My Unusual Relationship with the Cambodian Crocodile LadySeptember 12, 2013
We’ve all got to take time out once in a while to relax and unwind, right? Stress relief can be multifaceted, taking the form of sports, fine wine, cigars, rub n’ tugs or having needles stuck into
the spine by a Chinese ‘healer’.
Personally I thrive on a bit of stress, but when the caffeine rush is too much and the daily grind seems to be mincing me into a steak hache, there’s a family I go to visit with an unusual garden stuffed to the brim with eocene epochreptilians, which I quite enjoy hitting with a stick.
My first encounter with the farm and the Crocodile Lady was when I first visited Battambang as one of those tourists. After doing the tourist things and getting tired of tuk-tuk drivers, I rented a Honda Dream and pootled about the countryside with the wide-eyed enthusiasm that can only be experienced by a naïve newcomer before the essential survival skill of healthy cynicism is honed.
I could smell the beasts as I pulled up to the gates. I’d arrived in the right place, a hand-painted sign advertising CROCODILFaRM told me so. I was greeted by a nice lady, swollen in stomach, with a beautiful, if somewhat scraggly, almond-eyed daughter aged about 3 or 4.
Crocodile Lady speaks pretty good English, explaining a little about the monster crocs as we had a walk around the open pits. Guard rails at the farm are seriously limited – health and safety officials would have a fit if they saw the 5 foot drop down into a pit of scales, tails and ready-to-rip-limbs-off jaws, though they could just be pushed in should they moan too much.
I was lucky, it was feeding day, the stench of a ton and half of festering fish heads wafted from the concrete pits, causing a bit of a furor just a short drop down. I took some holiday snaps, held the baby and was charged more than the advertised price.
‘But it says it’s 1 dollar’.
‘Oh that old, now make new price, because I no own crocodiles and have to give money from tourist to owner’
I said my goodbyes and promised to visit again sometime soon, as you do with all these places when on the backpacker conveyor belt circuit. Not so long later I found myself back in Battambang, only this time on a six-month contact as a TEFL serf in another Lidl of Learning Academy.
I went back to the CrocodilFaRm to reacquaint myself with Croc Lady. She remembered me, and was a lot less fat, now, her latest baby having popped out and the infant in question was swinging in a hammock, slung inside a straw shack. Now she had two daughters, who both seem to share the same name, or one with the subtle difference of one vowel which bounces straight over my clumsy western head.
Pol, her poor farmer husband doesn’t speak English. His name, ‘same same Pol Pot, ha haha!’ makes his age is pretty easy to determine.
Shy and sinewy, his job is to feed the crocs and capture/kill them when needed (it is not unusual for a car full of Vietnamese-looking people to turn up and leave with a strapped-up two-metre crocodile hanging from the boot). He’s pretty handy with a knife too. They are poor family eeking out an existence on borrowed land: crocodile caretakers.
‘You are alone in Cambodia?’ Croc Lady asked. ‘Then I will be your friend, because you have no friends or family Cambodia’.
As Rick remarked to Captain Renault, this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Away from the croc pits, the family keeps a little farm, where dozens of chickens and ducks scurry about, pecking in the mud. The ducks looked particularly fat and delicious, so I asked her to sell one or two for my upcoming birthday. Duck comfit was still a fresh memory.
‘Oh your birthday?’ She asked, excitedly. ‘You come here, we have party!’
My polite protestations were brushed aside.
‘One duck or two duck?…… One duck seven dollar’.
My birthday arrived and I managed to rope in a passing German lesbian to be my white guest. The event took place at a neighboring family’s hovel, for reasons unknown, although I suspect because they had a sound-system on a handcart. Granny, Grandpa, more kids than you could shake a shitty stick at, and a score of other Khmers I’d never met before wished me happy birthday, before requesting some cash to buy some beer.
‘Pedro’ said Croc Lady, after the introductions ‘What time you go home?’
The one duck pre-ordered and slaughtered had multiplied into two, because ‘Maybe one not enough’. Any preconceived notions of succulent duck breast served avec sauce l’orange evaporated as I saw both featherless fully headed and footed carcasses bubbling away in a pot of Coca-Cola.
Beers were drunk and music was played. Shaggy’s seminal masterpiece ‘Mr Boombastic’ was on the playlist and repeated several times, as was a bit of Dutch Neo-Nazi Gabba Hardcore.
More beer was bought by me and was quickly drunk before a birthday cake was produced, with my name and the wrong date iced on top.
‘Happy Birthday’ was sung before the cake was slapped into everyone’s faces. Then it was time to pay and go home. For 3 days after I had the worst stomach cramps and a hideous case of the squits.
My friendship with the family continued. I take tourists to gawp at the creatures, hold the babies and make sure they know to give the money. Money is lent to Croc Lady, for medicine, for school and so on, and not paid back. But nevertheless this isn’t a simple one way relationship, Croc Lady is always happy to help me out in her own way.
Take the eggs. Not the foetus laden fruit of hens fannies, but remnants of an era a couple of hundred million years before the chicken and the egg was even a philosophical question.
Every hot season the crocs mate in a violence of thrashing and the mums-to-be dig nests in special areas connected to the pit. The crocs are driven away, as they are fond of guarding their future offspring, and the eggs collected and taken to a special shed.
‘I have present for you,’ said Croc Lady and produced a bag of gert white eggs. Crocodile eggs, obviously.
Has anyone tried these disgusting aberrations? Imagine if all the jism was scraped off the set of a well-staffed Japanese Bukkake movie and slopped into a shell with a ball of mud, then that would be a similar taste and texture to crocodile egg. The white won’t cook, no matter how long you boil/fry/poach the sputum like jelly, and the yolk tastes like it was scooped from the depths of the murky Sangker river.
‘You try egg?’ she asked.
‘Yes, it was horrible’ I replied. She laughed.
‘You like to eat?’ said I.
‘’Oh no!’ she grinned. ‘Taste not good!’ And this is from a family who consider chicken entrails a protein-filled treat.
Fruit comes in seasonal abundance – free mango and banana. I get occasional dawn wake up calls to inform me her husband has ‘catch big fish’ which cost me a couple of dollars and I end up with a 3kg snakehead fish which I pretend to ‘have catch myself’ to impress backpackers.
Pick you own poultry is also another way we meet up. I choose a feathered friend for a BBQ and wait around as husband catches, slits and plucks, as both daughters sit about watching in awe and playing with the warm giblets.These kids play about with baby crocs the way western kids accidentally ‘love pet’ hamsters to death. The price of fresh fowl goes up and down depending on the stock market-like elaborate system of sickness, school fees and upcoming ceremonies.
Last Christmas I bought three geese. The family came over to my house on a little outing. The girls sat on the ground, mesmerized as dad went to work with the razorblade. The other two were given a reprieve and sent to live on the croc Farm. Sometime in January I got a call.
‘Hello Pedro. You want buy gooses?’
I pointed out that trying to sell me my own livestock which I actually wanted to eat, but she hadn’t let me…..well, this possibly wasn’t the best way to cajole a few dollars out my pocket.
“Ha ha Pedro!….. You want to buy or no?’
‘When you get married Pedro?’
‘You are nice boy, but like drink beer too much’
‘Haha you have many girlfriend, I know’.
And like many Khmer women, she likes to hit me.
Although landless and essentially poor, it has been interesting to watch how the base level of Cambodian society can rise up the economic ladder, with a little frugality. When I first met Croc Lady the family had a cow and a bicycle. The cow got pregnant and the calf was sold. The cow was sold and a new cow bought. Cow #2 got impregnated and was traded as a job lot for an old Honda Dream so there were no more bicycles. A few weeks ago the old Honda Dream was replaced by a brand new Honda Dream with less than 100km on the clock.
So a standard Barang/Khmer friendship, my cynical readers may perhaps say, but don’t forget the crocodiles.
Any time I’m in the mood, I can saunter on in, pick up a bamboo pole and antagonize the green scaly mo’fos. Don’t worry, they are heavily armour plated, and don’t feel much in the way of pain – just annoyance, and to hear one snap after being poked repetitively is shit scaringly badass. Not many white folk get to beat giant reptilians with impunity (at least not in this town).
Besides the amusement factor, it’s comforting to know that should ever a situation arise involving say, a dead backpacker in a bathtub, or something just as embarrassing, there’s a hell of a lot of hungry crocs down there. Move over Bricktop, pig farms are for amateurs.