Pedro heads into the dark underbelly of the nocturnal expat scene and chances upon a weirdly addictive computer fish game
Addiction is a right can of worms. Late last year, in a BBC Newsnight debate, the less cool, God bothering brother of the late Christopher Hitchens, Peter, caused quite a storm when debating the very existence of addiction with that bloke that used to appear on TV’s Friends (still available to watch in almost every backpacker orientated bar in the Laos People’s Democratic Republic, should you have perchance missed The One Where Rachael Gets DP’d by Ross and Joey). Check it out here
Whether “Addiction” really a wooly liberal myth, propagated by the weak willed, or a hard, cold turkey fact, Cambodia remains one of those places where it’s possible to get your rocks off on any number of poisons. Where else, bar the 1950s, can one get drunk as a lord and smoke oneself to early emphysema on $10, and still have some small change to give to a beggar? Sure you have to pick your locales, but with happy hour prices on a beer being as low as 35c in off-season Siem Reap and 50c all day in many establishments, the maths stands up to scrutiny.
Those with the carnal cravings of Michael Douglas (yet lacking the Academy Awards, multi-million Dollar bank balance and Catherine Zeta-Jones warming the sheets) can satiate such desires, funded by a modest western pension or UK disability benefits. And it’s not just dirty- dog whitey with a packet of Khemagra; most of the Cambodian sex trade takes place in beer gardens, KTVs and squalid huts outside depressing ghetto towns that nobody’s heard of: local places for local people.
Good old cannabis indica comes on pizzas and in fruit shakes, and cheap Indian pharmaceuticals can be purchased – no questions asked – from anywhere stocking aspirin and for less than the price of a beer. High quality, Golden Triangle produced “horse” is touted fairly openly by tuk-tuk drivers who have all the moral scruples of a rabid weasel. And of course nowhere in Asia is safe from that oriental stimulant of choice, and scourge of white trash worldwide – crystal methamphetamine, or ice.
Visiting rollers can get their fix at numerous border casinos, strange no-man’s-lands between countries where, nominally, such games are illegal. Unofficially the locals will bet on almost anything – cards, Thai boxing, cock fighting and which cockroach will climb up a wall quickest. Up in Battambang a whole underground industry is thriving on big money bets making wagers on what time it’s going to rain.
Booze, tobacco, hookers, drugs, gambling – Cambodia’s got it all to enjoy for locals and foreigners alike. But, before prospective visitors start to wring their clammy, pallid palms together – be aware that unlike alcohol and tobacco, the last three are strictly illegal for natives and foreigners (gambling outside casinos for non-Khmers), and feeding those demons could land any feckless fool a free stay in the Phnom Penh Hilton, Prey Sar – pray you don’t go there.
The brave upholders of law and order will pick up a whitey (or an African or Vietnamese), along with a local or 6 almost weekly for being naughty with drugs, and occasionally a four-star general gets nabbed with a kilo or 2 of high grade something. Brothels get raided every now and again, mostly when the generals are engaged elsewhere and groups of Chinese get pulled in for running gambling rackets.
Addicts ultimately mean money to suppliers, lots of lovely money, and one thing that many of the more ahem, connected, Cambodians love is money. Face the facts – a cop’s wage will not a Lexus buy.
(Golden Soriya courtesy of Stickman Bangkok)
Luckily there is a one stop shop for all vices to suit all prices in the heart of Phnom Penh – a church of the unholy, open to sinners 24/7, where the dregs of humanity gather in congregation beneath the steel roof. Yup, Golden Sorya Mall – the meeting point of life’s winners.
I freely admit to visiting GSM whenever I’m in town, unlike other expats who will slate and slander, only to be caught in Gpub at 6am, with all the feeble excuses of an evangelical pastor busted, pants down in a whorehouse. If nothing else, a short trip makes me feel slightly better about myself; call it mall therapy.
Something else has been afoot lately, a new craze which has hooked the hookers, who seem to be spending less time wandering between tables propositioning overweight rowdy Australians. Less attention is being paid to the skinny white junkies, who should, by rights, be a meal ticket for the next high. Instead, these ladies of the Mall and ne’er-do-well Khmer gentlemen seem to prefer spending time and cash cramped in sweaty rooms in the bowels of GSM.
I’ve seen them, whilst wandering off for a piss, mesmerized by the score with some sort of flashy light table, and shrugged it off as one of those crazy things that Asians do, like karaoke and mass calisthenics. I never liked arcades, and computer games piss me off to the point of smashing them (though I am recovering Candy Crush Saga user- not logged in for 63 days, 14 hours……).
Then I heard these tables have a name with a rep more addictive than crack, more brain damaging than ice and as financially draining as both, and out on the streets they call it Fish Game.
I had a go, albeit a confused one, when it first hit the mall, after a girl gave me a few silver tokens. After tapping few buttons, I got a headache and left. Fortunate not to have got hooked on my first try, I stayed away from Fish Game, and those who use Fish Game.
It took the banality of a Sunday morning conversation with my fellow country folk (who had been awake all night while I’d had a good kip) to find something to escape their mental prattling. Through their thick regional accents, impeded by beer and hillbilly crank, they were complaining at length about Fish Game, how all the girls were tapping them for change and running off to blow it all at the table, only to return begging for a few more Riel.
Apparently money changes hands – a great deal of money – inside these seedy chambers and, by a quick glance of the clientele, it can be safely assumed that other nefarious activities were also being engaged in.
I entered the smoky room searching for a friendly face. A kindly member of the world’s oldest professions waved me over. For the price of 6000KHR ($1.50), she agreed to be my guide into the mysterious underwater underworld of Fish Game. The cash was handed over to a circling fat woman, who took out a key and turned it at our spot on the table. Three other players were already midgame, acknowledging nothing else, transfixed by the bright pixilated fish, turtles and conga eels swimming around in the digital water.
My new friend was remarkably dexterous with the joystick, allowing me the job of button tapper. 30 seconds or so later, I was banished from my post, just as the first epileptic seizure was about to kick in. The points went up as the underwater graphics got brighter and pulsating fish swam in an orgy of bullets and coins.
“How do you get the money?” I asked repeatedly, but the girl was in the zone, tapping, bashing and pulling. Five minutes later and coming down with a migraine, I was grateful when she finally broke off from the virtual ocean. She looked at the screen somehow doing a quick mathematical conversion from points to cash, “$7.50”- a profit of $6, for a few minutes: not bad.
The cash lady returned, used her key again and retrieved a large roll of cash, paying up after confirming the calculation. Happy to leave, I took my stake, plus a beer’s worth as extra and left my champion with $5, which promptly went back into Fish Game.
Fish Game is obviously a money spinner; no doubt I got ‘lucky’ on my first hit, and like a pub fruit machine, would have put that money back, lost, put in more, lost and so on, hooked on the chance of netting that ‘big payout’. The tactics are still a mystery; fire some bullets, which sometimes turn into nets, which sometimes hit a fish, which sometimes make points, thus money.
The legality of Fish Game dens is also uncertain. Casinos are strictly off limits to Cambodian nationals (in theory), and the local fuzz rocked up recently to give a not-so-friendly warning to some neighbors who were playing games of cards for cash too regularly.
With laws passed forbidding spit roast cows and the recent ban on shisha smoking, how long can these halls of Sodom and Gomorrah exist? A place where prostitutes (illegal) high on drugs (illegal) can gamble (illegal) more or less in public, well, in Golden Sorya Mall.
Personally I couldn’t give a dog’s dick about any of it, although quite a few sexpats would probably be relieved to find those ladies of loose moral fiber returning to toggle on a different kind of joystick. Here to stay, or a flash in the frying pan, Fish Game is sure to hit the news headlines soon, most likely as a social evil, an addiction corrupting the pure souls of Cambodians. Just say no, kids.
Top image courtesy of Cafe California Phnom Penh