One Hundred and Twenty Four Hours at ‘Candy,’ Phnom Penh Part 1
I’d no intention of staying in a brothel for five days and five nights but I barely left the place except for twilight walks along the Mekong with my girlfriend and late night drinking and dancing at Heart of Darkness. It was my fault, of course, and then ultimately my design. I’d blundered off to Cambodia on a visa run without a crucial document and without full knowledge of the timeframes involved at the Thai Consulate in Phnom Penh.
A few weeks earlier the Korean Love God, or KLG, called me to say he would make it into Bangkok on the night of my birthday and was at a loose end for the next week. I needed to get another visa sometime in the next month to tide me over until Christmas. KLG had never visited Cambodia. I had five years earlier, loved it and was itching to go back again. My girlfriend had only been as far as the casinos in Poipet on a holiday trip with friends.
With my promising relationship budding, I wanted to see how Ann would cope during a week on the road. The KLG and I together could test her flexibility and patience. The combination of my reckless suggestions and his two favorite phrases, “Why not?” and “Let’s go!” has led us down some irresponsible paths in the past; most of them involving a combination of Johnnie Black and beautiful women. With the build and looks of an Asian Adonis and the manners and charm of a man of his class, he belies first impressions. Under expert tutelage this conservative facade has been torn down over a few years and uncovered a man the equal of any in his ability to party long and hard. I was also keen to observe Ann’s level of xenophobia (pre-Thaksingate) in the land of her people’s archenemy, the Khmers.
Standing in the midday sun outside Big C in Bang Na we watched three full buses go past without stopping. Ann’s plan to get on the bus to Poipet at a stop rather than the station wasn’t looking so good and she too was beginning to sweat under the shade of her umbrella. A dozen other people were waiting as well. Our plan to do this trip on a budget had an inauspicious start as we negotiated a fare with a taxi driver on the condition that he drive slowly and safely. We told him that we would give him a tip if the needle didn’t edge over 110km at any point. He did good. The last time I went to Cambodia I got a taxi from Koh Chang to Poipet and traveling at speeds up to 140km we made it in about four hours. I felt close to Death. He was nestled in my lap for sure. I loathe open road taxi rides in Asia.
When we got to the border we were greeted by a faux-charming young Cambodian who upon discovering I was a Kiwi insisted on calling me “Bro” henceforth. He ushered us through the mud and into a shabby open tent and gave us the relevant forms to fill out, took our cash and returned our passports with visas within 10 minutes. He then suggested that for his friendly welcome and some chit-chat over the form filling we should each give him 200 Baht. I suggested to him that if he was providing a paid service then he should inform us at the start of the process. He said: “I am sorry. Next time I will do this. Can I have the money please?” He opened his palm in front of us. I put a 20 Baht note on the table, wished him luck with a big smile and we headed off to Thai Immigration to get stamped out.
I admit that I was a little concerned at Ann’s experience in this little casino zone that exists as a kind of no man’s land in a strip between the Thai and Cambodia Immigration points. In our courtship I had assessed her ‘goodness’ fairly thoroughly and this was the only stain I could find. A gambling Thai lady for a girlfriend? Alarm bells. She’d told me of the tens of thousands of baht she had won in a jackpot and still had the gold to prove it. At least she hadn’t blown it all. We stayed at “Star Vegas” in a decent room for eight hundred Baht including a voucher for three hundred Baht in casino chips. We showered and headed into the casino and took our vouchers to the cashier. I handed over a few thousand baht but Ann refused to. She had her three hundred Baht and she was happy. I played Blackjack for an hour, doubled my money and went to find Ann. She was watching a game of Baccarat in a crowd of onlookers at a busy table, chips still gripped tightly. She watched for another half an hour and then took her place at the table. Three hundred Baht became a thousand and she cashed up. Then she smiled and watched for the evening, happy that she’d won. KLG and I flitted between the blackjack tables and roulette wheel, more interested in people watching than making money. I was up and he was down and Ann was looking smug sitting on her thousand Baht note watching other people lose money.
I swore that I was never going to go back to Siem Reap by road. Five years ago I had one of the most uncomfortable and slowest rides I have experienced. Last onto the minivan I got left with the little fold down seat that had by the look and feel of it, borne some tremendous weight in the past. It sloped sideways at about a ten-degree angle and I was aching by the time we bumped and rolled our way into the toilet and food stop 80km and three hours into our expected six-hour journey. The road to that point was the worst I’d ever traveled on for any length of time. Barely more than a muddy track in places, the road had clearly not seen any maintenance in a very long time. It got a lot worse when we lurch down a culvert and bounced up onto a ridge where the back end of the van slammed down with bone-shaking force and moved no more. The driver got out and inspected the damage before ushering us out of the van and telling us we’d have to hitch if we wanted to get to Siem Reap.
Ten of us trudged up the road a little and we only had to wait five minutes for two rides that took half of our group. The rest of us hitched a ride in the empty back pen of two on the bed of a dilapidated truck. In the front pen four pigs lay trussed side by side, upside down, barely conscious and frothing green at the mouth while slowly grinding on whole plants of wild cannabis that had been stuffed in their mouths. By the time we bounced our way into Siem Reap in the early evening they were fast asleep, floppily jostling along side each other as they dreamed of eating, snorting, rutting and looking as beady-eyed as possible.
Again I was the last in the minivan and I got the fold down seat facing the wrong way directly behind the passenger seat. Fucking brilliant. I got to face the rest of the passengers, a combination of Germans and Chinese, as if holding court as they wondered why my eyes were so blood-shot, I was slurring my words and grinning inanely. An old Chinese guy spent the trip ignoring the beautiful countryside and ogling my girlfriend. Fair enough. A young male Cambodian tour guide snuck in as well, successfully soliciting his tuktuk driving services to a pair of Chinese ladies along the way. He was a nice guy and gave us some interesting insights into his world.
A few hours into the trip he made a major mistake. He was explaining that Cambodia was a Kingdom and raved about his King. He then began to explain that Thailand was a Kingdom also. I felt Ann tense beside me. I start gently stroking her leg and she brushed my hand aside impatiently and started glaring at him. He mentioned something about the King's relative wealth and Ann’s nails started digging into my forearm. And then he looked up and met her eye. She was delivering that withering glare that I am sure is unique to the genetics of a Thai lady. He stopped talking mid-sentence and dropped his eyes. He started fidgeting and glanced down at the handle of the sliding door beside him. I know how he felt. I’ve been the recipient of that glare a few times. I stuck around the first time but ended up hiding the knives. Now I make my way slowly and steadily towards the door making calming motions with my hands, quickly slip out and move at pace to the nearest exit. In an hour when I return, she is smiles and apologies and jai yen yen. No such chance of escape for our earnest young friend here. Instead he slipped down his sunglasses and pretended to doze off. Wise move.
The ride itself was great. The road is now superb and we made the trip inside three and a half hours even with the inevitable restaurant stop. All there was to see for much of the trip was water. Severe flooding had hit earlier in the week destroying most rice crops. If the new road had not been raised and built well above the flood-line no one would be making this trip for a very long time. All along the way water swirled around in whirlpools as it competed to flush through the culverts under the road and rush out the other side in torrents. Each culvert we flashed past was surrounded by a crowd of locals in colorful t-shirts with renewed urgency to catch fish knowing that they have a rice-less future. Boys stood waste deep flinging and dragging their nets. Others trawled from small wooden boats or from against the roadside bank. Younger children splashed and played with oblivious delight. Each culvert seemed to be hosting a community event.
Rolling along the wide avenue leading into Siem Reap, I couldn’t help but notice that the gaudy four and five star hotels were starting to look rather weatherworn and shabby. It seemed that the hotel building boom of ten years ago was well and truly over with nothing new in sight. There was water everywhere from the recent rains and many hotels, businesses and homes were blocked from the road by lakes of foot deep water. Some places in the road had been obliterated and the roughest part of the journey was in Siem Reap itself. We were dropped off near the river in the Old Market area and to the disappointment of the awaiting tuk-tuk drivers I insisted upon us walking unaided for a couple of minutes to the historic Ta Prhom Hotel, a beautiful and spacious French homestead with dark wooden floors and a wide winding staircase up to rooms that face out onto the street and river. With the sun lowering I could envisage us up on the balcony drinking ice-cold beer and sharing a smoke. It came to pass. The sunset over the muddy river threw smoldering light across the red tiles and soft pastels of the town. We unwound.
Siem Reap at night is a good place to chill out in low-key bars, cafes and restaurants. Most people are there to see the temples rather than party hard. Bar Street can be lively at night in the high season and I was offered the full range of pharmaceuticals by a dealer on the corner suggesting that some people were up for fun but I couldn’t get excited by the place. We enjoyed an evening of restrained bar hopping where the three of us swelled the numbers in each establishment we entered. “Bar Street Alley,” a block towards the river is developing nicely with the opening of a range of restaurants and cafes that are much more arty and relaxed if you want to lounge around. We opted for a relatively early night like most so we could get up early and spend the day touring the temples.
We stepped out onto the street the next morning to find transport after a devastatingly disappointing breakfast of noodle soup made from instant noodles. Outrageous. Should have ordered the scrambled eggs on toast. On cue a tuk-tuk rolled up and we thought it auspicious that the driver shared KLG’s surname and had proudly stenciled “Mr. Son” on the side. When we arrived at the roadside ticket office Ann baulked at the twenty dollar admission fee and I realized then that she had absolutely no idea what we were about to witness. I’d simply told her we were going to look at some temples. This aroused about as much curiosity and excitement from her as she’d get from me were she to tell me we were off to gawk at a paddock full of farm animals (Okay- bad example. Insert your own Kiwi sheep shagging joke here…). Two hours later we sat on the grass eating pineapple and pomelo looking up at the giant Buddha faces of Bayon temple and having already marveled at Anghor Wat, she turned to me and gave one of those glowing Thai smiles and said, “Twenty dollars, cheap.”
It didn’t matter that I’d been here before. The temples, one after another, blew my mind. There is no superlative other than the word itself that can describe this place. The days I have spent exploring this ancient world have been among the most humbling of my life. To share it with two of my dearest friends and see how it moved them was emotionally exhilarating. I have no doubt that I will go back to experience this again. I am not the kind of traveler that crosses places off a list never to return. If a place moves me then I’ll return. If it doesn’t, I won’t. This time I particularly enjoyed that it was almost deserted. Tourist numbers were low and we were mobbed by child-entrepreneurs at every stop. I found them to be much more persistent and far less smiley than five years earlier; a sign of the times, I guess.
I made the mistake of telling KLG about the availability of pappy pizza in Cambodia. The previous evening I’d pointed out a few pizza restaurants that carried the word “happy” in the title and explained that in such establishments you choose the level of happiness you desire which is directly proportionate to the amount of ground cannabis that is applied as a topping. When we got back into town feeling hungry in the late afternoon he told me he had a hankerin’ for some happy pizza. “Why Not? Let’s go!” he said. Ann went for a sleep and we ordered one each deciding that the middle ground between mild contentment and euphoria would be about right. We munched away over a few cold beers and I had to stop him from devouring the whole thing suggesting that it might be prudent to take half away. Ingesting isn’t the same as smoking with the main difference being that you can easily control the dosage when smoking. Once it is in the belly you are stuck with the effects and they tend to last for hours and hours. Slower, deeper and longer lasting. We wandered back to the hotel and I went to bother Ann leaving KLG to his own devices. I met him for another balcony beer as the twilight seeped in and his happiness knew no bounds. Still hungry, he inhaled his mini-bar snacks and was eyeing up the pizza box. I did warn him but you don’t mess with the munchies so I decided against physically restraining him.
Mr. Son picked us up at seven sharp to take us to a buffet with a traditional Khmer dancing show. KLG took photos of the first two routines and I guess that is when the full effects hit. No more photos. He later told me that at that point he had noticed four elderly Koreans behind us and he was certain that they knew he was stoned and that, however unlikely, they might be from Seoul and somehow know his mother. He spent the next hour a paranoid wreck believing he was descending into madness in trying to hold himself together and not blow his cover. By the time the show was over he was torn between wanting to get the hell out of there and not being able to lift his legs off the floor. He remembers nothing from that point as we took him back to the hotel and helped him onto the bed where he was comatose within seconds. I really shouldn’t have told him that we had gone to Bar Street where he had accidently picked up a pair of ladyboys. It took a while the next day to convince him I was joking.
Sounds like you have a grand old time!