I first met Wayne while teaching English in Taipei. He was an enormous, aggressive Canadian from Vancouver; easily 130 kilos, strong as a bull, quick tempered and not a little violent. Wayne also struggled with a paranoid angst common to many North American males. That, along with his sheer bulk made him a dangerous adversary for any foolish enough to cross him and few did.
To many people, including I must admit myself, the first superficial impression was of a dumb brute; a moronic knuckle dragging bruiser, used to solving problems with his fists and barely able to string a sentence together.
I was quite wrong; his hulkish appearance masked an unusual intelligence matched only by a sharp wit and a rare self deprecating honesty that could disarm the most pompous of company.
We quickly became friends and in the preppy college grad atmosphere that made for the Taipei hostel and the English teaching milieu of Taiwan, his friendship was a breath of fresh air.
We had one thing in common, both of us had spent time in and fallen in love with the wild, wonderfully licentious world that was 1996 Phnom Penh; it was an experience that changed our lives and many years later we both continue to live here.
Concrete and Tarmac: Industrial Taipei, with its McDonalds full of sleeping students and 7-11s on every street corner, its five lane dual carriage ways teeming with traffic, its dirty broken sidewalks, overpasses and subways teeming with busy ant-like people; its cramped windowless dormitory hostels, the lobby whiteboards full of ‘American teacher’ ads. Not forgetting its teaching agencies and English classes in high rise serviced apartments, bursting with over indulged fat Chinese kids.
All this was a world away from the whirlwind of post war Phnom Penh with its rutted neglected streets and exhausted poverty stricken populace. With its guns and heavy metal, the wooden pink shop brothels with their plastic chairs and lace curtains, the hookers (taxi- girls in the local parlance) faces caked in zinc white paste, standing on the sides of the roads calling to customers, the hazy marijuana filled evenings with us drinking Mekong whisky and listening to the adventures of the scores of drifters, crazies and assorted losers who were continually rolling in and out of town. This unlimited indulgence and constant trouble became our life in this small, rutted end of the world city beside the Mekong.
Wayne was heading back to the USA to complete his degree; I was saving to return to Phnom Penh and the heady, dangerous madness we both missed so much.
To us, who had spent time in that edge of the world city, the safe smugness of Taipei expat life was suffocating and dull. We had nothing but contempt for the middle class college kids that filled our Taipei hostel. Their self congratulatory pseudo-intellectualism had nothing to teach us, and to them, we, with our nihilistic tales of lawlessness, prostitutes, guns and drugs were corrupted and seedy. We hung out and our friendship grew until we went our ways, he back to drive a Vancouver taxi, me back to Phnom Penh carrying hopes and dreams settling down.
It was years later, that he found me again, now with a wife, Sokha, and a son, Sokheng, and running a bar, The Peace Cafe, in the backpacker area of the city, Boeng Kak Lake.
He was on his holidays;loaded with American dollars, and was determined to spend his fortnight recreating the party vibe he missed so much.
He would come into the bar with two different taxi girls on each arm every night, try to persuade them to indulge his fantasies of lesbian porno sex and inevitably dump them in frustration only to repeat the performance the next night; and then he went to Kompong Som, Cambodia’s gritty beach resort, and things fell apart.
He met a Vietnamese prostitute, decided that he’d fallen in love and duly lost his mind to her.
He determined to take her back to the states, drop his degree and settle down with his new soul mate, a Vietnamese sex worker. Every one told him he was crazy, that this was an old story that never works out, that he should know better; but he refused to listen, and commenced upon the difficult, some would say nay impossible, task of marrying her and taking her home to meet his mother.
Marriage in Cambodia requires an AIDS test, and he and his new fiance made the appointment with Dr Gavin Scott, who serves as the city’s expert in Sexually Transmitted Infections. An AIDS test, then, took 3 days to process and a guileless Wayne phoned 72 hours later sitting with his fiance who was nursing a coffee in a local cafe.
”Are you sure you want the results over the phone?” asked Scott.
”Yes, yes,” replied Wayne, impatient to get back to his new love
”You’re negative, she’s not,” came Scott?s cold reply.
Devastation, she had HIV! Returning to the table he couldn’t look her in the face, could hardly talk to her, and of course she had guessed that something was very badly wrong. That evening in a hotel room in Kompong Som, he told her the news; that the dream he had waved in front of her face, the dream of Canada and a new life, of a husband and family and an escape from the life of a Vietnamese taxi girl, was impossible and that he had to leave her.
And of course, he did. He gave her some cash and kissed her goodbye and left.
He later told me that he felt he had offered her heaven and instead dropped her in hell. Later that night he came into the Peace Caf? in a dark and dangerous mood and proceeded to drink himself into a grim stupor of self pity
Halfway through this blinding bender his grim mood had managed to empty the bar of every each and every soul, save myself and my wife and we were eyeing each other warily.
By pure bad luck into this utterly black atmosphere walked Craig, a laid back Australian teacher of English, who had recently settled in Phnom Penh with his beautiful South African girlfriend Sonia. Not realizing the powder keg that was burning next to him, Craig joined Wayne on his bender, throwing back rusty nails, a potent whisky cocktail of Scotch and Drambuie.
Within a couple of hours both were completely smashed, slumped against the bar and slurring their words.
And then it blew, for some reason, no reason at all to be true, Craig said something to offend Wayne and All 130 kilos of him exploded.
Throwing a $50.00 bill over the bar, he stormed out sobbing uncontrollably leaving Craig to stare mute and unaware of Wayne’s story.
I followed him outside and seeing the state he was in, suggested that we find a bar somewhere to sit down and talk.
So, jumping on our bikes, we drove down the road in search of a bar, him still sobbing like a baby. And then, he wasn’t there any more, he’d vanished.
Turning back I drove back to the bar only to find a bloodied Craig on the floor nursing a broken tooth and a black eye, drunkenly repeating ”Why? Why?”
In my absence, Wayne had returned to the Peace Cafe and finding Craig there, had taken his rage out on him right there in front of Sonia and my wife Sokha.
Craig was baffled; he’d just been beaten up and had no idea why.
His bewilderment quickly turned to anger and he then demanded and deserved an explanation. We decided to call the cops.
In Cambodia you don?t call 999 or 911; you can’t simply call the police. You get nothing for nothing and here relationships are important. Therefore, you call YOUR police, people you have known and dealt with over years. So I called Narin, my Military Policeman friend, and briefly explained the story.
Ten minutes later two MPs, armed with folding machine guns and in full military attire, had roared up to the bar and it had been decided, for a price, to find Wayne.Now, Wayne was staying in a hotel somewhere in the city but which one? Nobody knew where to find him. Then I had an idea.
I remembered that one of the ‘taxi girls’ hookers he had brought to the bar liked to play pool in the Walkabout Hotel, an industrial 24 hour Aussie bar on Rue Pasteur ,the late night bar street in the heart of the city.
So, Military Police in tow, we turned up at the Walkabout and, sure enough, there she was, Srey Mom, nicknamed not entirely imaginatively ? big tits,? a former flower seller who was now selling more than flowers for a living.
Loyalties in Phnom Penh rarely run too deep and at the sight of a 10 dollar bill she happily agreed to play Judas and duly took us to Craig’s hotel supplying us with the hotel room number into the bargain.
So, here we were, myself, two armed military police and Craig standing in the hall outside room number 23 of the Singapore Hotel, with a blissfully ignorant Wayne sleeping inside.
I told the MP?s to wait in the hall and knocked on the door.Inside the sound of shuffling feet and a heavily hung over Wayne lumbered to the door in his underwear.
”You’d better come in,” he sighed, seeing only me, and waving for me to enter.
I quietly closed the door behind me and sat on the bed. On hearing that there were two Military Policemen outside, he buried his hands in his head and cried, ”Oh God,” and his huge frame shook with sobs. ”What are you gonna do.”
The truth is I had absolutely no idea; I was full of righteous anger that this holiday maker, friend or not, could hurt my friend in my bar in front of my wife, but now that I was sitting there in that hotel room I was suddenly at a loss .
Craig was summoned inside to confront Wayne and get an explanation, all he really wanted anyway, and Wayne, suitably humbled, agreed to pay off the cops and apologize to my wife in the morning.
And , true to form, he arrived at the Peace the next day on his hands and knees, reading a hastily written phonetic note of apology to my wife, Sokha, ”Get up Wayne,” she smiled. ”You’re my big brother.”
Little did any of us know, the next time he returned to Phnom Penh everything would be different.