Waste of Time
Like any good (if somewhat unlikely) holiday destination, Cambodia
has beach resorts. Well, to be exact, it has one beach resort, Sianoukville.
This was founded by and named after the country's frankly potty sometime
monarch, King Sianouk. Although he has spent a great deal of time
in exile and currently resides in Bejing, his majesty's other notable
achievements include being Cambodia's best known actor and director.
Accomplishments for which he won the Phnom Pen Film Festival (a sort
of soi-disant Indochinese Cannes). Interestingly this festival has
only been staged once and bookies gave rather long odds on anyone
else winning a Khmer Oscar.
Anyway Sianoukville is much like one would expect - that is, an odd
and pretty dysfunctional place in the midst of an odd and pretty dysfunctional
country. Downtown there's a vast roundabout with a pair of lions (which,
from a distance look like they're making lionly love). Seven roads
lead off it and five of them lead absolutely nowhere. Then there are
the flash hotels - actually these aren't bad - but it would be a very
odd person who was prepared to pay $50 a night to hang out in Sianoukville.
Every now and then Sianoukvile experiences a sort of mini tourist
boom - or, perhaps, more acurrately, a fillip. Then there's another
civil war or coup or whatever and work on new hotels stops and weeds
start growing out of half finished concrete pilings. All in all Sianoukville
felt very much like one of the ghostly forgotten towns of concrete
which are such lietmotifs in JG Ballard novels. Especially as, the
reason for the current slump was, a few years back, a Malaysian company
had tried to dump a load of toxic waste there.
As we'd come down from the lakeside guesthouse there were enough of
us to substantially improve the fortunes of any restaurant or hotel.
And, everywhere we went, people told us that things were quiet at
the moment, but it was the low season. But that is what people always
tell you in a resort nobody ever visits. Still, despite it's deserted
fairground feel, I rather liked Sianoukville. The beach, while certainly
not as great as those in Thailand, had good surf and the seafood was
absolutely teriffic. That is, I suppose,long as you didn't think too
hard about all the Malaysian companies which didn't get caught trying
to dump toxic waste.
Cambodia's infrastructure is pretty much nonexistant - except the
road to Sianoukville, which is great - and to get anywhere else we
had to return to Phnom Pen . Back at our guesthouse, I was pleased
to note, there a number of travellers who hadn't moved in the three
days we'd been away. Indeed, it was entirely possible that they were
in the same hammock, watching the same DVD. But that is of course
one of the great upsides of smoking weed by the kilo - in a country
like Cambodia your outlay on drugs is soon offset by the savings made
The following day we were going to head up to Angkor Wat (say it in
an American accent, it sounds better) to see Cambodia's huge and wondrous
temple complex. But I had to write a piece on the unusual - and many
would say digusting - eating habits of the inhabitants of a town just
north of the capital. You can now read about this in the next entry.
While I was being sent out to work, Jane wasted no time in meeting
another journalist, who I'll call Tom, because that's his name. She
bumped into him in a cyber cafe where he was keeping a low profile
by wearing a ridiculous headscarf, chain smoking some rank local cigarettes
and talking loudly to himself. Anyhow, Tom introduced himself with
a swagger: 'Hi, name's Tom, I'm a journalist.' Jane said, at the time,
she was minded to reply: 'I'm Jane, I'm a housewife' or somesuch.
Still, she let him prattle on for half an hour or so, trying, apparently,
to sound like a cross between Hunter S Thompson and PJ O'Rourke before
he gave her a chance to speak. 'My boyfriend's a journalist' she said,
before (perhaps a little unfairly) telling him that I wrote for all
sorts of cool titles without actually mentioning that 90% of what
I do is business stuff. Still, she says, it life-affirming to watch
bollocks evaporate so quickly.
Having eaten my fill, the following day, I got the boat up to Siem
Riep, through the weird, flooded landscape of the Tonle Sap river
and across Tonle Sap itself, Cambodia's great lake. Although it looks
cool on the map, it's actually a remarkably dull journey and is notably
only for the chocolatey sameness of the floodwaters. Up on the front
of the boat we had the usual small contingent of Brits, slowly turning
the colour of overcooked shellfish in the tropical sun, while convincing
themselves they weren't burning. While on either side of me a pair
of Americans. She was a COW - that is, a cool older woman and, I imagine
would have been a scream to know in the 1970s. And, he, well, he was
a journalist. I know this because he introduced himself, saying: 'Hi,
I'm Dave, I'm a journalist.'
After this, he proceded to tell me that he worked for a small wire
service based somewhere like Bumgrease, Wisconsin: 'Even though nobody's
really heard of it', he added, 'it's incredibly well thought in the
industry I could get a job anywhere in print, you know.' Experience
has taught me that whenever anyone prefaces a self-congratulatory
statement with: 'Even though nobody's really heard of it' you've heard
all you really need to know. Anyway, I told him that I too was a journalist
and despite - or perhaps because of - this he continued to bluster
on, while I fought back the urge to say I'd call him when the Washington
Post, New York Times and Time Magazine all simulaneously and spontaneously
offered him their editorships.
After dropping my stuff at the guesthouse, I was lucky enough to meet
Jane's mate Tom in a cyber cafe. Lucky, lucky, lucky me. For although
I had listened to Dave's bumptious twaddle for a few hours, he was
in his early 20s and I had no doubt that in a few years, he would
be bitter and disillusioned. Tom, however, was easily old enough to
be bitter and disillusioned. Or at least realistic. Or at least sane.
He started out by telling me he was up here 'on assignment'. OK, I
said, not unreasonably, assignment for who? He then reeled off a list
of papers, none of which he was clearly working for. He'd said he
had an agent. But this was a syndication service in London which really
isn't the same thing at all. He then spent ages telling me that he'd
introduce me to Siem Riep's ex-pat journalist community. Given that
we're talking about a town whose sole raison d'etre is serving the
tourists who visit Angkor Wat I was guessing that Tom was it. And
he kept saying we'd have to exchange lists of contacts. 'Not' I was
thinking, 'if I ever want my contacts to contact me again.'
Still, I had to hand it to Tom: he had the hide of a rhino and was
the kind of person you could actually tell to f--k off without offending.
Which given his persistence and capacity for self delusion was just
as well. In fact, by the end of this rather one sided 'discussion'
I was beginning to suspect that Tom's main source of income came from
teaching English in Bangkok; which he occasionally supplemented by
writing the odd piece. And to his credit I did eventually manage to
find something he'd written on the internet for a traveller orientated
freebie mag called 'Farang.' I subsequently turned up a hard copy
of this in a bar. And I can honestly the only thing I liked about
it was the coverline below the title which read 'You! You! You!' Given
the amount of time most travellers spend talking about their favourite
subject, this would suggest that, if nothing else, 'Farang' certainly
knows its market.
NB: Based on these experiences, I have told Jane that if she ever,
ever catches me introducing myself, umprompted to a complete stranger
with the words 'Hi, I'm Rhymer and I'm a journalist,' she is to punch
me in the throat with an iron glove.