Rhymer´s Travel Diary: Entry 28, September 23, 2002
Toxic Waste & Journalism



Toxic 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 on entertainment.

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.