Nooks and Grannies

May 20th, 2008

Phnom Penh — People sometimes e-mail me via the site to see how I’m coming with whatever it is I’m trying to do here, and there’s often just a little miasma of uncertainty lurking behind their queries. I can almost see them squinting to try to catch a glimpse of what I’m really doing. He writes where? Why? What’s it like? Does he wear those irritating travel shirts with all the pockets? Is he working in a jungle clearing, using a solar-powered laptop? In a rattan hut on a dirt road? In some seedy bar swarming with geckos?

The truth, as is so often the case, is more prosaic. Phnom Penh, my city of choice in Southeast Asia at the moment, has changed unrecognizably in the seven or eight years since I first came here. No more signs in nightclubs to tell you where to check your automatic weapons. No more dirt roads downtown, pitted with potholes big enough to shear the wheels off a Land Rover. No more stately traffic, moving in unison at 22 miles per hour. The place has exploded.

And while that means that much of the original Dodge-City-Goes-to-Asia charm has disappeared, it’s been replaced by good coffee and air conditioning, both of which are essential to my life. And since I’m a lifelong enemy of delayed gratification, I tend to write in places that offer both.

Here’s the work area in my apartment.

Basic, but it’s got everything I need. The guy who had the place before me apparently ate electricity, because there are power strips everywhere. So, computer, printer, battery charger, cell phone charger – I can do electrical multitasking.

My apartment is at the riverside – the river is the Mekong, and my section of Phnom Penh is on the banks of the confluence of the Mekong and the Tonle Sap, which is the giant lake that runs down the center of much of Cambodia. That means I have nice river breezes and am just around the corner from the Foreign Correspondents Club, which was actually in operation at the time the Khmer Rouge took over. I work here, in this wonderful open-air room overlooking the river.

And here’s the river itself.

For those of you who really dislike the exotic and want all the comforts of home wherever you may be, I also write in Black Canyon Coffee, which is in an actual shopping mall called Paragon Center. How exotic does this look?

Or this inside view?

And I know that these pictures are boring. That’s the point. I’m not working daily in the Heart of Darkness and going each evening to swap vodka shots with Colonel Kurtz.

Oh, and the grannies are out of sight, behind the camera. I mean, come on, give me a better title.

27 Responses to “Nooks and Grannies”

  1. Larissa Says:

    A friend of mine and I are plotting a trip to Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. Glad to get a glimpse, at such appropriate timing, of what it can be like. (c:

  2. Greg Says:

    Days and nights at round tables in author’s courtyard? (the round tables are out of frame)


    Books and Crannies?

  3. Mitch Says:

    I would have preferred the jungle clearing or the gecko-infested bar, but I think your work environment looks pretty damn cool. That desk is massive and absolutely filled with books! Have you read all those, or do you just keep a healthy backlog?

    Also, I laughed out loud (or ‘loled’ for all you hip folk!) when I read about your apartment’s previous tenant eating electricity. There’s just something really funny about that.

  4. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Everybody —

    Larissa, there’s plenty of the Wild West left in Cambodia, especially in the area of bathrooms. Some of the bathrooms in Phnom Penh are, to put it mildly, hair-raising, especially for women. I’ve been half-thinking of putting together a pocket guide called THE PHNOM PENH LOO REVIEW, which would be a sort of Zagat for johns — things like cleanliness, whether or not there’s toilet paper (or a toilet seat), whether there are, um rats, is it a squat toilet or a western one, is there a flush or are you just supposed to pour in a bucket of water, whether men and women are assigned separate rooms, etc. It’s either the LOO REVIEW or going ahead with my plans to found the IXNAYCRAT political party. A guy can’t do everything. But TALK TO ME before you leave for SE Asia.

    Greg — BOOKS AND CRANNIES is is. The ROUND TABLE one is a little long, and also I hate round tables because when I’m focused on my keyboard the edge of the table is never where I expect it to be, and I’ve been known to let go of my coffee cup three feet from the floor and four inches from the edge of the table.

    Hi, Mitch — I’ve read almost all of those. They’re a combination of browsing through PP’s used bookstores and 55-pound cartons of books that I ship via DHL just before I leave the States. The actual titles turn over all the time because I take them down to the bookstore and swap them for new ones. And, yeah, the desks’s a great size — also a legacy of the electricity-eater.

  5. Lisa Kenney Says:

    The photo of The Foreign Correspondents Club reminds me of THE QUIET AMERICAN.

    The loo review would be priceless. When I was in eastern Turkey in the 80’s, finding a western loo was nearly impossible and carrying TP was essential.

  6. Lisa Kenney Says:

    BTW, have you considered a Kindle? I know, I know it seems like blasphemy, but it would be ideal for you, if you could get used to it.

  7. fairyhedgehog Says:

    Nooks and Grannies is a great title. It’s a pity about the total lack of grannies but you can’t have everything.

    I absolutely love your workspace. I wouldn’t dare to put mine on the internet until we’ve finished unpacking in this room and got rid of boxes, rubbish and heaps of paper.

  8. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    Oh MAN! I’m SO disappointed. It looks so…normal. I was expecting a tent, maybe or a silk dragon parade and red lanterns with fringies. Wait, what is that mist-like substance in the air? Is that…humidity? If I hit “print” can I get some of that? We’ve been hovering around a -2 on the humidity index and I’m a little desperate.

    Thanks for the boring snapshots and a glimpse into the Poke’s backyard.

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hey, Lisa — Yeah, the FCC is a kind of colonial space that’s unfortunately disappearing here, being replaced by places like the shopping mall that houses Black Canyon Coffee. Convenient (and blessedly cool, especially at this time of the year) but not as gracious. And about the Kindle — I like the whole thing with books – how heavy they are, how much space they take up, how the spines look, even how much dusting they require. I’m a book junkie.

    Hi, Fairyhedgehog (By the way, where did that name come from?) Yes, the grannies were definitely thin on the ground on the days I took the photos. Normally these places are thick with them — grannies everywhere, as far as the eye can see. It’s like the one and only time I went birding. There was nothing with wings within miles, except things that also had six legs.

    And Cynthia, I’d be happy to send you some of this humidity. It’s so humid here that my goldfish have taken to meeting me at the door when I get home.

  10. fairyhedgehog Says:

    I hate to admit it but my name is stolen. It really belong to Nanny Ogg in the Terry Pratchett book “Witches Abroad”.

    It’s a good name, though, and it was lying there not being used. I’m sure Nanny Ogg doesn’t miss it.

  11. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    Thank you for the rain, Tim. Please, Sir. May I have some more?

  12. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Well, fairyhedgehog, it’s a good enough name to be shared.

    And Cynthia, I didn’t actually mean to send you rain. Humidity, yes — we have wayyyyy too much of that. But the rain was cooling us down, and now I’ve gone and sent it to you, and we haven’t had any for two days. Good thing no one here knows I’m responsible.

  13. Stefan Hammond Says:

    Thanks for the insight Tim…having been in your flat near the FCC in the Phnom, I can attest that your desk looks EXACTLY like that.

    And it is probably the cleanest room in the entire city. Phnom Penh, as you pointed out, has changed vastly in less than a decade. But it’s a still a long way from a Western city, or even Bangkok.

    Good coffee and air-con are Highly Important Commodities. You probably know that Black Canyon is the original Thai coffee chain (Coffee World and the others came later), which means that between BC and Trung Nguyen, PP’s coffeehouses originated from their neighbors east and west, and ain’t that ironic.


  14. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Stefan —

    First, thanks for the post. If that room is clean, it’s because I’m having a hard time writing. I’ll do ANYTHING to avoid saying hi to the keyboard when there are lumps in the old creative flow.

    And do you know where the phenomenon of Bubble Tea, which is ubiquitous here, came from? (Since you’re so knowledgeable about coffee houses, I mean.)

  15. Stefan Hammond Says:

    Hi Tim, U can safely guess “Japan” as the origin of just about any Asian phenomenon (including those Korean ghost flicks and soap operas). But bubble tea, as far as i know, started in Taiwan, and spread to Hong Kong, it was all the rage in ’97-98.

    Of course, Taiwan was known as Formosa when it was a Japanese colony, but that’s neither here nor there. Cambodian bubble-tea might have some link with the “tikalok” fruit-shakes they whirl up with condensed milk on the street, but I’ve never had the courage to try Cambodian street food (though I’ll eat at any stall or night market in Thailand).

    The tea-phenomenon has run its course in HK, we’re back to the standard milk-tea but coffeehouses are everywhere, the accursed Starbucks has made inroads but Pacific Coffee Company is the preferred chain, along with UK chain Pret A Manger, who brew a fiendish “double-double-black” that kickstarts me most mornings.


  16. Larissa Says:

    Bubble tea is awesome. Just to throw that out there. I will definitely talk to you before heading off to SE Asia. (c: Always good to know those little details that turn, well, messy if misdirected. Ahem.

    Lisa-Turkey is getting better though I have to admit, embarassingly enough, the first time I went to Turkey I was afraid to throw toilet paper down the squat toilets so it usually went out a window. Depending on a few things of course. But yeah…they are finally beginning to realize that there is something rather nice about sitting down instead of dangling yourself inches from the God-Knows-What-Jesus-It-Smells-Like-Piss hole in the ground so horrendously misnomered “toilets”. 😀

    Plotting for our venture continues. Among other things I can find to do at 11:15 at night.

  17. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Stefan — I KNEW I was asking the right guy. So we have the Taiwanese to blame for bubble tea. (I know, Larissa, lots of people love it, but it’s way off my sweetness index.) If I had thought about it rather than just asking the expert, I would have picked Japan because bubble tea is kind of “kawai”-cute, and cuteness is often a tip that something comes from Nippon.

    My guess is that the Cambodians have brought some local color to the local variety of bubble tea, but, like you, I prefer to explore the question with someone else’s mouth.

    And I think the much-maligned Starbucks actually deserves credit for raising the quality of coffee everywhere, and especially in Asia, where it was sooooo dire ten years ago. I agree, though, that the chain is over-ubiquitous, and I’ll patronize a local coffee house if one exists.

  18. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Re: Bubble tea, Stefan just e-mailed me this link to, believe it or not, a Wikipedia entry on the stuff. Here it is:

    To quote: “Bubble tea also known as boba, is a tea beverage that originated in Taiwan in the 1980s. The literal translation from Chinese would be pearl milk tea (traditional Chinese: 珍珠奶茶; Hanyu Pinyin: zhēnzhū nǎichá; Tongyong Pinyin: jhenjhu nǎichá). The word bubble refers to “bubbling”, the process by which certain types of bubble tea are made, and not the actual tapioca balls). The balls are often called “pearls.” Drinks with large pearls consumed along with the beverage through wide straws; while drinks with small pearls are consumed through normal straws. Bubble tea is especially popular in many East Asian and Southeast Asian regions such as China (including Hong Kong and Macau), Brunei, Malaysia, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and more recently popularized in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

    “The original bubble tea consisted of a hot Taiwanese black tea, tapioca pearls, condensed milk, and honey. As this drink became more popular, variations were created. Initially iced versions with a hint of peach or plum flavoring began to appear, then more fruit flavors were added until, in some variations, the tea was removed entirely in favor of real fruits. Today you can find shops entirely devoted to bubble tea, similar to juice bars of the early 1990s. They usually contain colored pearls that are chosen to match whatever fruit juice is used, in addition to brightly colored oversize straws for sucking up the pearls.”

    And a whole bunch more — more, in fact, than one probably wants to know

  19. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Larissa — We’ll talk/correspond at whatever length is helpful, but if you’re braving Turkish toilets, you’re ready for the big time.

    Wrote a Southeast Asian toilet scene for my novel MISDIRECTION yesterday, and here’s the description:

    “The hut is the most primitive kind of toilet, just a hole in the earth with four walls built around it. There is no roof, but even without one, the reek is overwhelming. Da peers down into the hole, as village children learn to do, terrified by possibility of squatting over a snake or a poisonous spider, and is surprised to see water only a foot or so beneath the edge of the hole. Then she thinks, The river, and takes care of her needs.”

    So this one is actually kind of fancy because it has actual water in it, courtesy of the Chao Phraya river, which is flowing by about twenty feet from the hut. But as you already know, Larissa, expecting water (or any other concession to sanitation or aesthetics) is a short cut to disappointment.

  20. Stefan Hammond Says:

    Ah, the joys of Asian public toilets.

    Long before I came to Asia, I saw a Hong Kong film where a couple of young boys decided to play a prank on a pal in a public toilet. The scene was set in rural China sometime back and the latrine was basically planks set along a river, with some small dividers for privacy. As their friend was squatting doing his business, the pranksters doused a small toy boat with flammable liquid, set it afire and let it drift down the “canal” between the planks…laughing with delight as their pal and everyone else leapt in the air with exclamations.

    Onto the bubble tea: the stuff is worth trying once, but isn’t stellar. Basically the sort of diluted-condensed-milk-with-stuff that forms the base of a lot of Asian beverages. Its textures are more interesting, you slurp up these chewy black things with the oversize straw. There are no bubbles in bubble tea, nor does it resemble any type of typical tea-beverage. It’s more a trendy dessert beverage that has, mercifully, run its course in Hong Kong.

    The neon signs in Phnom Penh look really great though.


  21. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Maybe I’ll photograph a couple of the signs and put them up on the site. I’m doing another little photo post on Phnom Penh for all those who were disappointed by how clinically clean and safe it all seemed.

    And bubble tea is running amok in the States.

  22. Larissa Says:

    Yes it is. Though I tend to agree, it is really damn sweet. I just think it looks cool. hehe. Egads…turkish toilets are waaaay less scary than that. At least the ones I found. And I found some sketchy “toilets”. I’ll let you know when we plan on heading that direction and you can throw advice at me…also…spiders? Maybe I’ll just pee in ziplock baggies. Maybe I need to test the grit of my characters against scary toilets. That could be interesting. Off to try and get something done. (c:

  23. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Yes, spiders. And snakes. Sorry. But three things will work in your favor.

    1. Such toilets are now nonexistent in urban areas. In the countryside, take a look first.

    2. Virtually ALL toilets in even the smallest towns are now lighted. If you want to know what real insecurity feels like, use a squat toilet in pitch darkness.

    3. Ziplocs hardly leak at all these days.

  24. Brynne Sissom Says:

    PP looks better than Tirana, Albania. I did my share of hole in the grounds over there.

    Try this: eat a lot of watermelon late in the evening…step outside your host family’s cement and concrete house, go down the steps where there is no banister and see if the big dogs don’t come up to you…loose dogs, unvaccinated, not collared, but generally recognized by the families in the village…make your way to the privy past the barns and don’t wake up the chickens and ducks–they make a racket…next time, don’t eat “salqi” so late at night…PC volunteers learn fast…

    have passport, will travel…

  25. Asian Women Info Says:

    Asian Women Info…

    And the husband is going to hold her to the letter of that, even though Patricia Craissati’ s“ cohabitation” is with a cellmate at the prison where she’ s serving time for a DUI accident. A dissenting judge called it an“ absurd result”. (Susan Spencer-…

  26. Tom Hill Says:

    Having spent considerable time in Southeast Asia and Indonesia and having lived in China for three years I can state, without conviction, that the public toilets of the PRC are enough to make a person give up eating and drinking.

  27. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Sure, the PRC wins, although that’s changing some in the urban areas. (Like everything else in China. When did you live there?

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