As I pass through the designer souk that is Bangkok airport, eyes hungrily devouring the fresh fruits tantalisingly waiting to seduce on every corner, while oblivious to the more obvious western delights of Gucci, Jim Thompson and Chanel, I allow myself a spoilt princess frown. Thanks to a delayed BA flight out of Heathrow due to thunderstorms over Dover, and a hopeless lack of administrative skills (mine) resulting in having to apply for a re entry visa airport side, there is no time to indulge in one of travel’s real pleasures, the Bangkok Airways courtesy lounge with its bite sized pastries, bitter coffee and free wifi.
Incredibly the world has listened to my ‘fair internet for all travellers, not just business and above class,’ plea, and there is now free wifi (albeit limited) at both Heathrow and, I now discover as I juggle opening emails with trying to cram three cigarettes into my mouth at once in an attempt top up nicotine levels, Bangkok Airport.
‘Are you there yet?” Daughter.
When do children become the parents?
I’m the one who should be saying “Have you got your passport? Don’t speak to strangers. Call me when you get there.”
Now it’s ‘Write everything down Mum. The taxi driver won’t know where the hotel is you know. Only go with a driver who has your name on a placard. Phnom Penh is not like Bangkok, it’s got a very dark underside.’
I’m almost there for heaven’s sake, only one short flight to go and most countries have a dark bloody underside. Perhaps my Schiphol adventure last week raised her anxiety levels. I got there in the end didn’t I?
Mentally promise to email on arrival. I will arrive, of course I will arrive, I refuse to accept anyone else’s doubts…I have more than enough of my own.
Bangkok Airways is an absolute delight. Wider seats than a BA long haul even, a full three course lunch with proper cutlery, albeit hardly enough time to be reunited with the exotic tastes of pork, cooked in some far remembered spices, and rice noodles.
I find myself seated with a mother and son. Always difficult to age guess in SE Asia, I would hazard a 45-55 for mum and 19-28 for son. They are from Phnom Penh and have been to Bangkok for Mum’s medical treatment. Thrilled to find my pidgin English still works well, I discover she has been for tests in Bangkok and they had to stay an extra day while waiting for the results. I suspect the results were not great as they have to come back for operation once Mum has got her head round it…I think.
We share a smile, a smile that says both ‘I feel for you’ and’ it’s OK that’s what life is like.’
She is, as are all Khmer women, tiny and beautiful. Enormous triple drop zircons fall from her ears and her delicate fingers are dressed with similar sparkle.
Her son, who is in the seat next to me, tells me they have a bakery in Phnom Penh. I tell him about the Cambodian Cultural Festival, he says he would love to come to London with the bakery for the festival. He gives me his card, Trenh Bunleang (Bunleang is the first name…’but call me Zack’), Bayon Bakery, and I promise to try and visit.
It’s 2.30 in the afternoon when we land at Phnom Penh. 2.30 and hot…proper hot, everything sticking to you hot.
I enter the arrival’s hall and am met with a sea of placards, none which bear my name. Unperturbed I head for the exit. There is always a taxi rank somewhere and it’s still daylight, the dark underbelly can’t get me yet surely? And a cigarette will put everything back in proportion.
At last I see it, my name, being held high by a gentle, smiling Khmer man.
I wave, he looks around, puzzled, checking to see who I am waving at. Finally, if somewhat reluctantly, he concludes I am his fare, suitcase is handed over and we walk across sizzling asphalt to the car, me asking if I have time for a ciggie.
‘You smoke in car, it’s fine.’ He smiles.
It’s not fine. A vision of a scowling daughter, far scarier than the hippopotamus Mother in Law in Reggie Perrin, blurrs my vision and I assure him I am happy to smoke outside the car.
The journey into town is much like any other in SE Asia, wide roads, tall buildings, bright colours, belching exhausts, chaotic traffic and loud horns.
Rinda (sounds like an Asian version of Linda) tells me that he freelances for several hotels, that life is slowly getting better for people in Cambodia, that he has three children, 2 girls, one in school one only 2, and a son of 5, that I have to visit the Killing Fields, S21 and the Royal Palace.
He tells me Kim is boy’s name in Korean, which is why he looked surprised at the airport. I assure him that I would have been called Kim no matter what my sex, my mother being an avid Kipling fan and married in Singapore. First brownie points gained.
I tell him about CCF which adds to the brownie points, that I am more interested in the river and how people are living now than the horrors of the past, that I have no wish to be a ghoulish tourist, but promise him I will go if he thinks I should.
We pass the independence monument and many temples, all, he assures me, are new, despite looking centuries old in design, and have been built since the fall of Pol Pot.
“What is the main industry here now?” I ask
‘Textiles, many many factory outside Phnom Penh, some employ over 2000 people. Have union now, better wages, not good yet though, $100 dollar a month, nother strike soon. More western company support workers now, getting better.’
“Where does the fabric come from?’ I ask
“Can I see a factory?”
‘Maybe… here my card…we see.’
‘And what do the Khmer people like to do?” I ask.
‘Shop and trade. People love to shop, everyone shop.’
Cambodia it seems is culturally obsessed with acquisition.
I tell him about Zack and his mum and the bakery.
“Which bakery?” he asks.
I show him Zack’s card and his eyes widen.
“Number 1 Bakery in whole Cambodia!’ ( for a moment I am in the Marigold hotel) He is impressed; very impressed. ‘Big chain…many shops.’
He agrees to take me to the bakery to say ‘hello’ to my new friends in a couple of days.
Perhaps Zack’s Mum’s zircons weren’t zircons after all.