Cambodia Stories: The Knife, the Dummy, and the Little Cafe in PoipetApril 27, 2005
When my young Thai friend said she’d meet me in Cambodia for Khmer New Year, I promised to pick her up at Poipet. She had the impression that Cambodia was a ‘dangerous’ place, where they burn Thais on crosses made of debris from ravaged embassies, and she was eager to have someone she could trust waiting for her the moment she stepped across the border.
Asking her when she was set to arrive, I got the impression that she was deliberately underestimating the time it would take the bus to reach Aranyaprathet and for her to clear Customs and Immigration. But I was only slightly less worried, for her sake, of arriving late and so got an early start on my trip from Pursat that morning.
I rolled into Poipet around noon, pulled over to the side of the road, and sent off a message telling her that I was waiting. She replied that she’d be at least another hour and apologised for keeping me. I fired up my bike again and set off to find a place to while away the time.
Poipet deserves its reputation as the ‘armpit of Cambodia.’ Even for one who doesn?t have to walk the gauntlet of corrupt immigration officers, unrelenting touts, and hideously deformed child beggars on the way from Thailand, the city is nothing more than a bustling dustbowl of brothels, karaokes, massages, and casinos populated by an army of hustlers, pimps, and thieves.
I needed to find somewhere near the border so that once my friend arrived I’d be able to spot her. I drove straight in on the cracked dirt highway to the traffic circle that abuts the border. Weaving around fruit carts, tuk-tuks, and grizzled amputees hobbling on crutches, I spotted a little cafe right beside the path taken by anyone coming from Thailand.
A typical provincial cafe, there were dirty napkins strewn across the floor, black stains down the walls, and flies buzzing around the empty glasses left on the tables. A Khmer dressed in a shirt and tie, obviously a casino employee, was sitting alone at one of the only free tables. So I took a seat across from him and for the next half-hour listened to him talk about how lucky I was and how all foreigners are ‘rich.’
The hour I was supposed to wait turned into two. I slouched uncomfortably in a flimsy plastic chair. Sweat poured down my sunburned cheeks. Billows of dust poured in from the street and settled on the table. I sipped another iced coffee with too much condensed milk from a grimy glass.
I?ve passed through Poipet many times. There’s almost nowhere in Cambodia that really feels dangerous. But Poipet is one town that I’d not like to go for a stroll around late at night. It seems like a typical ‘frontier town,’ like Anlong Veng, with dusty streets, reeking markets, shabby buildings, and a scarcely concealed underbelly of crime. But the casinos, border crossing, and streams of backpackers give it an appearance of prosperity that makes it more of a ‘border town’ and that attracts the most desperate elements of Cambodian society.
I didn’t have to wait long to meet another character from this freak show. A tall, lean, hardened Khmer caught sight of me from the street and marched into the cafe. He was dressed in army gear, with tall black boots, cargo pants, and a jacket heavy enough to withstand a Russian winter. He was young, perhaps in his late twenties, but his skin was like darkened leather. His expression was severe, his eyes a little wild, and when he tried to speak he could only bark like a seal.
I sat up a little as he stormed to my table, rammed his hand into his pocket, and brought it out in the shape of a gun. With his index and middle fingers pointed at my forehead, he jerked his had back to imitate the recoil of a pistol while issuing savage seal-like shouts. The thought flashed through my mind that this was a retarded army impersonator trying to tell me to hand over my money in broad daylight.
He wheeled around, took two long strides toward my bike, and then crouched as he made snatching gestures with his hand. Just as suddenly, he was back at my table, looming over me, making the same gestures toward my dusty hat, glasses, and gloves. I glanced sidelong at the young waiter who was watching the scene from a safe distance with a nervous expression.
The dummy jerked his body upright, fired off a few more shots with his imaginary pistol, and then mimed kneeing someone in the face and bringing his elbow down on the back of his neck. Then he strode to the table, turned around, and lifted up the tail of his heavy jacket. Tucked into his belt was an eight-inch bowie knife. He pointed to me, then to himself, and then to my bike. I realised that I’d just found my own unsought mercenary bodyguard.
I almost never feel threatened when travelling in Cambodia. But there are times when something unexpected happens: shouting in a language you can barely understand, peaceful scenes erupting into senseless violence, throngs of armed police kicking down doors. You’re suddenly faced with the inexplicable, like a character in a Kafka novel, and you can only wait while feeling deeply unnerved to see how it all turns out.
The dummy stared at me with hard eyes and waited for my reaction. When I gave him a little bow and thanked him in Khmer, he nodded sharply, turned on his heels, and marched out of the cafe as quickly as he’d come. I looked at the waiter again with a mixture of bemusement and relief. He simply laughed and waved his hand.