Category Archives: Cambodia

86-year-old comedienne Lynn Ruth Miller casts an eye over Cambodia

Lynn Ruth: branching out in SE Asia

The irrepressible and apparently indefatigable British-based American comic and occasional burlesque performer Lynn Ruth Miller recently returned from another of her globetrotting trips. Here she is, in Part 1 of a 4-part jaunt…


This was my third time in Asia but my second time in Cambodia.  The anticipation and excitement in this trip was getting to see people I have grown to love.

The man who books me in Cambodia is a prince. His name is Dan Riley and he is a kind, thoughtful man and a devoted father to his 8-year-old daughter whom he calls The Curley Girly. When I saw her last, she was six years old, shy and very quiet. This year, however, she has developed attitude. She is as tall as I am (which isn’t that difficult to achieve) and locked to her mobile phone.  

This visit, Dan has an assistant, JB, who helps him get people to the comedy shows he produces, run the shows and take care of the visiting comedians.  

In Cambodia, especially, comedians come to do shows from all over the area.  Dan works closely with Nick Ross in Saigon, Don Dockery in Hanoi, Eamonn Sandler in Jakarta (all British), Umar Rana in Singapore and Matthew Wharf in Bangkok plus various others in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Pakistan, and beyond to create tours for international comedians with big names and little nothings like me.

I have grown inordinately fond of all these men and now, instead of coming here to this part of the world only for comedy, I return because I want to see them all again and find out how they are.

You cannot just enter most of these countries without a visa – tourism is a money-making operation these days.  

In Cambodia, you must pay $35 American dollars to get a visitor’s visa. American money has become an international currency in this part of the world and in Cambodia and Vietnam you can often pay for products in that currency and receive your change in the country’s currency.  

JB was waiting for me at the airport and we took a cab to the same hotel I stayed in the last time: The House Boutique Eco Hotel.  

The “charming” House Boutique Eco Hotel, Phnom Penh

It is a charming hotel with a big swimming pool, a rustic bar and lovely, understated rooms, nothing like the Hilton or the Ramada. The rooms are small but adequate with a sink in front of the shower and toilet rooms with air conditioners that sometimes work and showers that eventually give you hot water if you wait long enough. You cannot drink the tap water in most of these countries. The hotels give you a ration of bottled water and a fully equipped fridge filled with beer that you pay for. 

Phnom Penh is a crowded city. The roads are clogged with cars, bumper to bumper and they are all lined with open shops where people sell anything and everything. The air is thick and pungent and the humidity makes it almost suffocating for me. Evidently, you get used to it if you live here.  

The saving grace here is the people.  

Cambodians are smiling, welcoming human beings and it is sad to me that the expats are all living lives far more luxurious than they would in more Westernized countries. But the natives are very poor and work long hours to earn enough to feed their families. There is no such thing as disposable income for them.  

Everyone you meet has an interesting story because they have all decided to leave the place where they were born for more opportunities and different lifestyles. 

JB is British and so is his wife, but they have lived all over the world. Many of the expats here teach English at various levels and his wife teaches in a university.  Dan Riley does promotion for a casino. Running a comedy club is a not very lucrative sideline for both Dan and JB though both have hopes of doing comedy eventually on a professional level. 

The Box Office venue, Phnom Penh

I arrived on a Friday evening and my show was the next day at The Box Office, the same place I was in the last time. It is upstairs in a small bar. The show is in a small room that Dan and JB pack with people. The overflow watch the show on a video downstairs.    

The host this time was Paul Glew, a very funny competent performer who has lived in Phnom Penh for a long time. Usually the line-ups are all male but not this time. Dan had also booked a local woman and Francesca Flores, a female comedian who is now living in Saigon but who will be joining the Peace Corps in Guatemala in 2020. Women are finally getting noticed in this all-male, very white profession.  

The house was filled to overflowing and included a lovely, well-behaved dog, which is more than I can say for most of the rest of us, probably because the dog only drank (bottled) water.  

I performed the entire last half this time, which was also a wonderful experience for me because, the first time I was there, I featured for Gina Yashere (always an honor). This time I was the headliner… so I had graduated to a higher level!!!   

I had a late afternoon plane back to Bangkok the next day, so Dan kept me company for a bit before JB took me to the airport. The waiting area at the gate was very crowded and London has spoiled me. 

I expect people to stand up and offer me their seats when I appear, now that I am of a certain age – much as they once swooned with admiration when I was younger.  

Evidently, in Cambodia it is only the children who get special consideration.  

However, as I stood there trying to create sufficient guilt to get someone to notice that I was standing, a woman got up, gave me her seat and then said something I could not understand to someone I assume was her husband.  

He took out his phone and showed me text in English that said: “How old?”  

I typed in “86” and everyone oh-ed and ah-ed and whispered to one another.  

I felt like a museum piece. 

…CONTINUED HERE
…IN BANGKOK, SAIGON, HANOI and JAKARTA…

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The government suggested they could turn the whole country into a Walt Disney theme park – the whole country

Schoolchildren - not yet Mouseketeers - in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 1989

Children (not Mouseketeers) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 1989

This is a true story.

In 1989, I was in Cambodia and Vietnam.

Eleven years after that – today fourteen years ago – in the year 2000 – I had lunch in London with a chum who had recently worked for the Walt Disney company, dealing with licensing for Walt Disney in South East Asia. He told me that, in Cambodia, a government official had suggested they could turn the whole country into a Walt Disney theme park – the whole country.

After some consideration, the idea was not proceeded with, possibly because of the thought of land mines. Mickey Mouse having his legs blown off is probably not an attractive PR image.

But it is interesting that basic capitalist ideas – even then, in 2000 – were spreading across South East Asian countries.

In his South East Asian Disney hat, my chum also wanted to hire the Rex Hotel in Saigon, Vietnam, one morning for a presentation. Unfortunately, the Rex Hotel was owned by Saigon Tourism, which owned large chunks of real estate all over Vietnam and was probably second only to the government in political and economic power. This inevitably meant bureaucracy.

Saigon, as I saw it from the roof of the Rex Hotel in 1989

Saigon, as I saw it from the roof of the Rex Hotel back in 1989

So, when my chum phoned to ask the cost of renting the Rex, he was called in to a meeting with the boss of Saigon Tourism. My chum arrived with his translator and was shown into a boardroom with a vast rectangular conference table where, inevitably, they were kept waiting for ages. Eventually, the bossman came in with twelve advisors, heads of departments and top executives. My chum and his small translator sat on one side of the table; the bossman and his twelve executives with briefcases and bundles of papers sat on the other side.

Remember this was not even to book the Rex. it was only to ask how much it would cost if my chum did want to book it.

Eventually, after tea and all sorts of interminable preambles, the boss of Saigon Tourism said he thought it would be a good idea if Disney opened a theme park in Vietnam. My chum explained it was not his section of Disney which was involved in the theme park side of the business: he only dealt with consumer goods licensing. He said he would pass on the suggestion but said he knew Disney took about ten years – literally ten years – to evaluate theme park possibilities. The parks were very big, very complicated to build and to run and very expensive, so decisions could only be taken carefully. But he would certainly pass on the suggestion.

“We could have a smaller theme park,” the Vietnamese tourist boss suggested.

A children’s playground in Saigon in 1989

A typical children’s playground in Saigon, Vietnam, in 1989

My chum explained again that it wasn’t really his area, but he knew Disney only really thought in terms of big theme parks. However, he said, he would pass on the idea and he knew it would be considered very seriously by the top Disney theme park people.

The Vietnamese tourist boss replied: “You could just give us the rides rather than build a theme park round them.”

My chum again explained it wasn’t really his area of decision but he would pass on the suggestion.

“You could just sell us the technology for the rides and we could build them ourselves,” the Vietnamese tourist boss persisted.

My chum went through all his polite rigmarole again.

“You could just give us one ride,” the Vietnamese tourist boss suggested. “Just one ride. I have been to Disneyland. The ride we would want would be the Earthquake Ride where you go in and it simulates the feeling of an earthquake.”

American B-52 bomb craters in central Cambodia, 1989

B-52 bomb craters seen from plane in central Cambodia, 1989

My chum was a bit taken aback, but did all the polite rigmarole again about how he would pass it on but pointed out that one reason why Disney included the Earthquake Ride in their Californian operation was that California was in an earthquake zone – there was the San Andreas Fault – and, in a sense, it was educational for the children who went there whereas, in Vietnam, there were no earthquakes and no history of earthquakes, as in California, so it wasn’t quite the same.

Immediately, the Vietnamese tourist boss suggested: “We could use the sensations to simulate the effects of carpet-bombing by B-52 bombers.”

My chum never did find out the cost of renting the Rex Hotel for an afternoon.

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Is copywriting gross capitalism and poetry pure art? And what you can do with a cow in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Matt Harvey, poet of the potato and much else

Matt Harvey, poet of the potato

When I was in Totnes at the weekend, I met poet Matt Harvey who told me he had once made a radio programme for BBC Bristol called Beans Means Rhymes, about poetry and advertising.

“How did that come about?” I asked him.

“I had just written a love poem to a potato,” he told me.

“Why?”

“It was for a Waste & Resources Action Project Love Food, Hate Waste campaign. It was specifically created to modify people’s behaviour vis-a-vis the potato.”

“Specifically?” I asked.

“People,” explained Matt, “buy a lot of potatoes, eat a few of them and chuck the rest of them away. I was told I had to communicate in a poem that, if your potato does sprout in your storage area, you should not just chuck it away. You should peel, boil or mash it and, if you have some mash left over, you shouldn’t just chuck that away. You should put it in a bag in a freezer and have it later.”

“I would like to see what Tennyson would have done with that brief,” I said. “Why did they decide to do this in a poem and not in prose?”

“It was,” said Matt, “just someone’s very good idea to give me money to write a poem. They had a series of posters with pictures of specific food items on them and a little poem about each. The poem would contain within its crystalline purity little hints about the best way to relate to this food item.”

“How did you approach your potato poem?”

Brevity results from a good brief

A good brief breeds effective brevity

“They gave me a really tight brief. I now include it in performances I do because it’s so interesting: I read out the brief and then the poem.

“As soon as they told me the brief, I went and wrote a little bit of a gush of enthusiasm for the potato taking into account that your love of the potato should include not wanting to waste any part of the potato.

“I found writing to a brief was just a real pleasure: to write a six line poem that says it all. It made me more confident about writing poems to order. I always thought I would never be able to do that but the more specific the brief the easier it is to do, really.”

“Advertising,” I suggested, “is really the same as poetry in that you are selling a concept in a very few words.”

“Yeah,” agreed Matt. “Although, in poetry, you’re often focussing on something nebulous like a feeling of rapture or a nuanced feeling – as opposed to a vegetable.”

“Do you do widespread readings?” I asked.

“I do lots of village hall gigs,” Matt told me. “Have you come across the Rural Touring Forum?”

“I only heard about it,” I replied, “a couple of months ago from mind reader Doug Segal. He should have known earlier that I would be interested.”

“The Somerset one is called Take Art,” said Matt. “In Shropshire, it is Arts & Lung.”

“Sounds like pun,” I said.

“The Devon one invited me to offer a show,” said Matt. “It goes on the menu and village hall promoters get to choose what they want. I encourage people to bring Anglepoise lamps to my gigs, because I find a few Anglepoise lights will adequately light me and it’s really quite atmospheric.”

When we thought we had reached the end of our chat, Matt checked the messages on his mobile phone.

“Ooh!” he said.

“What?” I asked.

“There is some interest from a local snack manufacturer,” he said. “They want to talk to me about being creative with their foodstuff.”

“You are obviously a culinary cult,” I said.

“I was once a question on The Weakest Link,” Matt mused.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I was the official Wimbledon poet,” he replied.

“The London borough?” I asked.

“The tennis championships in 2010,” he replied.

“You stood up in the crowd and declaimed poetry?” I asked.

Matt declaimed his poetry to the BBC at Wimbledon in 2010

Matt read his Wimbledon poetry on BBC News

“I blogged poetry,” he explained, “and one morning, as a gimmick, I went out and read poetry to the queue. They stared at me, bleary-eyed, but they enjoyed it because they were filmed and they were excited. As soon a they saw cameras, they assumed I was important and assumed they should be excited, so they were.”

At the time, Matt told BBC News: “I have a rich inner tennis fantasy life.”

“How did you get that gig?” I asked.

“Wimbledon have had an ‘artist in residence’ for the past seven or eight years,” Matt explained. “The artist has usually been a water colourist or someone working in inks or oils. But, in 2010, they decided they’d have a poet and two enthusiastic women who had heard me on Radio 4‘s Saturday Live and who worked in the visual side at Wimbledon sold this idea to one member of the committee. The rest of the committee didn’t care either way, so they got it passed. The only thing they said to me was Don’t embarrass us.”

“So not too many references to balls, then,” I said.

“I must go,” said Matt.

And, again, we thought this was the end of our conversation, but it was not.

Comedian Matt Roper arrived.

“Did John tell you he went to Cambodia in 1989?” Matt Roper asked Matt Harvey.

“No,” said Matt Harvey.

Why would I? I thought.

“Matt has been to Cambodia too,” said Matt Roper of Matt Harvey.

“Oh?” I said. “Phnom Penh was very empty when I was there. The city had maybe only a third or a quarter of its previous population in it, so it felt very open and empty. The Vietnamese Army had left a month before, so people thought the Khmer Rouge might be back in power in a week or a month or six months. This was back in 1989. Now, from TV footage I’ve seen, I think it’s full of sex tourists and UN jeeps. S-21 was the saddest place I’ve ever been.”

The regulations at Tuol Sleng - S-21 - Phnom Penh

Regulations to be followed at Tuol Sleng – S-21 – Phnom Penh

S-21 was the former girls’ high school which had been turned into a Khmer Rouge interrogation centre and prison.

“S-21 is still on the list of tourist sites,” said Matt Harvey, “together with the Russian market and the royal palace. And you can also pay to fire a bazooka at a live cow.”

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The killing fields of Cambodia and the trenches of World War One in London

The Imperial War Museum in London welcomes visitors

Two days ago, a friend and her 13-year-old son arrived at London Stansted Airport from Milan on a Ryanair plane. They sat in the plane at Stansted for 30 minutes because the airport, reportedly, had lost the steps to get off the plane.

Yesterday, we went to the Imperial War Museum. The son went to a room where a film was screened about various crimes against humanity. The Holocaust. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

All the greatest hits of genocide.

“In 1989, your mother and I visited the killing fields outside Phnom Penh in Cambodia,” I reminded him. “But they weren’t the worst thing. The worst thing was an entrance room at a building where people were kept and tortured and then sent off to be killed.

Photos at the S-21 interrogation centre in Phnom Penh

Photos at the S-21 interrogation centre.

“The Khmer Rouge were very efficient,” I told him. “They photographed everyone. Black & white, head & shoulders pictures. Like passport photos but a bit bigger. Just the faces looking into the camera and they all had the same look in their eyes. They knew they were going to die and they had no hope in their eyes. The room you entered had photos from floor to ceiling on all four walls. All these faces. All around you. All those empty eyes. That was worse than the killing fields, which were just…”

“Bits of bone?” my friend’s 13-year-old son suggested.

Killing fields outside Phnom Penh in Kampuchea/Cambodia

Killing fields outside Phnom Penh in Kampuchea/Cambodia

“Yes,” I said. “Occasional little splinters of bone and a few scraps of torn shirts and things. But the room in the S-21 interrogation centre was much worse. Bits of bone and scraps of fabric are abstract. But the faces and the eyes were people.

“So just remember,” I said, trying to have a lasting impact on him, “that, if you ever think you’re having a bad time in your life, you’re actually comparatively well off. Other people have had it worse. Are having it worse.”

We got a bus into central London.

As it crossed Westminster Bridge, a photographer was taking a picture of a Japanese bride in a white wedding dress and her new husband with the Houses of Parliament behind them.

As we came off the bridge into Parliament Square and turned right into Whitehall, a red double-decker bus was coming towards Westminster Bridge, with a V-shaped white ribbon down its front, like a giant red two-storey bridal car.

WW1 Trench Art

One unknown British soldier’s WW1 trench art

In the afternoon, we were in Cecil Court in London, looking for a Tintin book and ended up in a shop selling military uniforms and mementos. There were a couple of items of ‘trench art’ – shell casings which men had decorated in the trenches in the First World War.

“They never signed them,” the owner of the shop told me, “because the shell casings were the property of the Crown and, by decorating them, they were defacing them. If you defaced any property of the Crown, you would get court martialed.”

So they never signed their names.

No-one will never know who made them.

This morning, my Italian friend’s husband – the father of her 13-year-old son – arrived at London Stansted Airport from Milan on a Ryanair plane.

He sat in the plane at Stansted for 10 minutes because the airport, reportedly, had lost the steps to get off the plane.

I wondered what the men engraving shapes on the shell casings in the trenches of the First World War would have made of it all. What the men and women in S-21 would have thought of the film screened at the Imperial War Museum. If they had lived. And what type of person the 13-year-old boy will grow into.

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