Sunday, October 31, 2010


It's my last two days in Phnom Penh. I'm holed up at the Superstar with Ada and a thousand dollars in cash.

Things have gotten messy. Lea tried to kill me again yesterday. First with a knife, then with a brick. I'd told her she couldn't stay at my apartment any longer. I had reasons. Good reasons. But not good enough for Lea. For her, it was dead simple.

"Mark you leave me, I kill you."

Clearly, it's time to get out of Phnom Penh. I'm certain to run into Lea again. On the streets somewhere, at the market, in a bar. The problem is i might not see her coming. She came perilously close to finishing me off at Bodhi Villa, when she took a swing at my head with a star picket. The time before that, she split the back of my head open with one of her wooden platform shoes, before bursting into tears and driving me to hospital.

Never break up with a woman wearing platform shoes. After Lea went out to buy some water, I told the doctor i'd had a moto crash. I didn't want to embarrass her. Besides, a moto crash is a common enough occurrence here. It is so ubiquitous that when I told one of my Khmer journalists that Michael Jackson had died she replied, without a scrap of irony, 'Moto crash?'

As the doctor stitched me up, Lea came back and spoke to him in Khmer. I paid him the fifteen dollars and as I made to leave, he gave me a knowing smile and said "Next time, don't cheat on your wife." It was a wtf moment.

It's time to get out of Phnom Penh. Miss Mayhem has been messaging me for a few weeks now from New York, fearing the worst, begging me to get out. And things are beginning to get a little edgy, even for me. I've been hanging out with a couple of American gangsters, Sonny and Jay, Khmer refugees who grew up in the US before being deported for breaking the law. Here, with no family, no job, and barely able to speak the language, they are in a no-man's land where their choices are limited: do crime, or run a hip-hop school. Sonny and Jay chose the lesser of the two evils and immediately started work in drugs and prostitution.

Sonny and Jay happily showed me their varied - if relatively unimaginative - rackets. The drug trade, the strings of girls they'd run, and the illegal gambling dens. The police would finish work at 6pm then start as private security at these gambling rooms, hidden from Western eyes for the most part; instead targeting the desperately poor and superstitious Khmer. An average gambling room will take around $300 a night. An average Cambodian lives on less than $1 a day.

One of Jay's other rackets was getting people out of jail. For a thousand US, he could have the most savage convicted criminal sprung and walking Phnom Penh's streets within a day, a free man - while still to all intents and purposes an incarcerated felon on the books as being in prison. Perhaps the police simply rounded up homeless people to make up the numbers; i don't know. But Jay would put up the money, and Sonny would collect it. Sonny stayed with me for a few weeks, in my apartment opposite the Russian Embassy. He lived life on the edge, always with a pretty girl or three around, and always carrying a weapon. Last i heard, Jay had been busted with a kilo of methamphetamine and had been imprisoned for life. However i doubt he will be there for long.

I never did get to do the photo essay on the gambling dens, although i did do an extensive tour of them with Sonny over a couple of nights. I was trying to figure out how to get the photos: act the dumb tourist, or use a concealed camera. Each approach - like most things on the criminal fringe - had its pros and its cons.

Ada lights a pipe as we watch the music videos on TV. I've given her most of my stuff; she and her family are desperately poor. Clothes, a pocket knife, a leather belt, some after shave. I'll leave her what's left of the smoke when it's time to go to the airport: there is no way we can get through all of it, try as we might over the course of this 48-hour drug-fuelled bender. I dial room service and order more Asahi beer.

Ada took care of me one time, months back, when i was evicted from my apartment and had no money. She took me to her shack on the railway line, wrapping me in a krama and showing me how to wash using the earthenware pot outside. We ate fish and rice with our hands, drank ginseng wine mixed with yoghurt, and slept on wooden planks covered with a thin blanket and a mosquito net. Ada shared her small room with six friends and family. My French friend Mikhaila worked for an NGO down the tracks, running a school there. These French kids were providing what Hun Sen's government could not: education for the children along the railway line.

"Mark you stay with me here?" Ada had asked, waving at the timber walls. She'd literally kicked her mother out of the bed the night before. I shook my head. No. But thank you.

She asks me the same thing at Superstar.

"Mark you stay with me here?"
Ada, you know i have to go. I have a plane to catch tomorrow. I need to find a job.
"Mark you come back for Ada?"
If you want.
"I want."

Ada and i meet Mikhaila at Dodo Rhum on Street 178 the next afternoon. We're high as kites and can barely walk. Mikhaila has offered to give me a ride to the airport on her 250. Remy pours me a Martinique rum with fresh coconut. I'm going to miss Remy, but i will miss his spectacular rums a whole lot more. He pours me another. I bid farewell to Ada, and climb on the back of the dirt bike. Mikhaila belts down the street in her inimitable, fearless fashion, tearing up Norodom and out along Russian Boulevard towards the airport.

"Mark, why are you so stupeeed?" Mikhaila shouts in her usual straightforward fashion. It's a fair question, and one I am not at all unfamiliar with. "Zat girl, ow old eez she?"

She's 22, i say.
"And why you zink Ada wants to be wiz you? She eez 22, she eez beautiful, why you zink she is wiz you?"I know what she is getting at. But i don't point out the obvious. Mikhaila is also 22, and even more beautiful. But i'm not paying her for the ride, either.
I don't know, i shout back.
"You are so stupeeed!"

Mikhaila refuses my offer of fuel money at the airport. She kisses me on both cheeks, kicks the bike into gear, and is gone. On to India, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia. I'll see her again. Somewhere. I pay my departure tax and and make my way across the tarmac to the Bangkok Airways jet.

At Suvarnhabhumi Airport i swallow forty milligrams of Valium, four little blue pills, before boarding the plane for Perth. The idea of Perth is just too desultory. Later i am shaken awake and stumble through customs, where they search my bag and ask why i am carrying so many little blue pills. I have around a hundred.

Because they were so cheap, i slur. They let me through.

True to my word to Ada, i'm back in Phnom Penh two months later, back in the shack on the railway line. I turn up with as little as possible, as I know i can't live out here, even for two weeks, without most of my gear getting stolen. I'd been hanging around Laos and Angkor Wat for a couple of weeks, waiting for my dole cheque to come through, which of course it never did. So i stole two old paperback books from the hotel, sold them for food, then borrowed $20 from the bureau chief in Siem Reap for a bus ticket. I disembark from the overnight bus in Phnom Penh at 5am, carrying a Nikon, some film, a few clothes, and 500 riel - around twelve cents. Not nearly enough for a moto. I shoulder my pack and head north west, towards the the railway line.


Anonymous said...


sarah toa said...

Beautiful, Mark.

sarah toa said...

I assume the photographs are of Ada. She has an interesting face, in the best of ways. really gorgeous.
Anyway: DBC Pierre - any good? gonna write a review? I've read that the storyline was only just holding together, in one review and then another that it is brilliant. Guess I should read it myself.
And the swordfish image? WTF?
Anyhoo ... you gonna talk up your lastest and favourite colour indigo anytime soon? (Well done by the way.)