Getting a Look In

January 31, 1955

Dear Dad & Russ,

The bit of music enclosed is for Russ. This, believe it or not, is the Cambodian National Anthem. It appeared in a local magazine. Russ, maybe you can pick out the tune on the piano or your uke or something. Don’t be the least bit alarmed if the tune sounds like nothing on earth, ‘cause actually that’s just what it sounds like to Canadian ears – nothing on earth.

Tuesday, I was pounding away like mad on my typewriter when suddenly (much to surprise and horror) a wee lizard popped its ugly head out from beneath the keyboard and gave me the dirtiest look imaginable. I stopped in my tracks. I was labouring under the false delusion that these beasts never left the walls and ceilings. But this wee fellow must have been sleeping beneath the Royal and the racket of my typing awoke him. He surely did look annoyed. Ah well, that’s the way it goes.

Now let me tell you about a very funny thing that happened on Friday evening. The courier plane from Hanoi and Vientiane, which usually passes through Phnom Penh around 1:30 noon, was delayed somehow and was not due to arrive here until 8 p.m. Roger and I decided to go out and meet the plane, as we had some rather large parcels that someone here wanted to be sent to Saigon. So, at about 7:45 we jumped into a Commission car, loaded down with these parcels, and were on our way to the airport.

Just before arriving, at about one minute to 8 o’clock, we noticed the lights of a plane just approaching so we figured that we had just made it in time. We dashed up to the airport, jumped out of the car and went charging out onto the runway laden with parcels, just as the plane taxied to a stop. Suddenly, from the control tower’s spotlight, the plane was floodlit. How considerate, we thought, for it certainly was dark out on that runway. We arrived at the plane’s door slightly out of breath. The door was opened by a French crewman who gave us the most astonished look. “Hi there”, we said, “Got room for a few parcels to Saigon?” “Why sure”, the Frenchman assured us, “but I don’t think the King would approve of the idea.” “YOU DON’T THINK THE KING WOULD APPROVE OF THE IDEA?” we said. Only then did we notice that there were Cambodian words written all over the plane and the King’s own crest on the door, to say nothing of the two Cambodian dancing girls painted on the tail of the plane. This, my dear father and brother, was THE KING OF CAMBODIA’S OWN PRIVATE AIRCRAFT. And there stood Roger and me looking as foolish as all get out with a bunch of parcels lying on the runway between us!

However, the crew were all good sports and when we explained that we though this was the Commission plane, they all had a good laugh. Thank heavens the King was not on board or surely in a fit of temper he would have lost his head and recommended the same treatment for us! Well, that’s not all. Being such good sports, they (the crew) invited us aboard for a look-see. Just imagine. Here we were, being invited inside the King of Cambodia’s private plane – an honour reserved for a numbered and select few. Fools barge in where Angles fear to tread. The interior of the plane was beautiful – all finished in blue with half a dozen great swivel armchairs for the King’s entourage. Then we were shown the King’s ultra-deluxe quarters. Ummmm. Quite lush, complete with a bar and writing tables, to say nothing of more armchairs and a bed. So, as you can see, our grand BOOB paid off with a visit to something we certainly would never in all our lives have seen under normal circumstances. But I’ll never forget the picture of Roger and me charging across the darkened Phnom Penh airfield trying to wish a bunch of parcels onto the private plane of the King of Cambodia. It shall certainly go into my memoirs.

About the parcels for Saigon? Well, within a few minutes the Commission plane landed and our consignment was soon on its way via the regular channels.

Speaking of the King’s private plane, did I ever tell you that our barber here in Phnom Penh is also the King’s barber? The other day when I was in the barber shop, the King’s runner arrived to summon our barber to cut His Majesty’s royal hair. The barber says that the King gives him between 500 and 1000 piastres per haircut. That’s somewhere in the neighbourhood of between 15 and 30 dollars. Nice work if you can get it.

5 Piastres circa 1954

100 Piastres (front) circa 1954

Today was absolutely hectic here at the office. Being the end of the month I had to close off our financial books for January. Which meant going to the bank – a task I find most disagreeable to say the least. You know, doing accounts is confusing enough as it is, but when you have to deal in a strange currency and foreign language – well, its well nigh enough to drive a person batty. There is one little drawback to the Indochinese currency, namely: supposing I was to go into a local store and buy something that came to, say $62.37 (sixty-two piastres and thirty-seven cents). Well, that’s all very well, except for one little thing. That is there is absolutely no such thing  as 37 cents in Indochinese currency. You’ll occasionally see coins in circulation for 10, 20 or 50 cents, but these are very rare and, should you be foolish enough to demand change for anything below a piastre, the store keeper will just look at you blankly as if to say “poor tourist”.

100 Piastres (back) circa 1954

Which all brings me up to the point I’m trying to get at – just HOW is a person expected to balance his books when his expenditures show amounts that don’t even exist? All suggestions warmly welcomed.

1000 Piastres (back) circa 1954

1000 Piastres (front) circa 1954

PS – February 1

Haven’t hardly got time to say “boo” this morning, we’re that busy. By the way the Chinese New Year’s celebrations were really something to see. I even saw several authentic Chinese “dragon dances” right out in front on the street. Very colourful and mysterious to watch.

Each day over here is just a little hotter than the day previous. Temperature stays around 90 degrees now and shows signs of going up and up very soon now.




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