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SIEM REAP 2

Yesterday was a designated P.D.D. That’s a 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 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.

Here’s yesterday’s schedule: Hotel B does a rather nice breakfast – I have that downstairs. I wander out of my room – one floor down is the Lingha Spa – a tasteful establishment that seems to be exclusively for men – then, down another few stairs, is breakfast in the AHA restaurant – run by the Hotel De La Paix. I have a few options here. Eat outside; either directly opposite one side of the Central Market and watch that daily world go by – or one other side of the building, just feet away from the Lingha Bar. This establishment is quiet in the mornings – as establishments of this kind tend to be.

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 an omelette, mushrooms, tomatoes, fresh O.J, Lavazza coffee… I hadn’t yet taken the third option – inside with the A/C – that was a bit dull in comparison.

Then off to the Market – not for the fruit and vegetables – but for a manicure.

Then, on a whim, a pedicure.

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.

Eventually, Dogster’s monkey-face was cleared of hair. 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. At least, 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.

Now, I know some of you will be eating breakfast when you read this, so 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, a tug, a trawl through inner space as more animal life was plucked from the darkness.

God, I’ll have to stop writing and lie down. I’m shaking. I’ll have thirty beers and tell you the rest later…

‘You try. You like. You try.’

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.

I think then they die – the fish, not the tourists. This is the natural life-cycle of the flesh-eating fish.

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. So did the ‘you try, you like, you try’ lady.

‘Can I take a picture of your fish?’

‘Sure’ she 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,’ said Dog. 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.’

Dogster realized this was the first shark-bite survivor he’d ever met. He was tremendously impressed.

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 should 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.

*

Waiting for dinner I heard some 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.

*

A table for three arrived unexpectedly; tall, unshaven, beefy Americans, lawyers dressed as back-packers. The patron rushed in and ordered them out. He was too busy. There were only six of us in the restaurant. At my whispered recommendation they persevered. I’d seen them earlier. I knew they were smart.

I was, I confess, already drunk by the time the food came out, happy as a clam. Others in the restaurant seemed to be entering into the occasion less enthusiastically. One couple suddenly stood up and stormed out.

‘Hopeless! Hopeless! Deserves to fail!’ they hissed as they passed my table.

The odds for my new friends had dramatically increased.

I saw the three Americans later in the night, weaving their way through town. They grabbed me, took my photograph and thanked me fulsomely for the recommendation. Their dinner had taken nearly four hours. They, like me, were in a state of wild, fairly drunken excitement. They, like me, had been so crazed with joy they had taken pictures of everything that moved – including the food – which is how I can remember the parade of amazement that crossed my table that night in Siem Reap. This was a transcendental dining experience. From the ridiculous to the sublime..

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, I thought and let me die a happy man. I have seen the mountain-top. It wasn’t my fault I was, perhaps, just a little unsteady on my feet. 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 Lingha Bar and reflected on the impermanence of life. I ordered a beer.

*

Twelve months later I went looking for Samot

The restaurant was nowhere to be found.

She’d been eaten by a Trattoria.

*

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