A Holiday in Cambodia
I knew that during my stay in Bangkok working as a Summer clerk I would have some interesting experiences, but I certainly did not expect to find myself booking a flight on one steamy Bangkok afternoon to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I was easily convinced however, being almost ordered to go there by several colleagues at work and having studied some of the nation's anciently glorious and recently atrocious history.
Basically, my fellow summer clerk, Michael and I we flew the friendly skies of Royal Air Cambodge and were extremely comforted by the fact that there was an Australian Pilot, until we realised that he probably came here after flunking out of the Seaview flying school. As the plane approached the runway I was wondering where the hell the city of Phnom Penh was, still in dry farmland, we landed at the PP international airport. Only one hour away from the monstrous Bangkok is this tiny little airport with cows grazing at (hopefully only) the outer areas. We went through the excessive stamping of immigration (we have very pretty passports now), collected the luggage and cruised out to into the wilderness.
I soon realised that Michael's one and only fantasy in life -- being greeted at the airport by a person holding a sign with his name -- would be granted -- sure enough, standing outside the door was a lady holding up a sign "Mr Michael R." You see, young Michael had a contact in Phom Penh via a complicated web of father's client's friends uncles' illegitimate child, twice removed, 4 limbed. The contact was Danny and this was his secretary. More about Danny later though.
We hopped in the car and drove on the right hand side of the road, in a right hand side steering wheel, over, under and around potholes, over under and around cows and for the most part, around local Khmers. Day one involved us being taken on an eye opening and depressing tour by the wonderful secretary of Danny, Ling. We visited the Tuol Sleng prison, the killing fields, the Mekong and the National Museum, all of which MUST be seen.
As for night 1, that is another boring anecdote altogether. We met up with Danny at around 6pm. He was with his friend Claudio. Now, Danny is in construction. In the 1980s he was a millionaire, living the high life in Australia. In the 1990's he was a bankrupt refugee from creditors. So he chose to come to Cambodia (why did Skase bother going all the way to Spain I wonder?). Now, at first we thought that it was just Danny and his friends who were nutcases, but we have since been referred to a book "Off the Rails in Phnom Penh", which suggests that perhaps all expats here should be renamed "ferals".
We started the evening at the Cathouse, a nice little local hang, with the standard sign at the entrance "please leave all guns at this desk before entering", and standard expat looking people (ie male, overweight, red faced, 40 or so years old, probably HIV positive). We had many many drinks there before moving onto the "Sharkies bar", where Claudio had to meet a "girlfriend" of his. Boy are these guys studs, I wish I could have women like that all over me. Never did I realise that a fat red faced person with plenty of cash to flash is more likely to score than a humble young lad without a cent to spare.
From there we moved onto a Karaoke bar where Claudio met another of his girlfriends (what a stud) and we churned out the classic karaoke hits- Stairway to Heaven, Unchained Melody, Hok Lek Nam Ma Chaak Noi (whoops programmed the wrong number) and the Rose.
Finally, feeling very tanked on Black Label and "Angkor Beer" we went to Manhattan (by the way, Danny, even more pissed, was the chauffeur for the evening). This was a serious night club. It seemed to be smoke free, the drinks were cheap and the great music did not stop. So I brought out the gold lame pants and blue glittered platforms while Michael stapled some bedazzlers onto his shirt and we boogied all night. Claudio, in the mean time met up with another ‘girlfriend'.
We got dropped back at the 'Hawaii Hotel', wiped the sub-tropical bugs off the pillow and slept from 3am to 5:30am, ready to catch the boat to Siem Reap. Feeling rather worse for wear, we took advantage of the remnants of French Colonialism and bought 4 baguettes from the street seller before boarding the floating death trap on the Tonle Sap River. This boat is long and slim and goes a hefty 40km an hour. We had a seat downstairs in the aircon section. I chose not to sit there after the hostesses presented their safety procedure. As you know, part of this drill on airplanes is to point to the emergency exits on the aircraft. When our hostesses all pointed to the one door at the opposite end of the boat, and after noticing they were setting up 50 odd fold-away seats in the aisle, my wisdom prompted me to move to the rooftop. Michael was convinced he could find a way of smashing the window in under 6 seconds so he stayed. I found myself speeding through rural Cambodia at sunrise, passing by endless dried up ricefields, beautiful green hills, and local Khmers doing their daily net fishing from simple wooden canoes.
The Tonle sap river gradually widened into the Tonle Sap Lake and after 5 hours we reached its far end -- a small floating village, still untainted by the slowly increasing hoards of fat Germans (they seem to be everywhere in SE Asia). From there we were put onto smaller boats that could negotiate the shallow stream leading to the land. The boat was, to say the least overloaded, and we later observed that overloading is a kind of tradition in this country (A running joke told by the bigoted expats is: ‘How many Khmers can you fit into the back of a ute? Just one more'). But we survived, and danced over 5 or 6 docked boats to finally reach land.
We spotted our guide standing on the dirt road, dressed in the Angkor tourist authority uniform of Beige pants, Canary yellow shirt and the optional Dick Tracy hat. Sumnaan was to take us around Angkor for the next 2 days.
We drove along the bouncy road to Siem Reap where we dropped off our gear (at the severely overpriced Nokor Phnom Hotel, I'd recommend staying at one of the guesthouses) and went off for a quick bite at the local restaurant. Having been living in Thailand for 7 weeks we were not at all prepared for the huge portions dished out to us, nor were we prepared for the corresponding US dollar prices. We were also not prepared for the driver and guide walking off without paying, leaving the 'rich foreigners' to cover the hefty bill. This is how one must travel through Cambodia -- be prepared to not be prepared (the anti-christ of Lord Baden Powell's propaganda).
That afternoon we headed straight for the star attraction -- Angkor Wat. A mindblowing massive Temple erected around the 11th century as part of an ego battle between successive kings. I took an obscenely large amount of photos, shook off a couple of free riders trying to listen into our guide's speeches (it was simply a matter of strategic mine placement) and I succumbed to the incessant hassling of cute little Cambodians selling t-shirts and cold drinks "You like col drin sir? How bou t-shir? some film for you? I give ver good pri".
The size of this temple is astonishing. Our guide could even tell you how big in square metres Angkor Wat is. In fact, he felt the need to tell us the exact dimensions of every single temple, moat, tree, hotel, gun and buddha. Let's just say, I sleep really well at night now knowing that The headless guard at the front of the Bayon temple would wear size 18 shoes if its bloody feet weren't concrete.
After being blown away by Angkor Wat we walked up a hill, passing several sweat saturated and smelly fat Germans (yep, they're everywhere) to watch the sun set over the countryside, and turn Angkor Wat into a beautiful glowing orange. Ah the serenity. Can you hear the serenity? I think not Pol Pot. I can hear the constant snapping of expensive cameras, the ceaseless ramblings of poor child slaves selling col drins and the huffing and puffing of more fat Germans. Such a shame, it could have been such an amazing moment. But I no complain. It was still pretty goddamn special.
That night we crashed at our hotel in exhaustion after a quick swim. On the TV was an unusual station called "Australian Television". I'd just like to express my disgust at the quality of Blue Heelers, Healthy Wealthy and Wise, and the news (so sheltered from the world).
The next day we were going hard on the temples. It was going to be a tough one. We hit up the city of Angkor Thom nice and early, knocking over the Bayon, the terrace of the Elephants and a few other ancient masterpieces leaving nothing but rubble behind us. Lunchtime approached and we knew a new tactic would have to be adopted to avoid having to pay for the driver's and guide's lunch. I stated that I wanted to have some cheap lunch at the market. The guide tried to convince me that the restaurant serving crocodile and snake would be better. Knowing it was just a tourist dive, I held my ground and ended up eating a fantastic curry (albeit a tongue curry -- you could actually see the individual taste buds) in a local run down French colonial style building for $2. After a depressing walk through the local market (you couldn't see the food for the flies) we went back for a swim, Michael headbutted the end of the pool (although when asked about the scrape on his nose he describes a courageous battle scene where he fought off 20 Khmer Rouge troops, 8 bandits and 5 disgruntled cows with nothing but his detachable 300mm zoom), and then headed back out to the temples.
The afternoon yielded a visit to Ta Prohm- the temple left to the jungle. It was an awesome sight- huge trees growing straight up through and out of the temple, the trunk actually on top of the walls. I took way too many photos again before cruising out of town to watch the sunset from another more deserted temple. That was a more peaceful moment, except for the times where I had to keep hiding from my guide so I could avoid knowing the rate per second at which the sun drops below the horizon in late January. Michael managed to escape from the clutches of our guide. He was on the verge of becoming the second person to make the difficult transcendence to Nirvana when the guide took it upon himself to sneak up from behind and proclaim "ISN'T THE SILENCE BEAUTIFUL?". He then proceeded to launch into a soliloquy regarding the average length of time an Angkor guide can go on talking before placing themselves in serious danger of a client inflicting grievous bodily harm.
So that was the Angkor experience. The next morning was the beginning of a new era of madness.
After visiting the temples of Angkor, we flew back to Phnom Penh and were picked up by Danny and Claudio who were heading straight for Sihanoukville (yes, that's right, the King named a city after himself before he died). It was not a fun trip. While the road was in surprisingly good shape, the events in and around the car were troubling. First off, we passed an enormous billboard advertising a Military Artillery Range, which offers tourists the chance to fire off any weapon they desire. The sign had an accompanying illustration of a smiling redneck cradling a smoking rocket launcher on one side, and a confused flying cow on the other (yes, apparently a pig option also exists). Back in the car, Danny and Claudio were going one for one on the Angkor beers, while outside we negotiated wandering cows, motorbike riders without mirrors and drivers still deciding which side of the road the nation should drive on. After a brief offering of bananas at the local temple (Danny's earlier timber factory had collapsed, and he called upon Buddha to give him good luck this time around), we cruised the final leg to Sihanoukville.
This is the town famous for the toxic waste a Taiwanese company chose to dump in its outskirts. It is unfortunately not so famous for its fantastic huge prawns (if only an Angkor guide were there to tell me exactly how huge) or its deserted beaches and islands. It is really an empty town, and our host Danny saw it was ripe for development. So he has plans to build a massive resort on the river feeding into the beautiful green waters of the Gulf of Thailand. He envisages a marina, a restaurant, tennis court and pool right beside the river. You see, as I said, Danny is in construction. Danny is also a graduate magna cum laude in the Fuck You school of architecture. There would be nothing about it in scale or appearance even remotely sympathetic to its beautiful surrounding environment. It will basically say, "Fuck you Sihanoukville" (thanks Bill Bryson for assistance with this theory).
But of course in order to realise his dream, he'd need to dredge the river mouth first, and the river might still be shallow, so he sees the solutions as a jet ski service around into the gulf. Sounds so peaceful doesn't it? He took us out to see his land over there. It was a very small beautiful river, fed from nearby mountains, with a small (undredged) sandy mouth on the corner of which there are a couple of Khmer families, carrying along with their merry lives, fishing and eating in their secret paradise. They will just love the peaceful trill and hum of the jet skis.
So what the heck did we do in Sihanoukville? We started off at a great little restaurant by the beach and feasted on those mutant prawns, and then went for a swim out in the warm warm water. Meanwhile, Danny, Claudio and their mates got pissed. Oh, did I neglect to mention the Vietnamese girlfriend of Danny? She was the official prawn peeler. You see, she is his personal slave. Whoops, I almost forgot, their baby was also there- Little Jamie. A result of another night of lovin' from our friend Danny. I'm pretty sure that in 20 years time there'll be 50 young Dannys running around Cambodia, swearing, drinking and advocating the dredging of all excess sand.
Then there was Danny's other son. Sam (Sammy, Samuel, or little fuckwit). He was about 14 years old and had a filthy mouth, a filthy attitude and probably loves a good dredge now and then. This is where I note an unusual hypocrisy of our friend Danny. In the car trip down, he insisted that Little Jamie would have a good upbringing because Vietnamese mothers treat their kids like a good Italian mother, and therefore would have the same values imposed on him as Danny had. Now Raffy here, was given a trail bike (and was promised another when he returned next year) which he roamed around town in, he had BB guns, he swore at his dad and at us and abused local Khmers calling them 'Monkeys'. Is this a result of harsh Italian discipline? We had to endure his incessant rambling and wingheing for 2 days (..."Oh really? Tell me more about your friend whose Dad is taking you to the French Alps, you disgusting little shit.")
When you think about all of the great things you could do in a new place, in an amazing country what comes to mind? A quiet drink on the beach as the sun goes down? Dinner at the local Khmer restaurant? A walk around town, chatting and joking with the locals? Or are you thinking of a serious session of go-karting?
That's right -- bloody go karting is what we did as the sun went down over the heavily mined hills nearby. Two hours of it. Now let me say that I love a good go kart now and then, but there is a time and a place, No? But we were slaves to Danny -- he was our lift back to Phnom Penh, he had organised our travel arrangements, he had paid for our meals, we couldn't tell him to get lost, that would be pretty dumb.
So we karted. But you can't just kart. We had to endure 2 hours of complicated deconstructions on the merits of each kart, tyre, accelerator and corner, not to mention excuses for crashing and losing ("a cow ran across the track, I swear!"). So then we went back to clean up at the hotel, before meeting the boys again at Danny's part owned "Angkor Arms Hotel". Of course, just what a town of 60000 needs- an expat type pub. The consolation was that Michael and I wiled away the evening rediscovering our (or just his) long lost dart throwing talents. Sammy soon joined us, and I was very tempted to test the true accuracy of my throwing at moving targets. Having reached my limit I had no choice but to go to bed. Michael endured his company for a little longer, and stayed around for an hour or so while the expat boys polished off a couple of bottles of Johnnie Black Label.
The next day we drove around Shnookerville, stopping off at the deserted Independence Hotel, speeding past beautiful beaches I just wanted to lie down on, and drove straight out to Danny's prized piece of land. For a change, we had lunch at the same restaurant, and for a change, I tortured myself with some more gigantic prawns (this time electing to peel them myself, if that was OK with Danny oh wonderful slave master).
A few more beers were sunk by our esteemed chauffeur, and he complained of his drunkenness, exhaustion and tiredness after a hard week and he said he'd have a sleep as soon as he returned to Phnom Penh. With that reassurance, we commenced our drive back to the capital.
Just after leaving town, we stopped off for petrol. Now, every time we had stopped the car, Danny had commented on the importance of locking the car. While he went inside to pay for the fuel, Michael took it upon himself to get his wallet from the back seat. Noting that the door was clearly unlocked, he reached over to the driver door, and activated the central locking, and…shut the door. Now, in rural Southern Cambodia, the NRMA doesn't pass by too frequently, so when Danny noticed the doors were locked, with his keys inside, to say he spontaneously combusted on the spot would be an understatement. Let us replace the word ‘fuck' with ‘daffodil' for the moment. Michael had gone inside to buy an ice cream, not realising what he had done. Meanwhile outside Danny uttered the following:
‘Daffodil DAFFODIL Daffodil the Daffodilling keys are Daffodilling in the Daffodiling car who the Daffodil did Daffodiling that? Where the Daffodil are the spare Daffodil keys?'
So Danny proceeded to make a million daffodilling phone calls, tracking down the spare set. He sent his son Sammy on a Moto taxi to track them down, and let out about a thousand more daffodils, before his son returned half an hour later.
Danny felt the need to get us to the airport in a hurry. Driving around 100 miles (yes miles) an hour, frequently using his horn to warn bike riders, pedestrians and cows of the impending arrival of an insane maniacal drunk fatigued driver, we rapidly made our way North.
With Sammy sitting in the middle, Michael and I had to fend off the little shit, without annoying his father sitting behind the wheel. I chose the walkman technique to block out his taunts. Michael had no such defences and endured his behaviour for 2 hours. Michael has not talked much since.
With plenty of time to spare, we arrived at the airport. The stats: 1 dead cow (the car behind us hit it after our horn made it buck), 2 fuming and shaking summer clerks, 2 sets of keys, one drunken driver, one drunk lackey of a passenger (faithful Claudio), Sammy and a certain trail of destruction behind us.
With an enormous sense of relief we said thank you, and got the hell out of there. Before we knew it we were flying the friendly Royal Air Cambodge skies again, and were approaching the everlasting blanket of smog that was our wonderful new home -- Bangers. With a small visa obstacle taken care of we proceeded to almost be ripped off by the taxi driver home (50+40+30+120 does not equal 350 baht mate), but settled with being only mildly ripped off. Ahh, it was good to be back- the paved roads, the half-finished freeways, the smells and the 200 metre visibility. While it was an amazing adventure, I was relieved to have black mucous in my nose once again.