Dedicated to Haywire...
A few trips back, my lady friend and I, decided to go visit a pal who was living and working in Cambodia. The journey was simple enough. Take a train to the border. cross, and he would meet us there. At the train station in Bangkok, I was stoked to see a original "Orient Express" train sitting on the tracks. It's history is legendary. It was not to be though, and we were directed to one of the non-air conditioned cattle cars that take the Thai country people back to their homeland.
We are to take this train to the border town of Aranpayet, transfer to a Tuk Tuk, and then cross into Poipet, Cambodia. Easy to remember because Poipet rhymes with toilet.
The train ride itself was third world chic. Wood bench seating, open windows, food vendors, etc. Something about the sway of the train, the countryside, clean air, and $1 price for an 8 hour ride made it tolerable. The strung out looking German couple a few seats up from us had already confirmed what I had suspected. That a lot of drug tourists, finding Thailand dry in comparison, opt for the lax laws on the Cambodian side of the wire. Cambodia is, as I would later find out, a non-extradition treaty country with the USA. Note that in case you are ever on the lam.
My lady friend and I have been platonic buddies for many years. I keep her around, if anything, for the purpose of showing other women that a girl can tolerate my presence for more than five consecutive minutes.
It is good to catch up with her, as she gabs almost as much as I do, and it makes the 8 hours go by relatively quick.
At the border crossing, it was the usual suspects. Hippies, backpackers, Euro-trash, and that one stand out guy, who you just know deep inside, is there to be a pervert. The large posters hanging on the walls don't say "Welcome to Cambodia", instead, they say, in several languages, what amounts to "Please don't fuck our children." That creepy vibe I already had about Cambodia went up a few notches after seeing the signs.
Crossing from Thailand into Cambodia is similar to crossing from San Diego to Tijuana. The chaos hits you like a punch in the face. "Our man in Cambodia" isn't there to meet us yet. Upon calling him, we find out he is hitching a ride in a truck and will meet us in an hour or so, allowing us some time to decompress and take in the border sights. Beautiful, fair-skinned girls pull up on moto-taxis by the droves and enter a casino. Presumably to work as hostesses, judging by their attire. Hawkers sell the endless buffet of bootleg DVDs, fake purses, and rancid meat on a stick. I chain smoke the local brand which has a delightful depiction of a cancer-ridden lung on the package. My friend and I sulk in the mid-day heat, until our contact arrives.
Big bro hugs, and wassup man's? are exchanged, and then our man in Cambodia starts the process of finding us a ride to Siem Reap. While negotiating the price of a car, a man spots me from a fair distance away, and makes a bee line for me.
"Mister Joel! Welcome back to Cambodia!" He says, extending his hand for a shake.
My friends look at me, I look at them, then look back at the guy.
"Huh? No, man, this is my first time here."
"No, you are Mister Joel right?"
"Yes, you come here, Cambodia before, two years ago, I remember, I take you around."
Now, I must say, I have been hit in the head a lot over the years. I am punch drunk at times, and even suffer from short term memory loss. I have had black outs, I sleep walk, and have other neurological problems, but is it possible that I was here two years ago, and was so fucked up that I have no recollection of it?
"I think you got the wrong guy man."
He insists, and is even incredulous that I don't remember.
"Mister Joel, yes. I meet you two years ago. I remember your tattoo. I take you around before."
My friends look at me. I am wondering to myself, shit, was I here two years ago? He even has me doubting myself.
Our man in Cambodia has haggled a price for a car to Siem Reap. I wave my pal from two years ago away, assuming that this is some sort of complex scam, and jump into the car with my crew.
"What was that about?" My lady friend asks.
"I have no fucking idea. That guy insisted I was here two years ago, which is freaking me out because I was in Thailand two years ago, and I did party a lot. Maybe I got so fucked up I came here and don't remember? My passport would have a stamp though right?"
This incident has since then dubbed me Mister Joel.
I would later learn (just a few months ago) that it is very simple to cross into Cambodia at many un-official checkpoints without a stamp. I have since hiked into Cambodia a few times near my girlfriends house with her brother on a never ending quest to buy black market cigarettes.
Siem Reap is a lovely city. It is South East Asia's version of New Orleans French Quarter. The instability of the Cambodian Riel has led most of the country to function on the US Dollar. ATM machines spit out dollars. Restaurants, hotels, and seemingly everything else is priced in US Dollars, with the vendor giving you Riel's back in change.
My first Cambodian language lesson begins shortly after arriving. I ask our man in Cambodia "How do you say no in Khmer?
"How do you say yes?"
I walk down the street with my friends feeling super suave.
5 seconds later..."Taxi sir?"
Another 5 seconds..."Taxi sir?"
This is driving me fucking nuts. Our man in Cambodia, however, is all smiles and relaxed. Nothing seems to disturb his equilibrium. His command of the Khmer language usually stops people dead in their tracks when talking with them, and he is able to arrange a Tuk Tuk ride to the temples the next day.
Apparently I snore, really fucking loud, because my lady friend who I am sharing a room with, wakes me up several times to tell me to shut up. This, among other things, is what has kept us in the platonic phase for so long. Now, she will just be my travel buddy, and occasional cock-blocker, when I try to bust a move in a bar.
We awaken, and our man in Cambodia is already on the scene with our Tuk Tuk ready. About 20 minutes later, we arrive at the outskirts of the temples. The Tuk Tuk driver has been hired for next to nothing for an entire day of driving us around. At first sight, the road we are on goes straight through the temple complex gate. The benevolent visage of king Jayavarman looks down from above as we drive through the gate and into another world. I have waited my whole life to come here. I love ancient history to the point of it being my second wife. This is Indiana Jones shit. Tomb Raider shit. Johnny fucking Quest, Apocalypse Now, World of Suzie Wong, and every other thing that has shaped my mindscape since birth. The vines, monkeys, elephants, women in sarongs, along with the heat, the smells....aww fuck.
We get out of the Tuk Tuk and begin the 6 hour slog through the different sites. It is almost too much to take in. I am trying to project myself back in time. Trying to picture what life was like back when these monuments were built. The Temples at Angkor are still active Buddhist shrines, and many of the alcoves have Buddhas adorned with fresh flowers and offerings. As I emerge from a tunnel in the complex, I am confronted by a group of children holding trinkets for sale.
"Mister! You buy! Mister! You buy!"
they grow louder and follow me. "Mister! You buy!"
I try and wave then away. They just follow with that awkward little kid trot and keep repeating their mantra.
"Mister! You buy!"
We finally lose the first pack of feral children and move through the temples. Just when I start to get into that meditative, trying to picture what the fuck life was like back a thousand years ago state of mind, I am snapped out of my trance by another pack of children trying to sell me shit.
"Mister! You buy! Mister! You buy!"
One kid comes up with a more novel money making strategy. He says that he can, If I tell him the country I am from, tell me the capital city and population. I tell him I am Hungarian.
"Oh. You capital city is Budapest. Population--" Whatever the fuck he said. "You give me one dollar!"
I ask our man in Cambodia if this ever ends. He tells me to take out my cel phone and pretend to talk on it. Pretty soon, whenever we see a pack of kids, all three of us pull out our cel phones and have fake conversations on them. This acts like a force field from Star Trek, and for whatever reason, even desperate, aggressive street urchins respect the sanctity of the cel phone call and they stay away.
We walk through the temples for hours on end. Pretending to call in Napalm strikes on our phones.
"Yeah, bomb the village. Danger close. I repeat, danger close fire mission."
The kids leave us alone until we stop for a bite to eat.
Our man in Cambodia has a pack of eight or so girls around him. He is speaking in Khmer to them and they are floored that he can speak it so well.
"What do they want?" I ask him
"They want me to read something in the newspaper to them, to prove I can read Khmer. I'm not a monkey. I don't want to perform."
"Just read something and they'll go away."
Our man in Cambodia reads a line from the paper and the pack of girls are in awe. Next thing I know, Our man in Cambodia's face turns flush.
"They want me to show them my dick."
"What the fuck?"
"One of them just asked if I have a girlfriend and wants to see my dick. She says she's never seen a Westerners dick before."
Thankfully, this request was made by a girl in the group around 20 years old. Our man in Cambodia is peeved. He tells me how he has lived here for so long, taken the time to learn the language, and still gets treated like an outsider.
"They never would have asked a Cambodian man that. It bugs me that they seem to think it's OK to ask me because I am white."
We eat, and bomb more villages on our cel phones. I meander along with my bad hip, begging sunscreen from a passing English couple like it is water in the desert. I only catch fleeting glimpses of this forgotten world in my minds eye, as I am constantly harassed by the evil urchins proffering their wares.
My lady friend is all teary eyed. Too many hours of Oprah have made her a sap for this stuff.
"Oh, I just wish I could take them all home. I feel so bad for these kids. If I could, I would be like Angelina Jolie, and adopt them all. Just take all of them home."
My cynical side can't stop and I lay into her. "So go ahead...take one home. This is Cambodia. I'm sure you can grease some wheels and take a orphan child off their hands for the right price. Then you can take her back to the States, and teach her English. Sure, she will only be behind in school 5 or 6 years but she'll catch up. You can be a full time mom. Just like you always wanted."
Her tears suddenly dry up, and I am happy to have spared her her disillusionment.
We slouch on through the heat, with the urchins hot on our heels. All the while, calling in
"Danger close fire mission. I repeat, danger close."