Arriving in Phnom Penh, I felt like I’d woken up from a long nap. I’d been awake on both flights over and had probably had too much coffee, but after a debacle over the visa fee, I stepped out of the airport feeling that unconcerned feeling that one is occasionally blessed with upon arriving in a new city in the late afternoon.
Somewhere, the sun was setting. I had zero orientation and the swarming tuktuk drivers did nothing to help my sense of direction. I found my way out of the parking lot and onto the sidewalk, more tuktuk drivers waited there; no one ever mentioning a price, just asking where I was going, like they were just curious to know. Gina says there’s a way to talk to them that I don’t understand. It’s not fair really. I had all kinds of jobs trying to sell people things they didn’t want, or even give them away for free. I remember how hard it was to have to sidle up to someone, ingratiate yourself and then try to give them something. You think I’d be sympathetic to these guys, but I can’t. For some reason, I find it humiliating when someone tries to sell me anything: a ride to town, a souvenir, a favor. It’s like it strips away our combined humanity and redefines us as opportunistic creatures only trying to take advantage of each other.
I told the tuktuk drivers I was taking the bus. I didn’t know where the bus stop was, so when they continued to ask me where I was going I told them “the bus stop, can you show me where it is?” But if I acted annoyed, it was all a show. After getting up at dawn and taking two flights, I was tired and unconcerned by the frantic pace of life streaming around me. In the street just beyond where we stood, there must’ve been 100s of motorbikes passing every second. Each motor screamed its particular call as it passed, some high and whiny like insects, some phlegmy with old oil or cheap gas and some whose noise just got lost in the din which seemed to bear their operators and passengers silently to the edge of the city and the jungles beyond.
While we waited for the bus, the tuktuk drivers, finding no one else to offer rides to, returned to us. Even their conversation was like something offered for a price. They batted potential conversation topics around until you took one up and then, like a switch had been thrown, they turned to the street or to one another like they hadn’t heard you at all. They asked where I was from, but when I returned the question, there was no response. Maybe they knew the villages or towns they’d name wouldn’t mean anything to me. Later that week at the Cambodian TESOL conference, I met a quite a few people who actually told me where they were from. I didn’t know any of the places and when I asked “is that in the north?” I couldn’t blame them for just muttering ‘yeah’ and then changing the subject. It’d be like finding out someone in the States was from Los Angeles and asking them something ridiculously obvious and inane like ‘is that out west?’ God. How would you even respond to that?
Just before the bus pulled up, one of the tuktuk drivers asked “you want to take the bus?” as if making absolutely sure. We’d been waiting about half an hour for it and I had begun to doubt it would ever come. When I said ‘yes,’ the driver stepped back, waved an arm at the oncoming bus like he’d conjured it up himself and walked away.
After we boarded, we paid the kid who came around with a roll of tickets and Cambodian Riels in change. Cambodia is the only country I’ve ever been to that doesn’t seem to have coins. It’s a lot like Panama. Anything over a buck is done in dollars but all the change comes back in local currency, but instead of getting back centésimos, like in Panama, in Cambodia, you get back more bills. Cambodian Riel bills come in 100, 500 and 1,000 and higher demoninations. 4,000 is about a dollar. We looked over the new currency for a second, pocketed it and then turned back to the window, outside which, the traffic was beginning to clot. Massive pylons were being built in the center lane, possibly for an eventual light rail to the airport. For now, they only stood there, holding up the twilight sky and acting like a pole for the curling exhaust fumes to climb. The traffic was stopped on either side of the construction barricades until, the pressure built to a strain and was finally broken by a stream of motorbikes coming the wrong way down the divided highway. Both lanes turned into two-way streets and the bus continued to nose its way through the traffic. From the window, looking down, I could see the faces of troubled drivers, watching the side of the bus pass centimeters from their mirrors. The motorbikes surrounded us like ants eating a caterpillar.
The sun gradually sank behind the surrounding row of soot-blackened buildings. The fading light came from everywhere at once and with the horizon so crowded, I couldn’t tell which way was west. I didn’t know which direction we were going anyway; I hadn’t bothered to check, but after about half an hour, we still hadn’t come to anything that looked like a city center and I began to be worried we were heading out further to the suburbs. We weren’t going fast, but the street signs were impossible to read. Most of the streets in Phnom Penh do not have names, but numbers. Even when I did manage to make out the bizarre combinations of numbers 662, 2004, 79BT, they meant nothing to me. I fumbled with the map, knowing how I must’ve looked but not caring. The streets got darker; the motorbikes seemed to close in around us. I could no longer see anything beyond the small food stalls set up here and there, their withered lights drifting over an iced bowl of shrimp, a bronze wok and a few plastic chairs before evaporating in the heavy city darkness
We drove to the crux of a large X-shaped building and from the map I could see
this was the Central Market. A few lights illuminated patches of the moon-yellow building, but it was like trying to put a spotlight on a mammoth; the Gotham-esque structure spread out far beyond the coverage of the lights giving it an unknowable air, like some horrible ministry with an unknowable purpose. Clustered at its base were shuttered stalls and piles of trash.
I was able to find where the bus was on the map and within a few blocks we got off and started to walk up street 19 towards the Phnom Wat which was cast in a livid gold light, bright, but dim enough to not look yellow. Similar lights illuminated two figures of Naga, like fierce guards of the Wat, stretched out along the street. The brilliant light of these figures contrast to the brown-out darkness that seemed to lie in patches—like fog—everywhere else, gave the city a surreal, dream-like quality. My eyes were continually having to readjust. In the street, motorbikes went by without lights and my eyes strained to make out their dim forms hurdling toward me in the darkness, but the brightness of the Wat would pull my eyes back to the light overwhelming my vision with its radiance.
Crossing street 51, a wide swatch of park dimly separated a bisected street. Figures crouched under trees as if seeking shade from the light of the moon. A few women were up and walking around. They looked at me, saw Gina, and then dropped back without saying anything. They weren’t obviously dressed like the prostitutes of Bangkok; I don’t know if this was due to lack of money for the flashy clothes or a greater sense of modesty. I wouldn’t have even known them for prostitutes if a friend hadn’t told me they’d been soliciting him every morning when he went out for a jog. In their normal clothes, standing on the sidewalk in the dark, they looked like women doggedly waiting for a ride that they knew wasn’t coming anymore.
The hotel was opulent, but it had that subtle mildewed smell which only the fanciest places seem to be able to scrub out. We stood in marble opulence waiting to check in. A man came up and offered us a glass of juice. We drank them so embarrassingly fast, he was forced to offer us another, which we tried to drink slower, but barely succeeded in.
We flung our stuff down in the room, but we were too hungry to sleep or relax. I checked the map and found that our route to the restaurant we’d agreed on would take us past the Central Market again. A few minutes after checking in, we were back in the lobby striding across the lobby with the heavy confidence only hunger can induce. We pushed the doors open up on a world completely unfamiliar and continued striding.
The best way to see a city for the first time is at night. It is in the dark that a city truly achieves its purpose of providing light and shelter to the people. From the street, we saw the shadowed outlines of residents moving through the square of light their buildings displayed in mosaic on the street and sidewalk. In a warm country, fewer people cook at home and the sidewalks were crowded with carts and noodle-slurping customers seated in plastic chairs. Around the suspended, naked lights, clouds of gray-winged moths spun like effervescence, completely silent. A few hammocks were hung between various poles and trees, some of them stretched right over the sidewalk: the definitive announcement that business hours for the day were over. The occupants of these hammocks were sunk into the fabric so deeply, it was hard to tell they were there until I got close enough and heard the papery sighs or the phlegmy snores issuing from each cocoon.
Loosely cobbled carts were pulling down the Central Market, or it seemed that way. The heap of trash at the base of the building was being carted off in all directions, looking like a dismantling of the whole structure. We walked down a side street where the carts were parked, piled high with boxes, their owners leaning against them, smoking, laughing in the darkness. A few kids were running around. The motorbike repair shops had swelled out onto the sidewalks and left tools, engine parts and displays for hubcaps in tacky pools of motor oil, furred with some kind of pollen. The curbs of the sidewalk had been smashed down by the heavy metal parts and we walked in the middle of the street for a clearer path. The sign for the restaurant looked like a front for a more illicit business.
The inside was the same. The floor was a bare concrete and the decorations were cheap, plastic gewgaws still in their yellowed wrappings and smeared with dust. The seats were cramped and rocked a little giving the impression that nothing was sturdy, that the whole place was precariously set up and could pitch forward and go rolling out into the street at the slightest provocation.
The kitchen behind us looked like it was lit with candlelight. A young Cambodian kid
continually pushed the double hinged door open, bringing more water, but nothing else seemed to be happening. It looked like everyone was getting ready for bed back there. The appearance of our food twenty minutes later almost seemed miraculous, like it had been conjured up from a distant place, or at least another restaurant.
The food was delicious after a long day and it was difficult not to eat ravenously. We ordered more and the door swung open again on the basement darkness to convey our samosas.
The owner was an effusively friendly guy with a dark mustache and a face nearly round enough to be called jolly. He smiled at each Indian dish we tried to order like they were names of mutual friends he hadn’t thought of in years. He had a little shop next to the restaurant which was just as flyblown, but contained some interesting items. One shelf held a bottle of a poisonous, swamp-green liquor. Holding the dusty bottle up to the light, I saw that a young cobra had been posed inside the bottle with a huge black scorpion in its mouth. The whole tableau took up most of the space and there couldn’t have been more than two cups worth of snake juice in the bottle. It was an odd thing to be so prominently on display at a vegetarian restaurant.
After noticing a few spices for sale in the shop, I asked the owner if he had any cardamom. Despite the proximity of the Spice Islands and even the Cardamom Mountains, I haven’t seen the stuff for sale anywhere in SE Asia. The friendly owner told me he didn’t have any in now, but that he was waiting for an order to come in. “There should be some cardamom in with that,” he told us smiling. “Come back in a few days and check.”
We thanked him and walked back out to the dark street and the shuttered storefronts crowded with motorbike frames, chains and stack of tires. A European with a crinkled mass of white air hanging down to his shoulders emerged from the darkness. He was walking with a ladyboy who, although not in dress, still managed very well to give off waves of brash femininity. A pile of old boxes was being burned and naked kids ran after each other in the street. No one paid us any attention.
The next few days, I spent in conferences during the day and walking around in the evening. When I got out around four, we walked all over the city, through the steam of the food stalls, along the busy avenues and streets where motorbikes were parked so thick over the sidewalks you had to walk in the road, waving away the tuktuk drivers who came up from behind and honked “tuktuk?” they asked. Even if it was just one man driving a motorbike, he’d call, “tuktuk,” like it was a greeting or a question like ‘how’s it going?’ We never took one of these rides. After sitting in the conference all day, the last think I wanted to do was sit more besides, new to town, half the time I didn’t even know where we were going. We were just wandering over the dim city watching the moths swirl around the lights, reading the signs which were written as much in English as they were in Khmer.
One afternoon, Gina came back from being out, excitedly waving the camera. “There are monkeys here” she said, starting on a monkey slide show with the camera. “They’re all up at that Wat. There’s a lady who feeds ‘em.” I asked how many she saw. “Must’ve been about twenty.”
Since we arrived in Thailand, I’ve been disappointed to not see monkeys anywhere near where we live. We’ve been up to the jungled hills surrounding the town and looked into the trees in the two municipal parks, but our furry cousins have given up the area, whether due to encroachment or pollution, I can’t say. I know in many Indian cities, monkeys seem to have adapted to city life as well as we have. Perhaps the monkeys of Thailand are more retiring. Whatever the reason, they are entirely absent in Suratthani making it the second tropical place I’ve lived in with no trace of monkeys.
This is why I was excited to hear that there was a troop of macaque monkeys hanging out just a block away from our hotel. Gina even told me they didn’t seem to be the roving street gang-type of monkeys too accustomed to humans to avoid harassing them. These macaques, she said, seemed to be peaceful. It was hard to imagine otherwise, since they lived on the grounds of a Wat.
It was too late to see the monkeys that day, so we went for a walk down by the water. Looking out over the turbid chocolate milk waters, I started expounding on how incredible it was to be standing next to the Mekong, a river as famous as the Amazon or the Nile which spans six countries (or seven if you count an autonomous Tibet) and joins seven alphabets and numerous cultures. The course of the Mekong is bit like the Caucasus mountains, uniting so many disparate groups of people with a common geographical feature.
A boardwalk spanned the river through town. We walked through Zumba classes and groups of kids counting handfuls of dollar bills like money changers. Here, in the most central part of Phnom Penh, foreign faces sprang up nearly as often as the Khmer, yet there was none of the frenzy usually created by such places. Everyone seemed content to go their own way. About halfway down the boardwalk, we came to the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC), which, I have to admit, I was drawn to exclusively by the name. The Metropol, the Rex, the places where Kapuściński stayed in the 1960s, the colonial buildings of the 20th century along with their weighty verandas supporting mildly drunk, mildly malarial writers and photographers are vanishing. If these places still exist, they are becoming tourist attractions in themselves.
If the FCC was marketed as a fantasy, it delivered. The bar was up on the second floor and was open on the side facing the river. In such a place, it was still possible to imagine waiting for a telex to come through or trying to hound someone into taking you to a remote part of the country where the story was. As I sipped my drink (the house specialty served in a martini glass with a chili garnish) I imagined the press pass swaying from my sunburned neck and the rustle of white linen as bow tied waiters passed.
Everyone else was involved in the same fantasy, of course. When I snapped out of it, I looked around and saw a bunch of tourists pulling journalistic faces. I could practically hear them thinking up their assignments. The only thing missing was gratuitous swearing and the sweat. In the evening, it was cool two stories up and overlooking the river. Gina and I watched the sun set, drank our tourist cocktails and then took off. The fantasy and booze combination was a heady mix and I decided it was best to leave before I started to believe it too much.
From the River, we walked to the Russian Market area, which was more residential. The streets were dustier and the sewers were open channels that looked like septic moats surrounding the apartment blocks, on the balconies of which, people came and went through dim yellow light, usually wrapped in towels as though they’d just come from the shower. They bent over their plants or hung up their laundry. Went back in and came out a second later with more laundry or more water for the plants.
The people who weren’t out on their balconies were sitting in plastic chairs which ran down the alleys, gradually fading from view the farther they got from the light of the noodle cart. Many of the tables were liberally covered with empty beer cans and the Khmer voices rose and fell with the ringing motors of passing motorbikes.
We walked far back into the neighborhood to find a bar that was supposed to be a DIY type of place. What we found looked like any other bar. The place was full and it was quiz night, in English. We sat in the corner, under a staircase, wondering what it must’ve been like to go to a bar in your country and find everything in a different language. The place had a wood-fired, or a something-fired pizza oven out on the street; like everything else serving food in Southeast Asia, it was on wheels. I tried to see how it worked, but the crowding English voices in various accents won my attention and I sat there in a daze listening to different conversations and the MC asking the quiz questions and watching the oxygen-deprived redorange flames wrestle the darkness inside the oven.
On the walk back, we passed a white cyclone of moths revolving in crazy arcs under a naked lightbulb strung over the street. The moths were so thick, had the light been low enough, you could’ve reached out and easily grabbed a handful. We watched them spin for a while and the locals watched us watching them and then we started the long walk up Preah Monivong Boulevard which took us past a bunch of those opulent Chinese dinning halls, each with a fish tank just past the entrance and a bevy of bow-tied waiters at the door, waiting for customers and clutching their leather bound menus like novitiates with holy books waiting to be given the order to kneel.
When we got back to the room, Gina brought up a map of the city on her computer to see where we’d been. “Hey,” she called to the bathroom where I stood brushing my teeth. I peaked my head around the door. “What?”
“That wasn’t the Mekong! That river we were walking by, when you were soliloquizing about how incredible it was to walk along the banks of such a historically important river—it wasn’t even the right one!”
“Huh?” I stammered. The toothpaste drooling out of my mouth, I spat it out and walked over. “What are you talking about?” I grabbed up the tablet and saw how the boardwalk area ran along the Tonle Sap River. I brought my finger down, about a kilometer south of where we’d been. “Yeah, but it joins the Mekong here.” I said pointing.
“Yeah, but you weren’t talking about that part.”
“Sure I was,” I lied. “Sure I was.”
Immediately outside our hotel was a huddle of tuktuk drivers looking they were engaged in some kind of horse auction. They waited for someone to leave the hotel and then commenced smiling and waving like they only wanted to greet an old friend. If you waved back, as it was hard not to do, the drivers assumed you did so because you needed a ride. The drivers who spoke no English were easy. They’d come up hopefully asking “tuktuk?” Which I’d counter by shaking my head and making a walking motion with my fingers. This was always understood with a smile and the driver would return to his place in the crowd to await the next emergence from the hotel.
It was different with the drivers who had learned some English and most of them had. Many of the tuktuk drivers I met in Phnom Penh spoke English like my fourth-year university students, if not better. With these guys, one had to discuss the situation. “Why do you want to walk? They’d whine, like they’d been done a great injustice. My explanation that I’d been in a conference all day sitting on my butt, didn’t seem to hold much weight with them. After all, if you’ve been sitting down all day, you might as well continue to sit.
These guys weren’t pushy. They had great charm and it was easy to stand there talking with them, enjoying the impression that you’d come to Cambodia to talk to Cambodians, even if it was only the ones who were trying to sell you something; a conversation’s a conversation.
We’d talk for a few minutes about Phnom Penh, how we liked it, the traffic, opinions on visiting the Killing Fields and then we’d thank the driver for the ride offer and walk into town.
One guy was incredibly persistent, we first saw him out in front of the airport when we’d just got into town and afterward, we saw him outside our hotel nearly every day. The tuktuks all had numbers and his was #6. Like all the others, #6 actually seemed to enjoy talking with us, but he’d always artfully slip in pleas to take us somewhere. Selling us on his tuktuk the way someone might sell you on a vacation package. Every night we’d turn this guy down, thanking him just the same. I told him that I was going to need a ride to the conference over the weekend which was going to be held at some technical college a few kilometers outside of the downtown area, but then, both days, I ended up getting a ride with someone who’d already secured a tuktuk and only needed one extra person.
I couldn’t feel too guilty, I knew if #6 wasn’t getting work from me, he was probably getting it from someone else. After all, there were probably plenty of people who left the hotel over the course of the day, looking to take a tuktuk. Still, I beat myself up. We were just across the street from Embassy and when #6 told me he gave rides to Embassy staff all the time and started naming names, I thought of all these magnanimous diplomats, none too proud to ride in a tuktuk and I felt like a jerk for turning this guy down all the time.
We had to leave Monday morning, so when I finished up with the conference on Sunday afternoon, I caught the first tuktuk I found back to the hotel, changed and set out to see some of the town by day; up until that point, by the time I’d gotten out every day, I’d only had about an hour before it got dark. Phnom Penh is a great place in the dark, but I felt like I must’ve been missing out on a number of places that were probably closed in the evening.
We had to check on the cardamom we’d ordered from the Indian restaurant, so we passed the Central Market, which, inside, was much more orderly than the outside would lead one to believe. Outside the main building, a lot of stalls have been thrown up any place where there was room. Some of them are sliding precariously into the piles of garbage, others sit at odd angles and still others only offers as their wares, a single sleeping human being, a disconcerting sight on a wooden shelf next to a stall selling various cuts of meat.
The vaulted ceilings inside the place and the distant golden light up in the rafters, gradually drifting down, born on clouds of dust, reminded me of the souks of the Middle East. As if to equal the gentle late afternoon light of the ceiling, the shops in the center of the market were all selling the lighter-looking gold of Southeast Asia which seems to have more of a reddish hue to it than the gold I’ve been accustomed to seeing. The rings they make with this stuff, also tend to have more gnarled designs. Like a lot of the artwork of the area, they lift into diadems and points like the hang hong on the roofs of the wats, evoking the serpent head of the spirit Naga. These articulate designs make the gold like crinkly somehow, like foil.
We passed through the central part of the market, swirling with gold and dust and entered into the rows of clothing where a morning coolness seethed, trapped in the bolts of fabric, like innumerable refrigeration coils. I stopped to look at some souvenir t-shirts; they say you’re supposed to offer half what the shopkeeper quotes, but when the tired-looking guy said four dollars per shirt, I didn’t have the heart to narrow my eyes and say ‘make it two and you got a deal!’. Still, I managed to get him to throw in a krama the traditional Cambodian head scarf, for an extra buck.
Exiting the market, the late afternoon sun seemed to have mellowed and fell kindly on the stalls without any covering, most of their owners drowsing or seeming to be very occupied thinking about something. No one tried to get us to buy anything.
We crossed back to the Indian place where the owner had agreed to find us some cardamom. When we walked in he smiled and offered us menus. I reminded him about the spice and he explained that he hadn’t received any with his last shipment; I thanked him anyway and turned to go when he summed me back saying he was going to make a few calls and see if anyone else had it.
Gina and I wandered through the aisles of his shop, poking at the dusty merchandise while the owner made calls that started with ‘hello’ and then dissolved into the unintelligible. He gave us no update but the waiter brought us glasses of water. As we drank these, we began to leaf through an area restaurant guide. The dusty, spicy smell of the place and the artful pictures of local dishes soon had us salivating. The owner hadn’t said anything in a while and I assumed he was just being polite, waiting until we’d realized there was no cardamom and left. I gulped down the rest of my water, thanked him and reached for the door. “No. Where are you going?” He asked, nonplussed. “Someone is bringing it over right now.” “Oh, ok,” I responded, excited about the cardamom, but bored with the prospect of having to continue to stand around this store, especially with my hunger now so fervently stoked.
Just as I was beginning to despair, a young man pulled up on a motorbike, walked in, dropped off a little bag and roared away. The owner pulled a number out of the air, for cardamom, it was a good price. We walked away clutching the little bag feeling like we’d just completed some kind of audacious maneuver. We looked in the bag at the green-smelling little pods. “That felt like a drug deal,” Gina said and given the surroundings and the nature of the purchase, I had to agree. I tucked our ‘drugs’ into Gina’s backpack and started out toward the other side of town to find something to eat.
On the other side of the independence monument, not far from the North Korean Embassy, is another heavily touristed area dubbed ‘the Golden Street’. We were walking to this area down street 51, crossing multiple intersections. Sunday night wasn’t any different here from any other night and the traffic was just as bad as on Friday. Every four-way stop was a free-for-all. Some tried to go right through, others slowed only after they got into the middle of the intersection and multiple times I saw the motorbikes swerve and turn to avoid a car when it had been clear their intention was to go straight. Despite the chaotic appearance, things seemed to work out. The motorbikes bumped each other a little, but the drivers put their feet out and kicked the errant wheels and starter pedals away. We had even developed our own method of crossing the busy streets by throwing up our arms in a gesture the looked like we were about to bow and pray or shoot a basket. This confused people to the point of slowing down a little to see what we’d do next, allowing us enough time to safely cross the street.
We weren’t too far from our destination when I heard the unmistakable concussive sound of a collision. I turned to see a motorbike driver flying over the hood of a car and landing in a heap on the road like a load of damp laundry someone pitched out of a fast-moving car. The sound of the collision seemed to still be traveling through the air when the young man came to a stop. He’d rolled over to the shoulder of the street. I rooted to the spot unsure of what to do, wishing I’d had some kind of medical training in my life when I saw a group of men run up to him from the ranks of traffic, now stilled, and violently grab his rag doll body and carry it over to the sidewalk. I couldn’t watch. When I turned away they had started doing CPR. I couldn’t help but to feel if the driver wasn’t dead when he hit the ground he would be after these guys got through with him. The last thing I saw was someone vigorously rubbing the guy’s sternum.
We walked on, but seeing the accident had made me jumpy. Now when we crossed the street, I grabbed onto Gina, preparing myself to push her out of the way of another rampaging car. Crossing the busy streets no longer seemed like such a funny thing to do; death stalked the intersections. Within minutes we saw another, smaller, crash.
“You know,” Gina said, breaking the nervous silence, “that guy may have been ok. Did you notice they didn’t take his pulse or anything. They just started doing CPR. He was probably just knocked out.”
“He wasn’t wearing a helmet?” I asked, unable to remember.
“No, which is why I told you we needed to have them when we rented that scooter.” Gina scolded. The accident making her think back to the care that we often failed to apply in our daily lives. Seeing someone get hurt always makes you feel more vulnerable.
We talked about helmets and how we weren’t going to get bikes while we were in Thailand because the roads were too crazy and there were too many accidents. As we talked, I kept hearing the concussive sound of the collision and every intersection we crossed made me want to run. I felt a little shaky and needed to eat something.
We sat down on the corner of the Golden Street and ate plate after plate of south Indian food at Dosa Corner. The food was so good and the price was so low, I kept ordering new dishes every time the waiter came out to take empty plates away. After I’d eaten, I felt less vulnerable and we walked back downtown admiring the heavy tangles of power lines that made the sherbet-colored sky look like something someone had tried to draw and then angrily scribbled over.
One of my colleagues from China was celebrating her birthday on a rooftop reggae bar, so we decided to stop by, but I read the map wrong and we ended up walking gradually widening circles around the place like a reversed dragnet until we finally saw the red, green and gold aerie floating above the garish darkness of the bar district.
I thought I was in the mood for a drink until I got into the bar. As soon as I walked in the door, I wanted to turn around and leave. Everything about bars in Southeast Asia makes me feel lousy. There are never any locals in these places except the ones working there and there is usually nothing relevant to the culture of the place. Walking into the bars in such places, is like walking into a McDonald’s or an airport; there might be some subtle differences, but, on the whole, it’s the same thing you’d get in Philadelphia or Portland: the dark, the cheap beer, the music and conversation all in English. At least in the States, there’s the possibility that a band might play or their might be a pop-up restaurant in the back. In Thailand and Cambodia, there are cheap drinks and not much more. I sat there with my beer, discontented, staring out over the faintly glowing city, reading a sign below on another bar which proclaimed ‘all you can drink—$12.00!’ and trying not to think about the atmosphere in that place.
The whole time we’d been in Phnom Penh, I’d wanted to check out Heart of Darkness, a bar-cum-club that had a legendarily seedy reputation. I figured if I was going to have to go so far into the backpacker world, I might as well pick the place that might later lend itself to a few stories, but it wasn’t to be. I couldn’t wait around long enough for the place to open. We stood outside the menacing doorway of the place, making up our minds to go in when the door guy told us it wouldn’t open for another half an hour. We decided to stop into a bar next door instead, a little DIY place, much more interesting than the reggae bar. When we walked in, the staff all turned and said ‘hello’ like they’d been expecting us. At the bar, we were treated to a dice game; the bartender kept trying to play for drinks, but when I wouldn’t take the bait--”I don’t even want another drink,” I explained—she deemed me ‘no fun’ and wouldn’t really look me in the eyes again. I sat there, rolling the dice, staring around the room, once again, trying to finish my beer so I could get out from under the flashing lights and the dull music. The place cruelly reminded me that I am not 26 anymore. If I had been, I probably would’ve stayed there half the night, rolling dice for drinks, loosing money but being too drunk to care. At least I would’ve been deemed ‘fun,’ but I’m not out in impress anyone anymore.
Back out on the street, the night was beginning; the backpackers were coming down from their hostels and the tuktuk drivers were careening around the streets, swerving toward the knots of guys wearing Chang Beer tank tops, offering rides everywhere; the keys to the city. We walked through all this solemnly, the experience being behind us now.
Near the hotel, a stage had been set up. A few blocks away the bass could be heard rumbling along the ground and the spotlights were piercing the running clouds. When we arrived at this monstrous stage of sound and light, the night around it looked unnatural. The natural state of things seemed to be this blinding light and the crashing river sound of inarticulate, amplified speech. We stood there for a moment in awe of the spectacle, watching performers jauntily pace the stage.
The music and the light was alright for a while, but it was getting late and we had to get up early. We turned around and shuffled back through the crowd to the hotel. Groups of kids looked up from where they were playing and watched us walk by, a greater spectacle than the performance on stage.
We shuffled past the prostitutes who surrounded the hotel like they were staging some kind of silent and anonymous protest. Some of them swung handbags, but many just walked back and forth on the sidewalk. Their clothes were modest enough to give the impression they were waiting for someone to bring the car around after a cocktail party or a nice dinner. I tried hard not to pity them.
We were nearly back at the hotel when the tuktuk driver who’d been trying to get us to ride with him since we arrived at the airport broke from the line of other tuktuk drivers and said hello. We exchanged greetings and talked for a while before he asked “when are you going to take a tuktuk?” Without really thinking, I told him that we were going to have to go to the airport tomorrow. He jumped on the idea of taking us. I bargained him down to what I thought was a fair price, although he did a pretty good job of making me feel lousy about it, asking me how his kids were going to eat on that kind of money. Adding that the guys from the Embassy across the street always paid the inflated rate of 12 bucks without batting an eye. I told him I didn’t work for the Embassy, at least not like those guys and I didn’t make that kind of money. This was all done in the bantering way one talks to cab drivers. For an inveterate walker like myself, there’s always a kind of aggression present in these conversations. It’s like they know I don’t want to take a cab but they’ve got me back against the wall.
We agreed on a time and we bade the guy good night, promising to meet in the morning. It was only after I’d got up to the room, gotten into bed and slept for a few hours that I realized the time I’d told the driver was probably going to be too late. Our flight left at 8:50 and he said he’d arrive before seven. Lying there, staring up at the ceiling, I nearly had a panic attack thinking about how we’d sat in traffic on the way into the city. It must’ve taken us at least an hour to get from the airport to downtown. How would we manage to check in and get through customs and immigration in 50 minutes? No, I thought, shaking my head, it was going to be too stressful to take the tuktuk unless he showed up earlier.
In the lobby, around six am, I went out to look for our driver, but he was no where to be found. Another EL Fellow working in China was also on his way to the airport and offered to share his cab. I went down to the street one more time, there were no tuktuks in sight. I accepted the offer for the cab, wishing I’d gotten the driver’s phone number so I could’ve at least called him.
The rest of the way to the airport, I was haunted by the guilt of my own rash decision. I tried to blame the driver, thinking it a bad idea to try to talk people into rides when they’re on their way in for the night. Let ‘em wake up and figure that stuff out. You can’t expect people to understand the situation in another country after a few drinks and a long day. It wasn’t my fault he’d roped me into this ride. But I knew these arguments were no good. It was my fault and I was just going to have to accept that I’d promised this guy I’d ride with him and then ducked out of it.
At the Phnom Penh airport, they don’t even open the check-in desks until about an hour before the flight is scheduled to leave. There had been very little traffic on the street and I was annoyed to realize that we probably could have left at seven and everything would’ve worked out.
When the desk finally opened up, I dashed over there, but still found myself behind a few more savvy or at least faster travelers. The first guy in line pulled a stack of passports from his pocket as he approached the desk and, the other members of his party all started pulling giant suitcases out of nowhere. The whole scene was like watching a clowncar unload and would’ve been funny if it weren’t happening my line. At about the same time, the guy behind me used his smart phone to tun into some very obnoxious sounding action TV show, with people yelling in some other language and swords repeatedly clashing. I must’ve stood there between the phalanx of suitcases and the guy with Conan the Barbarian on his phone for about half an hour, watching all the other lines gradually diminish.
Customs and security only took a moment as they always do, unless you’re in a hurry, then the lines usually stretch on interminably. Soon after the nightmare of checking in, we were sitting by our gate, I should’ve been relaxing, but I kept thinking about the tuktuk driver. This is why I like doing things independently; you never have the same kind of guilt when you let yourself down, probably because it’s easy to understand your own mistakes easier than it is to understand the mistakes of others.
Back in Bangkok, the immigration agent stared at my single-entry visa amended with a single-entry permit for a while before he crossed something out on my immigration form and pushed it back over the counter to me. I stammered, trying to understand if something had been done wrong or if he was denying me entry. Already admitted, Gina, with her multiple entry visa, looked at me quizzically from the safe side of the immigration booths. The agent reluctantly informed me through vague gestures that I needed to write a different number on my entry form. After a wait nearly as long as the check-in at the Phnom Penh airport, he stamped my passport and let me in.
The last leg of our flight was much more relaxing. The flight wasn’t oversold and the flight attendants didn’t seem stressed out. On AirAsia flights, the attendants have to sell all kinds of crap; they’re more like vendors at a baseball game then attendants. Our last flight was on a different airline and the difference was almost palpable. I arrived back home at the Surathani airport feeling relaxed and knowing where to go, which always makes a big difference.
We boarded the shuttle outside the airport and set off for the downtown station, from there it was a short walk back home. Gina dozed and I read, watching the familiar outskirts of the town slip past the window. I was content to take the bus to the final stop, but at an earlier stop I realized we could take a slight shortcut in our walk if we got off. I jumped up and begged Gina to hurry, leaving her in the seat with most of our stuff while I ran down the aisle trying to get the bus driver’s attention, so that he knew we would be getting off as well. With my attention divided between Gina struggling with the bags and the bus driver, who after opening the baggage compartment was about to get back on and drive away, I didn’t realize that we weren’t at all where I thought we were. I didn’t realize anything until we were out on the sidewalk and the bus had pulled away effectively marooning us with three bags apiece somewhere way the hell out by the hospital. In my haste to hurry up and get home, I’d just tripled the length of our walk. I was so angry, I could barely speak.
We hadn’t gone too far when a group of song tao drivers offered a ride. “Taorai?” I asked in my abysmally bad Thai, ‘how much?’ No one said anything so I repeated my question. Finally one driver grinned and said “100 Baht.” I turned and started walking without another word. I was afraid I was going to start yelling at the guy.
When we finally got back to our apartment, it had the standard apartment-sealed-for-a-week mustiness, kind of like the smell when you open a box of corn flakes. I sat still for a moment and then remembered all the great stuff we’d bought. I took out the bottle of Fernet and the El Yucateco hot sauce and just looking at the bottles, I started to feel better. I’d even started to forgive myself for ditching out on the tuktuk driver way back in Phnom Penh.