Around & Out – November 2014

The Foodie

Heading out on the first foodie venture to Phnom Penh’s tastiest eateries the difficult decision was obviously where to start. With the plan being to simply hunt down tasty dishes across the city from shacks, food stalls, bars restaurants, or anywhere else offering up flavor sensations, the options were of course endless. I was in the mood for something Asian, so why not start with something Cambodian. It had been a long time since I’d visited a Khmer beer garden, the ear splitting Karaoke, the obnoxiously drunk nouveau riche, menus with no prices, and the occasional gun shots from disgruntled generals, all being good reasons to avoid them, or anything looking like one.

Restaurant 54 on st.184 had that look from the outside, the food had been recommended, it was time to give the beer garden another go. Parking up was easy enough, pull up to the door and a scruffy young kid will exchange your bike for a key, which presuming you’ve given it to the correct young urchin, will open the lock placed around your bike once it has been valet parked. The beer garden itself is the courtyard surrounding a large villa in an ‘L’ shape with projector screens at both ends with the football on, and space for a band to the left of the entrance door. The tables are all shiny stainless steel, and mostly full. We are led down the back by a waitress in a shiny Guiness top who is connected to a walky talky via an earpiece.

Beers are cheap with regular sized bottles of Angkor and Kingdom at around $1. Heineken and Tiger were there for a little more. The menu has a comprehensive selection of BBQ items, and a variety of ways to cook them which are mostly the same for each item.

Trying to be adventurous we ordered the goat curry, and added some large black ants, seafood fried rice, and beef in a beer can. This was radioed into the kitchen and started to arrive shortly after. First up was the seafood fried rice which had a deep brown color, with rich earthy flavors to match, with a duck egg fried into it, and topped with large chunks of grilled shrimp and butterflied prawns. It wasn’t a large plate, but at 11000r nor was it expensive.

The goat curry, 16000r, arrived next. Made from a ‘kroeung’, Cambodian curry paste, in a rich gravy that complimented well the gamey flavor of the goat which was cut into chunks of skin, and the meat just below in an equal ratio. The ants we added were lost in the already bold flavors, and would be better tried as suggested on the menu. Finally the beef in a beer can, 11000r. A can of ABC had had its top roughly hacked off and the decapitated can was used as the vessel to serve a beef stew that featured small, reasonably tender chunks of beef in a gravy with similar seasoning to the better known dish, Luc Lac. Novelty value, of which there was little, aside completely pointless.

The food overall was well prepared, and quickly served, the service quick and efficient, and the key in my pocket did return my bike at the end of the meal. Restaurant 54 was nothing like those beer gardens of old, and gets the Foodie seal of approval.

On the Town

A monthly look into Phnom Penh’s music scene, and potentially a bit of what’s on info.

The Battle of the Bands night at Sharky Bar was a good way to get acquainted with a number of new bands on the live music circuit. Seven bands in total would battle it out to be Phnom Penh’s finest.

Sexploited got things under way in raucous punk fashion, pulling in the crowd with free t-shirts to the first moshers, and culminating in the anarchic repetition of sex and violence, the chorus and name of their final song.

Dirty Jacks took up the mic next and their lead singer politely informed the crowd that if they didn’t like him they could F right off before launching into a writhing, screaming, new age punk metal set that saw him singing from his back on the floor numerous times, collapsing as the screams rang out.

Sangvar Day followed with a set of metal and hard rock, and then Mad-Fer-It took everyone to Manchester with a set of Oasis covers finishing off with a crowd pleasing version of the classic Cigarettes and Alcohol. Then following an intro of distortion and noise it was on to Splitter. Alternative metal they bill themselves as, their sound is original and intense with thumping drums and dirty bass lines and intense vocals and head-banging. They got my vote.

Adobo Conspiracy rocked up next in school uniform the lead singer looking that part for a second before she exploded into a whir of energy. Nightmare AD closed the night with more powerful death metal, but in the end it was Splitter who won the 4th Annual Battle of the Bands, congrats guys.

Bits From The Beach – November 2014

The roads of Sihanoukille are very topical this month for a couple of reasons firstly a couple of bad accidents that have caused multiple fatalities.

A middle aged Russian lost control of his high powered automobile slamming into a student riding his moto. The student who was due re retake his exam the next day died instantly. His moto was in several bits proving the Russian was going at some speed. It was rumoured the driver of the speeding car had had a few vodkas.

More recently an 80 year old Khmer lost control of his Lexus at the junction of Ekereach Street & CT Street outside Charlie Harpers. Two were killed instantly and many injured some seriously the old man was confused with his pedals and slammed on the accelerator instead of the brake why am I not stopping more accelerator bang slam what a mess. The police took him away for questioning.

The local authorities are always looking to widen Ekereach Street, dig it up to lay pipes cables etc, but now they are starting to widen some of the side streets. The latest is Makara Street which is where Snookys is located. They have taken away about 5 meters on each side and made a right mess. Snookys have released a statement saying that they are still open for business. The local authorities want to widen the road to take some of the traffic away from Ekereach Street.

Climate change has affected the weather in Snooky. The last two months which are normally the wettest have been very dry. June & July were probably wetter than normal but the dry period in September & October is certainly unusual to say the least. Early next year we will probably not have enough water again so start planning for a drought.

The director of a French NGO and school in Sihanoukville was arrested recently for messing around with young boys. The French community was in shock and refused to believe the accusations. Apparently the former French judge had been on the radar for some time but there was not enough evidence to arrest him. More recently 2 boys had the balls to come forward and press charges against the Frenchman. It is amazing how these people can immerse themselves in the community for years without being discovered. His Khmer wife is probably an accomplice in so far as she knew what was going on.

The authorities seem to be taking an interest in sprucing up the beaches! Below are a couple of before and after pics of Ochheuteal beach showing how a complete lack of drains can impact a beach and the nice job they did of filling it in.

Photos: Steve Cline

Phnom Penh Pub Page – November 2014

It seems that every time I try to head out to do some hard work and research, it has rained this month – ok that is not quite fair – I have taken my usual attitude of doing solely amateur bar hopping for the first few weeks and try to fit in my professional drinking right before publication date.

Yes I admit it, I am the pub page procrastinator. This month, the weather kept me from enjoying my rounds but after some encouragement from the Publisher and threats to have the Hunchback follow behind me with a cricket bat, I managed to make my way to a few establishments.

Still no Templar bar – I hope this is not another Waiting for Gadot-esque satire like we had waiting for Larry’s to open. I was assured that things are moving forward and Templar will be opening one of these days and I keep walking by its location a few doors down from the FCC to see how things are going. Robbie has said he wants to make sure things are done right before opening. In Cambodia, I am not sure that means the bar will be arriving on a timely basis.

Speaking of opening, just in time for publication Hedonism Bar has opened on 104 St. in the old Vixen space beside Cavern. It was fairly quiet when I dropped by and I was told that the bar would be fully staffed up in a couple of weeks.

The place had a 70’s disco vibe when I was there between the music choices and the décor (the wall paper would a quite the trip with the right blood chemistry). It is a fairly small space but they have made the best of it and it seemed quite comfortable- although as it was not too busy when I showed up, I may have another perspective on a crowded night.

Actually given the size of the place, I questioned the choice of having a dart board (I suspect there will be some drunken adventures with flying metal objects in the near future) but I guess they were trying to decide what to let drunken customers play with in a bar with no room for a pool table.

A lovely segue as we move next door to Cavern – much to my shock my favourite kitchen on 104 St. has closed. It is a tragic story of the care and respect that one tavern owner can have for his staff.

As the story was told to me by a kindly passing troubadour, as pchum benh was approaching, three of the kitchen staff faced an Odyssian choice – how to move forward between the Scylla of abandoning their familial responsibilities and the Charybdis of leaving me without a place to get a good burger and amazing fries on 104 St. over the holidays. Fortunately this Gordian knot was dealt with masterfully by our humble publican who closed his kitchen forever rather than force his staff to make this difficult choice (there is another version being whispered among those who should know better that it was closed to prevent an ebola epidemic from spreading through the hostess bars but I don’t put any faith in such tales).

Of course this has left our noble hero sitting in front of his establishment drinking himself silly and moaning about the lack of any other place in Phnom Penh to grab a meal worthy of his deeds. I was told that the Pub attempted to step up and provide an alternative Sunday roast suitable for this champion of worker’s rights, but forgot to let our hero know about it.

I found Chez Rina on another rainy night when I was out for a stroll. It is on 98 St. – a quiet street near the post office and just north of the KFC. You will probably never find yourself there unless you are looking for it; however despite having only a quick stop over there, I would recommend you go looking as it is worth a visit or three. It an elegant and intimate bar in a colonial building that opens at 5 and closes around 12:30 (or later if people are hanging out).

It is a cocktail bar with some interesting selections and a few assorted choices to fill out the menu – I was a bit disappointed to find only three beers but happy to see that Leffe was only of the limited options. Wednesday is ladies night – 1st drink for the fairer gender is free – an important starter given that it does not appear to have a happy hour and cocktails were USD5.

Finally, I dropped by a few places that I have not circulated through in quite a while.

First up was Barbados on 130 St. I still can never remember what nights they have live music – I wish I could because I really enjoy the other nights. For those who enjoy a fun night out with a staff that seems intent on making the customers enjoy their time and leave far more inebriated than they had planned – this is a good place to include on your itinerary.

For a later night haunt, I found myself at White Cobra on 51st for the first time in ages. It is great to see that some things never change. This is still a great spot to see the world go by without being mired in the middle of the GSM late night festival of the heteromorphic and eccentric. Inexpensive drinks in a place where long time locals still dwell.

Cockroach Corner – November 2014

Lost for words. After a traffic accident which wasn’t his fault and the other driver did a runner a barang was invited to the local cop shop to file a report for his insurance purposes. A little intimidated by the surroundings he was asked what the other driver was doing at the time of the incident. After a minutes thought he replied. “He was driving in a Khmer fashion.”

The cops didn’t understand what he meant and pressed him for a further explanation. Not wanting to upset the cops he nervously used words such as “erratic,” and “unpredictable.” The cops still didn’t get it and pressed him further.

Finally he just let it all out.

“He was driving like a bloody loony. You know. A mad monkey in a Lexus just like all the other monkeys driving them in Phnom Penh.” The cops just giggled as the local police chief pulled up outside just behind him in his Lexus.

Near impossible. With Thailand clamping down on visas the Khmer authorities seem to have reacted by making “business visas” virtually impossible to get at land crossings.
On the Labour card/visa fracas here latest word is they are trying to sort out a new visa class for retirees/dependents etc.
And probably sorting out who gets what between the two ministries.

Watch out. By the time you read this you may be aware that thefts and robberies have been on the rise recently.
As is the custom here the two weeks before any major holiday is affectionately known as the “Robbery season.” With the Water Festival however it is also the pickpocket season in the crowds in town so hang onto your belongings closely.

Why Some People Like to Travel in the Dark

Dark tourism is not a rebranded form of spelunking. It entails no bat watching, no guided tours of the Parisian catacombs, no visits to Fairbanks in sunless winter.

It explores the conceptual dark — “death, disaster and the seemingly macabre,” according to the British Institute for Dark Tourism Research (yes, it exists), travel to sites of historically documented tragedy, carnage, malice or any combination thereof. Destinations include Poenari Castle in Romania, the haunt of Vlad the Impaler, inspiration for Count Dracula; Salem, Mass.; and the Tower of London.

But what happens when sites of more recent bloodshed or tragedy are refurbished into attractions for globe-trotters? What does a gift shop at Fukushima, Japan, mean? Does South Africa’s Robben Island really need a restaurant?

“It’s the commercialization of death,” Philip Stone, the executive director of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research, tells The Guardian. “Take the Flight 93 crash site. Soon after it happened farmers were selling tours of the field. But now there’s an established memorial. There’s been a process of commercialization from that initial demand to becoming a formal destination.”

It’s a process many find objectionable, igniting heated debates about selfie protocol at Auschwitz and Treblinka; or whether it’s appropriate (and safe) to visit Chernobyl. “I wonder how visitors will react to an attraction that walks a fine line between Disneyfication of a tragedy and dark tourism,” writes Sharon Heal (at the Museums Journal) of the Titanic Museum in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Belfast is also home to a booming “conflict tourism” industry, focusing mainly on the “Troubles,” a period of sectarian unrest between Catholic republicans and Protestants loyal to the British Crown. It’s a development The Guardian’s Chris Jenkins calls “simply exploitation.”

“Come to Belfast and see our magnificent city,” he writes, “Rejuvenated, regenerated and re-energized. Take a walk through the streets and in the shadows of the division walls. Why not stop to get your photo taken beside a mural of men in balaclavas? If you really want, why not write a message of hope and peace on one of our walls, a truly symbolic sign of human solidarity?” The idea is “deeply disturbing,” he says. Places of violence and profound loss, from which many Belfasters are still recovering, have “become a spectacle, an attraction.”

And yet, for others, dark tourism constitutes a kind of indirect reparation. “Hundreds of Cambodians” now make a living by guiding tourists through the country’s infamous Killing Fields — where more than a million people were executed and buried in mass graves by the Khmer Rouge between 1976 and 1979. “Tourist dollars and capitalism are helping me come to terms with my country’s history – and my own,” one such guide told National Geographic’s Zoltan Istvan when he visited the fields in 2003.

Dark tourism boasts an educational component as well. According to The Atlantic’s Debra Kamin, a burgeoning market of dark-tourism travel agencies will book travelers on excursions to war-torn Afghanistan, “the most restive regions of the Caucasus,” Muammar el-Qaddafi’s old compound in Tripoli, Kiev’s Independence Square and even North Korea (with permission from Dear Leader). “Yes, there are human-rights violations in North Korea, and yes, travel there does raise ethical questions,” she writes, but it may be that allowing the world a peek at North Korea and places like it will draw inquisitive eyes to those same issues, which are in dire need of international attention.

“If I hadn’t gone as a tourist to North Korea, I never would have set up my news website,” Chad O’Carroll, founder of NK News, tells her. “So you have to think about not just the effect that travel has on North Koreans, but also on the tourists.”

Perhaps therein is the root of concerns with dark tourism. What do we find more worrisome about the commercialization of tragic places: that they might lose a bit of their dignity in the process, or that we might lose a bit of ours?

And maybe conflating dark tourism with pure pursuit of profit neglects the fact that humans are curious – and our curiosity isn’t limited to the cheery and life affirming. “There’s no such thing as a dark tourist,” Mr. Stone tells Ms. Kamin. “Only people interested in the world around them.”

Phnom Penh Prison Diary – Part 7

A serialised story of the judicial system and its processes in Cambodia. A work of complete fiction. Any resemblance to people alive, dead or locked up is purely coincidental.

September12th

I have now spent nine months detained “pre-trial”, with very little news or information on the process – a situation which I now realise is kidnapping or even human trafficking.

We are not allowed access to information on the criminal justice system (such as law books) but one of the terrorists has managed to smuggle in a copy of “The Criminal Code of the Kingdom of Cambodia”. The book is well written, therefore definitely copied from a real country and is in constant demand.

The Criminal Code also demonstrates what I have been told by numerous detainees, both foreign and Khmer – the system is bullshit! The Criminal Code bears absolutely no resemblance to the conduct of authorities or the process in the real world, it is a front and a tool used for extortion; releasing those who pay and imprisoning those who do not.

Today I have been given advance notice of my court hearing – which is tomorrow.

September13th

By prison van, the First Court is around an hour from Prey Sar. A group of guards start collecting detainees from the 100 plus cells at around 06:30.

Around 40 prisoners are due at the First Court for this morning’s session – despite the fact that the court does not have the capacity to hear more than 10 cases.

We are cuffed together in twos and lead towards two mini-vans, the type that seat eight in the back on soft, comfortable foam filled seats. However, the seats have been ripped out by a guerilla, leaving a bare metal floor with jagged, rusty holes from the seat mountings, allowing a close view of the blacktop (or dusty redtop) as it rushes past.

The modernised mini-van has a much larger capacity, guards force 20 prisoners and six guards into the back of each van. Six more guards and the driver, sit in the front, with a small armoury of rusty AK47’s, an assortment of wooden sticks and electronic cattle prods.

The hour long journey to the First Court is hot and extremely uncomfortable. As we reach Norodom Boulevard, the engine starts to smell like a burning labrador, so the driver pulls over and the prisoners have a whip round to buy five bottles of engine water from a Caltex station.

Pouring cold water over the hot engine creates a refreshing sauna effect inside the van with unmistakable notes of hydrocarbons. After a 20 minutes steam, we resume our journey, leaving on the road a collection of cracked engine parts in a pool of oil and water.

We arrive to the expected chaos, the court building is surrounded by photographers and crowded with family members as vans arrive from a number of Phnom Penh prisons.

I meet my girlfriend and her family in the waiting area, which is the normal small, filthy room, packed with far too many people. It appears that the whole court experience is designed to de-humanise and cause maximum stress.

An embassy official informs me that I will appear in court room one and that he is present to observe the process.

Shortly after, I am lead into a large courtroom which, front and centre, has a long raised wood panel bench for three judges, on the left is benches for the prosecutor and the prosecution lawyer. To the right are identical benches for the Clerk and the defence lawyer – which is empty.

I am directed to the dock, which is a semi-circular wooden bar, located in front of, and below the judges – in between the two lawyer benches.

In the dock already are five young Khmer men, who I have never met and are nothing to do with my case. The six of us stand shoulder to shoulder in front of the judge.

Working from one Khmer to the next, the judge asks each in turn a few questions, then makes what seems to be an instant judgement before sending them back to the waiting room one at a time. This appears to be a mass hearing.

After ten minutes (two minutes per case), I am left alone in the dock. My lawyer hasn’t arrived, nor has the lawyer for the corrupt, fruity NGO, which is attempting to profit from my kidnapping. After a few words, my case is postponed.

I return to the waiting room where I see the five Khmers from the court room, grinning and queuing to thumb print the court documents. An English speaking prisoner tells me that they have each paid upto $2,000 for a reduced sentence.

I have already realised that nobody is judged “not-guilty” as everyone is already a pre-trial prisoner – somebody would lose face.

It strikes me as odd that these documents are completed outside of the courtroom, but then I realise that we are away from the view of the public gallery, and the press.

This is the first time I have witnessed mass corruption by the court machine but it won’t be the last. Later I calculate that, if this was typical of the process, the First Court of Phnom Penh alone would earn more than $20m a year.

All forty prisoners are processed through (probably) the worlds fastest court system – in less than two hours. As we are cuffed and packed into the mini-vans, my girlfriend says goodbye and slips me a water bottle of vodka for later.

During the long journey back, the Khmer prisoners seem to cheerfully accept their lot as they ask about each other’s verdicts.

We arrive back at CC2after the lunchtime lock down. Rather than return each prisoner to their own cell, the authorities lock all forty of us in my hospital cell,i ncreasing our cell count from 28 to 68 for the next three hours – thus ensuring that TB and the associated NGOs continue to proliferate at Prey Sar.

I am six months into my pre-trial detention at Prey Sar prison, an experience not unlike being taken hostage. I have even been asked to pay a $15k ransom, not only on my freedom, but on my life as an innocent man.

Each day I wonder, would it have been better to pay, rather than take the moral high ground? Even four years later, it is impossible to know if this was the right decision.

What I do know now is that the laws, policies, procedures and people who are put in place to act in the interests of justice – just don’t give a shit.

Especially those from your own country.

4th October

It is a well known fact that the Khmer language is inefficient. Anyone who has heard a public speech by, for example, Hun Sen will know that what can normally be said in a few English words, often takes hours in Khmer.

It is a little known fact that there is one, single Khmer word that is more efficient than the English equivalent. This word is “huugh-haa”.

The English translation is “an especially annoying person, who acts as if they are wealthy by strutting around like a clucking cock, while flaunting expensive, but often fake or stolen items of Asian bling”.
Outside of prison, a typical example of huugh-haa, is that annoying guy in the re sprayed Lexus, who, while speaking on his fake iPhone 8, gives you the “yes, this is mine” look as he drives up the wrong side of the road.

The truth though is that this man has eight kids and no job. To fund his ringer Lexus, he has sold 11 of his children’s kidneys to a Triad gang, leaving them with only 5 to share between them.

Inside prison, it is a little more difficult to flaunt your wealth, be it imaginary wealth, or real. Here are the top 10 huugh-haa items in Prey Sar;

10 – Lexus brand boxer shorts
Bling on a budget, genuine Lexus boxers are the only briefs worth anything in Prey Sar – “brief” of course, includes lawyers.

9 – Member augmentation
For reasons unknown, a high percentage of young prisoners, consider it a good idea to enhance themselves with glass beads, inserted using a sharpened toothbrush handle. Not the kind of bling you can flaunt – until you are in hospital.

8 – Tailor made prison uniform
This option screams “I’ve got connections”, or maybe a kid sister working in the Khmer Bling Garment Factory International Ltd.

7 – A selection of colour biros
Together with the tailored uniform and displayed in the breast pocket, this subtle extra, upgrades your ranking and your perceived IQ.

6 – Prison ink
….”He’s getting ink done, getting a tattoo…”, all that is required is a small electric motor, a car battery, a fine guitar string and the colour biros. But remember, Prey Sar rules state, “no homosexual tattoos” – still, the male tramp stamp is popular among the mid-level huugh-haa.

5 – Flintstone gym
For those who like to buff themselves, a gym made from lumps of concrete and wooden sticks.

4 – A bicycle
Previously the exclusive domain of prison guards, a pushbike is a powerful upgrade. The only problem is that it must be kept inside the overcrowded cells – due to theft.

3 – A fish tank
Nothing says “this is my space” better than an aquarium filled with tomorrow’s lunch.

2 – Cable TV
The latest craze amongst the super-lazy bling elite, non-stop re-runs of Jeremy Clarkson – talking about Lexus SUV’s.

1 – A designer cup
Cheap, effective, portable bling. The ultimate Lexus branded version being in brushed stainless, with a plastic cap and spout similar to a toddlers beaker.

To be continued.