Picture titles drawn from idle chat:
If you want a zebra, you paint a horse.
No, I haven’t got a beard. It’s just a tattoo.
You’re a good mental, you’re a bad mental... and not sure about you.
I used to live in a house with no sun.
That mad guy’s got a tree growing through the middle of his house.
We put the crocodile in an old fashioned coke bottle.
It’s like making the French stick the Sphinx’s nose back on.
I like the idea of her having a round face though, like a perfect circle.
Of course she died, she swallowed a horse... and she was a midget.
Cows get up at the same time as we do.
She would imagine a world full of toys.
He’s the guy we set up with his twin sister.
January - May 2011
He feels surprisingly fresh for the second day of the year. No lingering hangover, no obvious cold or flu symptoms, and a workable number of hours clocked in slumber. Red, green, olive - the colour of the coats of the passengers standing immediately beside him on the tube. All wearing lace ups, two carrying unbranded white carrier bags. Liverpool street, one off and five on. Sardines in a tin, consciously avoiding each others fishy gaze. The train is ready to depart, please mind the closing doors. A mild head ache begins to surface. He assumes that this is typing related. He wonders for a moment whether he has undiagnosed dyslexia and then remembers his father telling him that in the valley of the blind the one eyed man is king. He is a republican but the sentiment rings true. Change at Oxford circus. Victoria line and a seat. He sees a strange reflective quality in the glasses of the man sitting opposite. Are all these people robots? The girl beside him glances at his interface. Must stop this. Time passes. He visits some exhibitions - aliens in India, horses in motion, studies of parquet flooring. He walks. It's getting dark and the cold is beginning to nip. Past the houses of parliament, across trafalgar square and up onto Oxford street. The tube, less busy now, there is a pervading dullness. He feels tired and a little bit sad. A lonely pair of eyes observing but remaining unseen. Who will look out for him? Who would miss his input if his clock stopped ticking? He needs some company, now more than ever as the internal dialogue is deafening in a sea of relative silence - abstract shapes of background noise, snippets of other people's lives, the constant yet undeterminable hum of London.
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Three pints of ale and a dodgy burger. Good to see Felix, even if he does have a vendetta against his local takeaway. He leaves prank calls and talks about throwing bricks. Wandering in and out of the pub in his black trilby, cursing the world with a smile. It's cold and drizzly but I make it to the tube without any problem and take my seat on a sparsely populated northern line. Not for the first time in my life I stare at the empty seat opposite and consider the upholstery. The geometric design, hard wearing and bland yet psychologically stabilising. Squares in a range of colours against a dark blue background - the underground equivalent of a toilet book.
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Ginger lesbians hold each others hands as a busker jams in the background. An ugly couple kiss. I'm thinking about love and all it entails. My cousin is getting married and they're obviously happy. A friend is balancing a demanding girlfriend with a far off muse. I've just been accosted by a slightly mad steven king reading tosser who cannot pronounce whatever it is they are trying to say. Slow down, take your time, deep breath and jazz it up a bit.
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There is a clamminess that pervades. A stickiness that affects both thought and action. Things happen in slow- motion. Go from point A to point B via point C. Phone X, decide against leaving a voicemail. Text from Y, an invitation to catch up in the near future. What about Z? An awkward silence, not a sound. Sitting pretty, lost in motion, the train moves onward. The soundtrack to our lives, we never miss a beat but nor can we ever be sure that we know the tune. We whistle an improvised version of our own histories. Each and every performance a modification of the previous. Who is he and what is he to you? The beat goes on.
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What is hate? Hate is the uncontrollable feeling you get when you realise that a trust has been broken. Expectations must exist and then not be met. Hate is shrouded in disappointment. An active reversal of a positive. As an optimist I perhaps expect too much of people. That term 'only human' seems a cop out - it's all too easy to point to the human condition, or the garden of Eden for that matter, and sigh 'well, what did you expect?'. Much more than I got, clearly. Hate is also tied in with the fragility of the world that we project in front of us. We choose to see, feel and remember all aspects of our lives in an utterly human, subjective way. Our self-image is the one thing we must preserve at all costs and it is the shaking up and questioning of this that causes shut down. The negative prevails. And thus we hate...
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Three stops, shop till you drop. But never flop. Stay firm and believe. Anything is surely possible now. Two stops. The tender pull of heart strings strangely dislocated. Dislodged. Fucked up and placed on a shelf amongst the other detritus piled up with the intention of fixing at some point in the not too distant future. Slow, slower, drifting now, so easy on the breaks. A squeak, a shuffle, a distant chuckle. Wham, bang, thankyou mam. One stop... The rhythm of steady progress. More jolty now. A quick pause for breath. And on, the finish line in sight... Tunnel vision, as he strides forward... Bingo!
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Twinkle twinkle twinkle. All that was lost is forgotten, all that have hurt are forgiven. One step back, two steps forward. A bright future, a beautiful sky.
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Sometimes I really wish I had a puzzle to occupy my time and distract my mind. The game of life is confusing at the best of times, it can make you squint when your brain is allowed to go into overdrive. Who, what, why, when , where, how.... Always questions, never answers. Children obsess with the sound, texture, effect and impact of questions when first developing their vocabulary... It's uphill from there really. A rigorous curiosity about all of life's rich tapestry. Somehow however it would be simply wonderful for the brain to turn off and for the endless self-interrogation to cease.
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One date down, one blind alley visited! A little disappointed, guess I should lower my expectations. As ever, I suspect perseverance is the key. Be yourself but try not to wear your heart entirely on your sleeve. Don't expect too much - your paths are crossing but this may be the only time... tip-toe slowly... A steep learning curve - God I hate dating!
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We're just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year. Running over the same old ground.
What have you found? The same old fears.
Wish you were here. X
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Woke up to the sound of a baby crying. I didn't sleep well - chest pains, cold sweat, aching limbs, and sofa cramp. Cup of tea and some toast. That will do nicely. Bleary-eyed I walk towards the station. Get the wrong train. Instead of a fast and efficient service I get a fun-packed trip stopping off at every tin pot stop. Arrive on the bell. Boxes. More fucking boxes.
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Was that wall purple before? I could gave sworn it was blue... The memory is a fickle thing. Killing time is far more difficult than being overworked - especially when it is expected that you will not be visably idle. And so here I am, locked in the disabled toilet, typing tosh. Little to do and almost 100 minutes to fritter somehow....
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I have been putting this off now for too long. It is because I don't want to say it that I haven't been able to say it. But it must be said. Mustn't it? Maybe not. But letting it drift... that's a dangerous course of action.
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The traveller returns!
After many months (ok, almost a year) of undiagnosed writer’s block, I return to my blog with belated words of wisdom. As I write this I am sitting on the high-speed ICE train, returning to Munich from Berlin where I have spent a very enjoyable weekend indulging in art, life and German public transport.
The rollercoaster transporting this particular survival machine from birth to death has been particularly up and down of late. I return to the keyboard after a year of experiences that have been both testing and joyous in equal measure, but on reflection I am definitely a year older and one can only hope a year wiser.
And so to the present. And Deutschland, the industrial heart of mainland Europe, where we have installed a seven and half metre high wicker man onstage at the Bavarian State Opera. Seemed the natural thing to do. When in Munich, build a large effigy for human sacrifice…. It’s one of the five must-do activities listed in the rough guide.
My first few days in Munich I stayed with a very friendly Bulgarian couple in the spare room of their high-rise apartment. They own a large and enthusiastic Doberman named Spike, they enjoy flamenco in their spare time, and they own an enormous television on which they insisted we watched the BBC news as a kind of group activity on the morning that I left. Other than that we were pretty much ships in the night, toing and froing as I was between the opera house and my bed.
On Friday I boarded the train to Berlin for a weekend of art and fun. The excuse I needed for my first visit to the German capital in ten years was my friend’s solo exhibition opening. As it unfolded I actually saw very little of my friend who was tied up for various reasons. However this gave me the excuse to make new friends, which I duly did, embracing a league of nationalities including Finnish, Latvian, German, Puerto Rican, Scottish and the odd English thrown in for good measure.
I went to four openings on the Friday night. The first was my mate’s exhibition, which looked great. It was an intelligent selection of works that really demonstrated his range. The event itself was a wee bit soulless, as commercial gallery openings have a tendency to be, but work was sold, palms were greased, alcohol was consumed, and everyone was happy. The following three exhibitions were more ‘Berliner’ in style: interesting examples of ex-industrial architecture housing a range of good and bad work. They even served borscht at the third show, which was perfectly timed given how smoothly the alcohol was flowing. Bars, clubs, parties, onwards and upwards…. Finally got to bed at some point on Saturday morning.
Saturday was a bit of a non event until the evening when I went to yet another opening – the so called ‘battle of the curators’ - in which a gallery split into two spaces gave two curators access to the same artists and the two resulting shows were then put to the public vote. A neat concept.
The real event of Saturday was not Berlin-related at all. It takes us on a tangent of sorts, but it has officially reinforced my basic belief in humanity. Living in a cynical, wind-swept, passive-aggressive metropolis like London can make even the most hardened optimist begin to doubt the likelihood of a happy ending. This was the case two weeks ago when on an admittedly drink-fueled Saturday night out I was put out to find that I was iphone-less when I came to the next day. I could blurrily remember, but not in a million years locate, the various places we must have visited with a random selection of newly acquired friends as night became day and drunk became wasted. Hang on tightly let go lightly as a great man once said. I was strangely philosophical about this material loss, and whilst the following few days forced me to realise just how many numbers I had lost and how nice the phone I no longer owned was, by the end of the week I had pretty much accepted my predicament.
I headed up north for the weekend and simply added it to the ever-growing list of things that I have to learn to live without. The evening I got back to London I received an email. “Dear Will, I have your phone and want to return it to you…”. It was a Handel’s Messiah moment if you’ll pardon the expression. I couldn’t believe it! A kind honest, decent person had found my phone and was keen to return it to me. I hadn’t even allowed for this eventuality given that London more often than not seems like a place where everyone is out for themselves – a place with little community spirit and even less eye contact between strangers. I emailed back immediately. “Thank you! You are amazing!” etc. I went to bed and could hardly sleep, so enthused was I by this good deed.
The next day I anticipated official contact and the arrangement of a rendezvous. Silence. By the end of the day I was still relaxed but sent another email for good measure. The next day there was still silence - I sent another email. And the next day… still nothing. What has gone wrong here? I mentioned it to a friend. “Oh that’s well out of order – it’s bad enough stealing your phone without then sending you an email to rub it in” The cogs in my head started turning… You mean…my savior wasn’t in fact anything of the sort but possibly the same villain that pocketed the phone in the first place. I conferred with family and friends… it was now official. This person didn’t exist, and what was worse my very identity was in danger of being stolen! The email was a cruel wheeze to confirm my contact details – the final piece of a jigsaw leading to a whirlwind of crime and pain dollopped out in my name from now until the end of time. I left for Germany a broken man, my last act on British soil being to speak to my bank and begin the process of changing my account.
Not a day passed by without me either worrying about my fading status or indeed noticing my lack of iphone (things I had taken for granted – camera, sat-nav, email, web – I couldn’t believe how much of a prisoner I had become to technology and yet how dearly I missed them now). I was strolling up Unter der Linden, in the shadow of the Brandenberg gate when I got the text. I phoned her back immediately. A moment’s hesitation. “Are you real? Do you really exist?”. We were at a philosophical junction in our staggered acquaintanceship. “Yes, of course. I have your phone and I want to return it to you…” And so our story ended happily – two weeks after the loss in the back streets of east London I spoke to my heroine stood against the background of East Berlin. We’ve arranged to meet when I get back to London. I suppose there’s still room for a late sting in this tale but for now at least I am devoutly a glass half-full man.
As I approach the end of my time in Cambodia, my only real regret is that as an Englishman abroad I probably haven’t discussed the weather nearly as much as is my birthright. This blog aims to rectify this apparent neglect.
To put it frankly, it is hot.
There are basically three seasons in Cambodia:
2. very hot
3. hot and wet
Being so close to the equator the sun sets somewhere between six and seven o’clock all the year round, which is good if you’re a creature of routine, but a little relentless I imagine if you’ve been brought up closer to one of the poles.
My stay has been during the slightly cooler dry season, a time when the population of Phnom Penh increases due to the seasonal influx of agricultural labourers, who return to the paddy fields later in the year for the harvest. This explains the vast number of people sleeping in hammocks, on benches, and basically any surface that will hold a person horizontally.
I had not seen a drop of rain in two months until yesterday, when having remarked how much I was looking forward to the cold and wet of my home land the sky proceeded to empty itself for the subsequent half an hour or so. Within minutes roads had become streams, swimming lessons took place in parking lots, fishermen roamed crossroads looking for a tasty catch, and mermaids, resting in the misty water, called up to visiting tourists offering coach trips, sunglasses and travel guides. Determined that my business not be affected I marched on, bag in hand, ducking in and out of restaurant awnings as I made my way to my usual table for dinner. The sound of water falling rhythmically on the tin roof of the restaurant continued for hours after the rain had actually stopped.
And now a little confession. Working in a hot country is very different to being on holiday in a hot country. All that you do is in spite of the weather, rather than being a celebration of it. I have not spent any great amount of time avoiding the sun or its effects, nor up to about seven and a half weeks in had I done anything to outwardly embrace it. For the majority of my time in Cambodia I have worn trousers and a mixture of short and long sleeved shirts, meaning my face, neck, lower arms, and gaps between sandal straps have taken an eight week beating by the sun whilst the rest of my body has been kept in its pristine British state (with a few mosquito bites thrown in for good measure). Looking at myself in the mirror one day this week I realised just how two-toned I had become and it was at this point in my stay that I resolved to revert to type. Quickly wanting to even myself up with my return date fast approaching. I have therefore spent half an hour of my last couple of lunch breaks lying in just my shorts on a wall in a building site, hoping that no one will notice me. Like cooking a sausage, I have broken down the experience into four eight minute positions - cook the front, then the back, swivel, front, back. Whilst being a little embarrassed, I am clearly a product of twentieth century Britain.
The cultural contrast with Cambodia is stark. Here they sell whitening cream by the lorry load. In the UK sun-kissed skin was, for the second half of the twentieth century at least, a signifier of health, wealth and social status. Admittedly things have changed a little, with the increased public awareness of skin cancer and the growth in off-the-shelf fake tanning techniques. The Khmer perspective is quite the opposite - darker skin representing more than likely a predominately outdoor, poorer, farming or street existence and therefore deemed unattractive. Both cultures use skin-tone as a subconscious way to quickly pigeonhole a person’s position in society - same same but different.
In a bogus attempt to justify my title, I suppose I’ve also failed to go into any great detail about the dogs of Cambodia. Whether wild, domesticated, miniature or massive - dogs and Cambodia go paw in hand. However, due to my failure to have the rabies vaccination before embarking on my trip I have had to give dogs a wide berth - I hope this explains my lack of any great insight, dog-wise.
Approaching the bottom of my stairwell and the bars that separate the building from the street I interrupted a balding British man in his sixties with a pillow in one hand, fiddling with the padlock in his other.
"Morning" he said in a thick cockney accent.
"Hello" I replied
"I don't live here, I'm looking after the flat for a friend, I've just done the washing - I use it from time to time - say no more."
I smiled and kept on walking. Therein lies the riddle of Cambodia.
You see them everywhere - the pasty, ageing, overweight caucasian men with pretty Cambodian girls sometimes young enough to be their grandchildren. Wined and dined on the riverside and then taken to empty apartments to seal the deal.
The moral codes that would apply to these people at home are swiftly discarded as they take advantage of Cambodia's lax culture. For the girls the fat old white man represents the ultimate - someone who can look after them in a way far grander than the probable shack in a backwater of rural Cambodia that they grew up in. The rights and wrongs are very murky, I certainly find it difficult to get my head around the apparent openness of it all.
On another note - bum bags and pyjamas. Very big in Cambodia. The bum bag, which which was briefly popular in the early nineties in Britain is obviously enjoying a renaissance in Phnom Penh where it is regarded as the must-have practical accessory for modern urban living. Patterned pyjamas meanwhile are the most common form of day wear, with no self-respecting Cambodian woman going without.
As I near the end of my time in Cambodia, there is so much that I have not included in these pages. The Cambodian Santana covers band I saw play at a wedding, night clubbing with my Khmer colleagues in which they all went back to the office to sleep on the tables at the end of the night, the friendly local tuctuc driver who doubles up as a picture hanger when needed, going for a foot massage after dinner with my Khmer boss and gaffer only to be joined by a man with an ornamental hand grenade on a chain around his neck, and of course the curse of the forsaken red fabric - which really deserves at least a paragraph of its own.
Cambodia is an incredibly superstitious nation. I could list numerous examples: the point-blank refusal by everyone to pose for a portrait as the widow of one of the characters in the drama, the entire Khmer cast and crew get together at 6:30 in the morning on the first day of filming to pray for good luck in the weeks and months ahead. I would treat this all with a pinch of salt were it not for my own experience of Cambodian magic. One day sitting in my living room I looked up and for the first time noticed something cellotaped to the wall, very high up and out of the way. Curious, I stood on a chair and reached out to have a look. Inside the cellophane wrapping was a folded piece of red fabric with ink scrawl and patterns written all over. I joked to myself that someone must have sneaked in and put a curse on me. Flinging it to one side, I quickly forgot about it and continued with my day. Later that evening I got home completely knackered, sat down with a can of ABC, the local Khmer stout, and began to watch a film on my lap top. I became conscious quite quickly that there were a number of flies landing on my legs and arms that I found myself instinctively flicking away. The irritation of these little critters increased steadily, but I was a little too tired to immediately take much more action than accelerating the rate of my flicking. Before I knew it I was constantly moving - enough was enough. It was then that I looked up properly and began to actually take stock of the situation. All the walls, windows, floor, furniture, were covered in a dense blanket of insects. It was incredible, and really quite frightening. I got out the broom and opened the door out onto the balcony - sweeping any surface that showed signs of overpopulation. However as the problem was eleviated in one place it resurfaced in another. I ran to the bedroom, sealed myself in and fell into a long, uncomfortable sleep. The next morning it was as though nothing had happened the previous evening - certainly no sign of the swarms that had seemingly taken over. I looked at the side table, where there sat the unfolded piece of red fabric. I thought for a moment, then quickly but carefully refolded it and returned it to its wrapper. I then grabbed a chair and stuck it back where it had been previously. The problem never resurfaced. Now, I'm not a particularly religious man, indeed I would term myself a humanist if anything. However, when it comes to pest control clearly the only solution is the magical one. Goes to figure - only in Cambodia.
Chinese New Year is big in Cambodia. They like new years celebrations as a general rule - they also have a week off work for Khmer New Year in April as well as presumably having some sort of a bash on December 31st for the benefit of the western population here.
So last weekend (for the best part of about four days) not a lot of work was done whilst people embraced the year of the tiger. I was invited to a drinks party in what will be the reception area of the big yellow building which will eventually house my radio station set. It was an all-male affair, made up mostly of construction workers and police officers. It was a little bit scary and unusual having more and more beer pushed into my hands by groups of armed and legless policemen in uniform all thoroughly enjoying themselves, duty-free you might say. Worried they may decide upon a five gun salute, I retreated into the shadows.
I'm becoming a creature of routine. Up at 7 (the alarm on my phone bleats out the opening few notes to smokestack lightning), I turn off the air conditioning and stagger out into the kitchen where I boil some water on the stove for my morning cup of tea. I have a shower, take a clean shirt from the freezer and then head to the office for about 8:30, probably without breakfast. Everyone here starts early and the team are often waiting for me when I walk through the door. We have a chat and then begin chipping away at the various jobs for the day. Lunch some time between 12 and 2 (Cambodians take a two hour lunch break - I'm regarded as a mad workaholic for lunching around work rather than working around lunch), most likely at the Vicious Cycle (sour soup or phatt thai noodles) where I'll likely find time to flick through the latest edition of the Cambodian Daily or the Phnom Penh Post. Back in the office until around six, dinner probably at the riverside (fish amok, seafood noodles or beef tornado), then back into the office for my various other lives over the internet - seven hours ahead of the UK and twelve hours ahead of east coast US. Bed around midnight. It plays out like this for six days a week, Sunday being the enigma. Throw in location visits and script meetings, some variation in what I eat and where I eat it and you pretty much have it. I generally drink Angkor beer, and I enjoy an iced coffee when I get the opportunity. It's fairly simple when you write it down.
But the devil is in the detail. Rats the size of cats and oysters the size of my fist. The old man in my alley who who is always crouching, chain smoking in a doorway day after day. The one hundred and twenty three steps from ground level to the radio station which a motley crew of Cambodian decorators are painting a combination of the three primary colours as I sit here typing this.....
Here are some Cambodian images, in no particular order.
Three and a half weeks in. Three and a half eventful weeks.
Little did I imagine what was possible in three days.
After three weeks of working in Phnom Penh I was allowed a long weekend away to visit Siem Reap and the Temples in the north of Cambodia. I was up early on the friday morning and eventually caught the Mekong Express - the coach which would be my transport for the next six hours. A Cambodian gentleman sat down next to me and gave me his business card. We exchanged pleasantries after which he nodded off. We were on the front row of seats just behind the hostess, a bubbly young thing caked in make-up, who proceeded to offer titbits of local trivia in Khmer and English as we bumped our way through the various provinces.
As we passed through endless villages and paddy fields I was struck by how different it was to the British landscape I grew up with. As usual there was an endless stream of people on motos and bicycles sucked into our slipstream and left far behind. The skinniest cattle I have ever seen stood grazing by the road side. People gathered around tables, rocked in hammocks, and dragged large objects around in the dirt. Both the elderly and the young occasionally looked up and stared out - lightly registering the flow of vehicles that came and went.
In rural Cambodia most buildings are made of wood, and commonly are built on stilts, presumably anticipating the wet season. In the sharp heat of early February they look like strange beached boats, waiting for the tide to return. We pushed onwards, eventually arriving at the outskirts of Siem Reap in the early afternoon.
I have never really travelled to a specific tourist destination on my own before. I am in Cambodia to work and I have never really had the sense of being here for a reason related to my sense of leisure time. Siem Reap however is just such a place - it's lifeblood is Korean and Chinese holiday makers with a sprinkling of American and European thrown in for good measure. Everything is for sale and it is the stock assumption that deep down there is a small part of each and every one of us that probably wants to purchase something.
As I stepped off the coach it became apparent not only that I didn't know where I was but also that I hadn't a hard and fast plan. I had been given general recommendations relating to visiting the temples and the area of town to get dinner, but the basic rule as far as I could gather was to put your itinerary in the hands of whichever tuctuc driver fate decided to deal you. Mine was called Ra.
He shook my hand, introduced himself and asked me where I wanted to go. I told him I hadn't booked anywhere but stated my approximate budget and asked him to take me somewhere central. After booking in we had a quick chat and arranged to visit the floating villages to the south of Siem Reap on the Tonle Sap lake. Travelling there, my camera was allowed its first real lease of life - it devoured the textures, characters, scenarios and colours as we bumped along dirt roads through various settlements. A deposit of roughly assembled wooden shacks lined either side of the road, framing a variety of stories. All elements of life were visible: shops, living spaces, bedrooms, building sites, cafes, stalls and porches. A delicious cross-section of people working, relaxing, arguing, laughing, snoozing and playing.
When we got to the water I commissioned a boat to take me up the delta and into the lake where the floating villages were to be found. River life was much the same as roadside life, the nature of the settlements and activities being much the same, only the mode of transport and physical geography being different. All life was still there to be observed. The village itself was quite something - floating churches, schools, pig farms, houses, timber yards, even a floating basketball court. After a quick break at the floating cafe I returned to land and to Siem Reap.
That evening I think was my lowest point of the trip. I appreciate that tourism is the lifeblood of the town and that the local economy depends on it for survival, however I was uncomfortable with the amount of offers being shoved down my throat as I walked around the old market area. In a continual silent dialogue with myself, I felt lonely and put off by the dense population of tourists. I ate alone, got drunk alone, and began to wander homeward, intent on avoiding Siem Reap's various tourist traps wherever possible for the remainder of my trip.
My resolution must have been a little muddled as before I knew it I was having a fish foot massage -a grave error of judgement. I'd walked past these ridiculous looking tanks of water filled with fish which people occasionally sat at, dangling there legs in the heavily populated water. 'Hell, why not?' I thought. These particular fish were incredibly hungry. Hundreds of fish were suddenly glued to my lower legs, nibbling away at my dead skin. It was a little too much to be described as relaxing. It kind of tickled but was too relentless to put a smile on my face. Twenty minutes later I pulled my feet out and my left foot began gushing with blood, generously redecorating the tiled floor. One of those bastard fish had identified an old mosquito bite and gone to town. After eventually sourcing a plaster I hobbled home to my bed where I collapsed in a heap.
The next day was temple-tastic. Over ten temples in a day. By the end of it even my camera was bored and exhausted. As with any significant remnant of an ancient civilization, the temples are an incredible testament to ancient building habits and the timeless power of state and religion. Not much more to say really - if you're interested buy a book. All I will say is that those ancient rulers must have had tiny feet as the steps are ridiculously small. How any leader could maintain their dignity whilst climbing temple steps is beyond me.
The biggest bonus of the day was getting to know my driver better. The area of the temples is a little like a theme park, with bus loads of tourists bouncing from one temple to the next along a number of well-established routes. At each port of call you are inundated with offers of this, that and the other. Small children make particularly persistent salesmen. It can wear a bit thin by the seventh or eighth temple, in the midday sun, being pushed a coconut or a wooden ornament for the hundredth time. I found the only place you didn't get hassle was if you went and sat in your tuctuc. At each temple Ra would drop me off at the entranced and then go park up with the dozens of other tuctuc drivers, where I would then find him and we would then progress to the next attraction. We got chatting and very quickly I had much of his life story, how his mother had died when he was five from food poisoning, how he had grown up in the comparatively more rural Battambong and then moved to Siem Reap four years ago where he eventually ended up as a tuctuc driver.
For the last temple he parked up the tuctuc and wandered up the hill with me to where we could supposedly see an incredible sunset. This was not to be however, as it was cloudy and there were so many tourists gathered at the top waiting for the sun to go down that you'd think it was a solar eclipse. I'm afraid to say I lost interest and we headed back down the path. It was at this point that he invited me to join him and his friends at a concert that evening. Glad for the opportunity to avoid the droves, I happily accepted. I was dropped off back at my hotel and he arranged to come and pick me up later that evening.
When he returned there was no tuctuc, just the moto. I gulped. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. The roads in Cambodia are deranged - I have a good friend who is a biker but he wouldn't consider riding here. There are no rules, drivers constantly cut each other up and are always forced to improvise when it comes to negotiating the other traffic. I've never been on the back of a bike before - I didn't know when and which way to lean in and I held the saddle handles so hard that my hands had cramp by the end of the journey. Off we went, darting in and out - exhilarating but terrifying at the same time. As we got to the town's outskirts it became evident that we were part of a much larger exodus of people. All of Khmer Siem Reap was heading out to a field on the outskirts where Revlon were putting on a huge promotion, the star attraction apparently being one of Cambodia's leading female pop stars. There were hundreds of thousands of people there, but I felt like the only foreigner. An endless stream of motorcycles got as close as they could to the action before being left on the roadside. Food stalls lined the sides of the road. There were fairground rides and a huge stretch of stalls where you could win your basic groceries by hitting one of hundreds of multicoloured balloons with a dart. The people manning the stalls stood beside and in front of the balloons as the piercing metal flew in their general direction, miraculously never being hit themselves.
Ra introduced me to two of his friends, one who was also a tuctuc driver and the other who worked at the coca cola factory. We bought beer and food and sat on one of a long line of mats, exchanging stories and toasting the night. Ra's girlfriend worked on the stall beside which we sat. She brought us a tray of fried food - snake, chicken, and duck. Everyone tucked in. It was dark and I couldn't quite see what I was doing and some of the food appeared a little challenging. I grabbed what I thought was a chicken leg and bit into the meat. Something squirted. I pulled it out of my mouth and was shocked to see that I was holding the chicken's neck and had just eaten the side of its head. I quickly recovered and allowed the rest of the night to unfold. Various songs by various acts came and went, meanwhile we made merry and drank into the night. I was pleased to note that Ra was not a heavy drinker and thankfully the trip back whilst still a little hairy was incident-free.
The next day there was still no tuctuc, just the bike. Hell, go with it. We rode for an hour and a half to Phnom Kulen. We went swimming in a pool below a huge waterfall, wandered around a couple of villages, and visited a religious temple at the top of the mountain. Three hours on the back of a bike and my face was rosy red, but it was worth it for the experience of seeing the country via back roads and dirt tracks with the wind whistling through my hair. Back to Siem Reap in one piece, then from the sublime to the ridiculous. Cambodian traditional dancing in a giant faceless buffet dining hall rammed packed with mostly Korean tourists. Six helpings of a bit of everything, strip lights, plink plonk, cameras furiously clicking. Too much, I left half way through, looking forward to a good nights sleep in preparation for travelling home the next day.
Ra picked me up and gave me a lift to the airport. After we said goodbye, standing in the middle of the car park, I looked around me. None of the colours, smells, patterns or narratives that had been so plentiful over the previous three days. Just another tourist in just another airport carpark. Back to Phnom Penh where work beckoned.
As I write this, sitting on an old leather sofa in a humid office in the middle of Cambodia, I will take a deep breath and allow a moment for reflection.
No, it's still no use. Quite how life works and why is a mystery to me. One minute you are trudging across a snow covered London, the next you are in the roasting hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh, where all the sounds, smells, textures, colours, and routines are different.
The flight was a classic, no sooner had I sat down then they informed us that no reading lights were working, effectively subjecting the passengers to an enforced darkness for however many hours it takes to cross from Northern Europe to South East Asia. Out of the airport and led to a waiting car, the next thing I knew I was deposited at a street cafe in the centre of the area of the city that I'm now so familiar with. Around me characteristic Cambodian sights: the flaking architectural remnants of it's French colonial past, the people sleeping in hammocks on street corners, the dogs and children wandering aimlessly up the centre of the road. Not to mention the traffic - the motorcycles, cars and tuctucs, hurtling left, right and centre, relying on chaos theory to propel them forward. I was led up an unlit back alley that smelt of smoke, food and humanity. The doorways were all caged in, and at a padlock at the end I was presented with a key. Locking the grill behind me the steep stairs led to another sequence of locks and finally the flat that I now call home. Walking out onto the balcony, as dusk set in, the mighty Mekong stretched from left to right, carrying an assortment of archaic fishing vessels. I had arrived.
First thing the next morning, I began to get my head around the job. I met my design team, visited some of the shooting locations, and started to plough through some of the scripts. Designing a television series with a Cambodian team is a challenge in itself and the number of frustrating lost in translation episodes in the first week are probably too many to mention. The jet lag didn’t help, but as the week unfolded it became apparent just how much of a challenge I had accepted. The principal set, a radio station, will take up the fifth floor of a brand new bright yellow building bang in the centre of the city. However when I arrived it became apparent that work would not be started upon the set until the builders and painters, had finished the restaurant and hotel that takes up the numerous floors below and they are behind schedule. Just how far behind is a statistic I’ve found impossible to pin down, but then time scale is simply different here. Patience as ever is a virtue.
In the meantime, the city itself. I’ve hardly seen or done anything, but already I’ve eaten tarantula, visited a post-apocalyptic scrap yard, fed elephants, visited the home of a typical Cambodian family, wandered through Pol Pot’s torture chambers, been horribly ill and ended up in a clinic, seen Oliver Stone give a speech about the importance of history at the local university, discussed carpet samples with various Cambodian retailers, and sweated a lot - which isn’t bad for twelve days and counting.
I will be here for two months, this is just the beginning of the adventure. I’m going to watch the filming of the Cambodian equivalent of X-factor on Sunday which I suspect will be a bit of an eye-opener….
I'm reading a good book at the moment. It makes the sub-existence of travelling on London's public transport network almost bearable. I step into the carriage, find a seat if I'm lucky, and enter into the world of mexican wrestlers, baby sooth-sayers and flower-picking soldiers. However, it is not the content of the book that I wish to share with you, but the spine. Amongst a sea of old paper-backs, this is a beautifully illustrated hard-back that until recently had stood out for its singular design. Until yesterday when I inadvertently poured the majority of an orange candle over it. Hmm. Hang on tightly, let go lightly as a great man once said.
Nonetheless, this afternoon I found myself bent over said book with sheets of brown paper in one hand and a hot iron in the other. Outside the sun was shining, the sky was blue, and the world quietly got on with other matters. Indoors and focused on the task in hand, I stared at the large, lumpy, orange growth that hung onto the cover of my book. I lay the first sheet of paper down and followed with the iron. Slowly but surely, the wax soaked into the paper, sheet after sheet until most of the damage was undone. As I went through this process, crouched down in my hallway, caressing the book with increasing force and heat, I did wonder what it must look like to an untrained eye, unfamiliar with such domestic trickery. The first signs of madness, or an inevitable moment of clarity? I may iron all my reading material in future.
I was listening to the radio the other day and was amused to hear one of the lead items on the news was about how the conventional school tie was being phased out, to be replaced by the "clip-on" tie, as worn by the police. I hate to sound like a stick in the mud, but this really is health and safety gone mad.
The traditional variety of neck-wear, as sported by people both young and old for centuries, is now deemed a significant health risk to our nation's children. Thankfully this danger has been identified and dealt with. I shudder to think how many more hangings, strangulations, or freak accidents could have taken place were it not for this timely intervention.
However, were I a teenage killer or merely a depressed toddler with a suicidal streak, I would not worry too much. The palette may have been restricted but there are plenty of other options. Indeed, as much as anything this move by the powers that be can be seen as promoting lateral thinking amongst all children with darker impulses. Added to which, we are told that a major advantage of the clip-on tie is that widespread use ensures a more regulated uniform, safe from the imaginations of certain pupils looking for a more 'individual' look. One must only hope that these self-stylists do not now channel their creative instincts into such evil acts that the inherent dangers of the old school tie do not pale in comparison.
Hello. Just back from Sweden, thought I'd christen my blog. Have not been in the habit of writing my thoughts down for many years - here's hoping it may be the beginning of sustained, reflective and engaging output. Perhaps.
I had a very similar experience to two and a half years ago, where not much more than twenty-four hours in the city seems in retrospect to have been much longer. I nearly went to a sauna by the sea, ended up by an abandoned crazy golf course, took in the show, ate, drank and made merry into the early hours. The opera itself was in Swedish, as were the surtitles, so much of the production was frankly lost on me. However, as a spectacle it was great to watch. Above all, it was good to catch up with old friends as well as making new ones.
I was presented with a bit of a mystery on waking up on the friday. Looking around me, I noticed that two of the pictures that had been on the walls were no longer there. Bleary eyed, I got up and looked around. One was face-down, carefully placed in the center of the room. The other was nowhere to be seen. This made no sense to me whatsoever. In some now forgotten decisive state, I had seemingly taken exception to them in my own idiosyncratic way, choosing to hide one and reposition the other. I ran to the window, but found no sign that the missing picture had been hurled out of the window and onto the street. I guess I will never know what became of it.
I met the others for Swedish brunch at the contemporary art museum, then traveled back on the train over the sea to Copenhagen, from where I flew back to London.