Saturday, January 3, 2009

All Things Must Pass

After twenty hours of travelling I finally touched down at Dublin Airport at 7.30pm on New Year’s Day. Jaysus but it’s bloody cold here. The first item on my agenda was to have a large mug of tea and some white pudding generously smeared over a slice of fried bread. My mother was only too happy to sort this out for me.

I’m back to the cold and grey days of Irish suburbia but both my head and my heart are still hovering about in Cambodia. In the blink of an eye they move from the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh with its rubbish strewn streets and cracked pavements to the magical aura I felt in Siem Reap, with the dirt tracks and adorable scruffy children, the beautiful French colonial buildings and of course the awesome temples around Angkor Wat. Again they turn and look upon the Golden Lions at the roundabout located between downtown and the beaches of Sihanoukville. I can still see Chan Sras on her motorbike pulling into the courtyard of the guesthouse and waving to me. Calling me down to go cruising. Yeh, let’s cruise honey. Let’s go and see Buddha, let the monk read our palms and tell us what the future holds for us. Now my head and heart are back in Phnom Penh, I’m walking the streets late at night and I feel at ease. I know lots of people at this stage; both barang and Cambodian. I like it here. It’s just a pity that I can’t take to the food. I have lost a lot of weight and I’m not eating properly. I don’t want to admit it but I know that it is time to go home. What a trip it has been. I imagine it will be a few more days before my head and heart arrive back home.

Saying goodbye to Chan Sras was an emotional time for both of us. I wish her all the good luck in the world for her future. I won’t forget her. The past six months have been the most interesting of my life, so far. In a way they were also the quickest six months of my life but strangely, doing the teaching course in Chiang Mai seems like a hundred years ago. I was very lucky to have met some really great people while away. Tony from Australia was the perfect companion for conversation and drinking. Lachlan, the Canadian, was also another ‘real’ person who helped me to look at things objectively when maybe I was in danger of losing focus. Aaron from Arizona was my first drinking buddy and fellow reprobate, we would drink beer and smoke cigarettes while the rest of the class were getting their lesson plans prepared for the next day’s class.

Being with Chan Sras enabled me to see the reality of being a Khmer living in the Kingdom of Cambodia. I saw the poverty, I saw prostitutes addicted to hard drugs, I saw young boys sniffing glue and passing out on the streets. I saw their fellow countrymen step over them to ask a foreigner if he would like to buy a lady or some ganga. I saw people working long hours every day for sixty dollars a month. I saw victims of landmines begging on the streets, I saw the shitholes that some of them are living in. I saw the dirt and squalor.

I also saw the beautiful smiles offered to me on a daily basis. I experienced the friendliness and welcoming attitude of the Khmers. I learnt that life can be lived at a much slower pace. I learnt how the west can be lost in a morass of materialism; forever wanting to accumulate more and more possessions. I have seen some of my fellow westerners complain that there wasn’t enough hot water for their shower this morning while outside the locals are washing themselves at a basin of rainwater. I myself have spent more on a hotel room for one night than most of the locals make in a month working six days a week. I have constantly complained about the quality of the food while there are families in Siem Reap and further afield who are surviving on a diet of frogs and ants because they can’t afford rice. I never saw a Cambodian eating a bar of chocolate or a packet of crisps, they eat rice every day. They look strong and fit, lithe and supple. Old men in their sixties and seventies pedal cyclos around the streets of Phnom Penh; they will carry you for miles around the city for the princely sum of fifty to seventy five cents. I have had moto drivers carry me the wrong way down one way streets; rules in Cambodia are seen as suggestions rather than something to be complied with.

So what now? What will I do next? I don’t know, is the short answer. I weighed myself upon arriving home and I have lost two and a half stone. No harm. I look and feel better for it. In a way I travelled to S.E. Asia to find myself. I didn’t find myself but I found some pointers as to where I may actually be located. Right now after travelling thousands of miles I have a better sense of myself. Sitting here at the kitchen table in my parents’ house typing my last entry to this blog I would like to thank everyone who was good enough to take time out and read about my experiences. Life is short and a wonderful experience. Enjoy it while you can.

Here endeth the blog, my friends.

Colin Cannon.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Season's Greetings

Hi folks, just a quick one to wish you all a very happy Christmas and hopefully I will see most of you very soon in the new year.

The money has now run out and I'm forced to live on my credit card. I did call to a few schools looking for work; none of them have actually come back to me yet. The new term starts in January and I'm pretty sure that they are waiting until after Christmas to conduct interviews. I have made a decision though that it is time to go home now. Even if I was offered a job at this stage I would turn it down. I know that my health is at risk as I just cannot, no matter how hard I try, get used to the food here. I am living on baked beans, pizza, soup and bread. Plus the climate is not really conducive to me being active and alert all the time.

Christmas means very little to most people here in Cambodia. Being a mainly Buddhist country it is just another working day. I'm sure whatever barangs are about will be out for a few drinks tonight; as will I. I suppose moto drivers and tuk-tuk drivers are hoping to make a few dollars tonight if the barang drink enough of the Christmas spirits and start to give bigger tips than usual. Well it shall be a different Christmas to ones I have been used to.

I do want to take this opportunity to relate an experience I had in a bar the other night. It was the bar I worked in for two nights, Revolution. A gang of us were sitting around some tables, having a few beers. Three Austrians called to the bar and sat with us for a while. When they eventually made moves to go, the owner said he would buy them a drink if they stayed. They said that they were looking for somewhere to eat spiders. The owner's wife, a Cambodian woman, said that she had some in the car. The three Austrians sat back down while she retrieved the spiders from her car.

We all held our breath as she opened the plastic shopping bag to reveal about twenty deep-fried tarantulas. They were as big as my fist. My skin immediately began to crawl. The two Austrian blokes eagerly took one each from her. The Austrian girl declined. She took photos of the two guys eating the spiders. They posed with the spiders hanging out of their mouths, they posed with the spiders in their hands just to show how big they were. I am still kicking myself that I didn't have my camera with me; it was an excellent photo opportunity. I remember watching the guys biting on the legs first. Then one of them bit into the abdomen, he paused, obviously fighting back the gag reflex. His eyes widened and he said, 'That part does not taste the same as the legs'. One was offered to me, I declined before they had even finished offering it to me. If anyone had pushed one of those spiders towards my face I would have jumped up, thrown the table over and screamed like a little girl until my throat bled.

I'm looking forward to getting stuck into a batter burger and chips when I get home. I also find myself reflecting on the joys of white pudding spread over a slice of fried bread. All good things come to he who waits.

Okay folks I'll stop waffling now. Again have a great Christmas, and I'll see you in the new year.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Cambodian Hilton

This afternoon I’m going out on the prowl, looking for a job. I have a few CVs printed and copies of certificates and references. I shall pop into a few schools I have spotted around Phnom Penh and hope to make a good impression with them. In the meanwhile I just have to write about the guesthouse I am staying in at the moment.

It is called the Angkor Reach Guesthouse and my room is 7 dollars a night. When I first moved in I asked about a discount if I stayed for the full month. They were happy to offer me a discount of 14 dollars, two nights in other words. I declined and opted to pay them on a daily basis. You can see the photos above; these were taken this morning immediately after the two cleaning ladies had finished cleaning the room. One photo shows my wardrobe where I keep all my clothes, books, camera, iPod, guitar and laptop. Another shows the corner of the room beside the bed, the ceiling leaks just above this spot as you can see from the sediment on the floor. Yet another photo shown above shows the toilet and shower, again I remind you that this is after the place has been cleaned. Again you can see the sediment collecting on the floor; immediately above, four stalactites hang from the ceiling dripping water at a rate of about one drop every ten seconds. The fourth photo should give you an idea of the size of the room; it shows the bedroom and the bathroom. Notice the ashtray under the bed; it used to be a napkin holder. If you look carefully on the bed, near the pillows you will see the tear in the bed sheet, but hey I can’t complain, it’s a clean sheet.

When the two ladies come to clean the room they split the work load. One squirts a bottle of disinfectant over the toilet and toilet floor and then runs the shower over the floor to rinse off. The other girl runs around the room with a straw broom, sweeping up any dirt or cigarette ash that may have been dispersed around the room by the fan mounted on the wall. Then together they change the sheet on my bed, the pillowcases have never been changed. There is no toilet roll; I have given up asking for some. The girls speak practically no English and I likewise am handicapped when it comes to communicating in Khmer. Of course the power of mime has been helpful and I did get a toilet roll once but the paper was so bad on it and it ran out so fast that I just have a shower after I use the toilet for those all important sit down jobs. Having said that, I do need to work my ablutions around the cleaning ladies’ schedule. They insist on taking the towel when cleaning the room. They do not replace it for at least 3 to 4 hours. I can either get up and shower before they call or wait until they return a clean towel to me in the afternoon.

I have a plastic chair in my room now. One morning I was sitting on the bed in my room, playing my guitar, when the cleaning ladies called. They were delighted to see me playing and one of them left the room and promptly returned with a chair for me to sit in order that I may play more comfortably. They both stood still and watched me as I played a quick tune for them. After a brief round of applause and bowing and thanks and smiles they continued their duty of getting the room back into shape. It takes them, on average, 4 minutes to clean the room. The mattress is torn, stained and is caved in around the middle. The look they are going for in the room is the nicotine-stained walls with rising damp and the added water feature on the ceiling in the toilet is at no extra charge. On the wall is cellotaped a notice written in both Khmer and English; it details the guesthouse policy for guests. I shall now type it out for you verbatim, the English version that is...

Angkor Reach Guest House
Guesthouse Policy

We are managerment of Angkor Reach Guesthouse warmly welcome to the esteemed guests, who’s staying here. In order to ensure your safety and guesthouse proper please all ledies and gentlemen applies the following regulations.
1. Must fill out the registration form.
2. The period of staying day will be finished at 12.00 am of the following day.
3. Prohibited all king of gamble and prostitution act.
4. Prohibited to bring all kind fo guns, explosions, drugs and poisonous substance.
5. Prohibited cooking and using iron in the room, either smoking cigarettl.
6. Guesthouse in not responsible to any loss of your precious belongings including jewel, phone and money, which are not keeping in the guesthouse authorizer.
7. Guest will be charge of any damage or loss of the guesthouse property, if it ever happens.
8. Before living the room ever short time, please kindly switch off the light, air-conditioner, and water and give the key to the reception.
Thanks in advance!!!

I am not really complaining about the room I just want to share the experience with you guys. It hasn’t all been glamour and fun while being here in Cambodia. Of course I have been in better rooms; in fact I am sure I could get a better room for the same price somewhere else in the city. I was simply waiting for the bar job to work out before I moved rooms again. Chan Sras stayed in this room with me for three nights and speaking to her on the phone this morning she is insisting that she calls back up to me during the week and gets me sorted with a decent room for a month with lower rent. That’s fine with me, if she can deliver the goods.

At the moment I am trying to keep costs down by staying here. I take cold showers every day, I shave every other day with cold water. Today I made the monumental effort of eating at a roadside Cambodian restaurant. I ordered chicken fried rice and Chinese tea. I like the tea but it goes cold very quickly. I worked my way around the chicken, just eating the rice as I don’t think the chicken was cooked properly, perhaps next time I will just order fried rice with no meat. The bill came to 1.50 dollars, in fancier barang catering restaurants the same meal would have cost four to five dollars. Of course in the barang restaurants I wouldn’t be swatting multitudes of flies away from my plate as I tried to eat and worry about food poisoning. Chan Sras sat with me in the same Cambodian restaurant the other day and happily ate a bowl of what looked to me like pig spare parts with boiled rice. When I smoke a cigarette after my meal an ashtray is not needed, I am simply expected to throw the butt onto the floor.

It will be a miracle if I return home without an eating disorder. Like I said before I’m not complaining; just sharing the experience. The guesthouse is around the corner from a well-known nightclub called Heart of Darkness. Late at night there is a large crowd outside the night club, mainly rich Khmer kids with their bodyguards and large SUV type Lexus. Across the road from the nightclub can be found various types of food cooked on the side of the street. There is a van that sells hotdogs and French fries. I have been a customer on several occasions at this stage. Every night when I walk past the van the Cambodian lady leans out and waves at me, hoping, I suppose, that I will part with another dollar or two. That woman has saved my life on more than one occasion but frankly I don’t feel so grateful the next morning when I am crippled with heartburn.

I’d better go have a shave and shower and try to gain employment. Later folks.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Bar Tales


Not much to report of late. I'm still trying to motivate myself into looking for work teaching English. I did have a possibility of work recently. It was in a bar called Revolution. The deal was I would work two days a week and for that I would get free accommodation upstairs over the bar. A sweet deal I thought as accommodation is one of the main drains on finances. The bar is run by a very attractive girl called Anandi. It is owned by a guy called Alex but in my head I called him David Brent (from the office) as like Brent he has an inflated ego and is really quite irritating after about 30 seconds.

I worked one night and was told by Anandi that I did okay for the first night. I asked about the room. I was told that they would like me to work another night before they decided to go ahead with the agreement. They would definitely let me know after the second night.

I turned up for my third day of work, Anandi said she was happy with my work but that Alex wanted me to work another two nights before he came to a decision. I pre-empted him by deciding there and then that I wasn't going to work for him. I spent the next four hours drinking free beer as a way of payment for my two nights work.

Later, Alex called to the bar and I could see that he was wondering why I was sitting down at a table drinking beer rather than working. I called him over for a little chat. He admitted that I wasn't what he was looking for, he was looking for someone with a bit more 'pep' (translates as someone younger) he said he was sorry that it didn't work out but that Anandi wasn't really happy with my work. (I know who I believe). He insisted on buying me a beer. I accepted his kind offer but wasn't too sure if I could fit it in after the ten other beers he bought for me that he doesn't know about.

As I said there is nothing else really to report. I did witness something the other day that I found amusing. There is a bar around the corner from the guesthouse I am staying in. The bar is called 'Chilli's' and is a very well run girly type bar. When I arrived there were two British guys aged around their mid-fifties sitting at the bar. I sat at the far end of the bar and was just in time to see the drama unfold. When they received their bill one of them absolutely exploded with rage. He tried to climb over the bar and attack the owner. The owner (a German bloke) gave as good as he got and they wrestled a bit with armlocks and that sort of thing for a minute or two. Two of the girls jumped into the melee and eventually the angry Brit was lead from the bar by his mate who looked more resigned to being caught out and learning from the experience rather than getting into a punch up with the owner and the now attendant Cambodian security guard. The angry Brit left but not before calling the owner every bad name under the sun, with special emphasis on the 'c' word. He also promised he would be back to burn the place down.

After they left I got talking to the girls, two of which were quite drunk. Apparently the guys had been there for the last four hours and had insisted on buying the girls drink too. In this type of bar when you buy a girl a drink it costs the same as any other drink but with an extra dollar on top of the price. This extra dollar goes to the girl as a tip. The upshot of this was that the two guys were presented with a bill for 164 dollars. The average bill a customer will pay in a place like this is between 5 and 10 dollars.

Afterwards I walked home to my guesthouse and on the way stood against a wall waiting for two Cambodian guys to stop kicking the shit out of each other in the middle of the street. There was a large crowd around them and I didn't fancy walking through it. After a few minutes the fight had moved over to the far pavement and I was able to pass by unscathed.

So now folks it is coming up to make or break time. The funds have nearly disappeared and if I want to stay on here I will have to get some work soon.

Watch this space...

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Water Sports


Today being my last day in Sihanoukville we decided to go and spend some time at the Kbal Chhay Cascades. They are about 17kms outside of S’ville, so we hired a tuk-tuk to take us there. We made a party of five; myself, Chan Sras, her daughter Cristina, Chan Sras’ friend Narie, and I think Narie’s brother whose name escapes me right now. A price was agreed in advance for the tuk-tuk (12 dollars) and off we set. One or two stops were made on the way to pick up provisions.

I have included a picture of the market where we stopped to buy fruit, cans of soft drinks, beer and ice to keep it all chilled in a large bucket. If you look at the photo you will see a typical scene from all around Cambodia. Food is prepared and sold just metres away from rubbish strewn about the place. It was agreed that I would pay the tuk-tuk while Chan Sras and friends supplied the food, water and beer.

Before we left the town the tuk-tuk driver picked up two of his mates along the way. They obviously had nothing better to do and so came along for the craic. Off we went with the engine of the tuk-tuk straining to haul eight persons up the steep hill that leads out of Sihanoukville.

When we got there I saw only one other barang in the large crowd that swarmed about the cascades and raised picnic platforms. Naked children laughed and splashed about in the water. Shirtless men posed for photos while standing in the cascading waterfalls. For the women the style of swimwear was a bit more Victorian; fully dressed. I decided to leave my tee-shirt on as I didn’t fancy having all the Cambodians staring at my hairy arms and torso.

There is a succession of falls of varying height. We made our way up through them; the water was refreshingly cool for me and I relished the sensation of water pounding down on my head and shoulders. Better than any power shower I have ever experienced. When we reached a particularly narrow and deep stretch of water Chan Sras suggested we go back as she was afraid that snakes would be in the water. I had previously seen a black snake swimming in the river in Siem Reap, the thoughts of meeting one while standing up to my waist in water induced me to readily agree with her suggestion.

I had brought a change of clothes but didn’t bother using them. No one else saw any reason to get out of their wet clothes. Soaked through to the skin but drying out rapidly we piled into the tuk-tuk and headed back to town. I found the day’s activities to be a great way to spend my last day in Sihanoukville.

Last night a large open-air concert was held down by the beach. It was being televised and was sponsored by MTV. Its aim was to raise awareness of and to fight against human sex exploitation and trafficking. The place was crammed full of revellers hopping and bouncing about the place. A large stage had been set up with huge screens on either side of the performers so that those of us at the back could see more clearly what was going on. I grew bored quickly as it was your usual rap and hip-hop shite with sexy women prancing about and men shouting into microphones while clutching their testicles. I have no more to say on the subject.

While talking with Chan Sras yesterday I finally came to understand how the flat tyre on the motorbike scam works. Apparently she had tried to explain it to me the first night it happened but I hadn’t been listening properly. When I park my bike outside a bar there is usually a security guard there to watch over the bikes. If I tip him when I am going in, all will be well. If I don’t tip him he places something sharp between the grooves of the tyre. I am given a second chance to tip him when I come back out. If I tip him he claims that he thinks my tyre is going soft and examines it. With sleight of hand he will remove the sharp object and hey everyone’s happy. If I don’t tip, well we all know what happens, don’t we folks? That’s the situation; I either tip the security guard 2000 riel (50 cents) or pay five to seven dollars to have the inner tube replaced. There is a small cottage industry here, as I said in the last blog I posted, guys are sitting by the side of the road with new inner tubes should any hapless barang need one. What a country.

Yesterday morning as I picked at a really bad omelette I saw two monks across the road going about their business of collecting alms. Dressed in ochre robes, they carried large yellow umbrellas to protect their bald heads from the blazing sun. They stood outside each restaurant, bar, guesthouse or internet cafe; their begging bowls ready for all donations offered. A woman came out of one guesthouse and placed some food in their bowls; no eye contact was made. The woman then knelt on the ground before them, hands together in prayer she bowed three times. When finished she stood back up, turned about face and walked back into the guesthouse. The monks put the lids back on their bowls and walked on to the next establishment. Not a word had been exchanged between the monks and the woman. Not even a, ‘thanks for the grub missus’. All religions are pretty much the same around the world I guess.

Tomorrow I go back to Phnom Penh.

Some more photos

Even more photos