As my first month in Cambodia came to a close I had finally lined up some English-teaching hours at one university spread across three campuses along with a weekend Masters’ course at another university. Just before I started, however, I needed to make a visa run to get a Business visa.
This necessitated an uneventful trip to Siem Riep in a local coach which, after my recent adventures travelling on bus rooves and peering over deep gorges in Nepal, seemed a bit soft. So, for the final leg to Poipet I decided on the hard-core option.
‘How many people can you fit in the back of a pick-up?’ ‘One more.’ Seven hours in the back of a pick-up truck across some of the worst roads on the planet is a travelling experience like no other. With rice sacks and chickens crammed in the middle the passengers are crushed onto thin metal benches along the perimeter, cutting off blood to the legs, pummelling the buttocks and crushing the nuts.
I was badly burnt by the mid-day sun (note to self: get a silly hat and krama – headscarf for the return journey). I was covered in black soot and red dust and was seriously minging (I loved the looks I was getting from the fastidious and snobby Thais).
With everyone (twenty-two bodies in all) packed together like sardines when we set off I initially found myself hemmed in by the ladies – mostly breast-feeding mothers. After the first pee stop they switched with the kids so they could have a turn nuzzling up to the barang.
After them it was the turn of the blokes. Now really, I don’t mind chumming up to strange guys; why should I mind if three men have their hands on my lap, round my waist and touching my bum – after all I don’t fight off the ladies so why discriminate?
My concern was that I was being set up but I soon realised that my paranoia was misplaced and that the local peasantry had simply accepted me as an alright (if mute) barang not screwed up with weird western notions of personal space.
As the road deteriorated it also became clearly apparent that the reason a truck-full of strangers had their hands on each others’ crotches was simply to prevent them falling out when we’d hit a particularly jarring pot-hole. I’ve said before and I must reiterate – Khmer people are seriously bonkers, but there is a reason for all modes of behaviour and you learn nothing about that sitting in a VIP luxury coach.
You do get to sit around for hours when a bridge is down (we just plunged into the river) and you do get to sit around for hours at the series of restaurants in on the scams followed by guest-house stitch-ups but that’s not a fair representation of Cambodia.
Why do people come to a country and pay big money to avoid meeting the real people, see how they live and move, join in with their lives (at least to the extent of having their knees crushed by rice sacks and ankles nibbled by their chickens)? Admittedly my broken buttocks have an answer but surely a little masochism is in order to truly experience a way of life.
For the return journey from the lovely Poipet, I was not allowed on a pick-up truck ‘for my own safety’, but I could take a scam bus or a taxi. I got a moto to take me past the police checkpoint then flagged down the pick-up and jumped aboard. This time I had a hat and, much to the bemusement of the locals, had padded my pants.
After about three weeks of daily pilgrimage to my favourite hostess bar, it was indicated to me that someone who’d heard reports about me badly wanted to meet me. This was the manageress/cashier who finished work at 9 pm, thus had never been present when I rocked up.
I should point out that the bar was also a guesthouse (although the rooms were mostly for short-term evening use) so she started work at 9 am. I dropped by about 2 pm one day and we really hit it off. She was very petite and thin, spoke English superbly, was cute and extremely funny.
And so it was that on my return to Phnom Penh I moved out of my guest house and into a brothel. Well okay; it was that hostess bar.
I appreciate that might not sound like the most obvious method of avoiding women but bear with me: women from outside couldn’t come in with me and the working women there would leave me alone; they knew me and they knew I didn’t go with anyone (at the time I hadn’t quite noticed the extraordinary turnover of hostesses and how every hostess bar in town had an ex-hostess from that bar).
Besides they wouldn’t approach me because they all knew the cashier working there was sweet on me and the girls had a code of ethics about these things, and for my part I wouldn’t want to do anything to upset her because I did actually really like her.
I should perhaps clarify a certain area here: in most bars and hospitality establishments there are female staff who are frankly hookers and those who aren’t as such but are open to suggestion if you will, but every place has one girl, usually a cashier who is out of bounds.
Some have long miserable faces (can’t blame them at all for that) and others are personable and charming but have very strict self-imposed boundaries. This one was twenty-nine, had never had a boyfriend, never gone out with a customer, had seen ‘em all come and go but was evidently making up her mind about me, much to the consternation of a lot of regular customers who had tried and failed over the years.
I really liked the girl in my non-hostess sanctuary, but she’d been instructed by the boss’ wife not to talk to me on account of me being a ‘bad customer’ – i.e. not buying enough beer, whereas this girl was great fun to talk to.
Having grown weary of conversations with hostesses by this point, I was quite smitten and rather rapidly found myself endeavouring to try to ‘prove’ myself to her; if she was waiting for the right respectable guy, I would be that guy.