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LIVE FROM SIEM REAP

‘I go with you,’ she said softly.

It wasn’t a question.

Midnight. Pub Street was silent. I was the only tragic in sight.

‘I love you,’ she said.

Obviously, the lines on Dogster’s face have disappeared. A miracle of time-travel must have occurred – he is suddenly handsome. The Dog had knocked back a dozen propositions from all three sexes since he arrived.

‘I love you too, sweetheart… but not in that special way.’

She grabbed my hand and pulled herself closer. Her breasts glistened with a thousand fake diamonds plastered across a fake Versace T-shirt. Perhaps her breasts were fake too, who knows? Certainly her sudden enthusiasm for the Dogster was manufactured in a sweat-shop in Taiwan.

‘I stay with you long time…’

‘No-o-o-ooo, darling, that’s not possible at all,’ I cooed smoothly, ‘but good luck for tonight…’

She laughed,  spotted a solitary backpacker, turned on her heel and made a bee-line for his grubby jeans.

‘I love you,’ she said, grabbing his bony arse.

Jilted.

*

‘You want a book?’

‘No-o-o-o-o-o-o,’ I smiled.

‘You want a book?’

‘No-o-o-o-o-o-o,’ I said gently.

‘What you from?’ the child asked.

I resisted a sigh. How many times a day had I been asked that question in the last six weeks?

‘Austra-a-a-lia…’

‘I know the population of Australia,’ he said. He wasn’t going to budge.

‘And what’s the population of Australia?’ I asked, sticking to the script. This was a little performance I had participated in many, many times.

‘Twenty-two million,’ he replied,

‘Very go-o-o-od,’ I said.

‘I know the population of everywhere…’

The little boy was about seven. I was about seven hundred. He pushed on with his spiel.

‘I know the population of Cambodia.’

Sigh.

‘And what’s the population of Cambodia?’ I said. This was like a little soft song.

‘Fifteen million.’

‘Very go-o-o-o-d,’ I said.

‘Do you want a book?’

‘No-o-o-o-o-o-o.’

‘Why not?

I can see we’ve moved into the next verse.

‘O-o-o-o-o-h, little sausage,’ I said and held one finger up to my lips, ‘sh-h-h-h-hhh.

I call all children ‘sausage’ – I don’t know why. The small ones I call ‘little sausage.’

‘No books for me, sausage…’

‘No book today?’

‘No-o-o-o-o-o-o.’

‘No book tomorrow?’

‘No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o.’

He sniffed and walked away.

*

‘Hello!’

He was very charming. He held out his arms. They had both been amputated just above the elbow.

‘I can see you have no arms. You don’t have to show me.’

He smiled broadly, nodding down at the tray of books strapped to his chest.

‘You buy book?’

‘I’ve been here many, many times,’ I said gently. ‘I’ve seen you before. You’ve seen me…’

‘Ahhh,’ he said and pretended to remember.

‘So good luck today, my friend,’ I replied, ‘nothing for me…’

I was wrong. He did have something for me. He held out his right arm. I shook his stump. That was a new experience.

*

‘You all alone…?’

‘I am free… it isn’t the same.’

‘You need a partner – you like big strong man? Lady-boy? Me?’

‘Where you from?’

‘How old you?’

‘First time in Cambodia?

They were always ‘practicing their English’, that all-purpose phrase that leads, inevitably, to a flutter-fest of mince, ponce and simper -  only these louche lotharios weren’t selling guidebooks. Perhaps it might be best not to sit outside the only gay bar in town.

*

Hotels, like people, come in all shapes and sizes. While the Siem Reap suburbs fill with cut-price concrete monsters, one man had a very simple idea. His hotel would be everything that the others could never be – a hotel with just one room.

He opened his one room hotel just across the street from his already flourishing gay bar. Business in his hospitality empire went so well, he lashed out on another property right next door. Soon his next hotel was open, this one with an accompanying spa – catering, discreetly, for exhausted single men. This new hotel was a virtual megalopolis; it had three rooms.

The gay bar, the gay spa, the one room  and the three room hotels are all run by a canny expat and huddle, one on top of another, sharing a building with a designarg-h-h restaurant and a photographic art gallery. Whether by serendipity or design, an interesting synthesis binds them together. They are all founding members of Siem Reap’s Brand Boutique.

*

The boutique wave began in the early 2000′s. The big, luxury chains had already staked their claims. Some were already open. For those with eyes to see and the money to take advantage of it, the hospitality industry hovered on the brink of the feel-good, eco-boutique boom. Quirky was good. Boutique began to pop up all over the place. The ethic arrived in Siem Reap fully formed – all it needed was an contemporary connection.

The first visible sign of Siem Reap Brand Boutique were Les Artisans D’Angkor who managed to combine good works, ethics and design in a highly successful chain of boutique shops. Their minimal, fusion aesthetic began the contemporary redefinition of Boutique Angkor. At the same time some redefinition was also being planned for the old Hôtel de la Paix, as new owners briefed architect, Bill Bensley, to design a new one. Not far away, across in the Passage, Martin Dishmann decided to open a gay bar. A talented photographer called McDermott opened his gallery just next door. An interesting experiment in hospitality training – Shinta Mani took in its first guests. All shared a particular business ethic as well as complimentary taste. Happenstance, sendipity, great planning or just good timing led to a brief constellation of forces, each of which sequed effortlessly into the other. They were Siem Reap-ique.

Bensley’s vision was completed in 2005, ‘a fusion of ancient Khmer design with a hint of art deco’. He perfectly filled the perfect gap in the market with a trailblazing coup de grace. Whatever brochure speak you want to use, it is a stunning hotel. Once Hôtel de la Paix opened the groundwork was done – and, in the process a contemporary Siem Reap aesthetic was established. Like all great aesthetics, it’s in constant motion. Right now you’re standing in the latest incarnation. Very Reapique.

Just smile secretly and pretend you live here. Just by walking down those stairs, you are uber-Reapique.

*

Tap tap tap. Nine-thirty. Breakfast on the rooftop terrace.

‘Good morning, my darling! Breakfast time!’

It made me laugh every day.

Crash, scrape, drop, scramble – sh-h-h-h-h, sh-h-h-h giggle.

They seem limp, passive, almost girlish – but let me assure you, these guys are tougher than you. They lead hard lives. They are poor. Most of them lack parents, siblings or any real education – but they are learning, some with great success, the rudiments of the tourist profession. Not all of those rudiments figure in the hospitality manual – some can only be learnt on the job.

That lesson number one is how to charm old guys like me is no real surprise. If I was them I’d do exactly the same. In Cambodia finding a cashed-up Rice Queen is like winning the jackpot.

‘Darling, breakfast is ready!’

It was very endearing. He wasn’t being girly or ingenuous. He just had his terms of affection a bit mixed up.

‘Don’t go back to sleep!’

Slam. I heard his giggle slither down the stairs.

*

‘Good morning, my darling!’

We’re in the reception area.

This is so ridiculous.

‘Hello, sweetheart,’ I chuckled, ‘I’m awake now.’

I can’t resist returning his intimacies. I’ve stumbled into the Asian touring production of ‘La Cage Aux Folles’.

‘You’re looking very beautiful today, my darling,’ he giggled, ‘very young…’

‘You look very young and beautiful, too…’

‘Well, I am very young,’ he said blithely.

‘And I am very old…’

‘How old?’

‘One hundred years old…’

He hesitated for a moment, puzzling over the distinct possibility that might well be true, then laughed.

‘Pshawww, one hundred! Pfft! I don’t think you are are any older than…’

He paused and explored each crevice on my face.

‘…seventy.’

I gasped – then laughed. Delicious candor. From the mouths of motherless Cambodian babies.

‘Older…’

There are no old people in Siem Reap. In the eyes of the locals, anybody over forty is geriatric.

‘Eighty?’

*

Young Sat, a twenty-two year old with ambition, attitude and good English, stood by his chair shooting the breeze. Suddenly he leapt into the air with a girlish squeal. Someone had goosed him – but there was nobody there.

‘Wha..?

Then, from somewhere far below a tangle of legs preceded a hearty laugh, a tee-shirt and a scab the size of Madagascar.

The scab sat festering on a stubbled head that bobbed merrily somewhere below our waist. His assailant was perfectly formed – except for two legs that just failed to get the message. He must have been sitting like Buddha in the womb – his legs had frozen in that position and atrophied to the point of no return. They were just two folded sticks, each with a pad of gristle grown over each knee that fitted perfectly into his torso. When he ‘sat’ in the street he looked exactly as if he was cut off at the waist.

‘I’m worried about my scab,’ he said and lifted one hand to feel gently on top of his head, ‘how big is it now?’

Mr. Sat considered the monster scab very seriously.

‘Very big,’ he said.

The stubble retreated and a concerned face looked up. The owner of the stubble was a not very handsome man in his thirties, solid and well built from the waist up, wasted from there down. His face was open, friendly and masculine. Only his kind eyes were worried.

Sat swiftly reconsidered his diagnosis.

‘But it’s healing…’

The owner of the scab was the happiest man I’d seen with legs like a pretzel. He lugged a tray filled with books around, strapped to his back with a purpose made holder. Like all the cripple club, he carried a laminated sign that contains his story, his philosophy and a picture of the family. He gets around like a dog on his knees, two useless stick legs waving hopelessly behind him, full of laughter, goosing and gossiping on the way.

‘He was a wife and three children,’ Sat said with some amazement as Scab lollopped off down the street, ‘so obviously the rest of him works.’

He pulled a face.

‘Must be complicated to arrange…’ then he began to giggle.

‘How did he get the scab?’

‘Motorbike.’

Sat paused and then began to laugh.

‘Ran over him in the dark,’ he giggled, ‘people fall over him all the time…

*

If ever there is a place that is renewing itself on a daily basis, it is Siem Reap. This is a city of young people. They work hard. They study. They have dreams for the future. It’s an instant city, topped up with the constant froth of eager new arrivals working their way through school. The hospitality industry, in all its many guises, is the only game in town.

The more famous Angkor becomes, the more people who want to see it – the more hotel rooms they need. The more hotel rooms they build, the more people seem to pour in to fill them. The more people, the more restaurants, the more tour guides, tuk tuks and drivers, the more cooks, the more waiters, the more cleaners, gardeners and maintenance men. And each one of them has a family and kids that go to school, hospitals to take care of them and cars they want to drive. There’s an industry to service the industry – and an industry to serve that.

Some say Siem Reap has being spoilt by tourism – but there was nothing there in the first place to spoil. It’s a pure product of tourism, always has been, a Khymer/French hybrid created from need. In its red hot centre restaurants come, restaurants go, names change, designs change, menus change, staff come, staff go, everything moving, everything changing, a sweet machine of designer delights for the flood of changing faces spilling down the alleyways at night. Babylon flowing through the streets; French, German, Japanese, American, Australian, Spanish, Greek, Hindu – it’s a sweet center in a sour country, a pure demonstration of Siem Sew and Siem Reap.

But the one thing in this youthful town that nobody chooses to remember is history. I’ve been to Sol Klung, that pre-school turned death camp, looked at the hundreds of photographs on the walls, a gallery of young faces just like the ones I was meeting today, pictures taken just before they were killed. I see those same faces every day. They care about events of the Seventies as much as the hippies cared about World War II. Kids will never understand the deeds of their parents – they don’t even think to try. Which is pretty normal.

Why are there no old people?

Two words.

Pol Pot.

*

It’s the second great set-piece of Cambodian tourism, ranking only after ‘The Day At The Temples’ – ‘One Day In Phnom Penh’ is just as awesome, in its own, kinda unpleasant way. Everybody does it, one way or another. Today is Pol Pot day; the Phnom Penh day of death and destruction – man’s inhumanity to man served up in neat, bite-size chunks.

First a touch of culture; on the one day circuit you’ll do the Museum, the Golden Palace, and much, much more – but, having taken your exactly similar photos you’ll forget all this.

In the afternoon, the museum of the inexplicable is on the list. Tuol Sleng, primary school turned torture house, suburban charnel with all the madness of Pol Pot on display. Nobody gets out of here alive. It’s the faces you’ll remember, staring out at you; walls of them, faces before death.

And the ‘why?’

No one gets that right. The fact is that nobody knows.

There’s nothing smart to say about it, no words that haven’t been said – it’s the ritual Phnom Penh rite of passage – the only thing fun about it is the knowledge that you never have to do it again. It’s essential Cambodia knowledge; without it nothing makes sense – but many choose the shopping option, duck the carnage, jump the gore.

 

 

Killing Fields

In a curious by-product of the tourist boom a particular brand of ‘trauma-theatre’ has developed as guides vie daily for the Best Actor Award. Everybody has a lengthy Pol Pot story. That’s what we want to hear. If it can make the tourists cry, all the better. Today is a day for those well-meaning, thoughtless Pol Pot tears, a day to weep for those battered Pol Pot babies. There’s a direct ratio between sobs sobbed and tips tipped.

The best of them will lead you on a tour to remember; even the worst can’t dull the pain of that empty schoolyard, those brown tiles, the rows and rows of photos, high school yearbook of the year of no return. No matter how moved you choose to be, remember this single fact; for a trauma story to be repeated three times a week, fifty weeks a year; year after year – it’s a performance, not a purge.

Those Delta divas know how to make you cry, it’s as polished a show as you’re likely to see – you’ll feel bonded, indeed privileged, to hear such a tale. Murmuring sweet caresses, she will blush and scoop up your guilty tips by the Gypsy handful as you queue to thank her in the appropriate way.

And at the end of the long and grisly day you can content yourself with the certain knowledge that you are the only person thinking about Pol Pot in Cambodia at that moment.

Still frozen in the long winter of national shame, Cambodia prefers to get on with life. Those who remember with any clarity have to be fifty. In Cambodia that is getting very old. Life expectancy is fifty-nine. Fifty percent of the population is under the age of twenty. The new Cambodia is flooded with children who have no comprehension or, indeed, any interest in what went before. Some don’t even believe it happened; most only know what little they are taught. Just as the baby-boomers turned their backs on their parent’s war, so the youth of Cambodia forge ahead ignoring theirs.

The other consolation may be the knowledge that no matter how much you talk, no matter how much you read and study the politics of the time, no matter how much you puzzle; the pure fact of the matter is that you, like countless scholars before you, will not uncover a single clue as to why all this happened. None of it makes any sense at all. ‘A national madness’ is about as good a phrase as any.

The scarring effect on the national psyche is as much in the eyes of the onlooker as in the Cambodian heart. For the youthful denizens of Siem Reap Pol Pot has no resonance at all. They are far more preoccupied with matters close at hand.

Back to the future.

Yesterday was designated Pamper Dogster Day.

I think I might have taken it all a bit TOO far.

In Siem Reap a P.D.D. is a whole different thing. There are a few options here that, really, you don’t find in too many other places – nope, I’m not talking rude stuff. By the end of yesterday I was in no state for any of that. Now, I’ve moved into ‘The Zone’ – I could stay here for a month. I’m a part of the furniture. No sex-tourist hassle, no postcards, no beggars, no tuk-tuks, no motorbikes – everybody around here knows where I’m staying and what I like to do – my daily rituals and oddities. This always takes a few days but, once accomplished – a whole new world of wonder opens up.

My hotel does a rather nice breakfast – I have that downstairs. Here I can talk to my many passing acquaintances – the pack of book-selling children, Stumpy, my land-mine pal, One Leg, another victim, Mrs. One Leg – yet ANOTHER victim, various passing restaurateurs, gallery owners, the many and varied staff from everywhere… all the time stuffing my face with omelette, mushrooms, tomatoes, fresh O.J, Lavazza coffee… then off to the Market – not for the fruit and vegetables – but for a manicure. Then, on a whim, a pedicure.

Watch Dogster, sitting on a tiny stool, surrounded by women having their nails painted, dead chickens, cuts of meat hanging in the air, a seamstress or two, about one hundred stall-holders selling everything under the sun – his bony knees clenched together, a bowl of water balanced precariously on top, both hands dangling limply in the bowl, nails and cuticles softening, both bare feet stuck in a bucket, gnarled toe-nails slowly giving up their multiple ghosts – I’m wondering if any human being could look more stupid. Not possible.

Two dollahhh…

So, all twenty digits attended to, [no, I didn’t have the nail polish] off to Blue Pumpkin for my daily chilled coconut juice. A giant shaved coconut, a straw, a seat outside, a fan blowing on my head – bliss.

Two dollahhh…

*

Down the street, a block away, my latest discovery – Dogster’s Beauty Parlour. It hides behind black plate-glass windows with ancient Chinese New Year decorations stuck on them. Only careful investigation and a chance open-door located it. Somehow, I have the feeling that I was the first Westerner to grace the red reclining chairs. But a sweet, soft man wearing a blue surgical mask roused himself from slumber to talk mangled English to the wandering foreigner and a plan of attack was formulated.

First – a shave.

Now, given the hairless faces of most Cambodian men, a shop that shaves is a real find.

‘How much?’ I asked, with appropriate gestures.

Great confusion. They had never seen so many morning bristles on a face before. He smiled and said guilelessly:

‘Monkey. More….’

I had to roll with that.

‘Two dollahhh.’

This was clearly way, way above normal. Mostly they have to pick at three or four accidental black hairs once a month, it seems. Fine by me. I was laid flat in the red recliner, shaving foam was procured and a soft, scratchy, tentative shave ensued. It was a bit like having a frightened rat chew on my stubble.

But there was more to come. A little soft massage and I was un-reclined.

‘You want face?’

Whatever that meant.

‘Why not? How much?’

‘Two dollahhhh.’

The red recliner was reversed and I was flat on my back again. This time for the application of strips of white paper, each about three inches long, glued to every available surface. I had no idea what was going on and as I couldn’t see anything, strips of white paper having been glued to my eyes as well, just had to lie there hoping my face wouldn’t dissolve.

After a long time the strips were peeled off and examined. All the staff were gathered to witness the great unveiling of Dogster, the foreign Mummy. Great excitement. To judge from the reaction, every pore had expelled sewerage. I was, however, complimented by many of the ladies present on my large nose. I think that’s what they were talking about.

*

My man made a series of rather rude gestures with one finger, waving it stiffly around and turning it from side to side.

‘Yes?’ he asked.

I had no idea what he meant, so, in the Dogster manner, of course I said:

‘O.K., why not? How much?’

‘Two dollahhhh.’

Was there ANYTHING in Siem Reap that didn’t cost two dollars?

Then the bright light was brought out, lethal prongs and implements I can’t bear to even think about were delivered on a steel tray. A glamorous female assistant was procured. She peeled on a pair of white plastic gloves, sat down beside me and started to insert the probe deep into my right ear. Either it was radical brain surgery through the nearest available orifice – or I was having my ears cleaned.

I’ll spare you the descriptions of the mountain of orange gunge, the dead flies, the flora and fauna that was dug out of my scull. A small family of mice scuttled out screaming – or was that ME screaming? It’s all a bit of a blur.

I was sweating, the way you do when the prospect of a punctured ear-drum suddenly presents itself. I was given a small cushion to clasp. I shredded it in terror. My toes were curling, face contorting, both eyes rolling, searching for a place to look. I settled on a picture of Angkor Wat made of matchsticks. All I could feel was the probe going in, the probe coming out, some strange movement inside my head, terror, a tug, a trawl through inner space as more animal life was plucked from the darkness. With a curl of her lip the resultant garbage was displayed on a napkin at the end. Proof of a job well done.

‘Bleug-h-h-h’ I said.

She nodded.

‘Monkey.’

The latest craze is fish; tanks of them, thousands of fish in slimy turquoise ponds nibbling at the dead flesh of tourists. Still, somebody’s got to do it. Better a tank-full of piranha than me.

‘No, I’m too scared.’

The flesh-eating fish industry has sprung from nowhere. Ponds of fish litter the streets. Some have names. Dr. Fish seems to be popular. Blank-faced tourists sit, their legs dangling in a Petrie dish of bacteria, calves encircled with cannibal fish chewing their way down to the toenails. Luckily the sessions only last fifteen minutes – any longer and their lower legs would rot off from the water alone. The water is never changed. That would involve elementary hygiene. Those fish get fatter as the dead skin of tourists is ingested, excreted, germ tumbling happily against germ, rubbing up cosily to produce a backpacker soup of tourist feet, Pond Papilloma. Into which hundreds of tourists plonk their legs for a tickle and a nibble and a bit of excitement. Right now, there are even more tourists than flesh-eating fish in Siem Reap.

‘Have you tried it?

He was standing by the fish-tank, a tall, friendly guy with no agenda at all.

‘Nah, I’m very old. They’ll think I’m dead and eat me.’

My latest pal laughed.

‘Can I take a picture of your fish?’

‘Sure’ the owner said.

‘Take a picture of this,’ my new pal said and slowly dipped his hand in the water. The flesh-eating fish rushed the proffered hand like rats to a sewer.

‘Arghh, they’ll kill you,’ I said. Soon there’d be only bone left. The feeding frenzy grew.

‘See this?’ he said nonchalantly, pointing to a large horseshoe shaped scar on his arm.

Yeeowch.

‘Shark-bite.’

There it was – tooth by terrible tooth; a series of indentations in that unmistakable shape. The flesh-eating piranha were but minnows in his particular pond.

‘One piece of advice,’ he said, a twinkle in his eye, ‘never catch a shark by the tail.’

With that he pulled his hand out of the water, flicked the last fish from his fingers, chuckled loudly and was gone.

*

I love the solitary meal in a fine restaurant. I love not having to talk, being able to focus on the food, free to taste and feel and chew and smell, to take my time and savour my meal. Pamper Dogster Day was continuing towards its great finale. My nails were clipped, my face was stripped of all impurities, my ears were clean, my body had been oiled up, pummeled, de-greased and showered in the Lingha Spa downstairs; I was hungry and ready for dinner. That’s when I found the Holy Grail.

I’ll say this once – and once only – the name of the restaurant is ‘Samot’. It’s in ‘The Alley’, just over the road. You’ll find it – if it’s still there – or not. I went three nights in a row – but then, I’m a glutton for punishment. When you get there you’ll either roll with the punches – or not. It will be fate.

It’s a one man operation – a passion. Just eight items on the blackboard menu, one chef and two waitresses, neither of whom could communicate in English. Neither of the waitresses had any training, any knowledge of the food, of wine – or indeed, of life itself, bless them, but they were sweet, nodded and smiled, took my order and delivered it to the patron in the kitchen. He would then hurtle out to greet his guests, have hurried consultations on the menu, exchange greetings and explain each dish, then hurtle back into the kitchen to cook it.

In the course of these conversations the entire order may, or may not, have been changed. It was impossible to know. I seem to remember the words; ‘I think I will place myself in your hands, maestro…’ All is a blur.

In, out, in, out – fry, splash-h-h-h, clank, sizzle, phone calls in harried French, a waitress scurrying out for a fresh slice of salmon, scuttling back bearing the goods, in, out, in, out. One chef for eight, maybe ten diners, ordering different meals at different times – everything took a very long time. The one thing the waitresses were good at was silently filling our glasses as we waited. They filled mine many times.

Various unexplained dishes were brought out; unordered entrees and palate pleasers. For some this was confusing. One couple complained that, as they hadn’t ordered them, they shouldn’t have to pay for them – which was O.K. by the patron – they were free, anyway. I just ate whatever was put in front of me. Something told me I was in good hands.

*

I heard children singing. My waitress was watching me listening.

‘Do you have baby boy, baby girl? She said simply.

‘No,’ I answered, looking her in the eyes, ‘Do you?’

‘Yes,’ she said sweetly, ‘I have a baby girl, two years, two months.’

I looked at her. She seemed very young.

‘A baby! You look so young. How old are you?

‘Twenty two and half.’

‘You look eighteen,’ I said. ‘Not old enough to have baby.’

She was pleased with that.

‘How old is your husband?

‘Twenty-nine.’

‘He seems a very old man,’ I said.

‘I don’t see old or young,’ she said simply. ‘I just see good heart.’

‘Where does he work?’

She mentioned a massage centre near Angkor.

‘He blind.’

‘So he’s never seen how beautiful you are?’

She smiled sweetly

‘No.’

‘How did you meet him?

‘I work with my brother-in-law. One day he took me to his house. And then I saw my husband.’

‘I love.’

My heart was breaking.

‘We very poor,’ she said simply. ‘We have nothing, no food. But I happy.’

She smiled and looked directly into my eyes.

‘I very happy.’

I had to look away.

*

Ms Fi’dollah had him by the arm, hustling her client rapidly down the alley. She knew to strike while the iron was hot.

She was dressed entirely in black with diamante clusters, a sparkling tarantula, the kind best not seen in direct sunlight. The whore was all business. Right now business is the jovial Aussie by her side. He was tall, balding and fifty-five, happy to be dragged along for the ride. He had a certain spring in his step. Alas, he was not thinking with his brain.

‘I stay with you long time,’ I heard her say as they passed.

‘Nah,’ he said cheerfully, ‘just a good fuck’ll be fine.’

*

A side plate of fresh, thick bread, soft butter, resting in a dark olive sauce, a splodge of light, whipped duck liver pate – followed by five perfect scallops warmed on a black plate, a tumble of fried squid and a prawn, artfully arranged on a bed of green salad.

A delicate pile of crab meat, mixed with pieces of grapefruit and orange and sprayed with a lime vinaigrette arrived, sitting atop a mound of whipped avocado puree… then, together, a dollop of rich yellow salmon and cheese risotto, oozing oils and butter to accompany ten sticks of fresh asparagus bearing a thin slice of marinated tuna, flash-fried in garlic, smothered in fried onions accompanied by freshly squeezed limes.

A gigantic clam and large shrimp mariniere. Luckily, once the clams were harvested and their many, many shells laid out on the plate around me, the dish had shrunk to manageable size – then, finally, that roast salmon in a rich glazed wine sauce with five small roast onions and a plonk of tossed asparagus nestling on a bed of pureed vegetables.

The bill came to $16. I tipped handsomely and stumbled out into the lane, wound my way back across the street to my hotel. Just carry me off to Heaven right now and let me die a happy man. I have seen the mountain-top. All of life was a party in The Alley that night. The lights twinkled, the restaurants buzzed with people, the back-packers have never looked so fine. I sat in my chair outside the Bar, ordered a beer. and reflected on the impermanence of life.

Twelve months later I went looking for Samot. The restaurant was nowhere to be found.

Eaten by a Trattoria.

*

‘Heya, my friend!’

Here comes another stumping.

Every time I see Stumpy now his right arm springs to attention – well, what’s left of it. The landmine wiped out both arms from above the elbow down so it’s actually foot long skin-sausage I shake.

Well, I don’t so much shake as grab and squeeze. It’s kinda soft and squishy, a bit like squeezing a ripe mango. He’s always clammy, his stump is cold, kinda sticky to the touch. He comes with a chest full of glaring scars so he wears an open road-worker’s vest. It’s pink. Very efficient promotion. One look says it all.

But he sure likes to shake my hand. Not many people do that to Stumpy so, every time I see him I’m up for a stumping and a smile. He’s incorporated it into his act. The only problem is that I see him about a hundred times a day. This stumping is getting out of hand.

I was reflecting on his personal hygiene in an idle moment. Then, in a lightning flash of the bleeding obvious, I realized that, without arms, washing is a bit of a problem.

He can be as clammy as he likes.

*

Over the years Dog has got to know one of the waiters at Blue Pumpkin. That he’s still there this long speaks volumes for the guy. He’s twenty six but looks sixteen – as if denied some essential vitamin through late adolescence.

’Three years, eh? Soon you’ll be running the shop.’

His face clouded. ‘I don’t think so. No money. I have four sisters.’

‘Are your Mummy and Daddy back at home?’

‘No. ‘

He paused, blinked, then mimed aiming a machine gun dangling at his hip.

‘Brrrrp brrrp brrp brrp brrrrp…’ he said, spraying his family bullets around the room, ‘brrrp, brrp, brptt.’ He stopped for a second, then just cocked his finger, aimed and said ‘Boom. Boom. Boom.’

One for Daddy, one for Mummy and one for little brother number two.

‘ Soldiers. They die,’ he said simply, ‘ we run away.’‘When was that?’‘Nineteen ninety eight,’ he said and sighed, ‘long time ago…’

‘Have you been the father ever since?’

He nodded and smiled. He wasn’t sad. He was a hero.

‘And now it’s two thousand eleven…’

Now I knew what the ingredient was, the absent vitamin that shriveled him. It was his missing youth.

She was shoving postcards in my face, leaning over the table, a carnivorous look on her face. She parried, I blocked.

‘How is your business?‘

No business. You make business.’

‘I know you,’ Dog said smoothly, ‘I remember you. I see you here many times. I see you grow from a little girl…’

Dogster was taming her. He’d seen her in action before – she was lethal.

‘Where your mummy?’

‘No mummy,’ she lied.

Mum sent out a vast tribe of artful dodgers every day to flog books while she lay drunk in the kitchen.

‘No school today?’

‘Morning school.’

Afternoon school was spent selling books and bangles up and down a tiny alley, hour after hour, day after morning-school day, one child merging into another. It turns you hard – and it turns you hard fast. It’s a life full of people saying ‘no’.

‘How old are you now?’

‘Thirteen.’

I will be here for many days. You know me. I know you. I will be your friend but I don’t buy.’

‘If you are my friend you will buy.’

It was a half-hearted attempt.

‘Good luck for your business,’ I sighed.

‘I don’t want your good luck. I want your money.’

I had to laugh. She didn’t.

‘What is your name?

‘Supergirl,’ she said straight-faced.

In her own strange way, I think she was.

*

Stumpy’s quite famous. I stumbled across this picture on the net. Chris Colbourne, a freelancer for the Yukon News took silver for best photo essay for this work on landmine victims in Cambodia. http://www.witnessphotographic.com

‘Mot Douk lost both arms to an anti-personnel landmine,’ says the caption, ‘despite the loss of his limbs, he works daily by selling books to tourists in Siem Reap’s Old Market in an attempt to support his family of five. Sitting with Douk is his six-year-old daughter Torn Srei Nav who is the youngest of his children.

Actually, I deleted a few words from the caption.

Let’s put them back and see what they do to your compassion.

Mot Douk is a former Khmer Rouge soldier who lost both arms to an anti-personnel landmine….

Fuck off Stumpy.

*

So just what is in this happy pizza? Specifically?’

Dogster has walked part this restaurant countless times on countless wanders around the not-very-countless streets of Siem Reap. Of course he knew what a happy pizza was. It just hadn’t ocurred to him to have in Siem Reap – nor did he intend to. The perils of ingesting the local ganja were revealed to the puppy-dog all too many years ago. Do not eat hash cookies. Bhang Lhassi is not for you. This was not a road he was going down – ever again.

‘Marijuana,’ he said and rifled through the menu. A million faded pictures of pizza flew past my eyes. They had different names but all of them looked exactly the same.

‘In this country it’s not illegal to put marijuana in the food.’

I’d already learnt a new Cambodian thing and I’d hardly been in Cambodia two hours. Or was it four? Have I been here a month? Dunno.

He was tall and tattooed, a good-looking Eurasian youth who spoke with a soft Italian accent, an intriguing by-product of a cultural liaison between Italy and Cambodia about twenty-two years ago. He was very cool, very young and completely matter of fact.

‘All happy pizzas,’ he said cheerfully, ‘we put the ganja under the cheese. We have bhang lassi too.’

We were being listened to very closely by a couple of his contemporaries sitting dazed at the front table. They were beyond words but full of benign interest. I looked at them and pointed to myself.

‘Old hippy.’

Ahhh. They nodded wisely.

‘Can I have the happy without the pizza?’

‘We can do that.’

*

All I wanted was a bunch of flowers. Lotus to be precise. Things got out of control. We were in a market, then a florist shop. All I wanted was a bunch of white lotus – not a funeral wreath. We found them at the temple. Lord Buddha didn’t get my bulbs. We hid them in the tuk-tuk while I went inside. It was sunset. There was a lot of praying, a line of monks delivering corporate blessings, a band and a lot of noise. I found myself on the ground, just inside the entrance. I’m not sure was going on. Apparently I was there for quite some time.

‘Come with me, ‘ Bean whispered, ‘I’ll take you where tourists never go.’

It was a long, bumpy drive out of town. We left the bright lights of Siem Reap far behind, driving in a straight line into the distance. Then lights started to appear, juddering in the distance. Actually, Dogster was juddering. The lights were still. The roadside began to become piled with shops, built up either side of the road. Piles of stuffed animals flew by.

In the distance, running along one side of the road seemed to be a long thin funfair. My attention was taken by the hundreds and hundreds of people lining the road. Shops had given way to mats placed side by side for what seemed like miles. Each mat boasted a mama with a kettle and a vacuum flask, a heap of bowls and spoons. It was a hundred family restaurants. Mama would cook up a batch and sell home-cooked dinner to whoever sat on her mat. Some were famous. Good cooking is prized in any culture.

I wanted to stop but it was getting late and, really I was in no state to do anything intrepid. I still had sunglasses on. We bounced away, my instant guide shouting commands to the tuk-tuk driver. We were driving back along the twin lines of mat restaurants. Some were very popular. Both my companion and I were getting hungry. We swerved to the side of the road. Mr. Bean seemed keen on a frame with a tarpaulen and a few flickering lamps set back in the darkness. Out front someone appeared to be burning something thin and black.

‘Wanna eat?’.

‘Sure.’

‘Duck.’

‘I couldn’t see anything. I was wearing sunglasses. Without the prescription sunnies, I could see even less.

‘That’s all they do. Duck. What do you want?’

‘I’ll have the duck.’

I’m shoeless, crouched on a long bamboo platform, about a metre off the ground. So the rats can’t climb up, I suppose.

I watch as a silent, very shy waitress brings plates of goodies, not one of which I would eat if I was starving. Plates of raw vegetables covered in fresh ice, strange sauces, rodent droppings, disgusting things.

”Duck,’ says Mr. Bean and got stuck in, ‘use your fingers…’

It didn’t resemble any duck I’d ever seen.

‘Have that bit,’ he muttered, pointing at a seashell in the bowl. I picked it up. It was the duck’s beak and head, completely cremated, sliced neatly in two.

‘Mmmm, not for me…’

‘It’s the best bit,’ he said, grease running down his chin. He took it from me and opened it up.

‘Awww,’ he said, ‘no brains…”

I busied myself with a search for meat on the diced duck. It looked like blackened twigs.

Once I bit the bullet, I found enough meat to feed a mouse, hidden in the middle of gristle cooked in the most delicous blend of spices and carcoal. Some duck – no brains, no meat, no possible nutrition – but a great deal of natural flavor.

Which is rather like Siem Reap.

*

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