One Hundred and Twenty Four Hours at ‘Candy,’ Phnom Penh Part 2
I finished off my pizza the next morning before we jumped in a car to barrel recklessly towards Phnom Penh straddling the centre line for the next four and a half hours. For the most part I was able to block out the terror by immersing myself in a Stephen Leather thriller. I read it cover to cover but I cannot remember a single detail. Sorry, Mr. Leather. It was the pizza. The book was obviously good enough to hold my attention for two hundred and seventy consecutive minutes and it kept my pizza-induced road death paranoia at arm's reach, so job done as far as I’m concerned. It was raining when we got into the city. Rather disconcertingly, the driver stopped in the middle of a clutter of cars, tuk-tuks and motorbikes, and without a word wandered off. Eleven minutes later a different man got in and drove us just three more blocks to the riverfront and dropped us off. Whatever. I had planned for us to stay at The Hope and Anchor but it was boarded up with a dirty and dated officious white notice in Khmer script peeling off the door. We trudged along in the rain and checked out a few hotels which were largely like for like but we chose one where they had a room with a window which is a rarity along the riverfront and a more expensive option. I didn’t care. Have to have a window. Need natural light. KLG had two nights in a cheaper windowless box and admitted that he couldn’t do another.
We spent the evening saying “no thanks” to dozens of tuk-tuk drivers as we wandered up and down the riverfront for the evening, popping into inviting establishments to eat and drink. KLG upped his pace along one particular stretch of pizza restaurants more than happy that we’d had enough for this trip. Relaxing out on the footpath under awnings was pleasant enough so long as we could endure the constant stream of child beggars, bootleg booksellers and landmine victims asking for money. I could see it starting to wear Ann down and before long she was giving food and small change away. We’d made a collective decision to generously tip our service providers, as we do in Bangkok, rather than give to beggars. But when you have deformed children pleading in front of you compassion tends to prevail. The only place free from hassle was the Foreign Correspondents Club where I lasted one drink listening to idiotic chirping and tittering before I felt I had to either leave or puke on the floor. I puked on the floor and left.
I left KLG and Ann to do some tourist things while I attended to my visa business in the morning. I found an amiable and aging tuk-tuk driver who asserted with confidence that he knew where the Thai Embassy was as I pointed it out on a map. He was like an ingratiating elderly uncle in dark heavy trousers and a long-sleeved pale blue cotton shirt that had to have been washed a few hundred times already. He had a floppy blue hat hugging his ears, a toothpick in his mouth and a packet of cigarettes in his front pocket. He also had a much poorer understanding of English than I initially gave him credit for. It seemed that his only word in English was an enthusiastic “Yes” in response to every question asked. He had me for a while. “You understand?” “Yes!” Good times.
He got me there just fine through a warren of back-alleys and side-streets and agreed to wait for me while I went inside. The troubles began when I got inside and realized that I had left my passport photos in my hotel room. I checked my watch. Plenty of time to get back before visa applications closed at 11:00am. We went back through the same maze in reverse and back to the hotel where again the driver agreed to wait. “Yes, Yes!” he said. Five minutes later I knew that I had, in fact, left my photos in Bangkok. I explained to the driver that we needed to get a new photo taken and then go back to the Thai Embassy. “Yes, Yes!” “You understand?” Yes.” Twenty minutes later he pulled up smiling outside the Thai Embassy. I checked my watch and took a deep breath and slowly explained what I wanted using my passport to show him. I wrote ‘photo’ on a piece of paper, did some stupid mimes and off we went. We stopped outside a photocopy shop. I checked my watch and took a deep breath. Next, we stopped outside a camera shop. I started again. I sensed a sparking realization as he rolled the toothpick around his mouth. “Yes. Yes!” I didn’t believe him and was feeling resigned but he pulled up at the perfect place – just down the road from the embassy. We were off at pace five minutes later with him definitely understanding that we had to get there by eleven. I was through the door with three minutes to spare and presented my photos and documents. The official then thumbed through my application and told me that I was missing a document. I had to laugh. I was told that if I could get them the document the next day, Friday, then I could collect my visa the following Wednesday. I had been expecting a twenty-four hour turn-around and had flights booked for Bangkok the following afternoon. Shit. No one to blame but me; I am an idiot.
I met up with KLG and Ann who were looking fairly somber after a trip to the S21 museum. That was one place I did not want to revisit. I told them my news and we decided that we had better weigh our travel options over a few riverfront beers in the rain before we hit the markets. KLG would have to go back as planned and we lamented the loss of a final night out in Bangkok before he headed back to work. It just meant that we would have to make the most of the last remaining evening ahead. I sensed that there was no way in hell that Ann was going to leave me alone among the local beauties and she was on the phone to Bangkok for some time frantically but successfully making re-arrangements. Once everything was settled we got in a tuk-tuk to have a look at the markets. Normally an hour is enough for me in any market but we doubled it without even noticing in the Russian Market that without question is the coolest market I have visited, apart from goat markets in Oman. Goats make me laugh. Sometimes I don’t want to but I have to.
We went to Phnom Penh’s most established nightclub, Heart of Darkness, that evening and swam in two-dollar shots of tequila, jagermeister and tumblers of our dear friend, Johnnie Black. Friendly and efficient staff ensured our glasses were never empty and as the evening wore on the place filled with young ex-pats and travelers, hi-so Khmer groups and a good number of young, single and very available local ladies. Before long KLG was entertaining a quartet of hotties, being the gentleman and giving equal attention and dancing time to each one fawning over him. I also knew that there was no way he would pick up a girl with Ann there to witness it so at an opportune moment we said our goodbyes and left him to the attentions and intentions of Cambodia’s finest. Ann saw through it. “I think he have lady tonight,” she said as we raced along in a tuk-tuk.
KLG headed off to the airport after another long, lazy lunch on the riverfront and I went off in search of a different hotel having decided to stay in Phnom Penh and just soak up the atmosphere for another five days. I didn’t want to endure a death-defying return taxi journey to the rather average beach at Sihanoukville and I was being a Cheap Charlie. I wanted a decent room with a balcony and free wireless internet so I could laze the days away working, writing and reading. I found the perfect place with a big window and a communal balcony fronting a large open space adjacent to the rooms with a big ceiling fan, a coffee table and comfy chairs. Free wireless, twenty-four hour bar and restaurant beneath and just twelve dollars a night. It looked ideal to me but there was one potential problem. My perfect place was the infamous “Candy,” a twenty-four hour hostess bar, restaurant and guesthouse. The room I’d just accepted was probably used regularly over the short time rather than the five-day stay I’d just agreed to. I just had to explain the idea to Ann.
A new relationship inevitably takes time to settle. There is always a period of adjustment and readjustment as boundaries are explored and tested as the couple begins to mutually agree upon ground rules of accepted behavior within the relationship. With a mixed cultural relationship there are also the difficulties of cultural misunderstanding and language miscommunications. I certainly had to hold my ground over a number of issues and had to push her hard to accept certain things that are fundamental to me being who I am. When I decided that we would stay at “Candy” I knew I was taking a big risk. At times in our courtship I felt like Petruchio in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew; a character universally detested by modern feminists. Petruchio agrees to marry Katherine (Kiss me, Kate) a foul-mouthed, disobedient and argumentative shrew and to the amazement of all, tames her using bizarre, torturous and highly amusing methods. Ann is not a shrew but she has certainly needed some taming and no Thai lady is a pushover. It had to be done. Petruchio would be patting me on the back. We checked into “Candy”
She was happy with the room and even more so with the price. Her main concern obviously was that I might be enticed by one of the local ladies working below. I knew that I wouldn’t so I figured I would win the battle of trust over jealousy. Ann has a mantra that she likes to count off on her fingers: “Number one. Not steal my boyfriend. Number two. Not steal my money. Number three. Not steal my food.” It never fails to amuse me when she says it with such deadly seriousness. She had done pretty well on the trip so far but I had noted that she was a little more cautious and subdued in her interactions probably because she no longer held the advantage of speaking her native tongue. I had been up front with her from the start about my nomadic lifestyle and warned her that it was unlikely that I’d remain in Thailand for the rest of my life. If a good opportunity came up in a neighboring country in the coming years then I’d have no qualms about moving. She was apprehensive but accepting of this and I could sense in her a real effort to open her eyes to the possibility that Cambodia might be that place and she was constantly assessing how she might fit in. She had been pleasantly surprised at the many similarities with Thailand and the genuine friendliness of the people towards her. She later told me that she had been expecting outright hostility because she is Thai. To her amazement she experienced even greater friendliness from the moment we walked into Candy towing our bags until the moment we checked out five days later with her clutching a handful of email addresses of all the friends she made there.
The rooms were on the fourth floor, the kitchen and the owner’s living quarters on the third, a pool table on the second and the bar on the ground floor. We spent most of our time on the second and fourth floors after Ann developed a taste for playing pool. Soon after we arrived I persuaded her to have a game with me and discovered that she didn’t know how to hold the cue or what the rules were. I gave her a little help and she was rather clumsily away. I did fear for the well-being of the table surface. A young lady refreshed our drinks and hung around to watch prompting Ann to shut down claiming shyness over her limited playing ability. The girl sensed this and decided that she would be her coach and spent the next few games standing behind her, helping her position the cue and line up the angles. Within a few minutes they were giggling like old friends and I knew that staying here was going to be okay. I decided to leave her to play for a while and went up to the balcony to do some reading. I went back down an hour later and there were now three more girls laughing and squealing and taking turns to play Ann. She launched herself at me delirious that she had just won her first game. These days whenever we go out in Bangkok she always asks if there is a pool table where we are going and makes a beeline for it when we arrive. On the following days she spent hours on the table with various girls (get your mind out of the gutter, reader!) while I spent hours upstairs with books and my laptop. It was pretty quiet during the day but an occasional punter would head upstairs to the pool table while Ann was there and she was rather embarrassed when they assumed she worked there and politely solicited her affections. The other girls thought it hilarious. The guys were very gentlemanly about it and one later bought me a drink in an unnecessary apology. But such gentlemanly behavior was not always on display.
On one evening we returned to Heart of Darkness for some music and atmosphere. Ann returned from a trip to the bathroom highly agitated rubbing her forearm. She told me that some guy had grabbed her from behind and tried to make her sit on his lap using some force when she resisted. “He think I bad girl,” she spat. My blood started to simmer. “Which guy?” She pointed him out across the dance floor. I clenched my fists. About the same size as me, sandy hair, watery eyes and a weak chin. I could take him. I’ve only ever punched two guys in my life and both of them were mates and I hit them in the defense of a lady’s honor. Both later admitted they fully deserved it. This shitbag did too. Ann grabbed my wrist so I counted to ten. Slowly. I took a deep breath, smiled at her, said “don’t worry,” and strode across the dance floor. I stood directly in front of him as he sat by himself on a high stool at a round table, nursing a drink. He looked up at me and I glared at him. He nearly knocked his drink over. I’m not the biggest or toughest guy but it has been often noted over the years how my unsmiling I.D. and passport photos could easily have been souvenir duplicates of mug shots obtained on frequent visits to the monkey house. I knew I had him. I took another deep breath. “You see that lady over there?” I said, pointing. He nodded. “Well, she’s not happy and you know why, right?” He nodded. “You picked the wrong girl, Sunshine.” He looked up at me leaning over him and shrank, his eyes shining fear. I stood tall and took another deep breath. Like shooting goldfish. I couldn’t hit him. “You’ve got ten seconds to get the hell out of here or you’re going to have the shit kicked out of you. Understand?” His feet did a Scooby-Doo shuffle and he was gone. I strutted back to Ann with my chest puffed out and proclaimed “You won’t be getting any more trouble from him, sweetheart.” Big man. She loved it. I got her back to the room while she was still viewing me as her knight in shining gold armor.
I was tempted to stay one more night but we departed as planned on the Wednesday afternoon after collecting my passport. We had been invited to join the legendary annual Candy bus trip to Sihanoukville planned for late that night. The plan was for the Candy girls and their sisters from Bar 69 over the road to work until 2 AM and then get on one of the two party buses and go crazy on the way to, and around Sihanoukville for a few hours, before retuning to Phnom Penh to start work at 4 PM the next afternoon. Two buses and fifty partying young women. Hmmmm. Enough, Petruchio, enough! We sat in the airport together reflecting on the five night trip that became ten. It had been a good time. Ann had proven her ability to cope in different situations in an ‘unfriendly’ country, I had proven trustworthy over five days in a brothel and KLG hadn't led me too far astray. She was positively beaming as she looked at me and said: “Honey, I can live here. Cambodia people, good people. Same Thai people.” Bless her. A few weeks later, after the political storm that had erupted after Thaksin’s ground-kissing defection, she reversed her decision. “I not sure about Cambodia, Honey. Maybe no good for me. What you think about Laos? Laos people, good people. Can understand Thai.”
I guess my next visa run will be to Vientiane. Why not? Let’s go!
Very nice report indeed. While I understand your reasoning for taking Ann with you, the words "sand" and "beach" do come to mind!