Sharky's, Phnom Penh, as civilized as the bar scene gets in Cambodia. Found a bit of the central bar to lean against, fend off a few of the more unsavoury women, one so far gone she took no notice of my polite refusal to exist on the same planet. She eventually moves away a few yards, settles down to staring daggers for the rest of my time in the bar. Water off a duck's back.
Women, mostly in groups, swirl through the bar, eyeing me up but getting nowhere fast. Easy if all you want is a quick three hole routine from one of the Vietnamese girls but if you want to plunge right on into the core of the country via one of the hotter than hell Khmer bints, well, you just have to hold tight awhile and wait for the dream zone. Must ruin the minds of the culture buffs that the fastest way into the heart of the land is through some teenage babe running on an excess of desperation and sexuality.
I was down to drinking Beer Lao out of the can, bottles scarce for some reason, the rest of the beer on offer only fit for life in a sewerage treatment plant. Had to gulp it down pretty fast, the ambient temperature in the large saloon not far off sauna levels, something repeated in most Phnom Penh dives. I am maybe the oldest guy there (at fifty), the airplane loads of fat, bald, aged sex tourists largely absent compared to Bangkok. Whatever, loads, loads, more femmes than guys and that's all that really counts, right?
Click, click, click, not exactly bored as there is always an edge to Cambodia even if it's as likely to be in the madness of the farang attracted to the place as the deep insanity of the ex-brothel gals; one Arabic lout kept throwing pure pulses of evil my way, for some obscure reason. Click, click, click… my brain suddenly tries to leap right out of my head when I clock a ridiculously sublime young lady.
In another – saner and shyer – life I might've let her walk right on past but not now. Not with someone who made most movie stars look downright drab and not when I've taken the ultimate risk by entering the Heart of Darkness (there is a Phnom Penh bar called just that, but it's kind of mild and boring before midnight). I tap her arm as she passes, enough effort for her to turn and almost blind me with THE SMILE. Dream land entered.
In Thailand I have enough language to get by, in Cambodia I haven't a clue – total culture shock. And the most education a lot of the girls get is a clout around the head when they are tardy doing the daily domestic chores. The only language she has that I understand, the heat out of her body, eyes brimming over with beauty and that smile. A bit of sign language, writing in the grime on the bar top, turns out she is twenty (going on sixteen in my estimation) and has been in the bar scene for a whole week (probably as meaningful as saying this is my first time in a Phnom Penh bar). Needing to keep a grasp on reality I glance around the bar, find the Arab guy about to burst out of his clothes in total rage; synching up with the hooker I'd already rejected. Some people.
I buy the babe (call her K) a drink and some food. The reaction I receive, like it's the first bit of kindness she's ever enjoyed. The food looks nowhere near up to Thai standards but it's cheap enough. She eats like she's afraid someone's going to snatch the food away from her but any illusions I hold about her frailty immediately dissipate when some Vietnamese hooker tries to grab part of the action. The looks she gives her would-be rival convinces me this is one tough lady (it convinces the Vietnamese, too, who does a rapid disappearing act); just how I like my women. No bar-fines, twenty dollars long time the going rate, we waltz on out of there, a minor delay while she picks up her ID card from security downstairs.
After a bit of an argument, my motorcycle taxi-driver agrees to take the extra passenger – I really don't want anything to do with the fifty or so male moto-taxi drivers loitering outside Sharky's – god knows how many of them are pimps. I check backwards that none of them are following us. The bike's some crap Chinese copy of a Honda step-thru, held together by duct-tape and prayers, but the traffic density scarce in the night and our progress miserly. But ten minutes is enough…
The Khmer style discos packed with locals, K drags me over to a table overflowing with young gals. Not a pimp in sight. A holy sight, Beer Lao in a bottle! K sits just close enough to be Khmer dignified whilst charging my body with a thoroughly sacred heat from her 40kg of rolled steel. The music not that dissimilar to Laotian, which does it for me. The gals chatter despite the waves of bass coming from the speakers, suggesting the Khmer men are even more poorly endowed than the Thais.
Probably shouldn't think such thoughts, the next thing I know I'm in the middle of a war-zone. Some wizened Khmer man grabbing one of the girls and trying to punch her face off which brings all her friends out in a frenzy of kicks. A bit more local colour than I really wanted, I try to grab K and get the hell out of there but she wants part of the action.
Click, click, click… total loss situation, if I pile in every Khmer man in the place will want a bit of the Culler carcass. My taxi-driver pops up out of nowhere – the last I'd seen of him he was laid out asleep atop the motorcycle – genuine concern apparently writ deep in his face (and I was only paying him a couple of dollars for a night's work…). He points fervently at the exit whilst I point equally righteously at K who seems totally transformed into some kind of warrior… and, god help me, all the more alluring for it!
These Khmer guys are tougher than they look as I find myself being force-marched towards the exit despite not having paid for my three bottles of beer. The Cambodians seem to have a thing about killing or beating the shit out of each other out of sight of foreigners… Glance back as I reach the exit, catch K's eye and jerk my finger at the exit whilst the local bouncers wade in with what look like bloody big steel bars, pure inbred insanity distorting their faces. K ducks and dives through the melee with a big grin all over her face as she finally throws herself into my arms. Meanwhile, the moto-driver's doing a little of jig of impatience, shitting himself that I am getting a view of the real, albeit mostly well hidden, Khmer nature.
It's one o'clock in the morning, finally a breath of cool air wafting through the mostly darkened city, amplified by the driver's attempts to break through the 40 mph barrier. For some reason K and I suddenly dissolve into hysterical laughter, not the wisest move on a motorcycle that gives every impression of falling apart under us. Back at the hotel, the driver waves off my money, gets the hell out of there and is never seen again. Weird chap!
Hard steel and velvet, wild moist heat and a kind of almost out of body experience ensues as K and I hit the bed. The gal seems to want to rip my soul out of my body, reconstitute it and make me her love slave for as long as my heart lasts… she's still there in the morning, clamped around my body as if her life depended on it. I have another day in Phnom Penh – a rather dismal city once away from the riverside where the prices have been racked up accordingly – and no way is she going to leave my side. No passport, of course, so I can't even entertain the fantasy of getting her on the plane to Bangkok the next day and I don't have the dosh to survive in the wilderness of the Khmer capital. Bastard world!
An excerpt from Al Culler's book, Bars, Babes & Bimbos is available at www.alculler.com