Dolly Parton

I went to see Dolly Parton live in concert last night, and it was something of a childhood dream come true.

You see, there's something about Dolly that just captured the imagination of a small country-town gay boy in 1980s Australia. It was her studied glamour, her excessive cheeriness and her readily apparent strength and ambition that did it, I think. Here was someone who came from similar circumstances as me, and who had managed to turn herself into such an incredible vision of everything that my life wasn't.
That's not to belittle, of course, her immense and undeniable talent. She is an accomplished singer and musician, a deceptively clever actress, and, as I learned last night, the consummate showgirl. I am not being heyperbolic when I say that Dolly Parton is a genius.
In small-town Queensland in the 80s Dolly was A-List celebrity. Most people had something of a taste for American country music, and Dolly had a special appeal. You could relate to her as brazen fashionista (she claimed last night that she modelled her look on the town tramp, and she has also voiced her admiration for the fashion experimentation of Lady Gaga), or even as sex symbol. That massive bust was an almost archetypal symbol of sex, and Dolly Parton imitations were par for the course, requiring simply a blonde wig, some smeared lipstick and a couple of bunched-up T-shirts stufffed down your shirt - voila! Drag queen Monique Kelly toured regional Australia with Les Girls, doing a brilliant impersonation of Dolly in a cleverly manufactured costume which turned those mammoth breasts into prehensile arms, capturing and suffocating the giggling men in the audience.
Dolly is clever, and the character she plays in her concerts is exactly the right mix of things guranteed to woo the hearts of her working class audience. She is incredibly glamorous and at the same time exceedingly humble and self-deprecating. She makes fun of herself, of the plastic surgery, the outfits, the peculiar body shape. She calls herself the Princess of white trash.
And Dolly delivers a faultless performance. The stage act is never for a moment boring, and it is frequently uplifting and inspiring, by design. Dolly is, after all, a religious woman, and frequently the concert took on the atmostphere of a Southern revival.
Throughout the concert Dolly kept up a patter of corny jokes, self-lampooning and sunny positivism and self-help. If you came into the show a cynic, you would definitely have left a reformed and sunny character. Her latest album Better Day is a testament to her particular brand of positive self-help.

She also mentioned her new film, Joyful Noise, with Queen Latifah, about a high school gospel choir. Now that is one movie I am going to have to see.

I came away from my evening with Dolly utterly inspired, excited about my life, and inpressed by the energy and talent of this simply extraordinary woman.
Viva La Dolly - may you live forever!

Kwan Yin Temple, Cholon

One of my favourite places to hang out at in Saigon is the Kwan Yin Temple in Cholon.
It is filled with the most mysterious statues, many of them belonging to the realm of Chinese popular religion and requiring a great degree of localised knowledge in order to be recognised.

I have made good friends with some of the people who work here, over the years, and even they are unable to identify some of the statues with any certainty. They are more likely to identify them according to the attributes they exemplify for the worshipper, and for the particular purpose of their worship. Certainly many of the people visiting the temple have only the vaguest grasp of who most of the figures are, apart from the obvious ones, like Kwan Yin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, to whom the temple is dedicated.
The walls are embossed with 3D friezes (not sure I'm describing these properly) which have been rendered in plaster and cement, representing Buddhist deities and characters from Taoist and other popular religious stories.

These are becoming my favourite features of the temple - there's something charming about the naivety of the figures, and the almost-spooky way they reach out from the walls. Worshippers drape small garlands of honeysuckle and jasmine over their outstretched hands.
And I am in love with the odd-looking child-attendants of Kwan Yin in the main shrine.

They have adult heads on small bodies and are deliriously happy, though quite what for I have no idea.

Luke Nguyen's Long Lunch

I am just about to leave for Vietnam, but before I go I wanted to share with you some of the wonderful pics from last week's Long Lunch with Luke Nguyen, right in Cabramatta's Freedom Plaza.

It was one of the Crave Sydney Food Festival's Pop Up events, sponsored by the Fairfield City Council and Luke Nguyen's own gorgeous range of signature eating accessories from Baccarat.

We ate and drank till we were more than merry, enjoying, among other things, Pearl River beer, Peking duck from Iron Chef restaurant, goi cuon (fresh spring rolls) from Ngoc An restaurant and an exquisite green mango salad from Bau Truong.

And at the end Pappa Roti snuck us each a delicious little bag of their addictive buns, and I had scoffed mine in no time, you'd better believe.
It's no secret that I have rather a major crush on Luke Nguyen, and he was a wonderful host, explaining all of the dishes and how best to enjoy them, making sure everything ran like clockwork and just being perfect - all without breaking a sweat!

And that was no mean feat, because it was an unseasonally warm day, so much so that the organisers eventually provided us with our own non la, the traditional Vietnamese conical hat. These were incredibly effective, but they made us all look like the worst sort of tourist.
Except, that is, for the gorgeous Chocolate Suze and her equally gorgeous consort Noods, who always manage to look stylish, no matter what.

5 Best Books About Cambodia

I have, of course, written a book about Cambodia, and I have an abiding interest in this amazing place. And this is not just a recent interest. I have tried to read most of the new books about Cambodia since my first visit there in 1996, and so have managed to cover quite a lot of literary space in that time. And books about Cambodia fill up a pretty large chunk in my library.

As more and more Australians visit Cambodia, there is a growing interest in Cambodian history and culture. Some years ago I was most privileged to have a prominent Australian publisher ask me to recommend my favourite books on Cambodia, as he was going there soon on a holiday and wanted to learn more.

So I thought I'd share my list with you, in case you were planning your own trip, or simply wanted to know more about one of the world's most beautiful places:

5 Best Books About Cambodia

1. The Gate by Francois Bizot - An absolutely amazing book, you couldn't read a better account of the fall of Phnom Penh and the early days of the Pol Pot era. Bizot is a French academic (a world expert in Cambodian Buddhism) and was trapped in Phnom Penh when Pol Pot entered - his survival is a miracle. I can't overstate what an incredible book this is. Whenever I recommend it to anyone they always come back to me soon after thanking me for introducing it to them.


2. Phnom Penh: A Cultural History by Milton Osborne - Osborne is an Australian and one of the world's leading experts on Cambodia. Osborne has known Cambodia sine the 1960s and has a profound understanding of a country he has seen in many different sets of conditions. A beautiful writer with a vast set of references and connections he can make from his experience - I think you will really love this book, and it will help you understand the city of Phnom Penh so well.

Cambodian Buddhism: History and Practice by Ian Harris - It's quite readable and utterly fascinating. Points out how unique Cambodian Theravada Buddhism is, and how different from the Thai forms most Westerners would be familiar with. As someone who knows a little bit about Buddhism, I found much of this book completely revelatory, and it confounded the assumptions I had made about Buddhist teaching and history in Cambodia. A specialist area, I know, but when you consider that the majority of Cambodians are Buddhist, I think this is a very valuable book to read. 

4. In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner - This justly praised novel of the Pol Pot years is a tremendous read, and one that would be of great interest to anyone who plans on visiting Cambodia, or who has been and wants to know more.  Ratner is herself a survivor of these years, and now lives in America. 

5. Angkor: Cities and Temples by Claude Jacques and Michael Freeman - I have owned this book for years, and it is still my go-to book for all matters Angkorean. Exquisitely illustrated, this is the book you deserve if you have any interest at all in the antique civilisations of Cambodia. Huge, beautiful and completely engrossing.

Plus two extras:

- The Gods Drink Whiskey by Stephen T. Asma - Not just about Cambodia, this travel book is still filled with excellent information about Cambodia, and is a great read to boot.


First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung - There are any number of books about the despair of the Pol Pot times. I have read dozens of them, but this is by far the best. And don't be put off by the hype - I have been championing this book ever since it came out. Angelina Jolie focused on it for very good reason

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