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Always Count Your Money Part 3: The Wolf of Kampot

No gory details with this one, sorry.

View from my current hostel

View from my current hostel

Let’s just say I met a travel agent who had the “perfect” solution to my live-work needs. In the end I ended up with a solution that didn’t work & less money than I started with. I told him I wanted at least some of my money back and he said he’d try his hardest to get it back to me, then he tried to sell me on a guest house instead.

Though he says he’ll try & get my money back, I know it’s not going to happen, and after all this and on top of all that, he wants to be business partners with me.

I said I would happily build a website, shoot photography for his business, and write marketing copy for him. But rather than pay me for these time-consuming and skill-based services, he tried to wine and dine me with a Thai energy drink while we sat at tables outside a convenience store. He said I should move to Sihanoukville and help him run a travel agency.

More Kampot

More Kampot

I put in $800, you put in $800, he said — as if we’d been friends for years — and we split the profits 50-50.

I told him I wouldn’t invest.

My best hope was to try to get him to pay me to make his website, do some writing, and possibly some design work.

He nodded sagely with his 80’s sunglasses.

Big money, he said, if I went into business with him.

When he finished his fancy energy drink, he stood up and told me to get a local phone and that he had some business to attend to.

Let’s meet in Sihanoukville tomorrow, he said.

Sure, sure, I answered.

I felt like I was dealing with the Wolf of Wall Street, in Kampot. Being honest and occasionally naive to a fault, I could probably learn something from the guy, if I didn’t lose my pants in the process.

The next day he emailed me and said he couldn’t meet me.

The Wolves of Cambodia

1391663985429Cambodians are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever, ever met, but you’ll find wolves on Wall Street, in Bangkok, and in Cambodia. The Cambodian culture and way of thinking is completely alien to a Westerner such as myself, so it’s difficult to know who to trust. And, of course, they are very, very, very poor. A plane ticket here from the USA costs more than most Cambodians make in a year.

Imagine that a billionaire Wall Street investor takes a tour of the poorest American ghetto, wearing hippie clothes, flashy sunglasses, and a snakeskin backpack. He takes pictures, ticks off this location from his tourism checklist, and flies away in a helicopter.

The contents of my backpack are worth more than an annual tuk tuk driver’s salary.

So, yes, there will be wolves in Cambodia.

I’ve written about this stuff before, so I’ll stop beating a dead horse.

If you are considering doing business in Cambodia, and many have the personality to do work with them successfully, but not me. I am not an aggressive business person. I am honest, hard-working, ethical, and believe that quality is the highest priority. So I wouldn’t do well in Wall Street or Silicon Valley either.

I am not being racist or stereotypical. If you think so, then do you research. Start with khmer440.com, which is run and written by expats who live here and some articles make my tales look like children’s stories.

I’ve met several other travelers with their own horror stories. One German girl I met got roofied her first day in PP (Phnom Penh)and ripped off for $600, as much as six times the PP tuk tuk driver’s monthly salary, according to the Last Home Hostel owner. A guy I met in Sihanoukville ran a bar together with a local, left the country for a couple months, to find the bar and his two grand investment had vanished into the streets of Phnom Penh.

Also see my post about the bitter diver.

[Update 3/6/14: It’s a touchy subject for some, and I was a little rough in my initial draft, after being fleeced for X dollars, which is why I retracted this post shortly after publishing it. The situation here is beyond complicated. You’re dealing with a wounded national psyche, a very poor nation, friendly people, a different culture, a corrupt government, sexpatism, obnoxious hippie tourists, and a host of other factors, that make it as complex and touchy a subject as the idiocy of the Peace Corps.]

Upset over my run-in with the Wolf, I decided to

Buy a Lady Bike and Return to PP

Not a lady bike

Not a lady bike.

I decided to head back to PP for a month or so to my previous hostel, which has good internet, and, most importantly, a desk. And a friendly staff. And good food. And it’s less touristy, once you get off my street.

When I asked the nearest travel agent if she could transport my new bike to PP, she asked what kind of bike it was. Is it a mountain bike? she asked.

No, I said, it has a basket on the front. I doubted she’d understand me if I said it was the kind the Wicked Witch of the West rode.

Oh, she said, it’s a lady bike.

I kept laughing while she explained that they had to use different types of racks to transport lady bikes vs. mountain bikes.

Fine, I said, while we did the deal.

So long Kampot, I have enjoyed the bike rides and learned much from my business dealings.

PP here I come.

Again.

The Killing Fields, Emergency Sex, & Bed Bugs

IMG_20130927_111330As you enter the Killing Fields you see a tall pagoda-like structure filled with skulls. The skulls of the victims that were exhumed from this site have been examined by forensic professionals from around the world, and some are in displayed the museum, off to the right of the entrance. Small signs behind the skull explain how each one died. Most often it was one of the agricultural tools used by the Khmer for centuries, like a hoe or a hatchet or another blunt instrument.

The site is not that large. Prisoners were brought in by the truckload, stored in a building, and taken a short distance to be executed. Now, there are grass-filled craters where the mass graves used to be. During heavy rains, fragments or teeth will occasionally surface from the mud.

None of the buildings at the site survived. Two large trees stand amidst the excavated graves. The Khmer Rouge would hang a speaker from one of the trees, hook up a loud diesel generator that sounded like a failing truck engine, and blast traditional Khmer music to mask the screams of the dying. When the excavators discovered babies’ corpses by the other tree, they realized that the soldiers had used the tree to smash the babies skulls, using the trunk as a quick and efficient murder weapon.

 

S-21 is the name of a high school that was converted into a prison, where prisoners would watch other prisoners get tortured to death, then become victims themselves. The Khmer Rouge extracted confessions of crimes and denunciations of family and friends before the prisoners died. Of the few who survived, most were artists, kept alive to render portraits. Fifteen or twenty thousand were killed at this prison.

Inside, you can find cells the size of closets, and the metal bed frames that were used as torture racks. On the wall above the bed frame is often a fuzzy black and white photo of a prisoner who was tortured to death, still chained to the bed frame or lying on the floor in their blood. There are other rooms with hundreds of photographs of the prisoners that were killed there, including children.

When I hurried out of S-21, a tuk tuk driver and a maimed beggar came at me at me simultaneously. I was casting about for my driver, and he came up to me and asked, Are you okay?

He gave me some kind of bean cake and took me back to the hotel.

 

IMG_0756A couple days later, when it was raining, a girl came into the hotel with a pair of backpacks on her front and back, both bulging beneath a giant red poncho. She looked like some kind of wild yuppie tourist beast from National Geographic. She was a giant compared to the 13-year-old girl from the country…the one who survived on $.50 per day and who was so malnourished she looked like she was 6.

The traveler asked the owner about a room, then whispered to me anxiously, Is this place any good?

She went upstairs, and a minute later she came rushing downstairs and practically ran over the little Cambodian girl on her way out. She looked positively terrified, so I was sure she had spotted some bed bug poop under the pillows. This hotel is waging an endless war against them.

 

My sombre mood fueled me to get Emergency Sex, which should win a Pulitzer Prize. And while the committee’s at it, they should award one to The U.N. Exposed, a searing expose that makes you wonder if there’s any hope for world peace.

Emergency Sex takes you to the front lines of the worst UN missions in the nineties, beginning with the U.N.’s mission to restore democracy in Cambodia. Twenty years ago, one of the three narrators has divorced her husband of ten years and left her life-crushing ennui to see this after her arrival in Phnom Penh:

 

Entire families pass by on single motor scooters, toddlers standing in the space between the driver’s legs. Live chickens dangle by their legs from a rope tied to the back fender of the bike. Plunk, plunk, plunk goes the one with its head caught in the wheel spokes. A naked baby wanders to the curb to squat and defecate. A pile of squirming worms drops to the gutter, with a few left dangling from his bottom. It looks like spaghetti in curry sauce. A man walking by kicks some dirt over the slithering mass.

 

And it goes on.

Phonm Penh circa 2013

Phonm Penh circa 2013

The book’s three non-fictional narrators meet in Phnom Penh, become friends, and keep in contact over the next decade as they join UN missions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Rwanda. They witness firsthand the incompetence of the government bureaucracies that end up costing thousands and thousands of lives.

In Somalia in 1993, UN and US troops were on a peacekeeping mission, when a botched secret US military mission left eighteen US rangers dead and many more wounded. Their bodies were dragged through the streets, and, to paraphrase We Did Nothing, Americans who didn’t even know where Somalia was woke up in front of their TV sets.

Public opinion pulled US troops out of Somalia and out of Haiti. Clinton’s policy then became non-intervention, and this mindset prevented an invasion of the war-stricken Rwanda in 1994, where 800,000 people were massacred in three months. The UN instead sent in a mission after the fact to dig up the bodies and try the warlords in an international war crimes court.

In Rwanda:

 

The forensics is clear already. These were unarmed civilians, mostly women and children, almost all of whom died of blunt force or sharp-force trauma. They were hacked or clubbed to death, or both…This is an average massacre by Rwandan standards, unremarkable in scale or circumstance. Several thousand civilians had gathered in the church grounds, promised protection by the Hutu governor…Then the governor fired his weapon in the air as a kill-the-Tutsis signal and young men drunk on banana beer hacked them all to pieces. It’s hard work killing that many people in a confined space with only machetes and clubs, so the killers returned home to their families each night to rest and drink before the next day’s work. It took three days and so far we know of only two survivors.

 

 

Later, listening to the rain in the darkness of my room, I remembered the girl who’d run away from the bed bugs in terror. I wondered if she’d be able to get any sleep that night.

Once More into the Breach

Fun fact: one-fifth of Thailand's population of 70 million people live in the greater Bangkok area. Four-fifths of Cambodia's population lives in rural areas.

Fun fact: 1/5th of Thailand’s population of 70 million people live in the greater Bangkok area. 4/5ths of Cambodia’s population of 15 million people lives in rural areas.

A short plane hop lands me back in Phnom Penh, and I avoid the taxi stand, which charged nine bucks for a ride into the city on my previous trip. Someone yells out Tuk tuk! at me, and I pick out the voice from a crowd of transportation vendors clamoring for my attention. At first he is eager to be of service, but by the time we get to his ride, a little Q & A session has established I know exactly where I want to go and what I want to do. This means that I won’t be hiring him for a day to take me on a tour around the city, and I won’t be staying at the hotel he’s got in mind for me, which means he won’t get a lot of business from me. He’s understandably upset, so en route he transfers me to another tuk tuk driver. They work out some kind of profit-sharing deal or something, and Driver 2 takes me through the worst rush hour traffic I’ve ever seen, and this includes Bangkok gridlock. Cars waded through a swollen river of fume-barfing motorbikes, and at one point a mini-van bonks into us when the tuk tuk failed to swerve out of the way.

Neither vehicle was damaged, so we moved on. Driver 2 gestured at the van diving into a pool of motorbikes a few minutes later, saying, Crazy!

Yeah, I agreed, but to me the entire road looked like chaos bent on self-destruction.

A few minutes before we got off the exit I noticed a line of soldier-laden black trucks heading out of the city. This, I was sure, had to do with the recent political unrest that has been bubbling up over the recent election results.

 

Bamboo tattoos are less painful than machines and you can go back to doing normal things like bathing and swimming thirty minutes afterwards.

Bamboo tattoos are less painful than machines and you can go back to doing normal things like bathing and swimming thirty minutes afterwards.

When I got to my hotel, a low-priced family-run joint, I chowed down on some amazing sour soup that I’d had the last time I was here. For the price of a couple crappy McDoubles I was treated to a plate of rice and a tangy soup with mushrooms, pork, onions, and other unidentifiable but tasty ingredients. While I was eating, I noticed a couple of additions to the hotel owner’s family: a pair of scrawny little kids who must have been seven or eight years old. Their skin was dark, and I have come to associate darker skin with poorer people, since all the street kids and beggars I’ve seen tend to have noticeably dark hair and skin. I just assumed the kids must be some relatives from the countryside.

My bed was thankfully free of bed bugs that night.

The next evening, as I ate the soup again, the owner told me one of the critical ingredients was a green fruit with curly skin, prevalent out here, but unheard of in the West. She brought the shriveled fruit out to me and it took me a few Google searches to find out it was a kaffir lime. I told her I liked sour food and spicy food, so she said she would make me a spicy bean soup the next day.

Then she pointed to the two little kids that I had noticed. They were from the country, she told me, staying in her house out there. She owned a house and some land, and while had been working here in Phnom Penh, thieves came and stole everything from her house. They took her TV, bed, furniture, belongings, and even the iron fence that surrounded her property. So when she went back to survey the damage, she was asked by the children’s father if they could stay in her house. The other family was so poor they could not afford a house of their own.

IMG_1392So the owner agreed, and the father, mother, and I think nine children stayed in the house until the father ran away to marry someone else. The father’s family had urged him to marry someone who wasn’t sick all the time. After having nine kids, something happened to the mother’s womb, and she became paralyzed and couldn’t work. Now she was able to walk a little and could ride a bike, so the owner had sent money for her to buy a second-hand bicycle.

The kids, who I had thought were between six and nine, turned out to be eleven and thirteen. Their small size, the owner said, was due to a lack of nutrition. Physical and mental stunting was the result of chronic malnutrition and starvation, according to Cambodia’s Curse. The owner’s son, also thirteen, towered over both the other kids, and he had a lot of extra weight on his frame besides. He looked like the kind of kid you’d find in the States.

I just want to go home, she told me.

I just want to go home, she told me.

The thirteen year-old girl worked every day, said the owner, but hardly made any money. She would borrow ten thousand riel — two dollars and fifty cents — from her mother, and walk three or four miles to a port. There, the girl would buy fish and sell them back in the village, for a net profit of fifty or seventy-five cents per day. With this money she would buy a couple eggs and cook dinner. Now, though, heavy rains were flooding the village, so no one could work, and the children had come into the city to visit the hotel owner.

While she was telling me all this, her son and the two country kids sat in front of a laptop watching cartoons. The owner said she was surprised that the kids had even known what cartoons were, but when they’d arrived they’d told her they wanted to see some. Apparently they could go over to a friend’s house back in their village and watch them from a CD. No channels on the TV, though.

I mentioned Japanese cartoons and my plans to teach English, and she told me about an international school that was taught by American and Chinese teachers. She shook her head sadly, saying that she didn’t think her country had a future. Chinese and Vietnamese were buying up everything, and trying to make Cambodia theirs. The government was corrupt and complicit in these activities, she said. All the foreign aid and investment money went into the pockets of government officials, who would only hire friends and family, and this is why everybody voted for the opposition party in the last election.

And that’s why all the barbed wire fencing? I said, referring to a barricade I’d seen a couple blocks away. It hadn’t been there a month ago.

Voila

She said yes, that now the people were starting to understand, and that’s why they voted against the ruling party. The same prime minister had been in office for three decades, she said in an exasperated voice.

Would anything like that happen in your country? she asked.

No, I said, that’s illegal.

Some old white guy came in and started wandering around looking for something, so I told her to make me the bean soup tomorrow, and that it was time for me to study my kanji.

 

 

August in Thailand and Cambodia

As you can probably tell, I had a thing for Thailand and Cambodia.

These shots were taken in Koh Tao, Bangkok, Sihanoukville in Cambodia, and Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

I was carrying everything I owned in my Jansport Odyssey, a 39-liter King of Backpacks. While other backpacks ripped and fell apart, the Jansport is with me to this day. For the first few months of my travels, it held everything.

This included my:

  • Canon 60D
  • ASUS 14-inch laptop
  • 2-3 changes of clothes
  • My Kodak Zi8
  • An electronic Japanese-English dictionary
  • 2-3 notebooks
  • My travel tripod
  • A poncho & raincover for my backpack
  • And much, much more

It always blew my mind to see people carting around giant body bags and stuffing them into the local tuk tuks.

IMG_0794_CR2 IMG_0803_CR2 IMG_0812_CR2 IMG_0813 IMG_0842_CR2 IMG_0868_CR2 color IMG_0869_CR2 IMG_0884_CR2 color IMG_0898_CR2 IMG_0902_CR2_shotwell IMG_0929_CR2c IMG_0984_CR2c IMG_0987_CR2 IMG_1047 IMG_1167_CR2

Back to Phnom Penh and Beyond

When I got off the bus from Sihanoukville, it was Friday afternoon. I found some tuk tuk driver to take me to a hotel, where the staff told me I could go to nearby bars and get many ladies. You like weed? the guy asked me as he let me into my room. I got, no problem. You ask me. You smoke in room, no problem.

The room smelled like something died in the toilet, even after four sticks of incense.

For dinner I had lok lak for the first time, and a Cambodian sat across from me and ate hard-boiled eggs with chicken fetuses in them. I could see the little fetus parts dangling from his spoon as he scooped them from the shell into his mouth.

I told him I was considering teaching English out in Asia somewhere, and he said, Why don’t you teach in Cambodia? He told me about himself, said that he lived in Siem Reap for eight years and liked how peaceful it was, but Phnom Penh was better for work. He said his name, which I forgot, and then hopped on a motorbike with a couple cheerful Italians to go back to work.

Balcony overlooking street 172

Balcony overlooking street 172

On Saturday, I moved to a new hotel and read The Cambodia Daily from the second floor balcony while it poured rain. Most of my weekend would be spent on the balcony, and I would even sleep on the couch out there, since my beds crawled with bed bugs. The big news in The Cambodia Daily was about an upcoming political rally.

Cambodia recently had a national election for a new prime minister, since this country is a democracy, theoretically, but there has been a lot of evidence indicating the election was rigged. On Monday, August 26th, there is supposed to be a rally by the opposition party, which has some people worried about civil unrest and the potential for violence. Though the rally is intended to be peaceful,the US Embassy website makes a good point that “Demonstrations or events intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and possibly escalate into violence without warning.”

The Cambodian government has placed extreme and absurd restrictions on the rally, limiting the rally to two hours and the attendees to six thousand people, but as one local politician pointed out, how can you control the number of people that come?

Ten thousand are expected.

The government has stated that it is perfectly capable of crushing any violence from the opposition. Thousands of police in riot gear are trained and ready. The government has also been stockpiling weapons and machinery. Ten thousand guns and fifty thousand bullets from China, plus a bunch of heavy machinery like APCs and rocket launchers from other countries all arrived soon after the election. The ruling party insists the timing was “coincidental.”

Equally coincidental will be my timely return to Bangkok, since it is time to move on to the next phase of my travel plan: the job hunt.

 

A Little About the Cambodia Situation

Sometimes you see signs telling you not to buy from kids. If they're selling, they're not in school, which costs money here. Not buying from them is supposed to convince their parents to start paying for their school somehow?

Sometimes you see signs telling you not to buy from kids. If they’re selling, they’re not in school, which costs money here. Not buying from them is supposed to convince their parents to start paying for their school somehow? I suppose they want you to only support networks that ensure non-abuse of kids, but that would still never change abusive parents’ minds about making their kids work and would only leave the abused kids with less money and food.

All day long I sat and read Cambodia’s Curse, a modern history of this troubled land. For those who don’t know, here is a very brief history of Cambodia, to give some background to the current election situation, all of which I learned from that book in the past 24 hours.

In ancient times, peoples from the Indian sub-continent migrated to the Cambodian land and settled there. The ancestors of the Khmer would establish the Angkor empire, which would stretch far and wide and last longer than the Roman Empire. The Angkor Empire has been made famous by Angkor Wat, a true mega-monument to slave labor. In time, the Angkor Empire would fade, possibly due to its inability to sustain its population.

Flash forward, and the French colonize a weak Cambodia in the 1800s, then leave halfway through the 1900s, then Cambodia does its own thing until 1970, when there’s a coup, then some more military and political complications internally and with the Vietnamese, which is then followed by the Khmer Rouge taking over from 1975 to 1979. The Khmer Rouge cut off the country from the outside world and, among other horrible things, decimated a quarter of the country’s population. After the Vietnamese knock the Khmer Rouge out of power, Cambodia became socialist until the early nineties, then the UN steps in and spends three billion dollars to turn Cambodia into a democracy. There was an election, the UN backed out, and it’s been a train wreck of corruption ever since. Not that it was very pretty before that…

The same few people have been vying for control with zero concern for the people, who are still suffering from the residual trauma of the Khmer Rouge years. The current prime minister, Hun Sen, used to be a Khmer Rouge officer who defected to Vietnam when Pol Pot’s paranoia made him afraid for his life. After the Vietnamese deposed the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen became a contender for political power. Through cunning and perseverance, not to mention mob tactics such as intimidation, harassment, censorship, and murder, which he still uses to this day, Hun Sen managed to climb to the top of the pyramid, where he funnels millions upon millions upon millions of dollars into his pocket from donor countries’ money every year.

The Cambodian government is rife with corruption, and despite receiving around a billion dollars in donations each year for the past few years and in the five hundred million range before that, Cambodia’s poverty and low quality of life statistics still put many other developing countries to shame. Cambodians suffer from starvation, lack of education, psychological problems, and a long list of ongoing horrors among the abused people, including vicious murders, torture, high rates of child rape, and all manner of crimes, which all remain unaddressed by the government and the numerous worthless NGOs that inhabit the country like flies. The country is beset by horrific abuse and dysfunction in all facets of life, from the society to the family to the psyche.

Read Cambodia’s Curse to find out the gruesome details.

 

PS – As of 8/27/13 the rally has been held peacefully and the opposition party promises to hold more demonstrations if their election concerns are not investigated.

Now Let Me Tell You What I Really Think

So I asked this guy if Cambodia had a site like craigslist.

What’s a craigslist? he asked.

The guy was bald and had a British accent. He was seated at the bar of my hotel, drinking an Angkor beer and smoking a cigarette.

I told him what a craigslist was and said Thailand had one but not Cambodia.

Well it’s pretty primitive here, he said.

Stock picture of chair legs from Koh Samui, Thailand.

Chair legs from Koh Samui, Thailand

He was a dive instructor, and did repair on boats and air compressors and stuff and said he didn’t know anything about English teaching or teaching English. After a few minutes of back and forth, he proceeded to tell me how much he hated living here and how messed up this place was.

It used to be a French colony, and now most of these businesses are owned by the French, he said. They’re wanted in their own country. But here? That guy up the road, runs a French bakery restaurant whatever, hammered every morning. Smokes a spliff with breakfast. Khmer girlfriend. Baby on the way. Baby delivered, another one on the way. Hammered at breakfast. So he drives down the road and bam! Hits a motorbike, kills this one, injures that one, they shove him in jail. Takes thirty grand, bails himself out, pays off the cops, pays off the family, moves the business to another location, back in business.

The diver went on to explain how sick he was of his life here, the country, and the people, right in front of the bartender, but he had promised the business owner he’d stay on till March. He explained in gruesome detail how corrupt the government was, how money funneled into this town from tourism wasn’t being reinvested into the local infrastructure, how sewage went into the sea, how an island ripe for resort development already has green beaches that used to be white gold, how the power went out for three months until somebody got paid enough money somewhere to get it back on, how the mountains contained some chemical element useful for building nukes that was of interest to foreign powers, and how the tourism industry was stratified by income levels and age and so on.

When I could get a word in edgewise, I told him that the effects of tourism and a corrupt government were sad, but that tourism had helped fuel Thailand’s economy over the past few decades and the same could happen here. He pointed out that the culture, religion, and government had also played major a role in how that money was used. I said that the recent election in Cambodia indicated progress, so long as nothing disastrous happens.

And then the bar closed.

 

As I wandered into the depths of the hotel I considered the man’s perspective. The man’s tirade was pretty bitter, but he had some valid points. Those that live in this town obviously love it and can overlook the seediness and the corruption, but perhaps that is because they themselves are somewhat seedy and corrupt. I have noticed two predominant types of expats here: kids who party and drink and old people who party and drink. I definitely have some interesting stories from my short time here, but since I am not a seedy partying type, I am feeling the wanderlust take hold once more.

The diver said of expats here, Why would anyone live here? They wouldn’t. Unless they were getting paid good money. The wages are crap here. They’re getting paid European or American wages and living here, and then they’ll go back home with all that money.

I remember how just a few days ago I thought this place was the best thing since sliced bread. After all, there is something highly stimulating and energizing about the constant uber-flow of tourists and hypersocial activities. I had more conversations with strangers walking down the street here in thirty minutes than I would have in a week or more back in Tempe, or several months in Seattle. What most people consider to be social is just not when you compare it to a place like this. And this is the low season.

This morning I met an old Swedish guy — who doesn’t party or drink — who likes Cambodia more than any other country in southeast Asia, because the people are friendlier and more genuine than any other country he’s been to.

So what’s the verdict?

On the wall of my hotel is an advisory telling you not to take too much cash, to be careful of the smiling kids that may pickpocket you, to use the lockers, blah blah etc. It ends with, “Though most Khmer are honest and lovely people — one bad experience can spoil a whole beautiful holiday. We hope you will enjoy your stay in Cambodia and return home with only pleasant stories to tell.”

Always Count Your Money

Construction site next to my hotel

Construction site next to my hotel

That’s what the Belgian told me. He’d had a hooker in his room for the past four nights.

Always count your money and never leave your drink alone. They’ve been known to roofie people and rob them. Always keep your valuables on you. Put your money in plastic bags so if the hookers try to get it you can hear it. Hide your drugs. Don’t get too drunk. Always make sure you know where you are and what you’re doing.

The next day, G, a 12-year veteran of Sihanoukville, was sitting in front of a bar and called me over to have a seat and a chat as I walked past. The tale of P came up, and G told me not to get weed from the taxi drivers. He could get me a big bag for 15 bucks at his bar. He said not to do anything harder, cause then you’d get addicted and your life would be over. But you don’t seem like that type, he said.

All those bars over there, he said when I asked about a plaza I’d walked through, they’re all hookers — or part-time hookers at least. Always be careful around them.

What about the normal Cambodian girls? I asked.

No sex before marriage, he said. They won’t get a good marriage to a civil servant or a policeman unless they’re a virgin. They all get checked by the village elders before marriage, if you know what I mean. G told me some more about his painful cartilage and his travels around the world, and told me to be careful with my money around the hookers.

Thanks, I said, then walked off into the night.

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View from my $6-a-night hotel balcony

View from my $6-a-night hotel balcony

It didn’t surprise me that the plaza I’d wandered through was a mini-red light district, but it’s a different set up from Thailand. It was less tacky and less obvious. In Thailand they put girls in bikinis and gaudy makeup in fish tank-like glass boxes or on top of bars or stages. It’s kind of like one of those Asian fish markets except the girls are the fish. It’s typical to have like two or three dozen listlessly shuffling their feet on stage while the men get hammered and stare and when they get blind drunk enough take them back to the hotel.

Back in the US, however, the hookers that wander the edges of your neighborhood in San Francisco or wherever are all strung out and have droopy skin, a cigarette dangling from the corner of their mouth, smeared makeup, needle marks, and sunken eyes. Trauma and drug addiction are rampant and almost prerequisite. In the West it’s much more of a fast-food mentality. Drive-thru at your service. Wham bam thank you ma’am. Dirty hotels, hard drugs, pimps. We’ve all seen Law & Order.

The Sihanoukville scene’s a little different. Cambodian hookers will spend lots of time with you, eat food with you, walk down the street holding your hand, and generally perform a balancing act between hooking and gold-digging. In Sihanoukville, they just look like normal girls and dress the same as club girls in the States. They reminded me of typical shallow college chicks. They play pop music from their bars and invite you to come over and have a drink and talk about nothing. They can live a comfortable lifestyle by turning only a few tricks a month, according to G. The hookers I see here — and they are everywhere — all have smartphones and even iPads and expensive clothes, while most everyone else that works in this town wears stuff that looks like it’s been through Goodwill a couple of times. The typical bracelet seller or food vendor or construction worker works all day and still just scrapes by.

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A few days after talking to G I was sitting on a kitchen floor. One girl mashed up garlic chili paste with a mortar and pestle. The other girl, the owner of the house, was pregnant and due any time within the next week. She was telling me the story of how her Western boyfriend left her because she didn’t abort the baby even though she had promised to. She wasn’t sure if she would be able to go back to work as a bartender if she had a baby. Who would take care of it?

IMG_0984_CR2When I asked about her parents, she said they were getting old and added something else I couldn’t understand.

The girl making the chili paste — we’ll call her S — had a child of her own. The Cambodian father of S’s baby had left her for another woman and was now married in Siem Reap, the town where Angkor Wat sits.

I thought there was no sex before marriage, I said.

They told me that the old style ways G had told me about held true out in the villages, but less and less in bigger cities.

She’s a bad girl, said the pregnant one.

No more, S said. She said she wanted to be faithful and true.

The words of G and the Belgian echoed in my ears. Yeah, they’ll hold your hand and tell you they love you, but it’s just business. The next week they’ll be doing the same thing with another guy.

I found myself questioning everything I heard and wondering if their friendliness had an ulterior motive.

S and her friend had invited me to a super-hidden eatery in an alley somewhere in town. We had driven over several roads that looked like they had been blown apart by M-80s and finally ended up in a grassy alley among several houses. A wooden-staked tent had been set up over a sugar cane pressing machine and a makeshift kitchen. You grabbed your own ingredients from a pile of leaves and plants and put noodles on top. They put one of two broths over your mixture and wa la, your soup is done. The sugar cane was used to make a fresh sugar cane drink.

While eating, roosters and chickens ran around pecking at each other and the food that was scattered on the ground. One of the Cambodians asked me if it tasted good and I said, “Spicy,” one of the few Khmer words I know. I had, of course, ripped apart several chilis with my fingers and scattered them into my soup, so I was dripping sweat and snot by the time I finished.

The girls had kindly asked if I was going to pay a whole three dollars to cover our meal, to which I agreed. I’d been expecting this. It was a mutual test. I was sadly getting the feeling that the poverty was so severe here that relationships between outsiders and locals often revolved around the root of all evil. Casual asides and jokes about money and gifts would be slipped into the conversation that just wouldn’t turn up under normal circumstances.

But, as with Thailand, extreme poverty drives the girls to this profession, as opposed to whatever other causes may be the source in countries with actual functioning economies. Coins might as well be shaped like little manacles, I thought.

While sitting on S’s friend’s kitchen floor a little while later, my arm would turn red and mystically emanate heat. I wondered if I had finally caught some bizarre infection, but it was probably because I had scratched my arm with chili fingertips. The girls scolded me and told me I would suffer terribly if I touched my eyes.

Do you have a boyfriend now? I asked S, ready with grains of salt in my ears.

No, she said, I just want somebody take care of me. Not have be rich, I just want somebody look after me and my daughter.

Independence Beach, Sihanoukville

Serendipity Beach, Sihanoukville

Back at S’s bar I drank a Chinese grass jelly drink and, though I am not naturally suspicious, I wondered how much of her interactions were just attempts at manipulation. But she might be telling the truth — her pregnant friend seemed sincere enough about her feelings for her baby’s father.

I ate more tamarinds dipped in the chili paste, but my stomach finally told me to stop already and I went home to watch Japanese TV.

I still can’t get a fix on the locals here, and mixed reviews from other foreigners don’t come to a consensus. Several people tell me they love it here and they love the people, but some say otherwise. A bus neighbor from Phnom Penh told me he felt like Cambodians were great people, nicer than Laotians even. My Australian neighbor at my previous hotel had told me couldn’t get over the feeling that everyone here was trying to scam him. At least Laotians were up front about their negotiations, he said.

Maybe the Cambodians are as divided as their political parties.

What I have noticed is that where the money concentrates, scammers and ill will and resentment also concentrate, whether it’s in Thailand, Cambodia, the States, or on the internet.

Awakening

Sihanoukville beach. Off-season.

Sihanoukville’s Serendipity Beach. Off-season. Not bad.

My neighbor told me to come visit the bar she owns. She told me to get changed, and was like, You’re wearing those? when she saw my Vibrams. Ride the motorbike with me and my roommate, she said, but I told her I was too scared, and that I would rather walk.

I took a detour along the boardwalk, and saw a bald guy fend off a Cambodian vendor. We’ll call him P.

How often do the taxi drivers offer you weed? I asked him.

Every five seconds, P said. Why? Do you want some? I have a little.

A short chat later, he said, I’m not gay, but I have a balcony, do you want to come up and have a couple beers?

Since that didn’t sound weird or suspicious, I agreed. Once up there, P did indeed have a balcony, and for twenty bucks a night, a gigantic room with fully functioning air conditioning, which is quite the luxury for a budget traveler such as myself.

Out on the balcony I met P’s neighbor, a New Zealand lady who was having a beer on her balcony, separated from P’s by a metal railing. P rummaged around his apartment for a minute, then came out and said, I’m going to nip out for a few minutes, and he disappeared.

A frog smaller than my thumb

A frog smaller than my thumb

The wife and her husband were on vacation, touring SEA and looking for some type of awakening, she told me. Ever since they came to Sihanoukville they had hardly spent any time together, whereas before they had always been at each other’s sides. She didn’t know where he was, and didn’t seem too worried, at least on the surface.

We talked about life, traveling, and the meaning of the universe for about ten minutes. At some point her husband came out and sat on the opposite side of the balcony, popped a beer, lit a smoke, didn’t say a word, and didn’t look at us. She was a good listener and we kept talking.

Meanwhile, P, having discovered that the housecleaner had stolen the weed and coke he’d hidden under his mattress, had gone in search of more.

A taxi driver slash drug dealer carted him off to a place to do the deal.

On the way, he passed a mob of about twenty or so guys beating the shit out of somebody with sticks, feet, and tazers. He was a thief, according to the taxi driver. [I think the article I linked to is the same incident, though my first version of this article was written two days before the incident supposedly occurs. But the town is the same and the dates are so close I’d be surprised if these were different events. Funny that this ended up as national news.]

P was dropped in a dark alley, where he couldn’t help thinking, I’m in a foreign country, in the middle of a dark country lane, waiting on a drug dealer, and nobody knows where I am. His drug deal went down smoothly, however, and he soon rejoined us on the balcony and told us the story.

A completely unrelated stock photo from Thailand because I'm faster at writing these posts than I am at taking pictures.

A completely unrelated stock photo from Thailand because I’m faster at writing these posts than I am at taking pictures. Also, you have to watch your bag more carefully here. I don’t feel like taking my camera out as often.

As he rolled a joint he asked us if we wanted to do a line of coke, but we declined, and P drank a couple beers and I suggested we go down to the beach for a bit.

By the time we got to the beach he was walking very slowly and once we sat on the beachside papasans he was pretty much catatonic. I guessed the two beers finally did him in.

So I abandoned him and walked back to my neighbor’s bar. One of the girls that worked there let me try a tamarind dipped in some homemade garlic chili onion paste sauce and I loved it so much I made her take me to get some more. I ate a whole bag of the stuff while playing Connect Four and learning how to say things in Khmer, like, Hello I Love You, Thank You, No Thank You, Big Butt, Big Boobs, and Big Mouth.

The next day, while working on an article about AT&T getting into the industry of online higher education, I saw the husband from last night pass by, staring into the distance with the look of a man whose worldview had just been changed forever.

Perhaps Sihanoukville’s hooked him, I thought. I’ve met a number of expats that have lived here long time. Once you get past any initial culture shock, because it is kind of seedy, Sihanoukville is a pretty interesting place. Papasans decorate the beach, people from around the world congregate to party and socialize, and Cambodian kids run around and put your sunglasses on and climb in your papasan next to you while trying to sell you a bracelet, and once you actually have a conversation with locals, they are quite, quite friendly.

While I was pondering these things and watching the waves over the edge of my laptop screen, the wife walked past, staring at the ground.

Sihanoukville, Cambodia

25 cents for a squid on a stick

25 cents for a squid on a stick

Last night I lounged around the beach chairs that bars set up right in front of the waves. I was hanging with a Swiss traveler and drank lemon juice while a pair of drunk Europeans shot off fire works at each other and nearly hit a family of tourists. The Japanese couple to my left held hands the whole time while the girl kept saying “Abunai!” which means dangerous.

The bar we were at was quiet, but the club next door was booming with a hip hop crowd and every ten minutes or so a group of guys would come out twirling gas-drenched fire sticks.

Kids kept approaching us because we were out in the open. One came up and tried to sell us fireworks, and when we declined he took my neighbor’s straw and put it in his mouth. He bent his face over the candle and melted the end of it, presumably to inhale the plastic fumes. The Swiss girl put out the candle and he said something in Khmer and threw the straw down and walked off.

 

Cambodian kids swimming during a downpour

Cambodian kids swimming during a downpour

In the touristy areas the locals will constantly harass you to come in and eat their $3 barbecue or take a tuk tuk (covered motorized tricycle taxi), just like in Siem Reap. Sihanoukville seems a little more laid back, though, but maybe that’s because it’s off season. It rained the day I got here, and it poured briefly today, driving everyone off the beach and into the cover of the beachside bars. I’ve been working here half the day, listening to the sound of the surf and drinking iced instant coffees while writing an article about famous bootstrapping entrepreneurs. That article alone almost covers my entire days expenditure.

Since I’ve been at this place, the Angkor Beer Bar, two drunk dudes came in and scared off a couple girls. I think the guys were French — they were so drunk by lunch that their accent was difficult to place. The staff told them to go home, and after weaving for about a hundred feet they crashed their bike at the entrance to the main road. The Cambodians at the bar watched and we all laughed while some taxi drivers tried to help them.

Some fruit. Mangos are my favorite, though.

Some fruit. The sour mangos are my favorite, though.

When the sun came out I sat by the boardwalk for a few minutes and was swarmed by little kids and ladies who wanted to cut my long nails or massage my feet. The kids all laughed at my Vibrams and stepped on my toes. Some little guy with a tray of sunglasses called me a tightass when I wouldn’t buy his polarized Ray Ban fakes. An even littler guy stood on my feet and smacked my knees with his hands and stomped up and down on my feet and kept repeating “Tightass.” Finally the sunglasses kid walked off and called me a “Fucking cunt” and the little one, maybe six or seven years old, repeated the phrase and followed.