LiBeL Column

Holiday in Cambodia

Columns from The Nation newspaper

Travels in a far-off and less-visited country

Travelogue – if you’re learning English and reading this, then that’s today’s big word. If you’re a teacher reading this then that’s the excuse for this column having very little to do with education this week. This week’s ‘Life in the Bus Lane’ was written in a location well known for its lack of public transport, crazy motorcyclists, potholed streets, organised crime syndicates and availability of teenage prostitiutes.  Anyone thinking ‘Pattaya’ should hang their heads in shame. Pattaya is an idyllic paradise located on Thailand’s eastern seaboard. In fact it’s the ideal holiday destination for all the family. (I know that because I have another job writing tourist brochures for the TAT.)

Actually this article was written in the F.C.C. in Phnom Penh. One of the legendary hangouts of wannabe journos and package tour adventurers. As you’d expect the F.C.C. is a faded creamy yellow building, creamy yellow being the designated colour of choice for all buildings which reflect bygone times. Basically, it’s a kind of mid-life Khao San hangout, the setting may have changed from Banglamphu, Bangkok to the riverside, Phnom Penh, the price of a beer trebled but the stories remain the same.

The FCC is a good place to eavesdrop on conversations about the hardships of travelling in an authentic third world country. A blue rinsed American woman was complaining about the number of landmine victims in P.P. Not on any humanitarian grounds, more because of the amount they was costing her. Apparently she was giving a dollar to every amputee she saw. Obviously not realising the value of a single dollar to a one-legged Cambodian.

As word spread of her generosity, or stupidity, depending on your point of view, bystanders were hacking their own limbs off as soon as they saw her coming down the street. “It’s so different from reality” was her summation after her 20 minute diatribe entitled ‘What’s wrong with this country compared to mine’.

Going off on a tangent leads me to the subject of what is reality. Most visitors arriving in Bangkok for the first time find it a bit of an assault on their senses. Everything’s the same and yet somehow different. It’s a similar leap into the unknown when the average Bangkok based expat heads to Phnom Penh for the first time.

Sure driving styles differ. Cambodians seem to hold the belief that crashing and burning is a pretty good, relatively painless way to go out. Which, given the country’s recent history, is probably true. However, the first real sign that you aren’t in Bangkok anymore is when you glance at a menu in any of the river front restaurants and immediately notice that you can get real cheese here.

Camembert, Brie, Emmental, Feta, they’ve got it all. After living in Bangkok for a while you come to accept the fact that you’re never going to taste decent cheese again, unless you fancy splashing out several hundred baht for a mouthful sized morsel from Villa.

“Which kind of cheese would you like with your salad” the waitress inquires. Your reflex response is “Processed orange squares, please.” She gives you a withering look that suggests she knows that you hail from a culinary backwater. Say what you will about French colonialism, the bottom line is that they left Cambodia with a legacy of excellent baguettes, pate and cheeses.

An aspect of Bangkok often remarked upon by first time visitors is the number of Mercedes-Benzes on the streets. Similarly, first time visitors to Phnom Penh remark on the number of white Landcruisers on the streets. These all belong to the multitude of N.G.O.s operating in the country. Remembering the first principle of any charity – that it begins at home – your average N.G.O. will first ensure that swish villas and 4 wheel drives for the family are provided first. Any donations, which haven’t been spent reimbursing the receipts for ‘takeaways’ from Sharky’s or Martini’s bars, can go to the locals.

You can imagine a phone conversation between the tireless NGO volunteer enduring his hardship posting in P.P. and his boss back in Zurich.

“So, Henri, after 6 months fieldwork and research what are your conclusions and recommendations.”

“Beer at the Manhattan club is well overpriced and Herb’s Happy pizzas really kick ass”

“Actually, I was referring to your work for ‘Medicin sans frontiers et ethics'”

“Sorry, I forgot there was a reason for me being here. In brief, we should promote awareness”

“Of what?”

“You choose. AIDS, landmines, traffic lights.”

“Fair enough, fancy a 12 month contract?”

“Sure but I’ll need a new Landcruiser. Gotta keep up with the boys from Oxfam you know.”

Finally, not travelogue would be complete without a few tips on how to blend in.

Ignore poverty. Amputee beggars are no longer hold any novelty value.

Wear a ‘journalist vest’. A sandy coloured one with umpteen pockets and holders for film rolls, notebooks and pens. To complete the effect talk knowledgeably about either ’79’ , ‘Nam’ or ‘Svay Pak’ ( You should be an authority on the latter)

Wear sandals. Not for comfort, just to piss off the hoards of shoeshine kids roaming the streets. Be of the opinion that a girl’s best years are behind her once she reaches eighteen.