Say 'no' to drugs

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I am sitting here trembling, on the edge of an anxiety attack. I have just spelled Phnom Penh six different ways, and none of them looks right. I am agitated, unfocused, confused. I have to stop doing these terrible drugs.

On reflection, beginning my day with what M. calls a "crackaccino" – a stiff shot of Vietnamese coffee mixed with sweetened condensed milk – was probably not the smartest move for someone whose coffee intake typically amounts to about three cups a year under normal circumstances. I don't think dramamine does me much good either; the pill I took on the speedboat the other day just made me feel dopey and uncomfortable, although that may have been the result of a sleepless night and the vicious muay thai video.

Nor will I be sampling the 'happy herb pizza' from the waterfront restaurants on Preah Sissowath (while a pizza margarita con marijuana is probably not legal, enforcement in anarchic Cambodia seems a little lacking just now: maybe when they can finally muster up a government, they'll get around to deciding to enforce some laws). I shall say 'no' to all drugs, beginning with the legal ones. Nancy Reagan would be proud of me.

Meanwhile, life in Phnom Penh is sufficiently surreal that drugs seem superfluous. Last night we went to see the US embassy-sponsored jazz concert at the Chaktomuk conference center. When the ambassador declared that our joy at welcoming the visiting jazzmen from Virginia must necessarily be tempered by our collective sadness at the passing of the former president, the little blonde intern from Michigan practically choked, and there was a mass rolling of eyes across the entire audience. And then things got stranger.

Quite what prompted the US embassy to decide that a jazz concert was the occasion for a show of US-Islamic understanding – in a country whose population is more than 95% Buddhist – I don't know, but suddenly we were knee-deep in musical Muslim munchkins, a troop of tiny figures in what looked very much like brilliantly colored pyjamas, belting out catchy little numbers with winning titles like “The Quran encourages us to do good things” and “Islam is about reconciliation”. I'm sorry to say that certain members of the audience were seen fleeing the concert hall as the gaily-colored tots launched into their second fingernails-on-a-blackboard number. The Quranic poetry readings that followed were rather less grating (but no less unintelligible). Unfortunately, the long pauses between suras took more than one audience member by surprise, and there were some embarassing moments when premature applause was swiftly cut off by another burst of chanting.

Home at last, and a slow spiral around the Independence Monument in the rain, my left foot trailing on the freshly-wet roadway as I perched on the pillion of S's moto, while she poncho-shrouded, made cheerful smalltalk with her driver. At least it was late enough that the streets were all but empty – the early-rising Khmers were all in bed, so we were spared the Symplegades of SUVs that usually lies in wait for unwary moto passengers trying to negotiate the traffic circle around the Monument.

Back at our guesthouse, CNN had switched into all-Reagan, all-the-time mode, showing every last footstep of the defunct ex-president's journey to Washington. Truly, the shadow of the Gipper is very long.