There was a documentary I saw about Spike Milligan and the depression that had blighted much of his life. He’d been brought up in India and moved to England when he was 15. It had a terrible effect on him. He missed the colours and richness of India and had to readjust to stark, grey Britain. The cold, the drabness, and the continual reminders of the exotic world he’d left behind. And that’s how I felt much of the time back in Blighty after spending 18 months in Cambodia.
“How can you live here now, after spending so much time in Asia,” someone asked as I arrived. She was right. I had to return, for better or worse, and sure enough four months later I was back in Phnom Penh.
Not the prettiest city in the world. But when you wander down by the Riverside and take in the breeze and see all segments of Cambodian life from mad-for-it grandmothers in pyjamas doing aerobics, to the monks with their alms pots, to the old men in freshly-ironed shirts and trousers squatting by their mopeds looking for the next ride, to the tuk tuk driver with ‘Lexus 570’ scrawled on his backboard, to the moon-faced official barely peering over the wheel of his supercharged Range Rover with its carte blanche Khmer flag and VIP sticker in the window.
One of only two countries in the world with a building on its flag, or so I was told by a slurring lawyer the other night. Afghanistan, if you’re asking. And that must say something. A reminder of the great empire that built Angkor Wat, and a hope that the good times might come once again. Just like Greece. It’s this naive hope, the continued smiles and bright outlook I love most. I escaped from the cold and the dreary faces of those who have plenty, but grumble about everything. I fled from the obsession with weather stories, and erosion of common sense and fun, to a country where most people have nothing but look pleased to have it.
But it’s the expat characters and their stories you get here that I love most. The old hands will leave you in no doubt that Cambodia isn’t the place it was a few years ago. It’s become more sanitised and wrapped in cotton wool like most places.
But where else would you meet the sort of frazzled, expat bar owner who hands $1,200 rent to the wrong man? The owner and his mate were sitting outside their bar, the monthly rent a few days overdue. “Hey, isn’t that the landlord?” says his pal, pointing to a Cambodian strutting towards them. The owner rushes off to the safe and comes back with $1,200 and stuffs it in the bloke’s hand. He looks surprised and then hands it back. It isn’t the owner, just a very honest man who looks like him, or a man who didn’t think quickly enough to carry it off. He must be kicking himself now.
Or the old Etonian, who’s spent a lifetime barking orders and being waited on hand and foot, now working for $150 a month and free food as a bar manager in a sleazy guesthouse. Or the drunk Australian chasing girls around a bar with his penis hanging out. He knocks into a huge Nigerian, who floors him with one punch. “I didn’t come here to see your cock,” he says as the owner thanks him and the tuk tuks drag out the Aussie. Or the expats on ice, stumbling around like zombies, two years over on their visas and facing weeks in an immigration cell until the police finally realise they haven’t got any money and put them on a flight to Bangkok.
Then amongst the flotsam, you’ll find some great foreigners here – some of the best people you’ll ever meet. But the losers and sexpats are two a penny, and it’s not just the ones on holiday. Far from it – they’ve still got money. For now anyway, assuming they leave. But then as the Editor pointed out the other day: “This place isn’t a playground – you have to be in bed by midnight and get up at dawn and earn a living, just like any other country.” Unless you’re a trustafarian living the good life in Kampot, and don’t need to worry about cash, that is.
Cambodia might have cleaned up its act, but the distractions are still here by the score. It’s probably still as easy as it ever was to end up like one of the washed-up bums. Like the German in his cheap jewellery who wanders from bar to bar and then returns four hours later claiming one of the girls has stolen his ring in the hope of getting a free beer, or the Russian who buys a couple of drinks in each bar and then presents them with a $100 note, and when they say they haven’t got change, promises to settle his bill tomorrow.
Oh, I do love this country. Now where did I put the rent?
Alex is also on twitter.