Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Shocking Asia

Shocking would be the only word for it if I tallied how much beer I've consumed in the last five days and how little exercise I've done. Yes, Legion of Fans (LOF) it is a hard life researching top secret non fiction books... but a good life if you don't weaken.

I'm currently working on a synopsis for a third biography (my second co-written biography, WAR DOGS, by Shane Bryant and me comes out next week, so stand by for lots of shameless self promotion in the near future).

All I can tell you is that it's set in south-east Asia and, as a result, I was able to con (I mean beg for permission from) Mrs Blog into letting me jet off without her. My trip took me to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and then to Chiang Mai in Thailand - two places I'd never been before.

I think I received more wishes of good luck and heartfelt messages to be safe preparing for this trip than I did when I went to Afghanistan. Probably a good thing, too, because there was little risk that my liver would give out in Afghanistan, as opposed to here (I'm writing this from Chiang Mai). All I did in Afghanistan was sit behind a desk and drink coffee, where as here I was treading the mean streets of the seedier parts of the two countries I've been visiting.

Yes, LOF, you won't believe this, but in order to immerse myself in the research for this book I had to visit several girlie bars in the red light districts of PP and CM. I know... can you believe it? The things I go through for you, gentle reader.

Being in deep cover I had to do my best to blend in with the local expats. This necessitated me pushing out my beer belly to maximum bloat, and keeping my fluids up with a constant stream of Angkor Beer in Cambodia, and a tasty new drop I discovered in and around Chiang Mai called Leo.

Cambodia was very interesting and it got me thinking about Zimbabwe. Yes, Zimbabwe.

Cambodia, the country once known as Kampuchea, was devestated under the evil rule of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. Millions of people killed and the country's infrastructure was wound back to year zero. The place was, in a word, rooted.

So it was with some surprise that the first thing I noticed getting off the Thai Airways flight from Bangkok - apart from the 45-degree heat - was just how modern and booming Phnom Penh looked. OK, the Khmer Rouge have been gone a long time now, but I was still amazed by how good the roads were and how much new construction and development was going on around the place.

Several people told me it was a different story out in the rural areas, however. Cambodia remains a very poor country overall, but there is an undeniable buzz in the city. Rapid development, of course, brings with it corruption, greed, theft etc etc and there's a bit of all that around if you scratch the surface, but the place is very much alive.

Getting back to Zimbabwe, the loss of human life hasn't been anywhere near as bad as it was in Cambodia (although the comrade president will one day have to be brought to account for the thousands of people murdered in Matabeleland in the early 80s at his order) and the infrastructure, while crumbly, is still kind of, sort of, in place. Seeing the foreign investment (whether it's good or bad) returning to Phnom Penh made me hope that I'll see that kind of surge in the Zimbabwean economy one of these days.

'Enough of the serious stuff and back to the girly bars,' I hear you say.

"No," I say, "Mrs Blog sometimes reads this blog!" Instead, I'll talk about the best place for a drink in Phnom Penh, the Foreign Correspondents' Club, or FCC as we FC's say. Here's me enjoying a chilled Angkor Draft in the bar overlooking the Mekong River.

The FCC is very old-world colonial pukkah and just the sort of ceiling-fan and leather-armchair place you'd expect to see war-weary, dissipated, corrupted old journos (like me) hanging out. My only regret was that I didn't have my safari suit with me.

Cambodia is the new Thailand when it comes to sex tourism and people trafficking (and there's a bit of a clue what the next book will be about, if I can get a publishing deal for it). Many of the working girls are from Vietnam, who've either travelled or been trafficked to Cambodia for money. Not very nice.

Phnom Penh moves at a different speed than other parts of Asia I've visited. Maybe it's the heat (incredible at this time of the year, just before the monsoon season starts), but there was a definite second-gear feel about the place. I got in a Tuk Tuk and I thought the engine must have been buggered because the driver didn't get above about 10km/h despite the lack of serious traffic. The second and third ones that I travelled in were just as slow - it wasn't the engines, just the laid back drivers.

As I watched the sun set over the Mekong River I adjusted my pace to suit the moment, and cracked a frosty bottle of Angkor and thought how sad it was that so many people had died for nothing, and how even a resurgent boom could bring its own suite of new problems. But Cambodia is on the up, however slowly, while Zimbabwe is still on the way down.

But the Walkabout Bar was beckoning, so it was back to work I went.

Shocking. Asia.


Cinema and Fiction said...

Hey Tony,

Sounds like a good research trip. :)

PS: If you're still there when you read this, I have it on good authority that the kickboxing and Mekong whiskey are quite good in Chiang Mai.


tonypark said...

Too late, sadly, steve, although whiskey knocks me out and I don't think I'd last long in the kickboxing ring.

Big night last night, though. Flying home through bangkok now.

RobertLW said...

Wearing a Tusker beer t-shirt, I see.