Down And Out In Phnom Penh And Kathmandu
hat follows is a selection of recent correspondence between myself and my oft-neglected Moleskine notebook, UK Associate Editor Nick Southall, my Dad, and well—you guys. Dates have been omitted to protect the lethargic.
After one last, epic jaunt across Thailand listening to Blur, I crossed the land border into Cambodia last week. I spent a few days with a friend in Siem Reap, looking at the ancient temples of Angkor and a “floating” village, population three thousand. It was pretty cool, but I’m not here to tell you about that. Just this afternoon I arrived in the capital, Phnom Penh, and it’s as dizzy and dirty as any of the North Indian cities I’ve seen, but there’s something here that I really dig. Not sure what yet, but I’ll keep you posted.
As for work, I’m on the home straight now: one article from here, perhaps a feature about Che and those other Jazz Upstairs guys back in Kathmandu, and then one from home, about contrasts (probably). And I know what this article will be about anyway. I’ve known for almost a year now. See, I read in a travel guide about Cambodia that Duncan Kilburn from the Psychedelic Furs runs a bar out here in Phnom Penh. It has good food and an open-mic policy on musical entertainment, apparently, so it should be a good night out too. What makes a guy like that leave a band and come and work out here? Perhaps it’s the same reason I dig this country. Can’t wait to find out anyway, and I’m going to go and start on that right now.
I could turn to books or music or films for advice here but I don't think that in this case it would do much good.
Allow me to explain. I'm in Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia. You may remember me droning on about one of The Psychedelic Furs (a band I was only starting to get into before departure) running a bar out here. I went out to find it last night, and a group of the local moto drivers burst the bubble. The bar shut down a few years ago.
Further investigation (read: time spent in bars) has shown that this could be an interesting story anyway. I've just been talking to an Australian bloke who's been here for 10 years, and he was able to tell me a lot about it. Duncan opened his first bar in Hong Kong, and it was successful enough for him to open another here and “fuck around for a bit,” just to see if he could make it work. Evidently it didn't, and he retreated in a cloud of debt and local embarrassment with his Vietnamese wife and a midget called Mark. They used to call him Mark The Midget.
I'm meeting the woman who used to manage the bar in a couple of days, and from the stories that emerged this evening I think there should be enough material for an article about this place; it seems to have left quite a legacy.
But there’s something else.
Paul Gadd, better known as Gary, lives about five miles from the city centre. I’ve been assured I can get hold of his address in the blink of an eyelid. He will almost definitely not talk to me, since the international media descended upon him for a week when he first exiled. As I understand it, the Cambodian government threw him out as a result of the furore, but he contested and won on the grounds that he had already served a jail sentence for his crime.
Obviously there are some problems with all of this.
Your column isn't really about music, which is why it's so good—it's about you, and about the thing's you’re seeing.
A while ago Alexis Petridis wrote an article in The Guardian about trying to find Kraftwerk's studio. He didn't find it. The article ended up just being about the search. It was quite interesting. Yours sounds even more interesting, especially considering the fact that you don't really know anything about The Psychedelic Furs. That sounds like a bizarre hook to me.
And don't be afraid of talking to Gary Glitter. In fact, I think that would be fantastic.
So everything just changed. You join me now in Phnom Penh’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club (now, post-war, open to all), where I’m trying to savour the dying seconds of feeling important. As a writer (because if that’s not what I was then it’s what I became in Asia, amongst other things), I feel like I really hit my stride out here. It was fun pretending to be more important than I actually am—interviewing high-ranking pop stars, spending copious amounts of time in dingy DJ booths, sitting in places like this with my Moleskine and an iced coffee—come on, you can see the appeal, right?
A lot of people travelling in these parts need a reality check, and I’m about to get one. Last night I was involved in a motorbike accident whilst on the way to some shady reggae party or other. It wasn’t too serious, and fortunately all of my injuries were restricted to one foot, but the hospitals out here aren’t so good and I can’t walk around so well right now. Obviously the planned visit to Glitter’s compound is off, and I’m ducking out. I’m heading home.
We know you’re having problems getting your flight date changed, but we’re very concerned about your foot. Your gran said not to worry about money, so if it means booking business class for an earlier flight, then just go ahead. We will also help if needs be.
Just get home, okay?
I have some explaining to do.
I’ve been home a fortnight, and I’ve been intermittently wrestling with Get Miles for much of that time. It became very apparent that only one more article would be necessary—possible even—since shortly after the accident I found myself restricted to Kathmandu with very little left to say about the music in that city. What was worse—I was trapped—the tourist district’s DJ set-cum-mafia were still hounding me about my nightclub piece from earlier in the year—and the airline had no economy class spaces on their flights for what seemed like an unbearable period of time.
It’s a hard thing to convey—the boredom, the dissatisfaction, the mindless repetition of those last two weeks—without appearing ungrateful. I adored my time in South Asia, all that culture, spontaneity, frenzy, and everything else you’ll already know about if you’ve been reading this. The music too: the discovery, the freedom to explore and exploit (for the greater journalistic good, of course), and the professional dimension it gave to my trip. But the fact remains; however much I love the city, I’d done all I wanted in Kathmandu. I was frustrated—I have unfinished business in Phnom Penh and indeed all over Cambodia. Ultimately, I’m not just talking about the article. I’m not just talking about the music. Actually, I don’t think I ever was.
All good things,
Stay tuned for a forthcoming piece on Colin’s Top Ten Songs From Get Miles.
By: Colin Cooper
Published on: 2005-06-30