Anth in Phnom Penh

Friday, July 22, 2005

Grass Eating Rabbits and Happy Pizza

Its Saturday in Phnom Penh and I meet Jono at the Boom Boom room by the lake. This is a fairly uncharted part of town for me. Whilst accomodating a significant proportion of PP's barang members at any given time. Buong Kak is a far cry from my high fenced, landcruiser driving, NGO ridden, neighborhood. More closely resembling a shanty town this is, for some visitors, the main experience of life in Phnom Penh. Thong wearing, shaggy travellers amble through the dirt, narrow guesthouse and restaurant filled alleways. Quite a few of the guesthouses offer accomodation for free as long as you buy a meal. There is a lot of dirt, tin and western comfort food.

After casing out the pirate music options (which are impressively extensive and predictably cheap) Jono and I settle in at one of the many guesthouses that line the lakes shores. We order an ice coffee, mango shake and vegetarian pizza. I ask the woman at the desk to make the pizza "happy dtoich dtoich". The restaurant juts out over the lake and it is quite hot with no fans, still heat and the sounds of lapping water. We play some pool with varying consistency and soak up the atmosphere of idle travellers, hammocks and photocopied books about Khmer history.

After an extended wait (nobody is in any hurry over here) our pizza arrives. It is hot, of unknown potency and delicious. Jono, who was only going to have one slice, is lured in by the taste of crusty base and cheesy cheese. He throws caution to the wind and devours two more pieces. We sit back, sated and expectant and then head home to take a nap.

I awake at 7pm groggy and disoriented. My room and circumstances gradually take shape around me. I blunder out of my room and make some coffee. Jono is also recently risen. He knocks on my door and asks me to give him a hand as Narith (our guard) is trying to tell him something. I go out front and attempt to make sense of the situation. Through a mixture of Khmer and gesturing I gather that Narith wants to cut our grass but needs to buy shears to do so. He is asking us for $6 so he can buy two pairs. I am not convinced that I fully understand given that I do not know the Khmer word for grass or shears.

Our landlord pops his head over our fence and Jono attempts to clarify in French. He looks confused and doesn't seem to respond with his usual fluency. Another head emerges and a third language is introduced. The head belongs to our landlords friend who speaks English. We inform her that Narith is trying to tell us something but we are not sure we understand, could she check? A flow of Khmer follows and then French, Jono bursts out in English "a rabbit?". Finally, it is explained for me in english. It seems Narith was saying that he could buy us a new rabbit given that we had lost our old one.

More multi-lingual fracas occurs and Jono explains in both French and then English that we do not want a rabbit, and would prefer that Narith did not go and buy us one. I am speechless and racked with noiseless giggles. The landlord, friend and Narith leave and Jono and I sit out front rocking around with uncontrollable laughter. We settle down and then Jono says imagine if we had just given him the $6 usd he had asked for 2 "shears". The mental image of our astonishment at Narith arriving home with two rabbits is too much, i lose it again.

We pull ourselves together enough to get changed and onto motos out to the far south of town where the Cambodia Daily houses its foreign staff. For the second time that day I am in a very different part of town. Huge mansions abound with uniformed guards lounging outside. The house where we are going is no exception. Apart from a large collection of shoes piled by the doorway it appears uninhabited.

We leave our footwear with the others and enter. There is a ramshackle pile of empty boxes and junk furniture on the right of the entranceway and ahead of us is a staircase. On the first floor it is equally deserted, a huge coridoor stretches out before us with many closed wooden doors lining its length. I feel like we are in an abandoned hotel. We ascend to another level where faint strains of life can be heard. It seems there is a party. It is located on the roof.

As the house is big, the rooftop is, unsurprisingly, similarly proportioned. In the centre is a collection of couches, chairs and stools filled with people. I drink some terrible red wine and am introduced to an assortment of Daily workers and others. I gaze out across the rooftops and feel completely detached from conversation. The rooftop is pretty dusty and a crumbly section appears to once have had the ingredients for a bar. I ask around whether this building used to be a hotel, but no one knows. Looking out I see other similarly expansive rooftop spaces, fairy lights and backyards with pools and barbed wire fences. Very little is shiny and new, it all harks back at least ten years. I imagine crazy parties bursting with young UN workers (yes I have recently read "emergency sex...") But this time has long past and right here and now I am feeling listless and disinterested.

We move on. The next party is in my neighborhood at an elegant french colonial ground floor apartment. We are greeted with jazz and dancing. I mingle and talk about blogs, travelling and music.

The night wears on. There is a spirited dancing and shouting along to "I come from the land down under". Perhaps it is time to leave? But to where? My original crew have long gone home, and Andrew has recently headed homewards (without his shoes). I decide to follow suit (but with footwear) and end up in my room. Its 6.00am and I collapse into bed. I am loving living in this town, it is such a easy and enjoyable city to be in. But tonight, I am aware that the gloss is starting to wear off. Us Intake 13 AYAs have almost hit the 3 month mark and perhaps everyone is feeling it in some shape or form?

Six days later, I am sitting in my living room. Jono and myself are filling the recently returned Stewart in on the rabbit story. It seems that I somehow got the wrong end of the stick. According to Jono, Narith did not think that we had lost a white rabbit, but was simply asking whether we wanted a pair of rabbits to manage the grass. So after all that, our initial translation was not so far from the truth!
"No one said anything about us losing a rabbit!" (this is from Jono)
"How did you get that story??!" (this is Stew)
Obviously something affected my ability to draw logical conclusions... I take the easy way out and blame the pizza. Once again, I am in my house and beside myself with laughter. I reckon I can handle at least another three months of this.

In contrast

Phnom Penh on a Sunday arvo.

aaah, relaxing in Sihanoukville

Bec and Andrew wandering along with some of the beach kids.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Escape to Snookeyville

I decided to skip town on Friday. It was a much needed attempt to break out of my increasingly entrenched habit of hedonistic weekends in PP. With our favourite partner in crime out of the picture and in another country, Andrew and I figured now was the time to get away from it all. We took Friday arvo off and arrived in Snookers (aka Sihanoukville; located 226km south east of Phnom Penh) around 5pm. We were greeted by heavy downpour and an onslaught of moto dops. Undeterred by exorbitant transport costs and hostile environmental conditions we got ourselves down to the beach and in possession of a thatched bungalow with a balcony. Andrew pointed out that most Khmer would probably be extremely puzzled by our choice to pay USD$10 per night to stay in what is ostensibly a traditional Khmer dwelling with a few modifications for barang tastes (like beds not on the wooden floorboards). The bungalow was nestled up on a slope, with a great view of the beach. I thought it was perfect.

Not too early on Saturday morning we joined forces with Bec. She had come down for a work conference and was foregoing a four hour bus, with karaoke, journey back to PP with her work colleagues to hang out with us. Our plan was to hire motos and go exploring. However, this was not to be easily achieved. None of us had our passports with us and the moto hire outlet (for some reason) would not accept a Victorian, ACT or NSW drivers license instead. We dejectedly tried again at another place. At first, they were very receptive: two motos were fetched, forms were filled out, and our spirits buoyed. But alas, the same problem re-surfaced. We cajoled and pleaded and finally after a lengthy half Khmer-half English exchange we handed over $10, three Australian drivers licenses and Andrew’s business card. I donned my red helmet, slipped the key into the ignition and we readied to depart. It was all smiles and farewells, and then ‘oh, you do know how to ride moto, yes?’ But it seems the answer to this question was not so important and we were off down the slope, motos gleaming in the hot sun.

It was an extremely pleasant day. I felt a wonderful sense of abandon, driving my red moto on the beach, burning along the white sand with the waves lapping at my wheels. There is really nowhere in this country where motos do not go. My feelings of unbridled joy were somewhat dampened by an untimely collision with a sand bank, but apart from some momentary feelings of embarrassment, no harm was done. This was not the only time I led my poor moto astray. After negotiating a particularly nasty stretch of boggy, sticky track we were faced with the option of tackling a steep hill or turning back. I was not prepared for the latter and optimistically discounted the difficulty of the former. Next thing I know we were halfway up the hill, drawing a crowd, tired, sweaty and stuck. I was grimly determined to get my moto up that hill. But after two failed attempts, one of which may have involved me being thrown to the ground and the moto rushing into the side of the road and sustaining some injury, Andrew took over. Through a combination of strength and maneuvering he got the poor, little machine to the top of the hill. On a positive note, this incident provided much entertainment for the locals. Thankfully, after the hill it was smooth driving into the sunset. We returned to the beach and found a restaurant which served yummy mediterranean food and even managed to produce an affogato. After a chocolate crepe and then beers on the beach I decided it was time to crawl into bed.

The next morning was stunning, with clear blue skies and sparkling water. We wandered along the beach and chatted with the many children who employ emotional blackmail and extremely cute facial contortions to try and sell you fruit, bracelets and shells. Unfortunately, our time was up and we had to bundle onto a bus back to the capital. My arms now heavy with shell bracelets and my head firmly against returning to work I wished that I could have just one extra day. But it was not to be, at 5pm we entered the outskirts of Phnom Penh and were greeted by the bedlam that is Sunday early evening traffic. Oh, the trials and tribulations of being a volunteer worker in Cambodia!!

BongThea signing out.