Delightful Cambodian Girlfriend (6/7) – Phnom Penh By Night
It's a stunning orange-violet sunset behind the Royal Palace. Couples line up to be photographed for 5000 riels (1.25 USD) in front of the impressive backdrop. For a breeze before dinner, we settle in the tiny park in front of the palace where now Sihamoni is the new king. A little girl rents out picnic mats. That's 500 riels for the whole evening, 0.12 USD, a well-known fixed price.
You cannot sit anywhere on the grass, just on the edge of grass and paved walkway. If more than 50 percent of your ass occupy grass, a bizarre khakied policeman will stop 10 meters in front of you, yell into his whistle and bark into his megaphone. Then you are forced to move ten meters, or even 20, along the edge of the grass; an incommodity.
I watch a shabby Coke selling lady re-emerging from the bushes that face the entrance to the Royal Palace; returning from a pee with a royal view, she rearranges her torn dresses right on the open lawn before logging her ice box to the next bored strollers. A little off Sambah, the tourist elephant from Wat Phnom, is walked home; but right now Sambah enjoys her usual shower from the water hose of the park gardener.
Suddenly, the lights on the Royal Palace are turned on. Like a Christmas decoration, long rows of light bulbs draw the contours of the Royal Palace into the darkening sky. It's nice kitsch. I can't imagine royal Thai buildings in cheap décor like that.
Anyway, the scenery *is* stunning, especially when you sit so close and see it from ground level. It's Phnom Penh's unique landmark. Norah comes back from a short food finding mission, she settles back down next to me with steamed corn and cooled takh sot, drinking water. – "You like the lighted palace", I ask her? – She smiles and muses; then she nods. – The sky behind the alighted palace is a breathtaking show of orange, red and violet hues now. – "It's ok now", she says. "But some years ago, every night the king turned on his lights, all electricity in our street was off."
— Picnic Mat Business —
Suddenly she shrieks. "Oh! We need one more vegetable for dinner, darling! We must go to Psah Kandal quickly, before it closes!!" Of course! We stand up to look for the kid who rented the picnic mat to us. Kid sees us quickly and rushes by. We don't have one of those reddish rumpled 500 riels notes, though; so Norah hands out 1000 (0,24 USD instead of 0,12).
But the kid has no change. Norah encourages the girl to ask one of the numerous hawkers for change, but the kid looks around undecidedly. Suddenly a fat painted old Khmer lady on stiletto heels enters the scene. She grabs our 1000 from the kid and is off again! Norah calls: "Hey, we need 500 change." – Fat painted old lady hisses back: "You used picnic mat for too long; so that's 1000 now!" – Ning looks really disgusted, but she lets her go: "Sorry, Pothole, sorry, sorry. She's wrong, of course it's 500 only; but I am tired to talk-talk."
— Street Business —
Onto the moto and off to Psah Kandal, to find Norah's much needed veggies. This big slippery semi-enclosed oriental market is right behind the glitzy bars and pizzerias of the riverside. We find parking in front of a small padlock store on the outer edge of Psah Kandal. Norah suggests I wait there while she hunts for veggies inside the maze. I obey happily.
It's night by now, but a few pale lamps shed a meager light on the population of the hardware store in front of my moto: About five adults and three small children sit there, the owner family of the store. While I sit on the moto, one child squats over the gutter right next to my front wheel and pees. Then the next child squats over the gutter and pees. Then child three pees there.
Norah – come back with your veggies and take me outta here! Not so. One family member in front of the padlock store spreads a newspaper over the pavement. I think no, this cannot be. This CANNOT be. Child 1 squats over the paper and shits onto it; 70 centimeters away from me. To be followed by child 2: squats, shits. Child 3 has waited, but now does what's on the agenda – squat, shit, off. The paper is then folded as if it contained delicious fresh fish from Tonley Sap.
Norah… please… THERE she comes rushing out of the market complex, big smile, she got all her stuff! Finally! Two big plastic bags full of whatever edible. She doesn't know just how happy I am to ride back to our sheltered, civilised, security-shielded 50-USD-a-day serviced apartment.
— The Heart —
In the course of the dinner I manage to convince Norah to accompany me to The Heart Of Darkness. That tiny Khmer-baroque dance-den is something special; just as the Foreign Correspondants Club on the riverside, it has a certain ambience which hectic-eclectic Bangkok in all it's faux glitz will never muster to copy.
Squeezed up behind one baseball-capped motorcycle driver, we arrive at The Heart, as Phnom Penhois know it, around 10 p.m. Not yet busy; I order Wodka Orange, Norah needs a Coke, and we settle to watch the half-empty zoo. The Heart has a spicy mix of regular visitors and taxi girls and taxi boys, as the profession is called locally. On previous visits, I've had my share of delightful instant company picked from The Heart; it's truly exotic: some girls not only do, but also speak French here. With Norah by my side, and her ring on my finger, the taxi girls will simply ignore me, including old companions.
Suddenly a cutie from the other side of the dance floor storms towards us with a big smile. What is this, I think with alarm. I don't know that one, and now she will claim to know me, try to tear me off Norah? Nasty trick, slut, I don't know you!!
Not so. On the last meters she steers towards Norah and doesn't even regard me. She talks with Norah for a while, then retreats back to her corner of the dancefloor.
"She's my old neighbor", says Norah, following her with her eyes, and then with a disapproving undertone: "I didn't know she goes to The Heart." That one looked nice and lively, two visits ago I might have invited her for a dance. But now I don't know what to think of her, and I don't know what she thinks about Norah and me?
You can't keep Norah here for long; she doesn't say it, but I sense she is not happy at this heaving place. It smells with nicotine, which is even worse for her than for me. The place is filling up now with backpackers, NGO workers and Farang B-movie-pimps flashing gold chains under silken shirts. Some of them obviously mind-fuck Norah with sleazy looks; should I be proud and/or beat them up? Anyway, better to take her home.
— The Lamps —
Back in the apartment, she says it's ok if I go back to The Heart. We drink another tea together, then I prepare to return to The Heart Of Darkness. She is lieing in bed already.
The apartment has many small lights, a wall light here, a floor lamp there. I start to turn off all those lights for her. – With a rush, Norah gets up in bed and exclaims: "Oh, Pothole! No need to turn off the lights!" – "Why", I go, "you wanted to sleep, right?" – "Yes, I want to sleep. But can keep light anyway!" Quite firm, her words. – I have an intuition: "Ah, you need the lights, because when alone you worry of gho- " – "NO NEED TO SPEAK!!!", she yells.
OMG. I turn on two corner lamps again and kiss an agitated Norah on the forehead and on the mouth. I sneak out, leaving My Khmer Lady all alone with a house full of ghosts. I just hope no electricity cut will bring back the threat.
Back in The Heart, over the next Wodka Orange, I think I should really appreciate that Norah lets me go here without any fuss: Alone at home, she has to face the ghost front; while her man slurps Wodkas in a nefarious dance-den vibrating with available dollar-starved Khmer beauty. Isn't she worried about that? I keep her gold ring on in The Heart, because I want to signal my occupied status to any enterprising taxi girl before troubles could start. Still it's fun watching the dancers and listening to the pumping east-west dance beats.
What drives me out a little later are the horrible looks I get from a drove of taxi *boys*. Worse than ghosts! A bunch of motorcycle taxi drivers assaults on me as I step back onto potholed Road 51. Still, for the short trip to the apartment they demand a dollar – a rip-off. I have to walk 200 meters until I get a ride for the usual night price of 1500 riels, 0,36 US cents.
Around 2 a.m., I walk up the stairs to our apartment. The door opens just when I want to press the bell push. A tired, but smiling Norah lets me in. She says she slept before, but I am not sure. Apart from the ghosts, she must have pondered some other difficult riddles. Because when we lie in bed, she poses
— The Question —
Oh my god, I think, why does she ask this, now? What does she know? But there is no use in painting a hagiography of me. Norah sees straight through me anyway. She knows I couldn't be a monk. She saw my look wandering in The Heart. Now she fixes my eyes with a very concentrated look.
So what the heck, let's be honest for once. So I say "Yes"; just "Yes". And see, she isn't angry or even surprised: After my "Yes" she just gives me a witty ironic smile and a nod. Something like "I know you, my boy, don't I". Or maybe it means "Good on you, you didn't try to lie, you didn't pretend to be a monk." Her opinion of the male race isn't too high; and that includes me.
But then again, that was just the first question, and upon closer musing, it hadn't been all too difficult. Actually, when she put the words like this, she made it relatively easy for me to answer 1) honestly, but 2) without too much damage for our relationship. Her words had been: "Before you had me – sometimes you went with taxi girl?"
"Yes" I said, and "Yes" she had expected. She knows: I have a functioning willy. So of course I must have taken taxi girls before I met her. With that first question, Norah didn't really check facts – she checked my honesty.
But see – she has another question. Her face goes back to serious. *Very* serious. She changes her position in the bed, she rearranges her hair, she looks at me half-desparate, fishing for appropriate words in her limited vocabulary. She already knows her man slept with prostitutes, she accepted it before we met first, so what else does she need to inquire?
"But – Pothole! Did you *kiss* her?"
Ahhh, the question to which no answer will satisfy her…