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Rhymer´s Travel Diary: Entry 27, September 6, 2002
Consultants, Holidays in Cambodia, Really Big Guns
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Consultancy!

On the sleeper south to Saigon our compartment buddies were a canoodling Vietnamese couple and a pair of young Scots. While the Vietnamese loved each other up in a very teenage fashion we started chatting to the Scots who were both nice posh boys and had just graduated in engineering from Imperial College. Presently Jane asked the more talkative of the two what his post-travel plans were: 'Í'm going to be a consultant!' he boomed, quite unable to disguise quite how much this eventuality pleased him. So Jane politely asked him what area he intended to consult in. He furrowed his brow for a moment then said: 'Well, consultancy of course!' his tone suggesting she had a right bloody cheek - daring to question his ability to consult.

None of which is to suggest that consultancy is not a good (and well-paid) career but it is difficult to express in writing quite how pleased this chap was with himself. He was so simultaneously thrilled and smug it was as if the chance of a job at Deliotte Consulting (who I believe have now changed their name, doubtless providing much-needed work for consultants who consult in brand identity) was equivalent to winning the lottery and playing for England on the same day. Although, come to think of it, given the current health of the global economy, he may have had a point.

Still, they were pleasant enough and we talked for a couple of hours during which time we learned (among other things) that a career in consultancy was more exciting and lucrative than finding pictures of Eminem in bed with Moby. And when we finally said goodbye to them the following morning, we knew almost everything about them. In return, I think they may have just about known our Christian names. And these two were - their ardent passion for consultancy notwithstanding - pretty much par for the course. I'm not suggesting travellers are self-obsessed or anything - well actually I am - but these days I take an instant like to anyone who actually deigns to ask me a question about myself. It's very kind of them - after all, they are, to a person quite fascinating and did you know the second you buy around the world ticket you become 9000% more interesting.... Still, back to our boy and, having met quite a few people from late 90s wunderconsultants McKinsey, I would say the combination of scarcely credible smugness and the ability to talk at people for hours without drawing breath will stand him in good stead to become the finest management consultant of his generation. Just like his dad.

Scotch and tunnels

Compared to Hanoi, Saigon is supposed to be brash and commercial place. But terrible traffic aside (and all Vietnamese cities have terrible traffic - terrible enough in one instance to make Jane cry) it's not bad at all. We spent an agreeable enough day eating peculiar things in the market and wandering around the Reunification Palace. This probably seemed like the most awful monstrosity ten years ago, but now that '60s moderne' architecture is considered stylish again, it looks kind of hip. In the evening we met up with Scott Perry's dad and he took us out for a splendid meal and rather a lot of splendid booze.

All of which was very fine indeed. But it's worth remembering that if you ever plan to visit the Cu-Chi tunnels - which requires a 6:30am start - you're not really going to be at your best if you neck red wine and cognac until 2am. Seen through the gummy gaze of truly hellish hangover Vietnam's premier tourist attraction really isn't that much fun. First you get a coach with the most nausea-inducing suspension imaginable; this, coupled with the barely functioning air-con, leaves every burp pregnant with vomitous intent. If you clear this hurdle and make it to the tunnels then the real fun begins: yes, you get to crawl on your hands and knees through 200m of blood-temperature tunnel. The greasiness of the sweat you generate during such exertion really is quite incredible. And the only thing that prevents you from voiding the contents of your stomach is the thought that puking in a 3ft high tunnel full of people is about as antisocial as it gets.

Holidays In Cambodia

From Ho Chi Min, the next stop on the SE Asian monkey trail is Phnom Pen. Perhaps it's because of the 'Dead Kennedys' album of the same name, but I've always thought that the idea of holidaying in Cambodia is something of a bad taste joke. However, despite its recent and grisly history, the capital is a rather charming place; there are a few good bars and I'd even venture that the Mekong riverfront verges on the swish.

Interestingly, Phnom Pen looks like there are loads of tourists in town but there aren't that many - there are hundreds of aid workers and NGOs etc. who drink in the snazzier bars, of which there are about four, thus adding to the impression of crowding. That said, there are some touristas and, for the most part, they split into two groups. You have the travellers (more of which later) and you have the slightly richer, slightly older and, you would have thought, slightly more sophisticated set. This lot tend to hang around in the Foreign Correspondents' Club - which is a quite chic although I suspect I was possibly the only journalist in the place - and talk so loudly you're clearly meant to hear their conversations. What you quickly learn is that they're just soooo pleased with themselves. Why? Because they're in Phnom Pen and isn't it just the coolest, grooviest, most arse-achingly hip place to be? The thing is, you see, next year Phnom Pen will be really mainstream, but right now, it's just that little bit crazy and special and dangerous and don't those of us who are clever enough to be right here, right now just love ourselves for discovering it? Honestly, anyone would think we'd landed jobs in consultancy.

Nasty, serious bit

Anyway, Phnom Pen is, of course, best known for its gruesome history (1975-80) which was down to Pol-Pot and his murderous henchmen. A trip to the killing fields is obligatory and the whole thing is extraordinarily awful. Pot's idea was to turn the whole of Cambodia into an agricultural peasant collective, so along with the Khmer Rouge (and in the name of equality) he killed the country's educated classes. The site - only one of many - doesn't really look like that much, but then mass graves rarely do. But you do notice that there are bits of cloth and bone sticking out of the ground everywhere and there is a memorial pagoda which contains some 7000 human skulls.

From The Killing Fields you go S-21, a former high school where the Khmer Rouge interrogated and tortured anyone they felt like. Most of their interrogators were adolescent boys who the Khmer Rouge noted were easily brainwashed and had amoral tendencies. And all this went on until they'd killed between one and two million people. The West did nothing - indeed the CIA was probably covertly funding the Khmer Rouge on the grounds that they weren't commies - and then eventually commie Vietnam invaded and put a stop to it.

Travellervana

Opposite the concrete brutality of S-21 there is an incongruously tranquil and pleasant restaurant. Here we bumped into Afareen and Hannah, a couple of girls we'd met in Hanoi who advised us to move hotels to theirs. This was good advice as our hotel had all the charm of the local dole office. So we moved up to a place called guesthouse number 9 (next to Guesthouse no.10) on Phnom Pen's northern lake. And, as we stepped out onto the hotel's lakeside deck the sun was setting, people were lounging around watching DVDs and I caught a waft of marijuana smoke - this, I thought, truly is travellervana. Oh yes indeed. Come to exciting new countries. Meet interesting new people. And sit on your arse in a hammock all day smoking dope, watching DVDs and drinking fruit shakes. What was cambodia like? 'Well, I watched 'Snatch 12 times.' When I return to England I will be giving serious thought to opening a 'Traveller-Dome' modeled on Center Parks. It will be a warm place with an artificial beach and plenty of hammocks and easy chairs. Marijuana and cheap, nasty local Asian beer will be freely available. TVs and DVD players will be scattered around, all with plenty of knowing, ironic movies that make the viewer feel rather cleverer than he or she actually is; waitresses will wander around offering idiot comfort food (ie. chocolate banana pancakes, etc); above all the emphasis will be on a thought free existence....
''
Speaking of thought-free (as opposed, I suppose, to free thinking) the first girl I started speaking to seemed nice sort, if a little stoned. There we were, chatting away, and she was telling us about how in debt she was - and then she said, casually, 'well, I think it'll be OK. I've bought a load of gems in Bangkok. I reckon that'll cover it' Oh, Jesus, you poor stupid, friggin' moron. What makes someone with no prior knowledge of the gem market give a complete stranger hundreds of pounds? Naturally she had paid with her credit card and, equally naturally, she had not seen any sign of the stones yet. She wouldn't tell us how much she'd spent but, given that she would tell us her credit card bill was £2.5k, I'm guessing she'd spent at least $1000. But seriously, how stupid can you be? She said she'd just done an MBA in American lit and in the same sentence told me she was guaranteed her money back. The worst thing is she still really, really believed the gems were going to arrive. I did tell her several times that she'd almost certainly been conned. Then she started defending the gem men. At that point I gave up and decided that this might be exactly the kind life lesson someone like this needs.

Meanwhile, around the corner there was a different and rather more benign kind of stupidity going on. A bloke in the corner was explaining he'd been eating hash cookies and been smoking jazz cigarettes fairly solidly for a couple of days: 'My head' he mused, 'went some very mad places...and people were saying really bizarre things...' Normal stoner babble, but what got me was that he seemed really, genuinely surprised by all this. I mean, if you're going to smoke and eat dope for 48 hours, you really ought to expect your head to do something.

Tough, tough toys for stupid white boyz

This is the other reason people like Phnom Pen. It is one of the few places that you can really do pretty much anything you like. As my taxi driver said to me in between trying to sell me dope and opium and telling me how much he'd drunk the night before: 'In Cambodia the police, the laws they are nothing.' On the minus side, this does mean you get to see a lot of underage locals who are mysteriously in love with sexegenarian Germans; on the plus side, however, it means you can buy drugs freely and cheaply and fire guns like an idiot in the hills.

So you head down to the shooting range. This is run by a rather creepy looking guy. He says 'man' a lot and has the sort of peculiar, slightly freaky look you get from spending too much time around automatic weapons. The menu in the firing range reads: 'Coke $1, Sprite $1, M-16 $20, AK-47 $20, grenade $30, rocket launcher $100...' And, yes, for another $100 you can blow up a cow with your rocket launcher. Though apparently they always fix the sights so you miss (anyone who gets swizzed in this way should look on their lost $100 as a fine for being a complete c***). Anyway, the walls are adorned with pictures of pale people - some of whom look like they love their guns in a clever ironic way and others who just look like they really, really love big guns.

I cast my seasoned eye down the menu and, for no reason other than that I've listened to a whole load of rap music, plumped for that gangsta stalwart, the AK-47. A lot of people might say that spending $20 to fire out an automatic clip (30 bullets, in case you're wondering) in a country which has been ravaged by war is rather poor taste and a totally butt-headed thing to do. And of course it is, but this is one of those things you really need to discover yourself. And you discover it the second you pick up that big, exciting automatic weapon. That instant - well that is when you realise that you have much more in common with Vanilla Ice than you do with Ice-T.