Two Days In A Life
The 727 makes its approach in the driving rain. It’s quite horrendous outside and then the pilot announces in broken English that he’s letting the trainee take over the landing duties….great news. I glance around and notice that most of the passengers are re-tightening their seatbelts and whispering to people they’d never talked to before. We seem to have something in common here. Doubts. To add more tension to the situation the large screen in front of us shows the upcoming landing strip and we seem to be coming in sideways, not straight on. Passengers are pointing wide-eyed at the angle of the approach when the screen quickly shuts down, prudent thinking on the captain's part. The plane then bounces heavily while the sound of screeching tires drown out the screaming and hysterical passengers. It’s a surreal feeling being surrounded by people freaking out while strapped into a seat that’s shaking like crap and doing 100 mph.
The plane eventually shudders and vibrates to a whining crawl as a humorous apology from the captain isn’t widely heard over the boisterous cheers and clapping. Welcome to my first landing in Siem Reap, Cambodia, 2006.
The tuktuk in to town took a leisurely 50 minutes in drizzling rain and I eventually chose a place called the Dead Fish Tell No Tales. The sign out front did it for me…No Dog, No Cockroaches, No Worms, Have Crocodile. It was an older establishment but with heaps of charm and character…and teak. Inside the main ‘lobby’ was a long bar and a wooden curved stairway in the middle which lead in to a mezzanine level. I was to find out later it was a great place to be when they put on the traditional dancing shows. The room was cheap and small; you get what you pay for. On the way to the toilets not far from the bar, you have to cross a small 6-foot bridged walkway, underneath this is a concrete crocodile pit with about ten, 6-foot snappers and a little sign that states; ‘Children no fall in. No more than 4 people at a time’… Smiling, I’m stuck for words.
At the bar were 5 young staff, all with beaming smiles and eager to brush up on their English. After a few beers I learn that 4 of the girls were doing economic degrees – must be a cheap course. The thing that struck me as odd was some of their names – Huey, Lanmine, AK, Semi, Gen – and these were the girls. After copious drinks and light-hearted fun during the evening it was obvious that one particular girl had the run of the bar. She basically told the others to politely piss off. She was the best at speaking English and those dark piercing eyes, although somewhat mesmerizing and attractive, were slightly…scary. B52 and I became friends.
On the second day B52 invited me to her house for lunch. Great, I thought. I'd get to see real Cambodian family life. The house was a 2-storey setup, half open underneath and very tidy. We sat in their dusty backyard eating fruit and chatting away with her absolutely gorgeous mother and a few local friends waiting for the head of the house to turn up, which he did in a dramatic fashion. First was the cloud of dust, then his sliding taxi came to a halt. A very stocky 5-foot tall, 50-year old with a ‘jar head’ style haircut comes over and sizes me up. Everyone around just freezes; even B52 had quickly decided to go to the kitchen.
His stare is emotionless, I stand up at over 6-foot tall and shake his outstretched hand while he just keeps drilling into my very soul with his black marble like eyes. I’m thinking warily what’s going on with this cold creepy attitude. I’ve done nothing so far to make anyone lose face so I don’t flinch, blink or…run. We stood locked like this for about 30 seconds, which seemed much longer. He eventually spoke and believe me I listened, intently. “My name is M, what is your intention with my daughter?”
In a millisecond I realized it would be prudent of me not to mention sex, I reply “Only as a friend, your daughter is kind enough to show me around.” M grins broadly and waves to his wife to bring over some cold beers and we both sit down…still shaking hands.
Introductions over, he begins to tell me proudly about his early years fighting the Khmer Rouge. He explains to me without any wavering in his voice how he strangled two KR with fencing wire and quoting, ‘If I not kill them, they kill me’. I understand and, I totally believe him. On the subject of self-preservation, I make a mental note to avoid obvious advances on his daughter. Subtle and to the point, I like the guy. No shit.
The afternoon ended up in an uproarious fun-filled piss up for M and myself and all this time the women folk and kids looked after us with food and laughter. The laughter was obviously directed at us two. I’ve never been in a situation before where I was put in to place by my host at the start and then treated in such a hospitable way. This was my second day in Siem Reap and I’m getting drunk and having a ball with a murderer and his lovely family! My personal take on this and sadly, in a sickening war against its own people, I call it justified. Done.
Later in the evening B52 had to start her shift and proceeded to get ready. She told me she would double me back to the bar and she was smiling from ear to ear. She too had had a great day. After many humble and gracious good byes, I asked B52 on the way out what the M stood for and I saw her eyes well up slightly. After a short silence she turned and said “Not ask anymore please.” From then on I began to see a glimmer of something else instead of just a seemingly cold stare. Warmth.
The next day I headed to Angkor Wat, a 40-minute drive from Siem Reap proper. A two-day pass cost, at that time, $50, and that gave access to most of the site. Amazing and worth the experience if you're fit enough. It’s hot, damned hot. A lot of restoration work is being done but at a slow pace, not hard to understand and often I saw official types sketching and numbering individual stones for restoration. All in all, it’s up there with the great wonders. Back in town there are some great bars, good food and very friendly and helpful locals, really, some beautiful kind people.
Eight years on and I still get a chill down my spine in Cambodia when I see a wire fence and think of M. I have never been to the camps or killing fields and don’t ever wish to.
I have sincere, kind, and hopeful feelings for B52 and her whole family.
Phnom Penh hotel