My dear friend,
The heat in Phnom Penh hasn’t eased up, shows no sign of easing up. It’s only going to get hotter from here on in. Surprisingly I’m managing pretty well. The white hanky that you left behind with me is an absolute godsend. It has mopped up litres of sweat in the last few days. Invaluable. I’m going to give it a good rinse tonight. It’s already stained and dusty…
Also finding that coconut juice is the way forward for rehydration. Green coconuts are available everywhere, and some street vendors refrigerate them too, for a lovely sweet mineral-rich burst of goodness.
Everything we’ve eaten here is good. You can get a proper feed for $1.50 and a good coffee for about 60 cents. I’m keen to try one of the bizarre bean/jelly/sticky rice/sweetened condensed milk/shaved ice beverages that you see around the place from time to time. Icy cold drinks are everywhere: iced coffee, iced tea, iced sugarcane juice, iced coconut, iced beer…
Every tuk tuk driver and man with a motorbike wants to solicit your custom, but they’re pretty good natured and tend to accept refusals well when accompanied by a smile and a firm ‘no’. Definitely shades of India here in Phnom Penh – the smiles, the stench, the meeting of east and west, the aspiration and the liveliness. The traffic too! Mumbai mixed with Pondicherry might be the best way to describe the vibe.
The boys were late-late coming in last night after a gig at ‘Top Banana’ followed by an even later late-night gig at ‘Love Bar’. I knew they’d want a sleep in, so snuck off this morning at about 8am to enjoy the streets before they were too hot, take in some scenery and a visit to the National Museum. The shade was long on the pavement and on a pretty tree-lined street I saw a group of 6 young monks in robes receiving alms (food) in the big silver urns/bowls that they carry.
The majority of works at the Museum were sandstone sculptures of Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesh, Buddha and Lakshmi. There was also pottery, timber sculptures, costumes, bronzes and weapons on display. The building was a huge red-tiled colonial affair with shuttered windows and a central courtyard with fishponds and flowering lotus. Very pretty.
On the way back to our hotel I came across a Western-style bakery and bought a delicious loaf of raisin bread. The texture and flavour akin to a really good croissant or brioche. I do have a soft spot for all things flour. In The Odyssey the characters make frequent reference to ‘bread eaters’ – as a mark of humanity, the opposite of barbarism, what distinguishes us as a race. Looking forward to sinking my teeth into a loaf of Dan’s sourdough when I get back.
My ‘Thai Tattoo’ (motorbike burn) is completely healed up. Scab gone. Just a scar now. The body heals well! I thought about your poor hands when I did it (the flaming baclava butter), and the Vietnamese children that got burnt by agent orange during the war, and my tiny hurt faded into oblivion. The human mind and body is extremely well equipped for suffering. It knows how to bear it, and sometimes bears the unthinkable…. I think now of those who were tortured, mortified, brutalised and starved during the terror of the Khmer Rouge days… and elsewhere in the world. Now and in other times.
The riverfront esplanade, in the early evening, is a pageant of hopelessness and aspiration. The ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ rub shoulders until chafed and irritable, renouncing one another and the city. The poor cup their hands like supplicants and the rich flaunt their wealth in the form of leisure. The view of the river at sunset, however, is enjoyed equally by all.
On Valentine’s Day Richie and I strolled the whole length of the riverfront, from one hot end to the other. The water sat absurdly low in the riverbed. Barely enough buoyancy to support the boats that ply the route, cashing in on tourism and commerce. People do aerobics here, out in the open, as they do in China. Did I tell you that daytime pyjama-wearing is all the rage?
You can sail all the way on the river from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, and from Siem Reap to the French stronghold of Battambang. An intensely uncomfortable and overcrowded journey, if the accounts of other travellers are to be believed. And yet, I still feel inexplicably drawn to do it. Reasonable discomfort is no deterrent. But perhaps the threat of heat and exposure is…
At night, the streets smell of jasmine. The moon is a hair’s breadth past half, and grows fatter daily from the bottom up. Traffic whirs. I’ve learned to dance through it like a pilgrim on her way to the temple, trusting in the divine intuition of drivers and motorcyclists. They haven’t let me down yet.
There’s a fruit, I think it’s breadfruit, that grows on trees with leaves very much like acanthus, primordial and lucid green. The kings ashes glow neon in the purpose-built pavilion wedged between the National Museum and the riverside. We made a pilgrimage there the other night. A carnival atmosphere. Family picnics and young lovers squawking like hens. There was a remarkable Bodhi tree that I sat under, in site of the Independence Monument.
Tomorrow we leave for Siem Reap, gateway to Angkor Wat. I feel as if something extraordinary is in store.
I’ve been reading about Tenochitlan, the ancient Aztec capital, in the book I’ve been reading about Mexico, Barabara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna. The same city that Cortez scorched and scattered, and mighty Montezuma forsook in all his foolishness. Is the mystery and allure of ancient civilisations something that is universally felt. Narcissism? Perhaps not. Gateway to another way of living/being. Goodness knows, we need some new/old models! Ancient futures…
You’re doing alright though, aren’t you? No need for another way of being, not unless you desire it.
Sometimes I feel so exultant and humbled by my great good fortune in life that I do not want to shift too much in my seat for fear of displacing my happiness. At times like this I stoutly remind my self that life will deliver more hurt, more loss and grief that I can ever imagine, to which I promptly respond by sending telepathic messages to my future self, reminding me to bear up and suffer the pain without too much disquiet, and a healthy show of grace and magnanimity. Because life has been good, is good and will be good again.
We will share that goodness again, together, some time soon.
All my love.
Wing your words to me.