Kamp-Art and More

Up on the first floor (second floor American) in a corner building facing old bridge road, in the heart of Kampot’s late-night, streetside market for local treats like borbor – rice porridge with chicken – and other not-quite delicacies, is Light Box, a community art space put together by Kat, a young Aussie dynamo.

The entrance, down the side street and up an alley a ways, is up a narrow, steep wooden staircase and, typical for many community spaces in Cambodia, the stairwell looks like it hasn’t been painted since the building was built many decades ago, so it has a dark and dank look to it. At first it was a bit confusing to find until she painted an arrow pointing up and installed a lighted box on top of the entrance. But once in the double-wide space; that is, equivalent to two shophouses, you’re in a completely different world with a new black and white checkered tile floor and a soaring roofline made especially interesting by being a corner building with lots of different angles.

At first I thought, art space? In Kampot? Like a gallery? What can happen there? Didn’t take long to find out, starting with lessons in traditional Khmer instruments and a Made in Cambodia event that packed the house which – though it included performances like breakdancing, not quite a traditional Cambo art – was all done by Cambodians. More recently the Cambodian Space Project also played for a packed venue with about 150 people participating over the night. It was a great time and the new smooth tile floor makes it perfect for dancing. There were lots of locals attending though with any event of that type, the majority were internationals. The Space Project’s songs are mostly Khmer, classic Khmer rock-n-roll in fact, and it was a hoot thinking about all the locals in the neighborhood enjoying live music with their borbor.

Then on Halloween and November 1st Kat put together Hanuman Spaceman with the help of Australian and other arts grants. It was billed somewhat expansively as ‘a psychedelic jungle cabaret’ and was held on the grounds of Kampot Traditional Music School, which is specially dedicated to orphans and handicapped children. The weather gods were smiling on them on the 31st since it rained like hell at 6 pm, took a break at 8 just in time for the show to go on then went back into torrential mode about 11.

The event began with an introduction of traditional music, but when the Space Project came on the Khmer musicians remained and a fusion of the two sounds was created. There was original music, dancing, skits, light show, sound effects, a video complementing the action and all on a large stage. Almost all of the dialog was in Khmer, which in a sense is the coolest thing – performance art for the local masses – but since about half of the audience was expats, it would’ve been nice to have subtitles. They could’ve been projected along with the continuous video. In fact, it’d be good if CSP could figure out how to include subtitles in all their sets. We enjoy their music regardless, but it’d be a nice touch to know what they’re singing about… is it love, a cheating husband, mango trees, cyclos?

After the cabaret was finished the chairs were removed and the Space Project played a set for dancing. I guessed about 250 people attended the Saturday night show. They plan to continue and expand the performance: it can only get better. It was great fun and a gift to the community.

Word is that CSP has rented a place in town and will set up their home base here, so I expect they’ll be playing often. It sure was no problem filling up Light Box. CSP will complement the Kampot Playboys who also play Khmer rock music. They play their Thursday night sets at Chiet’s place, Madi Bar, on the river. He’s the lead singer and the force behind the band. It’s always well attended and when the live music is finished the disco goes on till the last few revelers stagger out in the wee hours of the morning.

Bodhi Villa, on the river about a kilometer out of town, takes over the dancing scene on Friday nights starting (usually) with couple of rockabilly sets of live music and it too sometimes goes on all night. A recent pajama party there got pretty risqué, so I hear. It never ceases to amaze me how it can sometimes have only a smattering of people at 10, but then be packed at midnight. Where do all those people come from in little Kampot?

Finally, Naga House, not far from Bodhi completes the disco trifecta on Saturday with live music on some occasions and all night disco. Naga is beautifully set up with tables and chairs built on a platform with provision for previously existing mature trees to grow through it and it’s right on the river. ABC bar has back to having live music on Tuesdays and Saturdays and Bokor Mt. Lodge is back on Sunday live music.

There is a large local disco called Dragon Club that’s interesting for a one time stop. It’s excruciatingly loud, more so than any of the foreigner oriented places, which are also sometimes too loud for my battered and tired old geezer ears. Drinks are very expensive, much more than any western oriented place and 80% to 90% of the customers are young Khmer boys, though quite a few KTV hostess girls will stop by when their places close at 11 or 12.

Lots of new places to eat and drink are opening up. There’s NOLA, which, for the uninitiated, stands for New Orleans, LA, with authentic Cajun food. Their bar is very comfortable. Honeymoon Creperie specializes in pates and cheeses as well as crepes. There’s also Baraca, a Belgian/French restaurant with tapas and very tasty European food. A Spanish woman living here liked it a lot saying it was very European so it must be true.

The Garden, just opening up, is bound to be a success since it’s such a cool spot. It’s a triple-wide lot near the center of old town with lots of greenery under a mini mango plantation. There’s also a mini banana forest. There’re artsy murals on all the walls facing the garden and it’s got to be the most relaxing place in town. They also have an excellent pool table and cue sticks that’re actually straight!!! It’ll be great for big parties – with 100 people it wouldn’t feel the least bit crowded.
O’Neil’s Irish Bar has added a Texas BBQ since my last Kampot update, with its burgers reputed to be the best in town. There’re other new bars and restaurants, but I can’t get around enough to critique them all.

So there’s lots of new people streaming in, casting a bit of concern over our once sleepy little burg. They come planning to stay a few days and a week later they’re out looking for land. Prices are moving up fast and people are in property-values-can-only-go-up mode so I expect many will get burned, though maybe this time will be different (yeah, sure). My own experience is instructive. I purchased land 3 kilometers outside of Kampot in 2007 for $4.60 per meter. Just a few months earlier it could’ve been had for $3; in the two months between the time I made the deposit and the hard title came through the owners were offered $6.60 per meter. The price didn’t matter that much to me because I was figuring on setting up a little tropical cornucopia and staying there for the duration.

A year-and-a-half later when I realized owning land wasn’t for me, the financial crash of 2008 had intervened to bring the value down to $2 meter. It took five years for its value to return to my purchase price of $4.60 and I sold a year later in March 2013 for $5.5. Now it’s over $7. As long as lots of people have cash and some have money to burn, prices will go up causing pressure for higher rents and our cheap and easy lifestyle will be in danger.

Prices are also rising fast on commercial property. Here’s a rough rule of thumb for determining commercial property value. You should be able to get an income of 1% of the purchase price in monthly rent. In other words a $100,000 property should be able to bring in $1000 per month. When maintenance is included it’d take 10 years just to get back your investment, let alone make a profit. Today with prices the way they are, rents don’t even amount to 1/2% per month. The only justification then for today’s sky-high prices is the belief that they, and rents, will continue to inflate. There’s no place in town that can afford to pay a grand a month and yet some commercial properties are selling in excess of $200,000.

All that said, the influx of new residents has so far shown no negative effects, it just keeps getting better. On the other hand, I have long-time Cambo friends who get a little nervous and uncomfortable with too many tourists or expats around so they hole up in places like Koh Kong, where I hear there’s only one Western place in town. Kampot is definitely not for them.
But it is bringing in a very interesting set of people, including a lot of single women of all ages. There will always be a surplus of men over women in a place like Cambodia since we travel much easier and gravitate more to ‘exotic’ places, but Kampot seems to have an especially large number of women, relatively speaking, and it gives the town a different vibe. Maybe it’s partly the effect of having no girlie bars.

One of the finer points of living as an expat in a developing country is the wide divergence in ages and outlooks you encounter. Back in the states nearly all my friends are in the fogey generation, it would be strange and unseemly to try to make friends there with young people. Here it makes no difference at all, in fact, sometimes, while amongst people of all ages I forget how old I am; that is, until I see a picture of me in a group or look in the mirror behind the bar. Wow! I really am an old fart!

Kampot’s compost plant is so successful they can’t get enough organic material to keep up with demand. It’s all my fault: I put a post on the Kampot noticeboard and the expat community stormed the plant. I only knew of its existence because the top guy’s pickup truck got stuck in the mud in front of my house. The compost is beautiful stuff, but it needs to be aged a bit more to be able to plant directly in it, so mostly it’s good for a top dressing that eventually degrades into and improves the soil. They get dropboxes from the market and sort through the nasty stuff by hand. Actually there’s lots more organic material around, especially from sugar-cane-juice vendors, but they have no way to pick it up. There’s also a plant in Phnom Penh and there could be more around the country but the municipality that wants one has to offer the land and they take over and secure the funding for the plant.

Finally a Bokor National Park update. I’ve now been there six times in all seasons and I’ve yet to see the sea from the cliffside. It’s always been raining or cloudy or even when the plateau is in sun there’s always been a cloud rising up the cliffside which dissipates when it reaches the plateau. It is quite an experience seeing a cloud from above, but it’s about time I could actually see the sea. Once again the casino was deserted with two or three minibuses and a couple of cars parked out front. Admittedly it was early afternoon on a weekday, but still.

It was early November and tail end of rainy season but plenty enough water to make the waterfall very dramatic. As many times as I’ve been up there it’s the only thing I care to see. It was a bit of a challenge getting across the rushing creek from the entry point, but a must if you really want to see the falls from down below. Meanwhile the dining hall which sits practically on top of the falls which potentially seats about 500 people was empty… stark naked empty. At least the restaurant was open just in case anybody wanted to eat. So tons of money to build a restaurant suitable for grandiose plans, but not enough to build a small pedestrian bridge to safely get across the stream or a trail to view the very impressive lower falls. Now you can only get a narrow view of it from up above. Admittedly it’s a lot easier getting across the stream in dry season, but still.

They’re going ahead with plans to subdivide much of the plateau into 600 and 1300 square meter lots, priced at $227,000 and $454,000 respectively – those are the prices listed on their brochure. So $400 per square meter to live in probably the nastiest climate in Cambodia. Yes, it is quite a bit cooler up there at 1000 meters in April when it’s baking down below, but it gets four-and-a-half meters – 180 inches – of rain a year and when there are occasional flashes of lightning at sea level you can see almost continuous flashes up above; it can be 5 to 10 times a minute and go on for an hour or more. Some people say the development’s real purpose is to launder money, so maybe it doesn’t matter to the richest man in Cambodia, who owns the lease, if nobody goes there. Still he must’ve thought it was going to bring in the bucks, else why build a giant restaurant for a few stragglers a day?

Without wishing ill of anyone in particular, here’s hoping it’s a total bust since casino resorts really have no place in a beautiful natural national park.

Cambostan

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.

Cambodia Food Tour

“I remember stealing my first potato.” Our guide, Mr Lee, takes off his glasses and rubs the bridge of his nose. He is small and smiley. Even in the midday heat, a crisp crease runs down his khaki trousers.

We are standing at the exit to Choeung Ek, the most famous of the Killing Fields, south of Phnom Penh, after our official tour. “The Khmer Rouge had moved us to our final village,” says Lee. We ate watery rice in the evening. They pretended they ate the same, but we knew they had food after dark. It was all you could think of. Everything became edible.”

It is a legacy that lives on, perhaps, in Cambodia’s cuisine, where seemingly few things are off the menu. As a food enthusiast, I have come with an open mind and an empty stomach, keen to get to grips with the country’s unusual fare. My journey starts with me joining the intriguingly named Ducky and Mr Smiley (an animated Australian ex-pat and a toothy tuk-tuk driver) from Urban Forage for a food tour of the night markets of the capital.

In a fug of alien noise and smells we pass neat pyramids of tiny glistening brains, huge papillated curly tongues and duck-egg foetuses (pong tia koon). The latter, boiled and eaten with pepper and lime juice, supposedly give strength to the consumer. Holding the smooth white eggs up to the stall’s strip lighting reveals a fluffy silhouette curled inside, beak and feet tucked in tightly. It’s a bit too “out there” for me but some locals seem to be enjoying it.

I spend too long inspecting a spiky green rugby ball, which I find out is a jackfruit. The stall-keeper smiles, takes the knife she has been decapitating prawns with, and scoops out a bright yellow section. It tastes of bubblegum. And, of course, prawns.

Sleepy children sit atop piles of shiny vegetables while mopeds carve non-existent routes between tightly packed stalls. Trays of deep-fried grasshoppers are frozen in tableaux mid-leap. A man inspects a basket of black “thousand-year” eggs: duck eggs that have been stored in ash and salt until the shells blacken, the whites turn to a brown fetid jelly and the yolks to a gentle green slime. Nearby, a purple-edged crab scutters past my toes as it escapes from a bucket and makes a bid for freedom, only to find itself square in a moped’s path.

Ducky encourages us to try the offerings from the stalls surrounding the market. We start with kaw sach tru, wobbly pork belly oozing over hot coals, followed by muscular frogs’ legs dipped in lime, salt and pepper – both surprisingly delicious. We drink sharp pomelo juice from a plastic bag with straws and round off our Cambodian canapés with a handful of rambutans: delicately perfumed fruits encased in hairy, scrotum-like packaging.

The next morning we join a cookery class run by Frizz restaurant (half-day course £10, full-day course £14). Together with a dozen other inept barang (foreigners), we are coaxed through the basics of making fish amok: coconut fish curry steamed in a boat of banana leaves. Pummelling spices in a huge wooden pestle and mortar takes its toll on three American ladies, who opt instead for a seat and a cold Angkor beer. A small serious-faced Cambodian boy quietly takes over, swiftly producing perfect curry paste for each of them. In a nod to bushcraft specialist Ray Mears, we are encouraged to make a vessel for the steaming curry using only a banana leaf and two toothpicks. My husband tests his banana boat by filling it with curry and holding it over my head.

That evening we have dinner at Romdeng, a training restaurant for former street children housed in a handsome colonial villa. Our waiter’s trousers are two inches too long for him and he introduces himself timidly. His face beams when we order the deep-fried tarantula. “Scary, but very tasty, yes?”

When they arrive, the arachnids have been arranged as if they are chasing each other around the plate. Their legs crunch like hairy Twiglets; their abdomens are full of nondescript bitter brown sludge. I can’t imagine developing a taste for them.

The next morning we board the bus to Siem Reap where we are welcomed by a rotund lady with goody bags containing a plain baguette and a bottle of water. She informs us over the PA that we are “about to travel a very bumbly road” and advises that seatbelts must be worn at all time. She subsequently unfolds a battered red deckchair and sits in the middle of the aisle, eating crisps and watching Spiderman on the DVD player.

We spend our days exploring the incredible sights of Angkor Wat and our evenings exploring the vast choice of local restaurants. On our last night, we treat ourselves to the six-course tasting menu at Cuisine Wat Damnak. We sit in a cool, quiet courtyard drinking dry French wine. Heavy cutlery clinks politely and impeccably observant waiters anticipate our needs. But even here, in the most renowned of the city’s restaurants, there is still no ingredient that is out of bounds. The menu includes crispy beef tongue, stir-fried frog meat, and a salad of lotus: lotus roots, lotus stem and fresh lotus seeds.

The cooking may be fancy but the flavours are strong, proud and true. We are a world away from a stolen potato, but even here, in the long shadow of the regime, food serves as a reminder that everything is precious and nothing should be taken for granted.

Phnom Penh Pub Page – October 2014

First some updates.

Actually to get this out of the way – Skirts!!

Last month I was fascinated with 179 Bar (or at least the way the real name was being hidden) – so of course it has now closed or at least it is being heavily renovated at writing.
I was also interested in following up on how 104 Bar would look under the new regime – been there a couple of times since it re-opened – I actually miss the big tables in the front (there are some relatively minor (to me) aesthetic changes but the tables and loss of foosball are what I noticed most) and am curious what they are going to do with the space between the main bar and the washrooms. However, the new couches out front do add a different feel to the place and as you would expect from the owners of Xanadu and Oasis, the club seems to running smoothly and I will be back.

The Pub Page rarely gets any feedback; although I guess it is possible that the hunchback is hiding and doing horrible things with all my fan mail – so I am frequently left wondering whether anyone actually reads the page, let alone those worthy bar owners that graciously put up with my pathetic excuse for investigative reporting. So you can imagine I was really thrilled to get actual written evidence that someone had read their review. A couple of months ago I hit Angry Bird Bar – while I enjoyed the renovated space itself, I sent a clear message to Rovio to debug quickly unless they wanted to turn the place into some kind of red bird mini card game. Angry Bird’s reply was particularly noteworthy and even led to the evil Publisher launching into a maniacal laugh when he read it. I have some notable excerpts below:

“Rovio (Cambodian hostess bar expansion unit) has taken your honest and forthright comments fully on board and the screaming ladies card club has been banished forever.”

“The Angry Birds staff have also been re-programmed by launching them from catapults into nearby buildings to remind them of the Angry Birds culture and theme.”

“They have emerged fully re-energised, enthusiastic and ready to welcome future visits by you and other customers.”

While the Pub Page does not actually recommend launching bar stuff from catapults, I have to appreciate the effect it had. Given that the Cambodian hostess bar expansion unit had put such care into its retraining and filing its report, I felt the need to revisit it and test the efficacy of Rovio’s innovative training methodologies. The bar was busier – on a night when most bars I went to were far emptier – the staff was friendly without getting annoying – music was still at a very reasonable level – and the expansion pack has arrived (there seemed to be an increased number of staff). IGN (Intoxicated Gropers Network – not to be confused with the famous gaming review site) gives the update two thumbs up (and maybe a little more as well). Thanks to the HBEU for reporting in and even more thanks for retraining – it seems to have stuck (much as the staff probably did after the catapulting).

On to some new bars – first up was Oh La La at the corner of 136 St. and Sisowath. I have been waiting for quite a while to see what would happen to this space. While the construction hoarding seems to have stayed up for quite a while, I was really happy with the results. The space comes off as simple but had a good open feel. We ended up planting ourselves on the patio which gave a great view of the riverfront street life as well as (thanks to some impressive scheduling) a nice view of staff coming to work along 136 St. Good service but we were not hungry so could not really evaluate the food but there was a reasonable selection. The drinks were quite reasonable given the appearance of the place – draft beer was $1.5 with a jug for $5.5; cans of Cambodia beer were $2, most mixed drinks were $2.5-3 with cocktails coming in at $4. For those with a more refined palate, house wines were $4. Not the cheapest place in town, but a nice relaxing place for some people watching and a few quiet drinks before, during or after a hostess bar crawl.

Walking down 136 St., I noticed Heart Attack Bar for the first time. Was very impressed with the place – particularly as they managed to stay hidden from me for 2-3 months. The bar felt spacious and the music was at a good volume. Staff was very friendly and kept us amused. To be honest, I was a bit too drunk to remember how much things cost but I am pretty sure we had a good time here and I will make it back – ok – not my most detailed review but at least it was positive. I also seem to recall some explanation about renovations being done to the upstairs but I was lucky to remember that much so have no idea what they are doing up there.

Next on the tour was the immodestly named Simply the Best Bar on 130 St. The bar is about six weeks old according to the staff who chatted me up. I was about to turn left on 130 St but happened to glance over and catch this place out of the corner of my eye. On the plus side, the bar is open from noon until 3 am or later – more importantly, it runs a happy hour from opening until 8 pm at night with buy one get one free for beer and spirits. If I was able to decipher things properly, the second shift starts around 6 and the first shift leaves around 8 so there appears to be an extra happy hour when they bar has two times the staff and the drinks are half the price – now that makes me happy. Pretty simple place – felt roomy in the main section with a pool table in the back. Not sure how accurate the name is but it was a worthwhile stop and I will be back.

Bits From The Beach – October 2014

It has been a bit wet down here recently. But when the sun comes out it is truly splendid.

The 7th annual poker run took place this past month. Many of the old organisers had left or are otherwise engaged and it took a new team to get it up and running. An event that has proven to be the most popular event in the calendar a great way for the expats to meet new & old friends.

The 7th run started downtown at possibly downtowns most popular venue Charlie Harpers the first cards given out and the first beers down. Next stop still in town was Rebels MC just off the main road Sihanoukvilles favourite biker hang out. Mobbed with over a 100 people drinking beer and hoping for a good card. A hop skip & a jump to Snookys and a bite to eat. Washed down with Bruntys cider on special offer.

Cards are looking good as we head towards the beach & Kong bar where we are entertained with some live music the mix of cider & beer is making the head buzz and the card at Kong was s***.

On to the beach Martini bar the breeze is brisk and a better card gives me renewed hope for that $100 first prize.
From beach to Ochheuteal GH the penultimate bar I think we are going to make it to the end but my hand is ruined by another awful card.

The final beers were drunk at the (can’t be mentioned for legal reasons) The winner announced & congratulations to those that made it the end a truly great day out and thanks to all that helped organise & sponsor my favourite day of the year

All in all a fun day and it raised $921 which was donated to Romduol Ream River School.

White Sand Palace The huge building site on the second road back from Occheuteal beach will be called The White Sand Palace Hotel (see pic). It will also feature a large water park adjacent to it. Apparently it will be open in December.

As for the photo below?
Nick The Greek Who the hell knows what is going on but I am not ringing the number to find out!