I know it’s going to be dusty when Pol’s best brother (there is undoubtedly a tuk tuk mafia) stops at the ‘supermarket’ to get us both face masks.
Pol and I had negotiated my tuk tuk terms the night before while I waited outside the hotel for Jeffery and Noy, friends of daughter (who had no doubt been email bullied into taking me out for the evening) to arrive. Pol more concerned than I that I had the right time …heck I wasn’t even sure I had the right day.
He asks if I remembered him from the previous day.
“I wave to you…remember? …by Independence Monument”
‘So that was you, I’m so sorry, I was having a bit of trouble with the traffic, I did see someone wave…and (feeling I should be nothing if not least honest) I have to confess, for me Khmer people at the moment look same same, as I’m sure Baranges (foreigners) do to you.’
He guffaws generously.”I remember you.”
‘Because I’m old?’
An even bigger guffaw as he tries to persuade me that I am ‘different’, I have ‘good eyes to the soul’.
As we negotiate terms… it’s not just a question of ‘how much?’ Here you have to share your life stories before a deal is struck.
I learn that Pol has two children, both under school age, a girl child and a boy child, and his tuk tuk pitch is ‘outside hotel’. He learns a little about why I am here.
I tell him of yesterday’s experience and stress that if we have ‘contract’, I expect him to be the driver.
He pauses, a slight frown of concern flickering across his face.
‘City limits eh?’ I’m beginning to understand.
He nods not wanting to give too much away.
“ If I no can do, I will get best brother to take you.”
‘Oh, BEST brother eh?
Huge guffaws all round and the deal is done.
He then proceeds to give me a lesson on bag carrying in Phnom Penh. I am to have it closed at all times and carry it over my shoulder on the pavement side.
“Many bad people here. Many bad motorbike, grab bag, quick quick. You be very careful.”
My lift arrives…I have got the right day.
It was a wonderful evening. I had promised daughter I would be on best behaviour. Jeffrey and Noy are a delight. He works for the embassy and has been massively important in the setting up of my meetings. She designs gardens in between looking after their two young children.
Amazing gardens, beautiful gardens, uplifting gardens. Her last commission was from Tiffany who has a huge gem polishing factory here. Not the gems that adorn the over tanned necks of the rich and famous but the tiny ones that go into the mass market jewellery, thousands of them. Tedious intricate work carried out by hundreds of delicate, tired fingers.
Appreciating that the work is at best dull and repetitive, Tiffany are at least trying to make the worker’s environment more pleasant. Noy has created gardens for them to look out onto, gardens using local indigenous trees that provide colour and scent throughout the year.
Her latest commission (from another socially responsible corporation – I forget the name and the cynic in me fears that somewhere tax breaks are involved) is to plant 50,000 trees in areas where industry, or napalm, has raised them to the ground. This takes her deep into the countryside much of the time, sourcing trees, assessing sites, travelling in suspension-less vehicles over roads that belie that very label.
A second couple are from France. He (Arnoud, I think) works for Unicef, she, Thu, has the responsibilty of childcare and homemaker and is the best networker I have ever met. They have worked all over the world from Vietnam in the 90’s which by all accounts was sensational, to Geneva, which was cold.
Olivia who works in the trade department at the Embassy and who hails from Sweden and somewhere else…I can’t remember where, and who spent her early childhood in England is the final member of out party.
The restaurant is new, only open a week, and French. ‘The Deli’, thankfully bearing to no resemblance to any American Deli I have ever been to. The food delicious. The two brothers who run it are French/Asian and one is also a personal fitness trainer and martial arts expert. They all know each other.
The boys (early 40’s and reasonably fit) decide they should challenge the brothers to a martial art’s fight (this after several glasses of wine). At which point I guffaw, snort even, extremely loudly.
They seriously want to take on the Mitchell brothers of Phnom Penh? It will be a massacre.
Having established that I smoke, and also outing a couple of the girls in this most anti social of habits, it is proposed that we move on to ‘The smoking Room’.
Well all I can say is that if Phnom Penh had a speakeasy this would be it! Dark, decadent, populated with all kinds of humanity – delightful.
We danced, we took photos of us dancing, we drank cocktails, we took photos of us drinking cocktails, we were joined by the most enchanting and exquisite butterfly, Brenda, who runs a cafe in Phnom Penh and who, were they to consider a re make of Suzie Wong, should be given the lead role.
Having blown any semblance of ‘Georgie’s Mum’ respectability…
“Georgie said you get tired easily” this from Noy as we conga round the speakeasy, I am embraced by the group and invited to another gig on Monday.
I digress, I digress quite a bit.
Back in the tuk tuk with Pol’s best brother and masks over our faces, we head to the killing fields.
The road is pitted, dusty, noisy and clogged with traffic. They are rebuilding it, possibly to allow for a greater influx of tourists, possibly because the rainy season has rendered it more unsafe than even the very flexible Cambodian health and safety laws will permit.
One side of the road is being gouged out by JCBs and filled with water from any available source, including sewage pipes. Lorry loads of crushed stone and gravel are tipped into this grey sludge as life in the Phnom Penh suburbs continues.
The sound volume is of rock concert proportions, the smells an unhappy marriage of sizzling food and human effluence. Every inch of space supports commerce. There is no order. Side by side are clothes shops, shoe shops, massage parlours, bicycle repair shops, motor bike repair shops, food stalls, stalls selling gasoline in old bottles, stalls selling fruit, elegant bakeries, dentists, stalls selling meat and chickens hanging from string, glittering jewellery shops, second hand shops, mobile phone shops, underwear shops, laundries, furniture shops… all engulfed in grey dust as another lorry sheds its load.
Children and motorbikes are washed from the same hose. The children laugh as they dance naked in the water, covered in foam, while the bike is lovingly wiped with a cloth by a parent.
The fashion statement for the day is velour tops and bottoms in scarlet or royal blue, high heels or flip flops or no shoes at all and face masks.
The buildings are either crumbling reminders of a colonial past or hastily constructed shacks built in the aftermath of war with whatever material was available. Laundry hangs from every balcony, mangy dogs scratch, steam rises from cooking pots on the side of the road, women, old before their time, pull carts laden with sizzling insects and snails along the road, velour clad young women, take food deliveries …rice…soup…pork…on their motorbikes, men wade through the grey sludge as they try to keep the entrance to their business accessible, and everyone has a mobile phone. That common denominator aside, it’s hardly Surbiton.
Finally we can breathe again. Fields appear, trees, cows, a lake, the traffic eases.
We turn into a road marked Choeung Ek…The Killing Fields.
I don’t want to write about the Killing Fields, I didn’t even want to go there but am so glad that I did. It is a very personal experience. Suffice to say the Buddhist Stupor caused an unprompted face leak and when I left this most peaceful of sites almost two hours later, I felt ashamed of humankind.
Our next stop was S21 the high school commandeered by Pol Pot and used as a prison and torture centre.
The drive back through the suburbs made me question everything. Why was I here? Did they really need a cultural festival in London? How would that help them? Us?
As I looked out at the suburbs, barely noticing the traffic, everywhere in the noise and dust I saw money. Not money as in wealth but just money. A dollar changing hands here, slipped into a back pocket there, a wad being counted, two notes being argued over, a barefoot child beaming as an adult hands a note to him…money everywhere. Did art have any place here?
We arrive at S21 and I know I don’t want to go in. I. Beautiful buildings I can respect. S21 is not beautiful. I find little solace in places of persecution and that extends to our own Tower of London.
Suddenly I remember the bakery. I want to be there more than anything else, I want to feel the warmth of human kindness. I hand Pol’s best brother the card that Zack gave me. Both he and the welcome guide to S21 look confused but eventually work it out and we are on our way.
We arrive at the bakery, it is indeed Number 1 bakery in whole of Cambodia but there is no sign of Zack. Then his mother is in front of me, enfolding me in her arms, laughing, genuinely pleased to see me, excitedly introducing me to the staff.
She tells me Zack has gone to a festival, as all sons should. She shows me round the bakery with pride. It is filled with mouthwatering confections of every kind. In the chiller cabinet whorls of cream and chocolate adorn spectacular cakes. There are biscuits of all kinds on display under glass, breads of every different shape and size in huge baskets, the shop is….really busy, I am taking up too much of her time, she is far too polite to say.
I choose some coconut biscuits to give to Pol and his best brother and she insists that I take two loaves of bread as her gift. They are unlike any bread I have ever tasted, filled with some kind of savoury paste, delicious. I tell her I will send an email to Zack, we hug (oh how I needed that hug) and say goodbye and promise to stay in touch.
I ask Pol’s best brother if we can head head home now. He decides to give me a lesson in how to look after my bag while travelling by tuk tuk. This lesson all in hand signals, he has no English and my Khmer is laughable. I get the gist. I have to clasp the bag firmly and hold it in my lap so that no passing motor bike can grab it ‘quick quick’.
Pol is waiting at the hotel. I hand over the agreed fare and the biscuits – big smiles all round.
I’m tired, I’m covered in a thin layer of dust, I’m emotional, I’m questioning everything…am I really being useful? I need a shower.