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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.

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.