A promise to Mr Phen
I like to think Mr Phen and I are friends. All right, I probably choose to think Mr Phen and I are friends.
Phen’s story is like thousands you hear in Phnom Penh. His parents fell victim to the systematic butchery that defined the Khmer Rouge regime. He was forced into the city by the fear of starvation to scratch out a meagre living by driving and sleeping in his tuk-tuk.
He’s an earnest, endearing fellow, and although the cynicism bred through more privileged circumstances had me thinking, “I bet you say that to all the boys”, I much prefer to think that the offer he made was as genuine and firm as his hug after five days together. A hug’s a hard thing to fake.
Pointing towards the Tonle Sap River, he said he lived five hours’ drive away and that, if I returned one June, I should make the trip with him to his village where “we drink, we eat chickens and dance”. Brilliant, I thought, and promised I would.
I grudgingly presume I’m not the first to receive the invitation but it sounds a glorious way to spend a few nights – Indochina with all the hedonistic generosity of Cannery Row – but with one exception.
In Sihanoukville, on the same trip, another tuk-tuk driver offered a back-seat tasting of the local wine. Lovingly decanted into a plastic bag.
It had an attractive rose hue; sturdy, confident aroma; and given the right machine could probably mow two hectares of the most stubborn grass. But maybe I was being unfair. Maybe it needed a few more minutes to breathe. (Lord knows, after the first sip I did.)
It also showed the resilience of plastic bags and why it takes the bloody things so long to break down into the environment.
I’ve since been back to Phnom Penh, but not in June, and it was only on the eve of my departure that I finally caught up with Mr Phen, who had been missing from his normal station.
I recalled his offer and fully intend to take him up on it, although it will be many years down the track given commitments that have since been made.
Yes, Mr Phen, we will eat those scrawny chickens – 57 of them, if it makes you happy. And yes, we will dance like the silly old buggers we will be, until our hips give out or one of us treads on a landmine.
But – and I must insist – it will have to be BYOG.