Cambodia Chapter 1
It was ten years ago that I first came to South East Asia. I visited the temples of Prambanan and Borobudur in Java and climbed the great volcano of Mt. Merapi. Then to beautiful Bali for a month and over to Komodo Island to see the dragons that I had wanted to visit since I was a child. They didn’t disappoint.
The two guards that we had were armed with forked sticks and were twitching nervously – as the dragons roamed freely, totally in charge of their domain. Jeeze, the guards should have shotguns I thought. The two boys holding goat meat in a bag on a long pole were visibly afraid, making us even more apprehensive.
The great beasts were thickly-muscled and armor plated with long claws, rows of sharp teeth set in large jaws more powerful than a steel trap. Decayed-flesh eaters with poisonous salvia and long ribbon-like forked tongues flicking out, testing the air, searching for you. These were the monsters that horror movies and bad dreams were made of. But they were as kittens compared to the nightmare that was about to come smashing down upon me- thrusting me into an alien and horrific world. A nightmare that still visits. Clawing at my lungs and tearing my heart until I squirm and kick from its grasp and wake up in the middle of the night sobbing and gasping for breath, my girlfriend already awake, pressed against the wall, clutching a pillow for protection against the demons that had invaded our room.
I flew to Singapore and then up to Bangkok staying in The Atlanta Hotel on Soi Two, spending peaceful days by the pool. At night I would wander over to Soi Four and have a drink in a few of the small bars that lined the street.
I met Noi (Before or after Dana met her?! – Stick> and we kept company while she was waiting for her visa to arrive so that she could go to Holland and marry her boyfriend. We had quiet romantic dinners on the terrace of The Oriental Hotel watching the boats gently float by on the Chao Phraya River, dining on soft shelled crabs and filet of red snapper. But there was one more thing that I had to see – Angkor Wat. When London and Paris boasted populations of twenty-thousand, Angkor held almost a million inhabitants. I told Noi that I would be back in less than a week.
I would fly over and take a bullet boat up the river to Siem Reap, spend a few days exploring the site and come back before she left for Europe. I wanted to see her again before she disappeared out of my life forever. I flew to Phnom Penh the next day, checked into an inexpensive but clean hotel and walked over to Sharky Bar, up the wide stairway to the second floor and past the sign demanding that you leave your guns, hand-grenades, knives, explosives and drugs at the door with the guard. There was an AK-47 with a big banana clip leaning against the desk. Can’t be too many bar fights in this place I thought.
I sat on the open-air terrace, ordered a drink and met more than a few characters. Like Jack, a police captain in Chicago- afraid of nothing. Chuckles was from San Diego, fifty-three years old, living with his mother and tight with a dollar. He was here for the girls. Earl the Pearl from Canada asked me if I had a normal childhood during my formative years. But it was Earl that had hardly spoken to a female during his teens and into his twenties, hormones raging in the wilderness of Alberta. Earl was here for the girls too. Harry had a soft voice and a round smiling face. He was one step ahead of the law. Harry sold grade A, pure blue-white, clear cut, one carrot diamonds over the telephone and mailed out industrial grade stones hardly worth more than the glass it was used to cut. He was here looking for business opportunities. There were six of us and I named our group The Dirty Half Dozen. We met for lunch every day at The Wagon Wheel Restaurant on Sisovath Quay overlooking the Tonie Sap River, recounting the previous night’s adventures. Later we would stroll over to Street Number Fifty-Four, lined with cement shop houses-of ill repute. They were all the same with fat old sofas and arm chairs in the front rooms. We would sit around drinking dollar beers and telling tall tales while the girls scampered over our laps, bounced on our knees, threw their arms around our necks and tousled our hair. We almost never took them into the back rooms, divided by cardboard walls into cubicles hardly big enough to hold a bed. If you wanted to wash, you used cold water kept in a plastic garbage pail near the squat toilet.
To make up for their time, we always gave the girls a few dollars before we left. Everyone was happy. In the evenings we would shoot pool at Sharky Bar, teaming up with the young ladies of the evening.
While I waited for a turn, my girl would wrap herself around me, holding me tight and caressing my back.
When I sank a ball she would laugh with delight and the girls would shout and applaud loudly as if I had just won the Grand Prix. It may sound silly now but these were good times. I forgot all about Noi and pushed Angkor to the back of my mind. Some days we would hire a car and driver for ten bucks and go up to Sway Pak, eleven kilometers out of town.
It was a dusty dirty street lined with Vietnamese whore houses. When your car pulled up all of the girls would run outside and line both sides of the street for almost as far as the eye could see. If you wanted to choose a girl it was difficult. There were so many of them and they were all so pretty. There were two food stands shielded from the sun by canvas tarps. We would have a bite to eat and watch the girls saunter by. One quiet day there was just Jack and I sitting around shooting the breeze. A boy walked by and offered me a girl. ‘No.’ I said and waved him off. Christ, the next thing you know I would be sitting at the beach and someone would come along and offer to sell me sand. ‘I have nice young girl for you.’ ‘I don’t want a nice young girl. Take a hike.’ The boy persisted. I ignored him. Fifteen minutes later he was still there pleading and cajoling. I supposed that he was desperate for his dollar commission. ‘Jack, I’ll be right back. Just let me see what this kid wants.’ I followed him while he trotted down a narrow alley between two shop-houses and through a vacant lot. ‘No worry. No police,’ he repeated over and over again. This was odd I thought. I wasn’t worried and there weren’t any police around. There was another dirt road running parallel to the one that we had been on and we entered a crummy old cement house. The kid pulled the doors closed behind him and disappeared into the back room.
A perfect place to be robbed and killed I thought while I sat down on an ancient sofa. I was about to beat it out of there when the momma-san came out followed by six girls who dutifully lined up in front of me. I gasped and my heart broke. They were just children, no more than nine or ten years old.
I had stepped into a sickening horror movie. Since I was sure that this was a movie, my first impulse was to scoop up all of the children in my arms, all six of them and run out the door, run all the way to Phnom Penh and safety.
But it was much, much worse than a terrifying movie. It was real. The last two girls on the end wore grimy t-shirts and short pants. The next girl didn’t even have a shirt and her ribs stuck out of her puny chest. These girls were a long, long way from puberty. But it was the sight of next three girls that would be etched in my mind forever. They wore bright red lipstick and had round rouge circles on their cheeks. They wore party dresses and their tiny fingernails were painted. One wore a frilly white dress with black polka dots. The next had a gaudy pink dress that hung from her bony shoulders by thin straps and the last one had her skinny body wrapped in a tight red sarong. ‘This one good. Take this one.’ The momma-san put her hand into the back of the girl in the pink dress and she tottered towards me on breadstick legs. My head was spinning and I was suffocating. I had to get out of there.
I leapt to my feet and ran as fast as I could, past the girls, past the momma-san and out the front door -not stopping until I got back to my friend Jack. I breathlessly told him what had happened. He grabbed me by the arm and shoved me towards the car while I babbled on. ‘We’ve got to go back. We’ve got to save those girls. We’ll take three apiece. Take them to the police.’ Jack had been in Cambodia a lot longer than I. ‘And who do you think is protecting that place?’ We rode back to town in silence. ‘I’m going to the American Embassy,’ I said. ‘Don’t waste your time.’ ‘Do you want to go with me?’ ‘No.’
I dropped Jack off. The embassy was in a new building on Street Number 240, surrounded by a high cement wall and an iron gate. I was vaguely disappointed not to see Marine guards, rifles at the ready, standing sentry duty. There was however, a uniformed Marine in a guard house by the front gate. ‘I’d like to see the ambassador.’ ‘Do you have an appointment, Sir?’ ‘No.’ ‘Please state your business.’ I told him the whole story. ‘You’re not supposed to go there. If you’re arrested and jailed and we can’t help you.’ ‘I want to file a complaint.’ ‘We don’t handle things like that. Go to the Cambodian authorities.’ Yeah, right. I left but I was a long way from being finished. I was going to destroy that crappy place, knock it out of the box.
I went back to the hotel and sat in the lobby thinking. There were some old newspapers on a small table.
One was an English language weekly, published in Cambodia. I grabbed the paper and jumped into a waiting car. I had a small amount of luck back home in public relations. Once I had Braille menus printed and sent them to all the food critics. Can you read this? No? Now you know how blind people feel – but not at my restaurant. I garnered good publicity from that stunt. One cold December there was a garbage strike and the trash piled high against the buildings. I wrapped my plastic garbage bags with wide red ribbons and big bows and pasted Christmas cards on them. I called every newspaper in town and the television networks too. That evening I was on all the news channels and the next day in all of the papers including the front page of the New York Post. Every restaurant in New York City- no, every single businessman in the city said, Hell, that’s such a simple idea. Why didn’t I think of that?
The newspaper office in Phnom Penh was a modest affair with plate glass windows and four desks. The editor was right there. I started telling him my story idea.
He held up his hand, ‘Stop right there. That’s not news.’ I continued undeterred. ‘I could sneak some photographs for the article that we’ll publish. Then I’ll send the story to the news wire services, CNN, The International Tribune, American television stations. We’ll blow these guys out of the water.’
‘And where are you going to be in two or three weeks?’ ‘Well, I suppose I’ll be home, back in America.’ ‘Oh, you’re not going to be here when they come in with machine guns and murder us where we sit? No way.
Thanks but no thanks. Excuse me, I have work to do.’ He waved his hand. I was dismissed.
I did not meet the boys for lunch the next day or the day after that. I was in no mood to make ha-ha or to listen to jokes and laughter, in no mood at all. I wandered along the riverside. I was in front of The Royal Palace with its red tiled roofs and dazzling gold trim. There was a small park thick with green grass. Four monks walked by in saffron-orange colored robes holding bright yellow umbrellas against the sun. It was a stunningly beautiful country- unless you took a few steps further and saw the grinding poverty, the crime and the filth.
to be continued next Saturday