As expats living in Phnom Penh, many of us learn to separate the artificial from the authentic.
For better or worse, there's something about Cambodia that strips away artifice, and exposes raw character.
An Australian living in Cambodia for close to 15 years, Ian Woodford, better known as 'Snow' (because he grew up in New South Wales' Blue Mountains) is one such raw character.
Gutsy and effervescent, Snow landed in Cambodia in August 1993, at a time when Cambodia's ongoing internal conflicts made foreigners stay away. It's fair to say that he is respected around Phnom Penh as a remnant of Cambodia's infamous UNTAC (United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia) days.
Snow's first job in Cambodia was as a contractor for the UN.
"I was paid to transport one hundred and fifty UN Land Cruisers from Steung Treng, to the north of Cambodia, Kratie," he says over a cold beer. "We negotiated to pay the Khmer Rouge soldiers $200 per vehicle, but they insisted that they drive and we sit in the back. It was very risky because they could have stolen the vehicles if they wanted to, and I had no backup."
Proving that he isn't stretching the truth for theatrical effect, Snow opens a bulky, tattered photo album and points out photos of himself among UN trucks on muddy jungle tracks, in what is undoubtedly the period of Cambodia's civil war.
Other photos show him around soldiers toting rifles, in the demeanor of conflict with low flying UN choppers buzzing overhead.
"It was just me and an American named Bob, who left after two trips," Snow continues. "It took five trips, one hundred and fifty kilometers each way, at nine hours per trip, to deliver all the vehicles. Along the way, we regularly collected groups of Khmer Rouge, who would make us stop along the way on secluded roads to drink homemade wine from plastic bags around the vehicles," he continues. "Then, they'd suddenly disappear into the jungle, and we'd be off again. At Kratie, the UN helicopters would pick me up, and take me back to Steung Treng to begin another convoy, but one night, I got stuck in a Kratie hotel room with thirty-one Khmer Rouge soldiers, because the choppers couldn't land. I thought I was finished. When I returned, the UN soldiers looked at me very differently - they respected me … but they thought I was crazy."
However, Snow's life in Cambodia hasn't been all guns and no play. Of his time here, Snow talks happily about other experiences such as acting in the acclaimed film, City of Ghosts (2001).
"Matt Dillon is a real good bloke, no bullshit … quite patient. He loves Cambodia, he's been here before," he says of his experience working with the writer, director (and main actor) of the film.
In City of Ghosts, Snow plays an erratic customer of a local brothel in Phnom Penh, who gets into a fight with another customer and forces the film's protagonist (Matt Dillon) to flee onto the street.
Snow was chosen for the role because of his value as a character actor. That said, many people like him who have been in Cambodia for a long time become part of the country's historical fabric, as if life were imitating art; a peculiar aspect of living in Cambodia is the feeling that we live partially in a film.
"Matt (Dillon) chose me for the part when I responded to an advert in the (Cambodia) Daily. After having had my visa checked and doing some voiceovers, I was told to meet in the car park at Norton University a few days later," Snow says. "When I got there, there was a busload of thirty or so prostitutes, who were doing their makeup for their part in the film. Later, an American woman arrived. She kept staring at me. She then came up to me and asked me to leave. I was confused, but Matt turned up later and spoke to her - she thought I was their pimp!"
Perhaps in those days the fine line between the artificial and the real was even more blurred than it is now.
"City of Ghosts used a lot of locals," Snow continues. "There was Sopal from Happy Herbs (Pizza), Michael Hayes (previous owner of Phnom Penh Post), the Russians … even a local Pakistani who was covered in tattoos, but the actual film was not as realistic as Phnom Penh was in the 1990's."
Not as realistic?
"Phnom Penh in those days was rough, rough, rough. There were a lot of guns, very dangerous. Now, Cambodia is easy. Things don't always go the way you want them to, but I'm happy to watch this place develop in peace."