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SIEM REAP 3

She knew to strike while the iron was hot.

Ms Fi’dollah had him by the arm, hustling her client rapidly down the alley. 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. Alas, he was not thinking with his brain. He was tall, balding and fifty-five, happy to be dragged along for the ride. He had a certain spring in his step.

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

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

*

She was sweet sixteen, a prom queen from Perfection, U.S.A. Perfect teeth flashed from perfect lips, perfect blue eyes shone from perfect blond hair. She was dressed down for the occasion, surrounded by a bevy of not quite so perfect Cambodian children. They were all having a wonderful time. I heard giggling as they playfully wandered over towards us.

Striding behind them was a solitary monk, his orange robes aglow with self-importance. This was His Highness, the venerable Monk Capone from the Wat Nokor Foundation for gullible American students.

I had to ask.

‘We come from Somewhere Nice,’ she gushed, clasping her Cambodian children in a hug, ‘we’re all here to do Good Things.’

“How wonderful,’ I smiled. This was a bubble I couldn’t bear to puncture.

‘We come here on our Spring break to work with ajahn Capone. He’s our school project.’

‘How great,’ I smiled, ‘I’m glad you’ve found someone to admire. You know sometimes these guys can be a bit… suspicious.’

She got my meaning. A brief cloud passed across perfection, she lowered her voice and eyes.

‘Yes, our school had some trouble last year. We found out our donations from the last monk weren’t really err… making it to the children. We had to let him go. Then we found Al.’

She looked fondly towards her blessed Monk Al, by now laughing with his young sun-burnt disciples.

‘So what do you all do?’

‘We raise lots of money and donate to the foundation then each Spring break we come over here and…’

She paused, uncertain as to what she actually did do, other than spend her parent’s money on expensive, charitable airfares.

‘We play with the kids… we help them… ahh, we…’

Her voice faded away. That brilliant smile never budged.

‘And how many children do you actually… help?’

‘Well, we all thought we’d be really busy,’ she smiled, gorgeous and gormless in equal degree, perfect teeth flashing white against cheeks glowing with goodness, ‘our monk said he had six hundred orphans – but we’ve been here for a fortnight now and so far we can only find twenty-five…’

‘Well, just keep looking,’ I said, ‘I’m sure you’ll find the other five hundred and seventy-five soon.’

She wandered off down The Passage, chatting excitedly with her newest, bestest orphan friends.

In the distance I heard high pitched Cambodian laughter.

‘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, via many a Mango Melba, Dogster 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 rather shrivelled and 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 stunted his growth. It was his missing youth.

*

She was shoving postcards into 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 was going to be sitting around the Passage a lot over the next seven days. He didn’t need a thrice-daily harassment from the postcard princess for a week. 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.

‘No school today?’

‘Morning school.’

They spent their afternoons 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.

‘What is your name?

‘Supergirl,’ she said straight-faced.

In her own strange way, I think she was.

*

‘If you don’t bring my food, I will die.’

He was crisp old codger with wild, lively eyes. Orders had long been taken – then sweet Siem Reap paralysis set in. He, like half the restaurant around him, had been sitting, captive, twiddling his thumbs and drinking beer for what now seemed an eternity.

‘I have been sitting here for over one hundred years …’ he said sweetly, talking slowly and simply so the staff could all understand, A flustered Cambodian waitress looked at him like he was stark raving mad.

‘Soon I will die from hunger or old age…’

The twinkle in his eye took the sting out of his words. Then he wiggled his head and held up his hands in prayer.

‘Please, save my life. Bring me fo-o-o-od.’

She laughed and fled.

‘Having a brief Cambodian Moment…’ he said to nobody in particular and sighed.

*

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.

*

Mot Douk lost both arms to an anti-personnel landmine. 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.

http://www.witnessphotographic.com

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. 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…

*

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 whivh I will eat. Plates of raw vegatables covered in fresh ice., strange sauces.

”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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