W e got out our party dresses, sprayed on our favourite mosquito repellent and went out to celebrate Christmas. A model of Santa Claus and his reindeers held sway over the entrance to the Cambodiana, inspiring awe and wonder in the ladies who run a nearby noodle stand. Uncertain whether they should kowtow or genuflect, they stared at him for a while then, shaking their heads, returned to their woks.
Meanwhile, in the grandeur of the Cambodiana's ballroom, another birthday was feted. Emperor Akihito of Japan was 61 years old, and Ambassador Yukio Imagawa and his wife, resplendent in an aquamarine silk kimono, welcomed princes, ambassadors, and le tout Phnom Penh to a party in his honour. We worried about not being able to converse in Japanese until we realised that most of the guests were too busy consuming the succulent sushi and sashimi being expertly prepared by chefs from Heisei restaurant to talk to us anyway. The best sashimi, we learned, is made with raw fish caught two hours before.
Ice sculptures have even shorter lives. Beneath a rapidly melting Japanese ice shrine we discovered that the ambassador, who speaks Khmer and spent eight years here in the 1950s, is a leading expert on Angkor and has written two books on the temples. Japan spawns Angkor experts he said, even though it has no stone monuments of its own, its temples being in wood. Takahashi Hiroaki, their cultural attache is also an expert, and introduced us to Professor Yoshiaki Ishizawa, the most important Angkorian scholar from Japan, who is leading the $10 million project to restore the smiles on the faces of the Bayon.
An expat doctor had us in stitches when we asked about his specialization which is, ahem, social diseases. He responded with glee, employing schoolboy terminology which we had not heard since our boarding school nights. One of the few experts in the area, he has seen them all, he intimated, making a sweeping gesture around the room. "Anyone who passes me with their eyes averted is probably one of my patients," he whispered with a mischievous look. We decided what our New Year resolution had better be before repairing to another, male-dominated soirée.
Protective guards with weapons raised beckoned us in to the Vietnamese residence to a party given by the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Tran Huy Chuong, and the Defence Attaché Colonel Bui Nghi to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Founding of the Vietnamese People's Army. Originally called The People's Liberation Army, it was founded by Ho Chi Minh. The PLA became one of the largest armies in the world, defeating first the French at Dien Bien Phu under General Nguyen Van Giap, then the world's largest superpower, the US. At its peak it numbered four million soldiers.
The army included many women who fought the French as Viet Minh soldiers and the United States as Viet Cong guerillas. In recognition, on Oct. 27, 1994, Vietnam bestowed the title of "Heroic Vietnamese Mother" on 11,913 women, some in their 80s and 90s, mothers of as many as nine children who fought and died in the Vietnamese war. Their sons and daughters are referred to as martyrs. Women have fought throughout Vietnam's 2,000 year battle for independence. In 40 AD two sisters, Trung Nhi and Trung Trac, rallied tribal chieftains and led an army of female generals to drive out the Chinese.
On this occasion, however, the ladies present exhibited the Confucian ideals of diligence, beauty, grace and virtue, and sat genteelly around the side nibbling dainties.
They left the floor to the valiant colonels, generals and ambassadors, and the only female ambassador here, elegant, Khmer-speaking Madame Xie Yue E from China. We soldiered on, champagne in hand, until one French officer held us captive with his philosopy of life, inspired, he said, by Greece and the philosophers of democracy. But he was clearly not an acolyte of Plato's. Women, he declared, moving from affairs military to amorous, help men realise their dreams and release their energy.
The Heroic Vietnamese Mothers might not concur. Nor might some 70 million women across 3,300 islands of Indonesia. We attended the 66th Indonesian Women's and Mother's Day at the Indonesian ambassador's residence the next day. Bintari Taufik Rachman Soedarbo told us about their struggle since the Dutch colonialists, who espoused the doctrines of that other French soldier, Nicolas Chauvin. "In matrimony," the women's statement claimed, "the women's position at that time was far from satisfactory." It seems that Indonesian women, like others around the world who have been proclaiming it for several decades now, would like to realise their own dreams. Gracious Madame Soedarbo has achieved some of hers as a talented painter whose pictures adorn the residence.
We find we barely intrude on the dreams of some men. After too much carousing and wassailing on Christmas night we stayed at our hostess's house, where she accidentally locked us in when she left next morning.
We managed to get up on the roof and leap across to the roof of the house behind. The guard there hardly stirred in his hammock when he saw a strange blonde shimmying down the drainpipe. As we strode purposefully across the courtyard and flung open the iron gate, he just turned over and went back to his rapid eye movement stage of sleep.
There was more REM at the RM Asia party at Déjà Vu. The trading company for Jeep, 3M, Chrysler, SDMO generators and ATR, headed by Kevin Whitcraft, RM Asia is one of the oldest-established foreign companies in Cambodia. They invited lots of beautiful people to this appropriately named venue. We noticed two pilots from Cambodia International Airline homing in on a lovely member of staff from CDC, a sensible contact as they were about to be out of a job.
Somehow we missed UN Representative Benny Widyono's goodbye party, and feel certain that our invitation just got lost in the Cambodian postal system. As there is never anything in our mail box at the sub-post office on Sihanouk Boulevard, and the mangey dogs which lie around on the steps look increasingly well-fed, we suspect that they eat most of our letters, and find glamorous looking invitations particularly delicious.
Not only letters go astray. Santa had a bad night at the Cambodiana when the wind blew him off his pedestal. All the gaily-wrapped presents were scattered around the carpark next morning, and the plastic reindeer were upside down, their hooves in the air. It seemed a victory for the plaster Angkorian lion which stands guard at the entrance, but the ensemble was hastily glued back in time to welcome 450 people, half of them Khmer, who attended Rev. Don Cormack's wonderful carol-singing service in the ballroom on Christmas Eve.
Our revels ended on Boxing Day at Ambassador Tony Kevin's beautifully-restored colonial mansion. Guests partied on the lawns of the extensive garden, relaxing in the informal atmosphere and enjoying the starlit night.
This is the style of gracious living that must have characterised old Phnom Penh, when it was considered the romantic Paris of Asia.
Celebrate the New Year at the following venues:
On Saturday Dec 31, there will be a day of kite-flying by the river on the land south of the Cambodiana. Organised by the Ministry of Culture, it will include expert kite-flyers from around the country. Starts at 8am.
Cambodiana Ballroom: sumptuous gala dinner, $55. Le Mekong Brunch $20, evening International Buffet $27. Le Cyclo: Midnight Surprise, Champagne and St Sylvestre cake. Tel 26288. Royal Phnom Penh Hotel: Seafood buffet, $15. Allson Star Hotel's East West Restaurant: special buffet, $14, brunch on New Year's Day $10. Regent Hotel's Belvedere Restaurant: Special Barbecue and Turkey, $16. Tel 68135. Sharaton Hotel: Celebration international seafood buffet at Crystal coffeeshop, $15, tel 60396. Dancing La Casa: discotheque. L'Imprévu, Route One, are joining forces with Le Pacha, combining delightful venue with gourmet food. Dinner, dancing all night, onion soup at 4 am, breakfast at dawn, $50. Advance booking required. Tel 60406/071 200248. Foreign Correspondents Club: Dancing, Happy Hour 6-9. Trattoria del Gecko: Traditional Italian new year's fare, including lentil and pork stew, meant to bring good luck and money. A la carte menu. La Paillotte: French dinner, including pate de foie gras, langoustine, plus live band, ballroom dancing $40. Tel 26563 Déja Vu: Special dinner and all drinks, $30. Advance booking advised. Tel 26644. La Mousson: New Year Dinner including oysters, champagne, blinis, roast goose, $37. Downstairs in Café No Problem, same menu a la carte. Cordon Bleu: for a quiet dinner. Former chef Christophe has returned from France to prepare the traditional French dishes which made it justly popular and famous. Menu $8, $15. Magic Circus: eat fondue, couscous or chili followed by show. Big Boss Nightclub: disco dancing, entrance $10, includes 2 drinks, lucky draw at1 am, prizes 2 gold watches, tv set. Wishing Well: special drinks and celebrations. Holiday International Hotel: casino open until 4am Cathouse: party with special-price drinks, wine at midnight. Hash House Harriers New Year's Day run: meet at the railway station at 2:45, $5.