A Khmer girl sits down in the seat in front of mine on the bus to Kampot. I’d seen her as i waited to board the bus. I was bleary-eyed and she was holding a giant yellow styrofoam esky. She smiled at me. I smiled back. Well, you’re forced to, really. Although sometimes i don’t. I just won’t. Sometimes i’m in a bad mood. I’ll just glare.
Or sometimes, when a pushy motodop grabs me by the arm, saying “Sir motorbike” - as they all do, as if they were some ragged army of kings intent on beknighting me as a two-wheeled lord - sometimes, when this happens, i’ll turn on them and explain to them slowly and clearly that if they touch me again they will wish they had never been born. But these moody occasions are rare, and usually a result of me suffering an undiagnosed tropical illness, or just having just been robbed, or having been stung on the knee by a Cambodian Wasp, or sometimes a combination of all three. Usually i’ll just smile and say, no thank you, or point to my own motorcycle standing nearby with a shrug, as if to say, well, there’s nothing i’d like better than to get on the back of your woebegone scooter and pay for the privilege of you getting us both lost, but unfortunately, look there, i have my own motorcycle. I can get my own self lost, but thank you sir for your kind offer.
But there’s something about taking a journey, by bus, train, plane or spacecraft that opens you up to romantic possibilities. Something in the way we move. So instead of glaring, or sticking my tongue out this esky-belaboured girl, i smile. Sticking your tongue out seldom works, anyhow. Least not with the girls at the Heart of Darkness, least not after a certain hour in the morning. They’ll just stick theirs out straight back at you, and wiggle it up and down provocatively, before coming over to whisper some sordid proposition in your ear. Or so i am told.
I’m carrying a small satchel of hand luggage, all that i need for a four-and-a-half hour bus trip and a four day alleged ‘holiday’, which, of course, involves shooting for The Paper. A selection of medications for various eventualities, a book by Haruki Murakami, socks, jocks and two shirts, a pair of khaki shorts in case i’m called upon to do an emergency impression of Steve Irwin, a notebook and pen, and a camera to shoot the Kep Jungle Dance. I’ve missed the early Thursday bus, having been up all night with a certain businessman attending the opening of a new nightclub at Phnom Penh’s biggest casino, NagaWorld, an occasion formally ritualised by the smoking of a foil of heroin in the club’s toilets, followed by crazy dancing at the new Darlin’ Darlin’ club, then crazy dancing at Riverhouse, then more crazy dancing with certain unnamed yet wholly infamous journalists at the Heart of Darkness bar and then, needless to say, following the downhill slide from there to Howie bar to shoot pool and thence to Walkabout. Walkabout is the dregs. Old prostitutes interspersed with older white barang, and worse: nobody who can even beat me on the pool table. On average, one Westerner dies each month at Walkabout. It’s like a retirement home for the misbegotten, misplaced and depraved. And each time someone dies, the cops turn up and money has to be paid. I heard a tale of the owners being busted by the cops early one morning as they laid one carefully wrapped Western corpse out by the rubbish skip on Street 19 - but i stress this is an uncomfirmed report, coming as it did from a totally unreliable source, i.e. a former AFP foreign correspondent. Anyway, i missed the bus because my bag and medications were still at this certain businessman’s apartment, not because of any complications at Walkabout. But it was a late night.
After being unable to get hold of the certain businessman by phone, owing to him being in a meeting, i eventually made the long trip up the several flights of stairs to his apartment and lo, one of the girls lets me in. I retrieve my satchel, and make the one o’clock bus. As we’re sitting in our seats, waiting for the alleged one o’clock bus to leave, hopefully some time before two, the girl in the seat in front turns around and smiles at me, offering what looks like an open packet of fetuccini. Its plastic wrapper is decorated with a picture of a smiling crab. She says something in Khmer and I nod, and say thank you in Khmer, and remove one of the strands of smiling crab pasta. She shakes her head no, and using sign language, insists that i take the whole packet. I shrug, thank her again, and take the whole packet. I read the label. It is artificial crab flavoured strips. Of course. What else would it be.
I try one. Dang, these are good. Like potato crisps, only longer, thinner, hotter and with more flavour. And tasting exactly as you’d expect an artificial crab to taste.
The junk food here is just the bomb. Take the iced coffee. It comes in a can. And it’s just that. It’s actually got coffee in it, and plenty of it. You can get it black, or with milk. Compare this with the cartons of "iced coffee" you get back home, wherein the only coffee flavour you get is what has leached through the packaging from the drawing of the coffee bean on the label. By a kind of process of graphic osmosis. A bland milky baby food for a society of bland milky babies. And did i mention the cuttlefish crackers?
I munch through a few artificial crab sticks. The bus begins its interminable blaring of horn as it inches forward through the crowd. The girl and i stumble through some Khminglish phrases, in which we establish that we are both going to Kep, and that we are both on holiday. She shows me a tiny picture of herself on a massive laminated A4-sized card, which proclaims that her name is Kali and she is a security guard. Here’s a match made in hell, i think. I introduce myself as Mark, which is my name, and show her my accreditation from The Paper, which is hanging around my neck - a document which, for some reason, she finds hysterically funny. Perhaps it’s the glasses. She offers me a carton of apple juice. I say no, i have some water, thank you, but she insists. I feel i should offer her something in return. I rummage through my satchel, and come up with a packet of Valium, which i proffer tentatively. She declines with a polite shake of her head.
Me, i take two. I know what these bus trips are like.
When she wakes me, just before Kep, a strand of artificial crab dangling from my lips, she points out the window and says something which obviously means she is getting out. I ask her to wait, and rip the map out of my Kep guidebook. I draw a circle around Kep Lodge, with a big arrow pointing at it, and write “Kep Jungle Party, Friday. Your official invitation. Mark.” And hand it to her.
I wave as she stands with her giant styrofoam esky on the side of the road. As she waves back, she nearly drops the esky. She laughs. The bus lurches forward. The horn blares.
Of course, when she turns up at the party on Friday, looking nice, with hoop earrings and makeup and a red and black top and a couple of friends, i’m so wankered drunk and so intent on winning every single game of pool that i all but ignore her. I can be such an idiot sometimes.
“I go now,” she says, late in the night, with a forlorn look. “See ya,” i say, and play a left-handed shot on the number three nestled on the cushion, rolling it into the top right corner pocket. Oh, i can be a thoughtless, insensitive tool sometimes, harbouring all the grace of a wooden mallet saying goodnight to an egg. And she is such a Nice Girl too.
I know she is a Nice Girl, because of when we got saturated the night before.
I’d just gotten off the bus and made my way to the Lodge. Nothing like free accommodation in a quality establishment. I'd barely made myself at home in my bungalow, by eating all the chocolates in the bar fridge and smoking a huge pipe of meth, when who should knock on my door, but a complete stranger.
“Mr Mark, a girl at bar to see you, Miss Kali,” he says, and disappears.
She has a moto, and is taking me to dinner. At least i think she is offering to take me to dinner, but it is arranged through translations by the barman, who seems to think we are going out for dessert. Which makes no sense at all, because i haven’t eaten all day, apart from some artificial crab strips and four packets of chocolate. Dessert should be preceded by a dinner, surely. Obviously something has been lost in translation. Are we going to the crab market, famous for its non-artificial crab and Kampot pepper? No, she is taking you to another market, far away, in Kep City Proper, the barman explains.
As it eventuates, Kep City Proper is indeed a long way from the Lodge, and is marked by two enormous gold-coloured chickens, or at least what look like chickens, which stand in front of the municipal offices. Other than that, it is identical to the rest of Kep. Beach, jungle, overgrown, abandoned and burnt out shells of 60s modernist beachside villas, cattle roaming the potholed streets, and ramshackle roadside stalls. And it is at one of these aforementioned stalls that we dine.
We barely negotiate the clay track from the Lodge and make it onto the bitumen beach road before we run out of fuel. Typically, Kali lets me know this through a combination of giggling and pointing, but i’ve run out of fuel often enough on my own self to know what is going down. Luckily, we’ve just crested a hill, so we roll about a kilometre through the light rain to what looks like a family squatting in a tin shed on the side of the road. That’s because it is a family squatting in a tin shed on the side of the road. She negotiates the purchase of a cool drink bottle of fuel, for which she refuses to let me pay, and we head on.
Dinner is an hilarious affair. The rain starts coming down harder, and the family who run the roadside food stall, who share at least half a dozen teeth between them, attempt to put up an umbrella, installing it on a three-legged steel tripod. Or at least it was a three-legged tripod until Kali put a rock on top of one of its legs it to stop it blowing away, suddenly reducing it to a two-legged tripod. More giggling. The umbrella then collapses, with Kali inside it. I order mi sup mowan and assist one of the family members with his conversational English.
“You lived here long?” i ask.
“Yes, long time,” he says. “Thirty years.”
“Wow,” i say. “Thirty years. That is a long time.”
His friend points to an enormous mansion across the road, all lit up and surrounded by a high, lighted wall. “He lives over there,” he says.
“Wow,” i say. “That looks nice.”
They both explode into laughter.
“No, i don't, i live in a hammock on the beach,” he explains.
After stumbling about like a christmas tree character in a pantomime play, Kali emerges from the green folded canvas umbrella, throws it aside, and sits downs next to me. I talk with the pair of jokers about hammocks, rocks, benches and soup. Kali gets up and goes to talk with one of the women. The soup arrives. I’m famished from my allnighter, having eaten only thin strips of artificial crab and four packets of chocolate since the night before.
“Your girlfriend, she go now, but she come back,” the sup chef suddenly says, and i notice Kali is on her moto.
“I do hope you are coming back,” i say, raising an eyebrow. She giggles and rides off into the night. I set about eating my bowl of chicken noodle soup with some gravity. And chopsticks.
Chicken, Khmer style, is prepared, i imagine, by killing the chicken and chopping and pounding it into small pieces with a heavy cleaver. The aim is to get as many small, pointed shards of bone into each piece of meat as possible.
“Mmm, chnganj,” i nod, expressing just how delicious the meal is. I pull a shard of bone out of my gums. The sup chef’s gold tooth gleams as he smiles in fluorescent glow of the roadside stall.
It’s still raining, and it’s getting cold. The mi sup mowan is hot, and, apart from the skeletal remains, extremely tasty.
When Kali comes back, she has on a warm jacket, and offers me a t-shirt that proclaims that it is quite a good idea to try to eradicate TB and is two sizes too small. I put it on over my existing t-shirt. I feel slightly warmer, at least on an emotional level.
The 75 cent soup is followed by a delicious 25 cent dessert. I don’t know what the ingredients are, only that these roadside jokers have done something amazing with fruit, covered it with shaved ice and condensed milk and it is chnganj. It starts really hammering down, and we retreat to the cover of the stall to finish our desserts.
Kali procures some plastic raincoats, which are worse than useless, and we ride back to the Lodge. She stops at the family squatting in the tin shed on the side of the road, where we’d bought the bottle of petrol earlier, and hands them a package. Something she’s bought for them at the markets. They nod in appreciation. I have no idea what it is. All i know is that by the time we arrive back at the Lodge we are completely saturated. I get off the moto and Kali waves goodbye.
“Don’t you want to come in and get dry?” i ask, making the motions of towelling dry my chest.
She stares at me as if i have just asked her if she would like me to strip her naked and ejaculate on her tits. Which, in Khmer, i suppose i very well might have. But i would have meant it in a nice way.
She shakes her head no, and smiles. “Tomorrow, party, i see you,” she says. And rides off into the rainy night.
And that is how i know she is a Nice Girl. And that is why i felt like a wanker for totally ignoring her at the Jungle Dance. Well, almost totally. I did dance with her, and i believe i did buy her a drink. However my bar tally for that night, as i found to my chagrin two days later, stood at 16 black russians. Plus a bottle of Ginseng wine and half a bottle of Cuban rum back at the bungalow, where i smoked reefers with the French girl.
Because of course, the French girl, Mikhaila, was always due to arrive at the Lodge on the Friday. And stay until Sunday. And i've never really understood the expression about birds in the hand and birds in the bushes. Because the French girl, whom I met at Chinese House while waiting for Miss Lulu Wayward, was, is, and always will be, one of the most sublimely beautiful women i have ever met. And also a Nice Girl. A Nice Girl at the bar, a Nice Girl on the dance floor, and a pool cue in the hand is worth two Nice Girls in the jungle.
Sure, Mikhaila wants to save the world. Sure, she’s vegetarian, rarely eats, rarely speaks, and has a weird black bead on a thin wire pierced through an angular high cheekbone. And carefully mussed long black hair. Sure, she’s exotic. And sure, i’ve never seen her drunk or anything other than casually elegant. And sure, she’s French and speaks English like she is laying crazy paving. In that French accent of hers. But so what?
Because after i'd filed my lazy jungle story on Saturday morning, we had ourselves a time in the afternoon, tearing up the trails of Kep Mountain on a 100cc Honda Dream, a ridiculous unit for such a trek, through rivers and over rocks, taking in waterfalls and views that simply went on forever. We visited a beautiful building called Le Bout du Monde, which translates as something like the house at the end of the world, which it is, looking out over jungle, through vines and plains of coconut trees to the islands. Everywhere on this looped jungle trail, it seems, we look out to a vista of jungle, sea and islands. We hole up high on the mountain path in a ramshackle hut as the tropical rain hammers down, peeling and eating rambutan and loganberries, smoking, and tentatively revealing our plans and individual dreams of the future.
We come down to visit the sailing club, and climb around the sea wall to sneak into the closed, private resort of Knai Bang Chatt.
The last time i went out with the French girl was after an allnighter on mushrooms, on Anandi’s river cruise. I hadn’t heard from Mikhaila for three weeks, since we’d met at Chinese House. There, she’d stood next to me to order a drink. I was waiting for Lulu. I’d asked her if she thought there was such a thing as the perfect cocktail, and, if there were, whether it would be a dacquiri, and she thought i’d said something entirely different, and our discussion eventually converged on the idea of going out on her dirt bike one day into the countryside for a ride.
“Can you ride a dirt bike?” she asked.
Can i ride a dirt bike.
Three weeks later, and not a peep. And there i am at Touk bar, about to go down to board the boat, with my friends who are all high on mushrooms, and my mobile rings, and a bizarrely accented voice says, “Thees eez Mikhaila from ze Chinese House. We can leaves tomorrow” and i’m thinking who the hell is this? And why are they trying to sell me canned leaves?
“We drank ze dacquiris together?” she says. Oh! Mikhaila. But what does she think? That i’ll just drop all my Saturday plans to go out riding in the countryside with her?
Of course she does. Of course i do.
“Tell you what. There’s a boat leaving in ten minutes, across the road from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club on Sisowath. Get down here and we’ll go for a cruise.”
Does she make the boat?
Of course she does. That’s what i like about her. She’s a bit of an adventurer. And she owns a dirt bike and rides like a demon.