty years on, as the city which Loung Ung so vividly recalled from early childhood, before the horror began. The architecture the French left behind is mostly still standing, although often close to derelict. There are still the apartment blocks built in the optimistic first ten years of independence in the Bauhaus-inspired Modern Khmer style. Street food vendors still congregate on every corner. Locals still breakfast on Phnom Penh noodle soup. Motorbike engines still echo through the streets; and cyclos still pedal round looking for custom. The old Olympic Market which Ung wrote about – in disrepair then – has since been demolished and replaced with a concrete monstrosity. But the street markets are still what they have always been: meat and vegetables laid out on mats on the ground; fish swimming in washing up bowls.

The French installed Norodom Sihanouk as king, because they imagined him to be malleable; but he ended up leading Cambodia to independence, and tacking to the right or the left as events seem to demand. He was ostensibly neutral in the Vietnam war, but instinctively anti-American and worried about a South Vietnamese invasion; so he let the communist North build sanctuaries in Cambodia. The US secretly carpet-bombed them, with much collateral damage among the peasants. Sinahouk allegedly approved the bombing in private; and the CIA allegedly approved the coup by General Lon Nol which deposed him.

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Sihanouk, in exile, made an ally of convenience of a Maoist insurgent group known as the Khmer Rouge. His endorsement lent them popular support and they controlled the country by 1975. Sihanouk was nominally head of state again, although in reality under house arrest. They killed much of his family.

The Khmer Rouge cleared everyone out of the cities – even patients from the hospitals – and sent them to work on the land. The five year-old Luong Ung and her family joined what was, for many, a death march. Her parents and two of her sisters were killed.

S21 was a school when the Khmer Rouge arrived. They closed it down and turned it into a political prison. It is preserved as the Genocide Museum. Two rooms are filled with photographs of some of the victims, mostly Khmers, but a handful of Westerners too: an Englishman, an Australian, a couple of Americans and Frenchmen. All were tortured horribly until they signed preposterous accounts of how they had been recruited by the CIA or KGB (the two were much the same to that paranoid regime). Then they were taken away and killed. But not shot. The Khmer Rouge did not want to waste money on bullets. They used anything heavy or sharp which happened to be to hand.

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There are no captions at the Genocide Museum. None is needed. The facial expressions of the victims are as eloquent as a page of text. Many betray the terror which all of them must have felt. Some look beaten in spirit; but quite a few look defiant. One even managed to smile.

Further out of town are the Killing Fields, where the victims were forced to dig their own graves. There are still mounds of earth where the bodies are piled. Human bones sometimes wash up in storms. Few, if any, of those killed had done anything wrong. They might have worked for Lon Nol’s government, like Luong Ung’s father. Or been ethnically Thai or Vietnamese. They might have been monks, or intellectuals, or just looked like intellectuals. Wearing glasses was enough.

The West was wary of getting involved in Southeast Asia after the fall of Saigon. It was, ironically, the Vietnamese who intervened and toppled the Khmer Rouge in 1979. A quarter of Cambodia’s population was dead, by then.

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Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, died peacefully at home in 1998. Sihanouk returned as king in 1993. He reigned until 2004. I was in Phnom Penh in January 2013, between his death and cremation. The country was still in mourning.

© Richard Senior 2015   

More than Just Fried Spiders: Eating in Cambodia

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Deep-fried tarantulas were an adventure too far for me, so I ordered prahok instead. The waiter tried to warn me off.

It is a popular ingredient in Khmer cooking, but the pungent, sewagey smell often revolts barangs (Westerners). Fresh fish is crushed, dried in the sun, salted and left to ferment in a jar for weeks, months and anything up to three years. It is added to all sorts of dishes as a thickener or condiment, and eaten on its own as a dip for raw vegetables in the style of anchoïade in the South of France. The taste is fine, as long as you stay upwind of it and take shallow breaths.

But there is more to Cambodian food than stinky fish and spiders. Meals are put together as they are in neighbouring Thailand with rice at the heart of them and a balance of textures and flavours: soups, salads, curries and pickles; something fried, something grilled, something sour, something bitter. But – prahok notwithstanding – Khmer food tends to be subtler than Thai with herbs more prominent and chilli restrained.

Take papaya salad. It is broadly the same dish whether you order it in Phnom Penh and call it bok lahong or order it in Bangkok and call it som tam; but in Cambodia the chillis are sliced and served on the side so you can add as many or as few as you like, or none at all if you please: in Thailand they are bashed up with the salad and it as hot as the cook decides.

The Thais have their own take on amok trey, which the guidebooks call the national dish of Cambodia; but theirs, ho mok pla, is spicier. In the Khmer version, flaked catfish is mixed with coconut milk and a delicate curry of turmeric, lemongrass, galangal and shallots, and steamed and served in a banana leaf, then garnished with a sliver of red chilli.

There is crossover, too, with the neighbours to the east. Street food vendors in Phnom Penh sell a crusty baguette stuffed with slices of pork, slabs of pâté, coriander and pickled vegetables. They call it num pang but it is a rebadged version of the well-known Vietnamese bánh mì. Then again, every noodle shop in Saigon sells hủ tiếu Nam Vang, or Phnom Penh noodle soup. It is called kuy teav in Khmer and half of Phnom Penh slurps down a bowl of it for breakfast each morning.

Lok lak, the best-known Khmer dish after amok, is much the same thing as the Vietnamese bò lúc lắ (shaking beef). Strips of marinated beef are quickly stir-fried and served with sliced salad vegetables, lettuce and a dipping sauce. The idea is to parcel up a mouthful of beef and vegetables in a lettuce leaf and dunk it in the sauce.

I had it at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in Phnom Penh, a lovely colonial villa on the riverfront. The shutters were open and the bamboo blinds rolled right up and the fans on the roof lazily revolved and the breeze from the Tonle Sap River wafted through the windows and cut the stifling air. Illuminated boats glided past as I sat and sipped an Angkor beer and ate the lok lak and unseen scooters snarled somewhere below.

© Richard Senior 2015

“It is the Journey that Matters in the End…” as Hemingway DIDN’T Say

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It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end,” wrote Ursula K Le Guin in her novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, although the internet tends to credit it to Hemingway.

The idea is baffling to regular fortnight a year vacationers, for whom journeys mean getting up early, battling across town, standing in line, getting half undressed, being scanned and frisked, having bits of their hand luggage confiscated, being bullied by cabin staff, sitting for hours between an old lady who thinks out loud and a fat man who snores very loudly, and watching the drinks trolley creep up the aisle to the row before theirs, then shoot back up the other end of the plane and behind the curtain for the rest of the flight, then bowing to pressure from the crowd to stand up the second the plane has come to a stop, even though they know that the doors will not open for ages; then standing in line again and again and again until they have stamps in their passports, cases in their hands and taxis to take them to hotels.

If this is what matters, might as well stay at home.

But on a longer trip, when you are dotting about from place to place, by train, by bus, by car by bike, what you see as you travel between the big sights will lodge in your mind as firmly as the sights themselves. You can get as much from the journey as you can from the end.

When I think of Cambodia, I think of the bus ride to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap, through rural villages of wooden houses balanced on stilts, of hayricks, pitchforks and ox carts, of broods of chicks jogging after hens. In the bank of memories from Vietnam are the journeys on overnight trains, waking and looking out of the window at villagers kneeling in conical hats to harvest the rice in the half-light of the early morning. I remember long road trips in South America through epic landscapes of mountains and plains which stretched for ever, and the occasional Andean herdsman tending llamas an hour from the smallest town.

In New Zealand it was the journeys I enjoyed the most. There is not much to Picton and little more to Nelson but the Inter City bus took a glorious route between them, through the Marlborough wine region where the vines had turned and flooded the fields with an ocean of yellow on either side of the single track road, where the mountains were stacked three deep: green then grey then blue. The Tranz Alpine Express train threaded its way from coast to coast, from the ruins of Christchurch to the thrift stores of Greymouth with me gazing up at endless mountains, and into the depths of a gorge at a fast-flowing river, and out across the expanse of a pine forest with splashes of yellow and brown among the deep dark green.

I rarely plan a trip in detail, sometimes hardly at all. But I always know where I am going to end up. I need that to give it some kind of structure, and to focus on when things go wrong and half of me wants to jack it all in and go home. There is always an end, and it is always a destination; but there is always a whole lot more to the trip. There are all the intermediate ends, the UNESCO sites, the bucket list staples, the Must Sees, the Wonders of the World and – more mundanely – the towns where the ferries dock, the cities where the buses stop; the stations at the ends of the lines. And there are the landscapes and townships and villages I pass through as I travel between them.

It is good to have an end to journey towards; but, yes, it is the journey that matters in the end.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

The Washing Machine Delivery Man of Huế

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An old man wobbled across the Perfume River on a scooter held together with duct tape and rust. He had a washing machine strapped to his pillion seat and a toolbox balanced on his knee.

A month or so earlier, I had seen a family of three on one scooter – no helmets – on the motorway heading out of Bangkok. Then I saw a family of four, husband, wife and two kids; and I thought that was as many as could squeeze on a scooter, until I crossed into Cambodia and saw five.

The scooters in Phnom Penh scuttle in random directions, like a colony of evicted ants. They make crossing the road an adrenalin sport as they streak past you, too close, performing the horn concerto.

But Cambodia is Switzerland compared with Vietnam. “Seven million people in Saigon,” a guy told me, “and four million scooter”. They swarm like a nightmare of wasps, a cacophony of tiny horns beeping, enough two-stroke motors revving together to outroar a Hell’s Angels convention. They stop for no one, for nothing.

I stood at the lights and wanted to cross but could not see how. Red and green were all the same to the scooters. Then a little old lady in a conical hat with more than her body weight slung from a yoke on her shoulders stepped into the traffic and tottered across while the scooters flowed round her as a river flows round a rock. That is how.

Motorbike taxi drivers lined the side streets touting for business. “Motta bi’, motta bi’” one shouted to me as he jabbed excitedly at his motta bi’. “I know, mate,” I said “I’ve seen one before”. “Marry wanner?” he offered, but I declined that as well. “Lady massage?” That too.

As I made my way up Vietnam, through Laos and back into Thailand, I saw scooters half-buried under bouquets of flowers, and piled up with boxes or water cooler bottles, and a pillion passenger with his arms at full stretch to steady a car bonnet on his lap, and office girls sidesaddle on motorbike taxisapplying their lipstick as they threaded through traffic, and tiny kids blasting down dusty lanes, and the washing machine delivery man crossing the bridge in Huế. 

(c) Richard Senior 2014