Monday, April 21, 2014

Sailboats and wishing wells

It’s not the saying goodbye. If you’re an expat, you already know how to do this; it’s one of the first things you learn and you get a lot of practice. It’s the not knowing if the relationships you send off with ceremony, celebration and the deepest good wishes will make it across time and space. You’ll only know a month or five later when you’re still Whatsapping every three days, or barely featuring on each other’s Facebook newsfeeds. And you can only hope that if it’s the latter, it will be an equal moving on on both sides, and nobody will be left with one hand stretched out awkwardly. Both parties will move on, find new connections, new rhythms. Whether the old ones will adapt and survive is anybody's guess. You take a chance on loving them, they take a chance on loving you*. And that’s about all you can do. Maybe that’s why expats seem to drink so much more than any other group of people.

*I didn’t invent the lovely line, Katie Melua did.

Friday, April 04, 2014

The other Phnom Penh

The lychee Caipiroska is excellent. The walls are a matte British racing green. The furniture is lightish wood and grainy leather. The music is hipster house, as is the clientele. I, in my glamorous solitude, fit right in. The manager, assuming resident not tourist, comes over to give me her card and express surprise at never having seen me before. I tell her it's because she doesn't have WiFi. Which may have been true if I lived here – we in Asia consider free WiFi our most important birthright. It seems as if the less free the government, the more freely available the Internet access. It’s all part of the complexity that makes it equal parts exhilarating and frustrating.

The next stop is European, in the Hollywood sense of the word. Ceilings vault upwards, walls are bare stone, furniture is sparse. The people are long, lean and effortlessly chic in tiny nondescript t-shirts, minimum make up, barely-there jewellery. Having done this sort of thing a lot in Saigon, I am completely at home, though sporting more shiny things on my person than everyone else here combined.

The one after that is at the other end of the scale, with a bar counter of the poshest concrete, and music of the kind that must have been on the Billboard charts this morning. My body language automatically changes - chin up, shoulders back, sweep in as if that velvet rope is an automatic door, before they bounce you for wearing the wrong shoes. At 9:30pm, I'm too early for a place like this, but there are some other early customers, clouds of perfume and clothes I saw in the Feb issue of Vogue go past me to the VIP area.

As the evening progresses, the crowd is exclusively Khmer, and exclusive by any standard. The “DJ booth" is a whole bank of them spinning as if the Earth's movement depended on it. Sparklers glitter at a surprising number of tables on bottles of Taittinger and Zapaca, making you wonder what on earth could possibly be in the VIP area. The Sambuca shot here is a multi-tier fireshow extravaganza. People are ordering Blue Frogs by the pitcher, absinthe shots by the dozen. It isn't long before I'm gathered into someone's girls' night out. One absinthe shot to Sho Cho’s in Dubai, one Blue Frog to a dive called Jimmy Dix, another drink to real friends, everywhere, and I'm off. Except... Timber comes on, my new companions are fun, and nobody has yet ordered the drink that requires the two-foot straw. When I finally do get out, I'm surprised to find no line of beige Dubai taxis. The tuk-tuks do the job just as efficiently but my confusion is a testimonial to the quality of the club.

My next stop is all brushed steel and silk. If the last club was about money, this one is about power, the patrons not needing sparklers to validate their importance. I end my Saturday Night pilgrimage at a place that can only be described as uber. I have no idea what sort of stuff it’s built of, place and people both, they’re all just… uber. I leave very soon, this kind of thing not being my scene. I like sparklers and fireshows.

This view of Phnom Penh was extended the next morning as I wandered through the designer boutiques on Street 240, sampled handmade chocolates, and discussed the Indian elections with a café owner over Sauvignon Blanc and baguettes.

But when I leave that night, I am – unnervingly – the only flight departing from an international airport. The runway is empty except for a solitary ATR in the distance. And since there are only 12 passengers, it feels a little bit like a secret witness relocation program.

I never did find out what the two-foot straws are for.

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