I dragged my girl up to the lake one afternoon for breakfast. I don’t go there often, especially in the morning, but I had an inexplicable craving for museli, and I didn’t know where else to get a bowl but in the heart of Phnom Penh’s backpacker ghetto. There are times when I love to go to the lake. Sitting on one of the long wooden decks of a quiet guesthouse in the evening can give you a warm feeling of serenity. The sun sets over mouldering shacks; the sky glows red and orange; the water reflects the colours on a smooth surface covered with clumps of green vegetation; and the still, heavy air makes you feel more warm and relaxed than a bottle of wine.
Even when the guesthouse is full, the atmosphere can be vaguely attractive in a funny, freakish sort of way. There’s the Nigerian dude, huddled over a low table, rolling joints from a green heap of grass. There are the hammocks, swaying slowly out of rhythm, filled with bikini clad barang chicks with moist white rolls of flesh. And there are the locals, crowded around a noisy television, watching at the antics of transvestite comedians, who seem so relaxed that they’re just barely keeping themselves from nodding off.
The street itself isn’t quite so pleasant. There are tourist ghettos in almost every major city in Southeast Asia. Jakarta has its Jalan Jaksa, Saigon its Pham Ngu Lao, Bangkok its Thanon Khao San. But there’s nothing quite like Boeng Kak Lake. Rather than a place built for tourists, it looks like an authentically Third World dump hastily renovated for tourists. Restaurants serving bangers ‘n mash are housed in old shacks beside the cheapest taxi-girl digs in town. Shops selling the latest electronic music sit beside table stands piled high with pickled mangoes and fermented fish sauce. Travel agencies face narrow, rutted tracks that spew clouds of dust as battered motos zoom past. And the character of the place seems to attract highest proportion of freaks of any backpacker ghetto in Asia. The Khao San set of ‘normal’ backpackers, pink girls just out of school and scruffy dudes thinking about what kind of job they’ll take up when they go home, are almost outnumbered by the sullen amputees whispering, ”Smoke, man,” the flirting taxi-girls who look more hardened in the light of day than the dimness of Walkabout, and the barangs from all over the world who’ve settled into a narrow routine of budgeting to pay the two.
I sat down on the deck of one of the guesthouses, under the shade of an umbrella, and waited for ten minutes before a girl meandered over to take my order for a bowl of museli. I sunk down in the rattan seat, threw my arm over the back, and took in the view. Then over the sound of the techno music coming from a nearby guesthouse, I heard someone pacing over the wooden boards behind me. The noise of the heavy footsteps grew louder. I turned around to see a guy in his late thirties, wearing blue shorts, red rubber thongs, and white shirt unbuttoned to his naval, taking angry strides across the dock. His hands were clasped behind his back, forcing his fat gut covered with curly hair to bulge out of his shirt, and his face was cast downward in a scowl. He had a round face, freckled cheeks, sunburned nose, and a scraggly beard. Beads of sweat trickled down his bald head and collected on his wide, reddened brow.
After a few uncomfortable minutes, he disappeared into the back. But from then on, I began to notice him in other places. One night, I walked into the Heart with my girl, bought a tall bottle of Angkor, and weaved my way through the crowd to one of the small tables to the side of the dancefloor. There was the guy, in the middle of the floor, still wearing his open shirt, stained shorts, and rubber thongs. I felt a wave of annoyance surge up inside me. He was dancing, like a Whirling Dervish, with his head thrown back, his eyes pressed shut, and a look of ecstasy spread over his swollen face. This was a scene from a fullmoon party, a guy who looked like he’d dropped too many pills, capering about like an elf totally unaware of anything but the music in his head. Suddenly, he stopped in a dramatic pose, his arms flung out in front of him, knees bent, fingers pointing directly at my girl, face blank, eyes burning. Then he spun around with his eyes closed and started to dange again. I felt my girl’s hands gripping my arm, and I looked to see her face take on a quizzical expression. She turned to me and said, ”This is fucking crazy guy!” I led her slowly away from the table, when the guy had his back to us, and went another section of the bar. ”Something bad’s going to happen to this guy,” I thought. But I didn’t want to be the one to do it, not tonight.
A few days later, I sat at the little Vietnamese cafe at the end of the main street at the lake having a baguette and a coffee. I flicked through the pages of the Cambodia Daily, while listening to the conversations of the backpackers, and occasionally looked out into the bright, hot street to see the everyday freakshow.
From down towards Number Nine, I saw the bald dude climbing up the little hill with a huge black dog at the end of a leather leash wrapped tightly around his fist. He was dressed exactly as he had been before, except that now he carried a short cane. The sullen motos had learned long ago that it was useless to call him, and the backpackers knew enough to avert their eyes when he passes so as to avoid making contact. He waddled over the broken street, shoulders thrown back, chin in the air, with a look that made me expect to see him twirl the cane and laugh like some Dickensian villain. He seemed to have a bunch of different personalities.
There was a dirty old dog, with the flap of one ear raggedly ripped off and half the hair missing from its flank exposing a leathery grey hide, dozing under one of the tables in the cafe. When it caught site of the black dog, it jumped to its feet, raced across the room, and skidded to a halt at the threshold of the cafe, tail pointing in the air, ears perked up, head forward, eyes fixed. The man’s dog turned suddenly as it heard this other dog coming, let out a vicious barks through barred teeth, and almost jerked the leash from the guy’s hand. The man braced himself and yanked hard at the leash. The black dog’s head snapped back. The man let out an angry command, ”No!” Then he looked at the other dog as though offended. He shortened the lead on his dog by wrapping the leash around his hand several more times and took a step forward with an air of absurd self-importance. He pointed his cane at the other dog’s snout and bellowed, ”What the fuck are you doing, dog? Hmm! What are you looking at? What do you want? Fuck off, dog! Do you fucking hear me? Hmm! Fuck off!” The whole street was watching him. No one looked amused.
Then one day I rode up to the lake to see a friend who was renting a small apartment down one of the little sidestreets. I stopped when I saw a crowd of locals outside one of the shops. Something had just happened. I inched my bike closer and craned my neck to get a look. Then I saw the guy. The crowd parted to make way for him as he staggered out of the shop. He didn’t have the dog this time, but there was a squawking parrot perched on his shoulder. His white wifebeater shirt was stained red; his eyes were wide with shock; and he was breathing hard. There was an ugly gash above his left eye. Blood was trickling down his face. He looked dazed.
Then my friend was beside me. He’d been in the crowd and seen me watching. ”What the fuck happened,” I asked. The guy had wandered into one of the little shops and started shouting at an old man. Then two young guys appeared armed with hunks of wood. The guy was surprised by the onslaught, but he managed to get his arms up to protect his face from the blows, until he took a hit to the groin and doubled over. That was when one of the guys brought a stick down across the guy’s face. He hit the ground, knocked dizzy, and by the time he regained his feet, and was ready for a real fight, he was in the middle of a throng of local men. One of them had produced a machete. There’s something oddly disconcerting in a crowd threatening to hack you to pieces in a language only you can’t understand.