Monday, June 11, 2012

Phnom Penh weekend #2: The last

Friday night: White linen table cloths, pasta, wine. The trek to the Irish pub doesn't pay off; the music is shrill and the crowd building up to match. Our plan to go clubbing takes an earlier course than intended.

Two blocks away, the music is pumping outside. The bouncers do a genuine pat-down here; the combination of alcohol, guns and entitlement is potent. Inside, laser lights bounce off red velvet curtains and crystal chandeliers, while fake Angkor statues brood in the corners. Apart from a few guys playing pool, we are the only customers, the space echoing around us as the DJ's macbook plays his set list. He can't be bothered and sits at the bar instead.

The bored girls in halter tops aren't customers. They check facebook and nurse their beers, cast a desultory eye over us - one guy, four girls, no interest - and turn back to their phones. One of us has spent the week interviewing prostitutes, but she isn't going to bring her work to theirs. 

Gradually the place starts to fill up. One young Khmer guy's t-shirt asks the reader to hug him; his friend duly obliges. Gay night, or rich kids in Bieber haircuts? We can't really tell.

As the crowd swells, we head downstairs to the dance floor. Expat guys in their 40s & 50s, mostly on their own, do the traditional pan-Western shuffle as the Khmer boys wiggle in groups. The hostesses drag themselves from their seats and start to dance at the railings, or do laps up & down the stair case in diamante stilettos. We can only keep up our enthusiasm for so long before we pop out onto the street, searching for late night snacks and a tuktuk home. No business here.

Saturday, we enter the concrete and barbed wire that was S21 prison, where the mugshots of the dead echo through every room. The torture was going on here the year I was born, and the "No laughing" signs aren't necessary. 

Afterwards, a completely superficial distraction is required, and we have the resources to detach when we want to. Cuban night, but this time it's the expats on show.

The Latin band have their choreography sorted out, the brass players dripping with sweat as they turn with the rhythm. But reggaeton is quite a sight, and the restaurant courtyard is visible from the street. The two female singers, in tiny white shorts, give it their all, and the moto drivers crowd five deep in appreciation.

Again, I'm not at home here, and the images of the day clamour in my brain. I can't dance tonight, not with the fatigue of this morning. The glass between myself and Khmer society has cracked a little, and threatens to cut me.

I can't dance and I can't watch these girls dance - not Latinas, not Khmer. I can't watch these men watching them, the power to purchase and the powerlessness of the street. I can't watch the faces in the prison, watching me through the camera, watching their captors as they were captured for eternity. I can retreat to my white linen sheets and lock my door, but I can't maintain the illusion, not today.

Does témoignage apply here?

It's all I can manage.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Religion, election, Nicole Kidman

It's the commune (local) elections this weekend. The Cambodian People's Party has been in power since the 90s, and under other names since before that. The legitimacy of this depends on who you happen to be talking to... which is one reason not to.

The streets have been full of demonstrations for several weeks. Yesterday, a campaign truck blasting political K-Pop woke me at 6, and the background buzz of amplified music filtered through the office windows all day. The major street a few hundred metres away was blocked with a wall of tuk-tuks, all with huge loudspeakers lined up in a row. Slow convoys of thirty trucks wind through the streets, each carrying 50 or 60 people cheering and waving flags, their free caps all matching.

It's all pretty light hearted. At least it seems so.

Everyone knows who will win anyway.