My first proper day in Cambodia began by befriending a crazed, slurring tuk-tuk driver named Vinnie. Once again, I was being assured of a deep love for the Irish people, and after calling his bluff by testing his opinions on other nations, I decided he could have the job of motoring me through the madness for the day. When I came back from breakfast, however, he had taken off with another customer, leaving his brother (a moto driver) to step in instead. He started by telling me that the fare would be entirely up to me – a calling card of scammers, this is usually the first step on the road to being ripped off – but for some reason my instincts told me that this guy was being sincere. I mean it’s important to feel like you can trust these drivers (especially when you’re not given the priviledge of a helmet), even if that trust is, in reality, completely misplaced. Sarrath, an agriculture graduate who can’t get a job with his degree, gets up for an English class at 5.30 am every morning, makes ends meet by getting tourists on his motorbike, and plays football ‘til sundown. Although I was never amused at his trick of always making me cross a highway to get back on the bike (with him in stitches of laughter while watching on), we’d be the best of friends for the next three days…
Our first stop was the Toul Sleng museum, the site of the infamous S-21 detention centre. Warning: the following three paragraphs may be informative. In 1975, Cambodia’s indigenous rebel army, the Khmer Rouge, seized power under the radical leadership of Pol Pot, trying to implement a “back to basics” policy whereby the country would become a peasant-dominated, agrarian co-operative. In the next four years, nearly two million (out of a population of seven million) were senselessly murdered – often just for things as trivial as being able to speak a foreign language or wearing spectacles – in an attempt to reach that goal.
S-21 was the school-turned-prison where people were rounded up and tortured into absurd confessions, never to be seen again. So when walking around these rooms, seeing a photo of bodily remains on the very same spot you’re standing on, or stubbing your toe on a shackle still in the ground, you can’t help but be aware of how chillingly recent all of this was. It’s not like in Germany, where people are at least a generation or two removed from the atrocities – this was less than 30 years ago. Your tuk-tuk driver could well be someone fortunate enough to have lived to tell the tale.
In recent years, the UN have been pushing for a posthumous trial for Pol Pot’s war crimes – something seen as hypocritical by some Cambodian people, as many “leading” nations such as the US continued to fund and support the Khmer Rouge well into the 1980s. Nevertheless, such a trial is finally about to happen, despite Cambodian protests that it will only open old wounds. Worse still, the trial will be billed to the tune of $56 million (10% of the government’s annual revenue) – something most people here would prefer to be spent on more urgent matters.
Anyway, after that sombre experience, I rushed around to other sights such as the Grand Palace, where I bumped into a Canadian girl I had met several times since a tour in Ho Chi Minh City. I noticed that she kept looking at something on my shirt as we were talking, and when we parted ways, I glanced down, expecting to see some stain or perhaps a noticeable patch of sweat working its way around me. Sarrath, being the top man that he is, gave me a big, 3-D map of the city, which I put in my breast shirt pocket. On one side, it had an advertisement that began with: “Sex with children is a crime” in red capital letters. The top of this ad was peeking out of my pocket, with only the words “SEX WITH CHILDREN” visible. I had been walking around for two hours with what looked like a pamphlet guide for paedophiles!
Meanwhile, in the national museum, one of the attendants there handed me a stalk from a jasmine flower and pointed to a very old statue of Shiva, giving me instructions in his native tongue. Nodding and smiling, I had no idea what he was talking about but he was not going to let me pass until his request was met. Do I bow in front of it? Do I wave the flower appreciatively and place it at the foot of the statue? Do I put it between my teeth and do a jig of some description? Someone was going to get offended here, and it wasn’t going to be me. Ah, these are the moments I live for.
When we got back to the hostel, it was pay-up time, and accordingly, a group of fellow tuk-tuk and moto drivers gathered around myself and Sarrath to oversee the transaction with great interest. I was just waiting for some kind of outrageous price which would be agreed by the rest of them and insisted upon aggressively. Surprisingly, my offer of $4 was accepted with a smile and I didn’t have to pay until the next day, when he’d take me around once again. Not only that, but my handful of Khmer phrases (transcribed phonetically the minute I got into town) was more than enough to keep the circle around me entertained and impressed. ‘Hello,” for example, sounds very like “suicide day,” “how much is it?” is “tripe on man” (easily remembered), and “too expensive” is “trynah” (imagine a South African pronouncing my second name).
That night, there was a party on in the guesthouse – Cambodian style. The owner of the hostel recently had twins, and rather than having the equivalent of a Christening, over here a celebration is usually thrown after the baby makes it through their first month alive and well. I can’t say I had ever really seen Asians getting hammered and “giving it socks,” but these guys knew how to go all out. As both family relations and hostel guests intermingled, the gusto with which they took on the night immediately endeared them to me as a people. This was far greater than any efforts I had witnessed on Paddy’s Day, let alone something like a Christening or a typical Irish wedding. The owner went around with a bottle of Johnny Walker black label, filling up the same glass and giving to everyone he could find. One guy did the rounds with a giant cooler in tow – not using it to store drink, as such, but as a vat of some murky alcoholic potion he wanted to share. The sight of drunken cousins (belligerently trying to get Westerners up to dance and getting offended when they wouldn’t) being pulled away by their more responsible kin was absolutely classic. Every few minutes, I had to remind myself of the fact that this was all happening on a Tuesday night!
I overheard an English guy commenting that they didn’t have the right genes to process alcohol, to which I found myself replying: “Well they’re makin’ a bloody good go of it!” I had to take my hat off to their staying power alone. Girls were drinking straight from pitchers, so it was no surprise to see the keg left a little on the dry side. Getting a pint meant watching a lad scoop out the foam from one glass, transferring the beer to another, then repeating the process and claiming he’d need another five minutes to do it again.
Put it down to being caught up in the festivities, but when I was handed half a can, the thought of being drugged didn’t even enter my mind. Sure, I was confused at the offering, but when I looked at him in bewilderment, he showed me some set of flashing lights on his belt as if to assure me that everything was on the level. I had no idea what they were supposed to signify. Then I was told that the pitcher-swilling girls, currently pouring drink down my throat, were actually the in-house prostitutes. I had barely had enough time to process the information when there was talk of going to the notorious “Heart of Darkness” nightclub for the next six hours. Well the name alone seals it for me – what with having spent the previous days on the Delta, trading literary recommendations and being frequently reminded of Colonel Kurtz himself. I was all on for it, but was quickly becoming abnormally drowsy and finding myself wanting to nip off for revitalizing naps just to keep on going. Before I knew it, I conked out only to resurface eleven hours later with no hangover and with the remainder of what was surely a very loud evening having passed me by completely. Was I drugged or was it just a long-weekend finally catching up with me? I may never know…
On Wednesday, I met up with Sarrath once again; despite trying to sell me a shotgun in vain and expressing a great disappointment at my indecisiveness over the shooting range, he was up for another day of sight-seeing. Out in the countryside, the lack of any real road surface means that dirt tends to be blown straight in your face for considerable lengths of time. With Sarrath driving with one hand covering his eyes and the other over his mouth, we decided that something needed to be done and stopped off at his house to pick up some masks (I had long been looking for one, as you may recall).
Moving on to the Killing Fields – the actual site of the genocide – things took on a solemn note once more. After passing beggars with missing limbs and reflecting on a multi-level glass case of nameless skulls, it was strange to see kids and their cows washing and playing in mass graves-come-swimming pools on what was otherwise a beautiful day. The picturesque scenery you see behind me is home to an estimated 400 unexcavated mass graves, many of them the beheaded bodies of women and children (guns weren’t used, so as to save precious bullets). A lot has happened here and no amount of information is going to allow me to fathom it.
Earlier in the day, Sarrath had been impressed with my sunglasses, whereupon I pointed out that not only had they begun to melt corrosively in places, but the black plastic was peeling off them quite noticeably too – and this is why I wanted to go to the Russian market. Having haggled successfully for a pair of fake Ray-Bans, I presented him with the old ones – and as you can see from his picture, he looks quite the part. It was then that he insisted on showing me the city’s Olympic Stadium at no extra charge. It’s not exactly on the tourist trail, but being a huge footie fanatic, Sarrath was adamant that I see where all the action goes down.
So after getting a flat tyre and walking the bike through swarming city traffic to a street-side shoemaker for repair, we arrived at the dilapidated stadium. It’s the kind of place where I imagine the national team are robbed every time they appear. In one of the side “pitches,” there was a club side about to begin training. I was then invited to take part in the session as a special guest (by a bunch of African guys with ridiculously impressive ball handling skills). Not exactly how I envisioned my afternoon, but I was almost about to go for it until I realized that I’d only end up in a blatantly unfit, dehydrated heap, limping away embarrassingly.
Later that night, I was ordering a pizza (and complimentary beer) when I noticed some fine print at the top of the menu offering an optional smiley face for $0.50, or an extra smiley face for a dollar. What was this supposed to represent? Good service at a little extra cost? My toppings arranged in the shape of a face? Making me feel quite stupid, the waitress explained: “Eh…marijuana?” in such a tone that it seemed like I had asked whether the pizza came with cheese or not. “Right so, put me down for a smiley face,” I said, and thought no more of it.
Some time later, a group of us from the guesthouse headed out to a bar where we were told we were expected by the aforementioned pitcher-swilling girls. One of the guys was now “seeing” the head-honcho of their clique, but was in total denial that she was a working girl. After squeezing eight of us into a tuk-tuk, with one stretched out on the roof like Superman, we arrived at the bar to be welcomed by at least 50 women – all of whom seemed to be working there as ladies of the night. The girls were all known “faces” from the most popular guesthouses across town, and we had just wandered into their HQ. Aside from the bar men, I think there was one other guy there – a lone American in his 40s. We were led upstairs to a bright room with no bar, and sat around a table with a dozen or so smiling girls surrounding us. Just as our drink orders were about to be taken, I distracted the host by asking to see some prices, then turned to my company to say, as subtly as possible: “Lads, we’re in a fuckin’ brothel…” The big give away for me was the chalkboard that read: “Wednesday 26th July – lesson: ask – “Is that your watch?” answer – “I swear this is mine, I did not steal it,” alongside: ask – “are you angry with this conversation?” answer – “I would not lie to you.”
Between the lads, I could see a cluster of sneaking suspicions turning to pangs of recognition. Even still, the overall response was a mixture of: “don’t be silly,” “well what did you expect?” and a sudden arousal of interest. I knew this was going to end with us being marched by security to an ATM. Was I supposed to just relax and pretend I was in a normal atmospheric bar? I then remembered the pizza weed I’d had several hour beforehand – I was coming up in a noticeable way. “Jesus – am I tripping? Fuck it, this is not the time!” To make matters worse, the girls’ softly softly approach left enough room for ambiguity and doubt to creep in and fester, causing me no end of paranoid confusion. Questions had to be asked – and when the subtle ones provided no enlightenment (i.e. “what’s with all the extra staff?”), it was time to get straight to the point. Eventually, even the guy previously in denial had no illusions about the place but was now joining the others around the table in warming to the idea.
Much to my relief, soon the general consenus determined that it was a good idea to leave the raging whorehouse for the previously mentioned “Heart of Darkness,” whose reputation precedes it to say the least. Most of the lads refused to even carry a wallet to the place, and stories of rich Cambodian teenagers having their bodyguards tear apart Westerners for stepping on the wrong toes are commonplace. All the same, I found the extremely thorough body search on the way in quite reassuring. Inside, on the other hand, it was clear from one glance around that the place could be divided up into the following: 60% prostitutes, 5% security guards, 5% Western girls, and 30% men. That tere was a scantily clad midget dry-humping the wall, eyeing me up longingly, was the least of my worries. It’s all so disconcerting – you can’t take anyone’s friendliness at face value. I mean the list of concerns that usually need addressing would be as follows: Is she a man? A prostitute? A pick-pocket? All of the above? Here, I didn’t need any time to go through such a checklist, and you can be damn sure any dance move of mine involved tapping my wallet on every half-beat, just to make sure it was still there. At about half three, I started a rumour that this was the place where Garry Glitter was busted, and left…hopping on the back of a motorbike and tearing off with the wind in my face.
I had gathered much info about the firing range. You can shoot a rocket launcher at a cow for $200, or be given command of a tank for $1,100. Apparently the done thing to do is buy your own live animals (chickens, for example) in the market beforehand, saving money. Obviously this seems quite cruel and barbaric, and I had to wonder if just going to such a place would only encourage them to stay in business. Plus, what I had absorbed from my time visiting several unforgettably harrowing monuments to the victims of war crimes was still fresh in my mind– why was I even considering it? I’ve already been to two such ranges on this trip (one unintentionally), so if I was going to go again, I’d naturally only want to ascend further up the ladder of weaponry just to make it worthwhile. Perhaps it’s an after-effect of being allowed to watch so many violent over-18s films as a child, but there’s obviously still a big kid inside me that realises I’m not going to get the chance to take over a fully loaded tank anywhere else in the world.
I had to think long and hard about it; not just because of the money involved, but the amount of questions that were starting to raise themselves from the depths of simply entertaining such notions. The feedback I sought from home on the issue seemed to be a resounding “Yes! Fuck the cow!” but something about it was still bothering me. Eventually, I reached a compromise. I had heard that grenades could be procured at $30 a pop – that was a more affordable figure, packed a similar punch, and would still be something to write home about…And I’d certainly make sure that no animals were hurt in the process. Little did I know, however, the questions would only multiply.
The place itself, miles out of town, had an eerie and extremely dodgy vibe to it. There was nobody else around, putting the sole focus on me. As I sat down with a laminated menu that started with Pepsi and ended with a BP-84 rocket launcher, I knew straight away that the likes of tanks and grenades were things to be asked for in a hushed tone and perhaps a wink and a nudge or two. The guy in charge nodded reluctantly and gradually acknowledged that it was possible. He was clearly still hesitant in proceeding any further, and would have preferred that I just stuck to the menu, strongly recommending the state-of-the-art rocket launcher time and time again.
The place itself, miles out of town, had an eerie and extremely dodgy vibe to it. There was nobody else around, putting the sole focus on me as I sat down with a laminated menu that started with Pepsi and ended with a BP-84 rocket launcher. I knew straight away that the likes of tanks and grenades were things to be asked for in a hushed tone and perhaps a wink and a nudge or two. The guy in charge nodded reluctantly and gradually acknowledged that it was possible. He was clearly still hesitant in proceeding any further, and would have preferred that I just stuck to the menu, strongly recommending the state-of-the-art rocket launcher.
After double-checking that we were on the same page and making my intentions clear, he came back out with a little brown paper bag. It was then I really took a look around and noticed certain things… like the guy in army camouflage lazing in the hammock and the full-on obstacle course in the background. “Holy shit, this is a training ground for the Khmer Rouge…I’m buying the weapons off the same monsters that perpetrated the genocide…” I instantly felt ill and a terrible sinking sensation started taking over. Being led out to a field with a grenade in my hand was the wrong time for a reality check to announce itself.
To begin, I had to conduct two practice throws with a pebble. “No, no,” he shook his head worriedly, indicating that this just wouldn’t do. There was a certain way to throw it (lobbing it was a disaster waiting to happen, I learned) and I was getting it all wrong. Nevertheless, I wasn’t given any more practice goes and he started relaying the instructions. See, you don’t just pull the pin out, there are other parts you have to keep held down, etc. His English was quite poor and the steps were vague – my attempts at clarification were only met with vigorous, disapproving shakes of the head. Confusingly, they said I couldn’t throw it too far away, either, and he was indicating to a space not all that far from where we were standing. “Surely not that close?” I asked, but it fell on deaf ears. As you can see from the picture, I was far from 100%, but they weren’t happy to hang around purely for my peace of my mind. I should have just stopped there.
I pulled the pin and had only just begun the throw when a loud bang went off – it wasn’t an explosive one, but it was loud enough to throw off my trajectory, causing a panicked evacuation behind me. Good one Cian. Your last moments alive may rightfully be spent feeling like a complete idiot. We all ducked in time to see an almighty bang only a few metres away from us – let me tell you it went off a lot quicker than the 30 seconds I thought I had. Sarrath was thrilled. I, on the other hand, was floating in an introspective silence. I think it’s safe to say that’s probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.
Back on the bike, I expressed my concerns about the staff being members of the Khmer Rouge; Sarrath assured me that they were nothing of the sort, and even suggested that had I gone for the rocket launcher, instead of aiming at a cow, they would have brought me out and let me fire it into one of the active Rouge camps in the mountains, had I so wished. Now that would have been a completely different ethical can of worms. While I am filled with sympathy and compassion for what’s happened here, and no doubt such an action would get me a few pats on the back from the people of Cambodia, my one week stay here never really figured waging personal wars into the equation.
Something tells me my travel insurance package doesn’t cover such Rambo styled day-trips.
Still lost in the situation, we were only 10-15 minutes down the road, in front of the airport, when a loud bang went off just to my left, enough to waver the course of the bike. I know the sound well enough now to know that it was a gun. To me, it felt like it had whizzed past in our direction – but maybe that was just the blast resounding out. Sarrath stops. Jaw gaping, I shout: “What the hell are ye doin’!? Keep going!” He says: “Yes, yes, kick gun, kick gun.” “No!! Keep going! Keep going!” As it turns out, someone was shot in traffic just as we were passing that very spot. I only felt the bang and saw the ensuing commotion, but it was another shock to the system. Although Sarrath tried in earnest to cheer me up the whole way home, the day’s combined events knocked me for six for a while. It was topped off by many a close encounter during some seriously hairy driving, and then with an all-you-can-eat Indian dinner where I was the only customer and the “head of the household” (the Indian chef in question) was roaring drunk, going from abusing his wife to sobbing incoherently into his shirt – all in English, for my benefit. That was one damn awkward dinner, let me tell you.
Despite these events, I have generally felt safe here and have really enjoyed myself. I’m not surprised when I meet other tourists who were just passing through, on their way to jobs in other countries, only to completely abandon their plans and stay here. For example, three Irish girls came through with the intention of just spending a day or two, and have since bought a lease on a bar and set up shop. Cambodia is experiencing the biggest tourism boom in Asia, up 35% on last year. It’s interesting that much of it will have come from being in such close proximity to Thailand, but now that the latter has been over-exposed, places like Phnom Penh are clearly a better cultural experience. There’s not a lot to do here, but spending four days in town and spreading everything out just felt right. Although, so does riding around on a banjaxed bike with no helmet. Perhaps something is subtly weaving a new controlling influence over my outlook on things, unbeknownst to me. Since my venture through the Mekong Delta, I’ve been well and truly in malaria territory for the best part of a week, getting bitten between blog ruminations, possibly making these my last thoughts. A tank for $1,100, you say?