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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.