Friday, November 11, 2016

The Bloody Road to Kampot (or the trouble with Happy Pizzas, or the Acid Writing Conference, or the shame about the Hula-Holigans and the fear of technological acid meltdown.)

YOU’D BE forgiven for thinking the fogs of pollution hugging Phnom Penh’s airport tastes like the aftermath of some recent oil refinery explosion before you hit the herbal haze that permeates the bars and guesthouses.

The Place
Here we are on street 172, a Chinese man walks up and down the street selling locally sourced fabric money pouches… No, I don't want a Tuk-Tuk, or to jump on the back of your motorcycle, but, hey, thanks for asking. Opposite stands an establishment named the Black Pearl, next to that a printing shop, and here we are at the White River Guesthouse.  

A Westerner with Eastern leanings wears a turban and smokes something life-enhancing in a clay pipe while his hands dance to an inaudible rhythm.

Trip Advisor has a lot to answer for.

Sign into the guestbook.

Name: James Newman
Occupation: Acid Crime Writer.
Permanent address: Here, man.

“What are you here for?”

“Here for the readers and writer’s convention.”

Bell boy nods sagely and points to my luggage and hands me a key.  

Upstairs my room, number 303, has a mirrored wardrobe that I'm too scared to open.

You know that old dead body in a wardrobe trick that the Cambodians like to pull on you?


Well, you should do.

The moment you open the door and take a peek inside at the decomposing corpse you’re part of the freaking conspiracy.

Then they got you. 

The Product
So let sleeping dogs, or rotting corpses, lie, or die, or whatever they do, but never open the closet door in a five dollar hotel room in Phnom Penh.

There's a funeral party right across the street, bells jingle jangle, the intermittent wailing of holy men. Maybe they slipped the body out of the ceremony and hid it in my wardrobe?

What other party tricks do these people play?

Downstairs in the restaurant none of the staff have it in them to switch on the electric fans. One US dollar gets me a cup of rich syrupy coffee. Two locals come inside play pool and proposition the waitress, she manages to glare back and hits them both with what can only be an ancient Khmer curse. 

The first man wears a ratty T-shirt with a Lamborghini badge on the breast pocket as he flashes some local currency around but he’s kidding no one. Perhaps he is the murderer of the corpse in my closet, maybe a contract killer, foolishly throwing around ill-earned gains as his victim enters stage one rigor mortis in the mirrored wardrobe of room 303.  
Now my mind’s racing from a contact high from that Trustafarian who’s smoking at the bar, and that body in the wardrobe upstairs has probably been grasped out of its resting place, filched to another room, to another unsuspecting wardrobe-door-opening-mark.

Decide to order from the menu but the service is slow, wait almost an hour for a can of coke, food takes longer, apparently, much longer.


Must be still moving the body, then.

Or perhaps this is a trick to make the place look fuller, get more customers inside, maybe I’m being paranoid, maybe it’s the coffee?

Maybe they spiked me?

You get that feeling a lot here.

Happy Pizza joints stand proudly all over the proverbial shop in the city, alas not one single “Anxiety-ridden-terrible-fear-of-sudden-death-pizza-joint,” and not a single “Huge-overwhelming-regret-brought-on-by-sudden-waves-of-inexplicable-empathy-flooding-thru-my-mind-like-a-terrible-locomotive-of-cruel-self-realization-pizza-joint.”

Oh no, it’s all Happy Pizza.

Happy. Happy. Happy.
Like I say, I’m here for the Acid Conference.

I’m here for ART.

Instead of ART I gingerly tip-toe back up to room 303 and stare at that mirrored wardrobe door knowing whatever inside radiates awful malevolent properties.

One day I shall return to that cupboard and conquer my fear, for what evil within it shall be quashed by the benevolent strength of my acid-flexed psychological muscle.

But all in good time.

Next day I meet the International Man of Mystery.

International Man of Mystery

The Man, as he is also sometimes known, lives out of a suitcase and has no visible means of financial support, but is always well funded and supportive of the ARTS and at his hotel he had booked a cab and a driver to this end. 

Our driver, let’s call him Sam, was quick to tell us he was an orphan and the circumstances of how he acquired his brand new SUV were “a long story,” two hours later Sam has told us about how he grew up in his family village where the roads were filled with pot holes you could throw a pool party in. 

How these two stories gelled both a mystery to both I and to the International Man of Mystery, and probably to you, the reader too, but we’ve all been thrown some tall stories by cabbies before.  

Casually I ask our driver Sam if he is also performing at the fiction festival, and for a terrifying moment I think he understands me as he races in between lanes of fierce traffic, me and the Man of Mystery trying to keep our conversation poignant, knowing that each and every line spoken could well be our last.  

We arrive at the festival and survey the area.

First panel was Crime fiction.

“What are you doing for female authors in the region?”

Well, teaching six year olds English every day in school isn’t a bad start, I suppose. 

Being a crime writer from Bangkok has its moments, but one of the most testing is when you’re cast as a misogynist; in my books, the women outsmart the men every time, if you don’t read them you won’t know that, but making that assumption isn’t a crime – even if you’re a woman.

Crime panel over, I head off to Couch Potatoes for a well- deserved beer and a chat with the owner who along with the taxi driver had some of the best stories in town that week.

The Hula-Lady Yolanda Iseley is from Glastonbury performs magical moves with flashing lights inside her hula-hoop with arts group Hula-Holigans. 

The idea was obvious, to ask her to perform at the Acid Writing event the following night. Sadly the dance wasn’t to be. Technical difficulties at the theater, and well, we didn’t end the night on the high we’d expected and I’ll regret that we didn’t end the show with a dance, but the talks just about made up for it. 

Rapping about Burroughs and the 1960s counter culture will never be a chore, it was a joy, even Neal Cassidy got himself a mention.

And then the festival was over, the long drive back to the city, the guesthouse, and the wardrobe awaited me.

Back in room 303 I decide to do it.

Open the wardrobe door.

Inside sits one hand-rolled cigarette.

Should I be terrified or ecstatic?

Or both?

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