Fear, Fancy and Fiction in Cambodia: A journey heroic in scale and ambitionNovember 19, 2004
It all started as I sat sipping a Pimm’s on my balcony in the provinces. My stallion Argonaut stood happily in the front paddock, chewing sugar cane, and smiling fondly at Peggy, his pink flanked companion and friend from Phnom Penh. I was contemplating one of life’s mysteries. My two dogs Pleean and Chhnang seemed to be contemplating a relationship that surely did not agree with moralistic norms of this day or any other for that matter. They were, after all, brother and sister. Pleean, with a glimmer in his 100% Cambodian Pedigree eye, once again was trying to mount the soft hindquarters of the significantly irritated Chhnang. Living together, they lacked suitable bedfellows in a region quite rife with rabies.
”That is it, I will have their wotsits snipped,” I cried, leaping from my seat, in a fit of determination. ”Srairobohknom, to the nation’s capital we must go, for only there will we find a vetinary surgeon of suitable competence for this most delicate of operations!”
Srairobohknom looked up from her book. She was reading a volume by an author of wit and grace. Her deep brown eyes sparkled and she swished a long braid of pure black onyx in agreement. ”My dear, we must ready the Bentley and take on a meal of suitable fortitude, the capital is a long way away’,” she said sweetly but with a slight tinge of worry. She was used to my schemes and plans by now. By God, the woman was something.
”We shall not take the Bentley, it is in the provinces with my friend Sen Sissoman, they are delivering rice on the border.” I racked my brain with concern, what transport would provide adequate delivery. The Rolls was in the shop and Argonaut was tired from excessive racing in Prey Vihear, finally Peggy (a stout character, but Shetland nonetheless) would be unable to carry the weight of Srairobohknom, the two dogs and myself.
”We shall have to take Dumrey Saad instead,” I said with an air of excitement not often heard in this shady corner of Cambodia.
Srairobohknom recoiled with a soft ripple of exhilaration that was audible in the evening wind. She loved riding pillion. Dumrey Saad was my magnificent 500cc Navy Blue Charger (a motorcycle I had bought 3 years before from a bereaved Peruvian zoo-keeper).
”Tomorrow, we shall go to Phnom Penh, and no one shall dare stand in our way,” I trumpeted to all and sundry. ”Prepare my riding clothes, soft chamois leather and armored breast plate are my desire. Bring forth Dumrey Saad and have her oiled and fuelled for a long journey.”
The house whirled into activity as servants and colleagues rushed from room to room preparing for our departure. Srairobohknom and I retired to the bedchamber. We had our very own Apsara dance in mind.
I rose at sunrise. The night had passed pleasantly despite the urgent croaking of a masturbatory teukai. Srairobohknom looked adorable in the morning glow. I pushed her out of bed. We had to move quickly if we were to make Muong Russey by evening.
We ate quickly – rice with Plaiteep (a fruit in season at this time) washed down with Teuk Dong (coconut juice for those in the know). We then strode down towards the front courtyard.
I was resplendent in my leathers and a helmet of hardened African rhino hide.
Srairobohknom was a vision, if I don’t say so myself. She wore a black leather-riding suit; think Catwoman meets Cleopatra, topped off with boots up to her armpits. My menservants ‘Muoy’‘, ‘Bee‘, ‘Bie‘, ‘Boeon‘, ‘Churchill’ and ‘Hornblower’ (the latter two from my days in the old country) visibly exhaled at the sight. ‘Pleean‘ and ‘Chhnang‘ had already been installed in their soft velvet panniers.
I looked down upon Dumrey Saad. Her hard seat was enlivened with soft morning dew, which cooled my buttocks as I climbed aboard. I felt the comforting presence of Srairobohknom as she mounted behind me. The evening had been fun.
We tore out of the gates of my compound. Tears were shed, as few knew when we would return.
Soon we found ourselves on the open roads outside the town. I felt the asphalt below me and shuddered with velocital pleasure. I felt alive! I then realized with some shock that we were flying along at an almost ungainly 34 km/h. Srairobohknom gripped me with considerable consternation and Pleean and Chhnang yipped with terrified fear. Thankfully, I dropped down a gear as we narrowly missed a motodupe. He sat astride a putting monstrosity of vehicular incompetence and grinned dopily as was his trade.
It was a pleasant time to be on the road. All around us the rice fields were being readied. Villagers placed tussocks of contented soon-to-be carbs into the slots made ready for them. Everything gleamed in incandescent greens of hues unknown to parts other than these. One could sense rain and with it would come an agricultural orgasm, as seedlings would become a nation?s staple.
Then I saw a roadblock ahead. A couple of police had stopped a pickup full of Khmers. Money appeared to be changing hands although I couldn?t be sure. Could one ever be sure? A policeman called me to the side of the road. I felt deep dread enter the cavity where deep dread naturally enters. It was rare for a Westerner to be called aside by the police. What great crime had I committed? Surely, there were too many to be counted.
Srairobohknom muttered a few phrases in Khmer at the law officials. They backed off. I had no idea what she had said but was thankful she had a natural command of the language. We grinned and slid back onto the road, like a cobra onto an oiled baking sheet. After the police disaster we were badly off target. I started to become concerned. Would we make it to Muong Russey by nightfall or would the rain come first?
Muong Russey is certainly not a location that would inspire excitement in the most ardent Cambodiaphile. It really does not seem to have much to offer. I of course, have not explored the dark underbelly of the town, but I suspect that any underbelly exploration would not come up with much anyway. In fact, it would be fair to say that Muong Russey can only be seen as a place of rest and possible victuals.
However, the slight pressure that Srairobohknom was placing on my nether regions seemed to suggest that there might be at least some excitement upon arrival. I opened up the throttle and soon we were plundering along the road at over 30km/h. Peasants, motos, and livestock melted past us in a glorious kaleidoscope of melded colours. However, as the speed increased so did the pressure and it soon became too much.
I lost control of Dumrey Saad and the five of us (aforementioned bike, myself, Srairobohknom, and the two dogs) careened of the road. Unfortunately, the banks of a rice field produced a significant launching pad, which found us all flying in a merry consortium through the air.
The dust settled.
I was upside down.
In a coconut tree.
My ankles were looped between some of the higher branches. Srairobohknom appeared unhurt, but dazed, below me. ”You wanton saucepot,” I remarked; my riding hat cocked at an entirely inappropriate angle.
Srairobohknom smiled up at me. Such was her congenial naughtiness I could only forgive her for such righteous sleight of hand. I executed a perfect dismount from the coconut tree and surveyed the scene.
Dumrey Saad lay on her side. Pleean appeared unhurt but Chhnang was nursing a significant limp. Perhaps, that might make her slightly less appealing to her randy brother, I mused. I looked over my bike. The clutch was okay and the brakes were in working order. However, there was an ugly scratch on the fuel tank and my bumper sticker (‘NGO’s are corrupt and Teachers are perverts!’) was slightly torn.
A militia of moist villagers surrounded our party. ”We need help!” I commented, throatily. ”Please, my chgai is wounded, my good lady is somewhat muddled and I have been imprisoned in a coconut tree, not of my choosing incidentally!”
The villagers helped me right the bike and we emerged from the rice field in something of a celebratory manner. Several of the villagers danced and someone brought out their Charpei. As we re-mounted (something I always rather enjoy) music could be heard (a sound from the annals of history) and I felt like I really was climbing aboard a beautiful elephant in a bygone era. Only the fact that my elephant was being powered by petrol and was being ridden on a paved road disagreed with that prodigal prognosis.
And so it was that we arrived into the village of Muong Russey an hour later. Our drive had been something of an adventure and I wondered, to myself only, for fear of upsetting others, whether we would make it all the way to the capital.
Srairobohknom went in search of lodgings whilst I sought out a spot for fine victuals. I was not optimistic.
Cambodian food can be a delight to any qualified gourmand and it can also be universally abhorrent. I hoped for the former as I searched through the various establishments that Muong Russey offered. Many different creations were on offer. One woman offered me crunchy fried sparrows. I looked at her aghast.
I like chicken but in no way is the sparrow related to the chicken. The sparrow darts and glides at significant speed whilst the chicken clucks in its own portly immobility. In fact I would warrant that the sparrow and the robin have much more in common and I love the robin for his plucky indifference and preponderance to settle on Christmas Cards. I certainly wouldn’t dream of eating a robin.
”Autei Awkoon Srai!” I said as I gave a somewhat dismissive wave. Next on offer were grilled frogs. The poor creatures had sharp sticks pressed through their anuses and out their mouths. In such a fashion three orange-tinged amphibians were presented to me.
”Do I look like a berang?” I surged, my anger by now a monsoon. ”Knom mopke Prote Angle!” I carried on; a crowd had surrounded around me at this point, mystified by this great leather clad, seething white man. ”We didn’t fight Waterloo for nothing! My great grandfather was an archer at Agincourt and my cousin was shot through the testicles on the beach at Dunkirk!”
I huddled in a corner such is the emotional impact of history upon me. I felt tired and alone. Sometimes being called or considered a Frenchman is too much for me to bear. The crowd was restless now, as they wanted my business. Not many people from out of town rested in Muong Russey.
Then there was a noise behind me and a Khmer emerged from the throng. He was clad in only a kramma but such wanton displays of near-nudity no longer surprise me. My spirits surged as he informed me that he was a chef of surprising craft and creativity. ”Would I like to visit his restaurant?” he asked.
”Would I hell!” I thundered as I placed an arm around his rather boney shoulder. ”Tonight, we shall eat like princes and I hope you shall be providing a significant bevy of dancing girls!”
I felt a swift movement behind me, a sharp stinging pain across my forehead and then I was on my back, looking up at the cloud-mottled sky.
Srairobohknom had returned from finding lodgings and heard my livicious talk. She held a club of burnished teak in her hand, which was the perpetrator of my tumble. ”Sorry dear!” I offered cheerfully, she was a most spirited companion.
Several plucky village folk helped me up and we proceeded to the man’s restaurant. It was a simple place but we dined heartily and well; Saitgow Ang (beef grilled over a small charcoal burner) redolent of Cambodian spices, Sop Chnang (a Cambodian fondue if you will), Amok Tre (a mild but delicious fish curry) and Noam Gachey (a sort of chive omelet) were all finished with aplomb. We also ate trokoon (morning glory) in order that our stools did not take on a liquid personality.
After dinner we were all exhausted and retreated to our lodgings. A traveler to Muong Russey should be warned. Energetic sleepers will find the beds in the town a little down at heel.
I woke up as the sun eased itself gently over the surrounding rice fields. I decided to leave the guesthouse for a brief perambulation around the town. It was my experience that Srairobohknom preferred time alone in the morning, after my ministrations of course, to prepare herself for the day’s journey.
The streets were a hive of activity as people headed out to works of various natures. Peasants, all clad in krammas of various hues, climbed aboard rickety Sanyang buses and headed into the surrounding countryside. Rice needed to be planted for the coming season. I was assailed by the smell of breakfast in Cambodia. Borbor (rice porridge often eaten with dried fish, salted eggs or miniature poodle testicles) and geautiev (noodle soup) were on offer but I didn’t fancy either. What I hankered for was a ‘full English’ but I sensed that in a provincial town in the Northwest my gastronomic dream would be left unanswered.
I wandered back through the early morning light and as I did so I stepped on something ‘soft and wobbly’, uncertain as to its exact origin but it could have been a dead Chinaman. Perturbed by the experience I arrived back at the guesthouse emotionally fragile. Srairobohknom held me to her warm bosom and administered a calming massage and further action not necessarily appropriate in these writings.
Refreshed I sang ‘Jerusalem’ and then headed out into the blazing morning sunshine. Srairobohknom followed, this time clad in a tight white pantsuit, a gold kramma cinched tight around her attractive waist. Khmers gasped at the vision. I smiled, knowingly.
Soon we were back on the road. My dogs, both recovered from the fall the day before, barked playfully from their panniers. As we drove I contemplated my life in Cambodia. It was a good one, yet strange in so many ways. Why was I here, what was my calling, where did I come from? These were all questions, of that there was no doubt, but were they worth answering? I just, didn’t know. As a result, I contemplated for a fairly long time.
”Lok Songha!!!” screamed Srairobohknom, she loved to speak the Khmer tongue even in the most dangerous of moments. I had been daydreaming and had not seen the lychee seller trip by the side of the road. Her harvest (at least 36 lychees) was flying through the air towards me. I swerved to avoid them, knowing that collision could be fatal. I avoided the first fourteen flying deathfruits but was struck admidships by the balance of them. I pulled to the side of the road and slipped off my bike.
I lay in the road gasping for breath. The sticky fruits ruining my leather riding gear. Srairobohknom knelt by my side and pulled off my leather helmet. She toweled off my fetid brow and looked lovingly at me.
”I cannot lose you now, not to lychees!” she said.
I thought to myself of the indignity. An adventurer such as I, killed on a lonely Cambodian road by the worrying pedestrial ineptitude of a lychee seller. Despite the great pain I knew I would have to soldier on. I could not pass now. I had great things to do. This couldn’t be the end of the road, could it?
I write to you once again from the balcony of my sun-dappled home in the provinces. Argonaut canters in the lower paddock, Srairobohknom in a state of naked abandon lies curled in a silk hammock and my dogs wrestle playfully in the shade of a boddhi tree. Chhnang’s stomach is plump with possible puppies. I am troubled that they might be of the two-headed variety (their father being their mother’s brother) but we will love them.
Churchill and Hornblower have seen strange things on my travels and a litter of peculiar puppies will not worry them. My Khmers have seen such a variety of illegitimate beasts that I am sure that such animals would surprise less than a cream-coloured double decked bus in downtown Bogota.
So where was I? It all comes back to me now. I left you on a lonely piece of road outside Muong Russey. After the devastating accident with the lychee seller I was carried on a stretcher of palm fronds and bamboo to the local clinic. The doctor, a spectacled sprig of a man, looked at me and nodded nervously.
”Lady of notable beauty,” he said to Srairobohknom ”I fear the wounds of your Lok Songha might be mortal. You must take him to the provincial hospital in Pursat.”
I remember little of the three-day journey to the provincial capital of Pursat. I took a litany of different transportation including but not limited to; an orange Daelim driven by a leering buffoon named Nitwit, a donkey named Boris from Lyon, and finally an incontinent elephant named, it appeared although I could be mistaken, Cryril, who showered the road, and those on it I might add, with shit as he trundled on his way.
When I arrived at Pursat I was in something of a state. My wounds were infected and several rotten lychees had lodged themselves in my solar plexus. My memory of events is blurred but Srairobohknom assures me I was not myself. Apparently, gripped by a monumental fever, I arrived at the hospital, ripped off my clothes, and ran naked through the hospital bellowing. I then proceeded to the gardens where I climbed a tree and tried to teach ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ to some bemused monkeys. I did sing in a pleasing tenor (worth of Placido or Pavarotti) so it wasn’t all for naught.
Eventually a naked Srairobohknom and several doctors coaxed me down from my perch. I was placed in a private room and told of my predicament. I was very ill. Furthermore my situation was precarious as my private doctors from Harley Street were not available. Aware of the awful devastation in Darfur I had sent them there to help in my Silver Shadow three months before. My grandmother, an absolute dream with a scalpel, was an attractive widower and an incorrigible flirt. Apparently she was not available either, she was romancing a young poet in Oslo. I had it on reliable sources that she had been seen cavorting in a barrel of herring. I decided to ride out the storm. I asked my doctor to prepare a drip of morphine and sugar cane juice. I would combine Western and Eastern medicine and battle this bastard of an infection.
Then came the dreams. They appear washed in a coating of coconut juice.
In one I was chased by foul smelling Durian fruit through the temples of Angkor, I reach Ta Prohm and am given shelter by a monk. He shaves my head and I wear an orange robe for a time. We discuss the great differences between Eastern and Western religion. I don’t comprehend how they can co-exist in the same country. Then the calm is exploded as I am attacked by a group of twenty young missionaries from California. They sing ridiculous songs and enquire as to my relationship with Jesus. I realise they mistake me with the Khmer such is my tan and orange robe. I continue running and as we hurtle through the mythic temples the missionaries turn into peculiar three headed turnip dogs. I am bemused.
In another the beauty of a young Khmer singer named Resrai Setea haunts me. She sings stunning songs by a fresh flowing river and is then taken away by men in black who execute her with an ax. Her voice stays with me for a time and I am heard, from my bed, to be singing her melodies.
A young lad named Crispen on a small pink pony visits me in another. He tells me that the capital is awash with nylon wearing old men who seek the company of young ladies. Furthermore, people have started to worship land cruisers in a bizarre ‘manlovesmachine’ religious cult.
A slightly older lady of antipodean persuasion visits me. Our conversations have been limited in the past but she always appeared pleasant. She tells me that she has been banned from visiting the princely palaces of Phnom Penh for an illusion. However, her different manner and language have prevented her from explaining her case. She is sad and angry. I offer her four toffees and a jam sandwich and she appears somewhat happier.
In the last a wise young Khmer with a cheeky grin arrives at my bedside. He reminds me of the beauty of my house in the provinces, the greens of the fields there and the obstinate peculiarities of both my own character and that of those I work. ”You do not need the city and the doctors therein,” he says quietly. He then turns into a rabbit with golden fur and bounces boisterously out of the room.
I awoke after that last dream with my health returned. It is for these reasons that I returned to my house in the provinces. As of yet, I have no reason to return to the capital. My dogs will fornicate but if that is nature’s will, then who am I to challenge it?