I hit the street with an uncertain stride, endeavoring earnestly to be both confident and casual, as if I wasn’t the same sad wreck of a man who’d been so boldly abused aboard an airliner that day. I believe I’d taken such a beating I’d about blacked out and so I never even knew the names of my attackers. EVA someone? Or maybe Boeing something? No matter now. I could hardly walk, breathe, puke or talk that afternoon; and here I was under cover of darkness, acting as if I was just taking it all in, like some fresh faced truant with twenty-one candles on his cake, young and unblooded, the type who prefers the title of Traveler to tourist. That is a tender sort of terminology that in Cambodia typically translates to “traipsing through on my way to Thailand.”
Tuk-tuk! Moto! Tuk-tuk, sir! Sir, moto! Motobike! Tuk-tuk! Moto, where you go to? Tuk-tuk! You like smoke? Boom-boom, nice girl yes? The clamorous chatter of Phnom Penh took aim at me and fired away, and I found myself forced to break character, to hesitate, to pause on the sidewalk twenty feet from my hotel, to lapse into confusion … to stop, and in so stopping, I signaled, both individually and severally, to each and every tuk-tuk and tout within eyesight and earshot, that I was really terribly f*cking new in town. A mob of them approached me, eager to see which of their offers it was that had managed to seduce me. Was it tuk-tuk? Or was it moto? Moto? Or tuk-tuk? Could it possibly even have been motobike? Perhaps, one of them had reasoned, I might not understand what “moto” meant without the “bike,” thus affording him a crucial advantage. Or did I like some special smoke? Did I want to get a f*ck? No, but suddenly I did need a f*cking drink and I’d only been awake for fifteen minutes.
I compounded my errors by smiling and offering a polite “No, Thank You” to each and every one of them, obliging them by dutifully answering every query within their inquiry. My hotel? Right there. How long I stay? Maybe a year, maybe not, who knows. What I do? Teacher. They knew that though. They had to. I’d been in-country for less than twelve hours and I had already made a gang of new friends, all locals, all wanting to show me a good time. Fortunately, I’m not quite as stupid as I must have appeared to be in that moment and I wasn’t inclined to indulge in the illicit delights they had on offer. Before I came to Cambodia I thought I knew a thing or two about poverty, but instantly, it was clear to me, that despite all the sad indignities that in the past I’d seen, there was so much more to see.
I reeled and turned and wheeled and pivoted and power-walked my way down the block, making a clumsy get away. Nothing was familiar. The signs written in English screamed meaningfully at me but the visual babble of the confounding Khmer alphabet provided fierce competition, the familiar fighting for my focus with the foreign. Eight thousand four hundred and sixteen miles away, cozy in a bookcase that was now ensconced within my Mother’s much too spacious home, seated upon frozen tundra and in the midst of frosty temperatures that were only held at bay by the heroism of a vigilantly burning furnace, sat a book that purported to explain the Khmer system of writing. I believe it was written in the 1960s by somebody from Yale. It was the only one of its sort that I could locate, but I found the English explanations almost as alien and indecipherable as the Khmer language itself, so it didn’t get pride of place inside my luggage. It would have been no more wise to walk around the streets of Phnom Penh with it as wandering about in my winter coat would be, just an unnecessary assumption of a strange and useless burden. Still, in those first few minutes of freedom, I longed for some point of reference, and I briefly regretted abandoning that book no matter how unutterably incomprehensible it had proven to be.
After walking for an entirely epic journey of half a block, still a little stunned by my surroundings, I saw a sign I understood and it said “The Empire.” Inside was a quiet little bar with a blue-lit interior, some smiling Khmer, and three white men, one behind the bar and two seated at it. They were the first “Westerners” (a wonderfully vague euphemism) that I had consciously concentrated upon in Cambodia, given my debilitating post-flight fugue state that day.
I sat down next to one of the White Guys at the bar and nodded hello. Small talk was made up of telling our tales in brief as beers were bought and before too long I knew that the guy who sat next to me was a Polish kick-boxer, leaving Cambodia quite soon, just as I was arriving, a matter of hours and we’d never have met at all.
The other White Guy, behind the bar, the proprietor, was a very congenial fellow, he told me all about the movie house soon to be opening just upstairs, but I only vaguely understood the history and pedigree of the project. The third White Guy had slipped over to the sink to help with the dishes, but it was gently suggested that he cease and desist his assistance after the breaking of a third glass, his ambition to render aid thwarted by an evening’s worth of alcohol.
My first and so far only Polish pal and I exited The Empire as it was closing, and with the bells at midnight tolling, it seemed that as unlucky as the Ides were for the Imperator, as a day it was nothing more to me than the founding of my haphazard foray into life lived the Khmer way. Off we went, two more White Guys in a city that I’d soon realize was totally awash with them. With us. With outsiders and expats. With heathens and with martyrs. Do-gooders and dead-enders. The old adventurers and the young pioneers.
Every step was now effortless as could be, because I had a guide, however temporary. As we wandered, he confided to me, conspiratorially, about places of some notoriety, that were always open late and would always serve a drink.
“We should go and have a look!”
“What harm’s a look?”
More than you think.
Ned is on twitter as @NedKelly