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.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


During all the time I lived in Leederville, my parents only ever came to visit me once. Later in life - much later, after a lengthy period in which I did my very best to simulate a normal lifestyle – later in life, they came to visit me more often. Twice, I think. But back then in the bad old days I was living underground in the city. Quite literally, holed up in my basement sound recording studio in the central business district, and, more figuratively, in a series of cheap rented houses around the city. Large, rambling old places which were, once I relinquished tenancy, invariably demolished. Or, as some would argue, further demolished.

But my parents did come visit me in Leederville once. They came to visit for some quite banal, innocuous reason, and were no doubt surprised to see the paddy wagon parked in my driveway. They were forced to park on the verge. They were even more surprised to see their son bustled out onto his wooden verandah between the shoulders of two burly blue-suited detectives from Belmont. The detectives had just placed me under arrest for possession of an unlicensed firearm. The timing of my parents' visit was, to say the least, unfortunate.

“Oh, hi mum,” I said to my ashen-faced mother in passing. “It’s not as bad as it looks - ” before they pushed me inside the van and slammed the door shut. I waved to my mother through the square, steel-mesh window “I’ll call you later, ok?” Smiling, holding an opposable finger and thumb to my ear.

My father did not look so surprised. He just looked the same way he always looks: like someone standing in the rain on a desolate stretch of freeway next to a broken-down second-hand car at night holding a warranty that expired the day before.

Bad timing. Jung would call it synchronicity.

I would just call it a bitch.

Saturday, June 26, 2010


“My sister, she sick,” Lea says. “We take her some money and some food, ok?”

She is standing in the doorway of the large, tiled bathroom, hands on hips. She’s been on her mobile for the past ten minutes, talking in Khmer. I scrape a blunt razor across my face. I’m late for work. We’ve been up most the night - and now deadline day is looming for the magazine. I wash away the shaving cream and look in the mirror. But not for long. Hollowed cheeks. Black rings under the eyes. Hair all over the place like a mad woman’s shit.

“We go later, after work.” I spray some aftershave. Walk into the bedroom. Pull on a shirt. ID tags. “Where my glasses?” She finds them on the top of the TV.
“Sophea, she sick. She die soon.” Lea says this off-handedly, as if saying we had better hurry up or we’ll miss the bus. I pull the balcony doors closed, with their blue-lacquered, wrought iron security, and lace one of the heavy Solex padlocks through the steel hoops. “Keep these shut if you want the aircon open, OK? What, you want to keep the coconut sellers cool down there on the street?”
Lea laughs. “Fuck you Mark. You so lop lop.”

We visited Sophea a couple of months ago, the morning Lea and i set off to ride the motorcycle up to Siem Reap. Then, too, i had given Sophea food, and money. Then, too, she was supposedly sick, although she looked ok. She certainly had a big smile when we gave her the fresh fruit, vegetables, dried fish, and cash.
“Lea, i’m late for work. I go work now, lu luoen, lu louen. We see Sophea later.”
Lea shakes her head.
“You give me money, I go see her.”

Lea’s younger sister lives in a small room down past the Russian Embassy, where Sisowath turns in to Mao Tse Tung. Not so far from work, but further down the boulevard, behind the furniture shops with their endless rattan arrays of tables, chairs, shelves. I figure we can pick up some food at Kandal market, drop it to Sophea, and i can still make the paper by 11. The hard news team – national, world news, the photographers, editor-in-chief – are all there by nine, but no one from the lifestyle desk deigns to show up before 11. The news team only gave me a hard time about this once.
“You guys stick to news, i'll stick to lifestyle. A lifestyle editor needs two things: a life, and some style.”

“No,” i say to Lea. “You come with me, we go to old market, we go see Sophea, then you take me to work. OK?”
“Yes sir,” she says.
“And stop calling me sir.”
“Yes sir Mister Makroy.” She laughs, pulling on her yellow slippers, the fluffy ones with the smiley faces. She looks ridiculous in pyjamas and slippers, but hey. It's her country.

Downstairs they’ve opened the shop. My scooter is locked up out on the road. Harmon, the grey-haired old American bleeding heart, abandons his breakfast, eager to show me his latest project. It’s a full-scale papier-mâché table, complete with papier-mâché chairs. He wants the kids in the village to manufacture them.
“You know, i’m pretty sure I can find a market for these,” he drawls. What a senseless idea. It's good old American entrepreneurial drive, gone troppo. The heat has gotten to him. I wave him away. He’s a basket case.

Lea drives. I cling to her skinny hips as she blithely navigates the chaotic carnage of the Phnom Penh streets. She loves driving the scooter. It’s new, it’s black and red, it has anime graphics, and it’s automatic. She gets a kick out of telling her friends that i bought it for her, but of course it’s hired - at a special rate from my friend Kieran at Kung Fu Bar. Lea uses it by day, and we scoot around the city by night. When i need a real bike, i borrow Kieran's CB 400. Much more fun.

I must admit, i do get a laugh whenever Lea drives me to work in her pyjamas. It’s quite common for Cambodian women to wear pyjamas around town during the daytime. But that doesn’t make it any less funny. Lea pads around Kandal Market in her smiling yellow slippers, laughing with the ladies as they fill my bag with fruit, dried fish, rice, and takeaway lok lak.

Once inside the steel shuttered door, which opens from an alley off Mao Tse Tung, i see Sophea lying on the concrete floor of her bathroom, at one end of her small but neat home. Her hair is plastered over her face, her body and clothes drenched in sweat. Her head is over a pool of vomit, and she is dry retching, her body wracked with spasms. A handful of blue pills lie among the brown mess, and she is clutching her mobile phone.

Lea crosses the room and crouches beside her sister, talking quietly in Khmer. She fills a cup of water and fetches a towel. Taking a ladle out of the ceramic pot, the one that holds the water to flush the toilet, she washes the vomit down the drain. Sophea replies to Lea in her quiet, lilting, bird-like voice, almost inaudibly, as she pulls her hair back from her delicate cheekbones. Her voice is soft and weak. She is telling Lea something about her head, the back of her head. It hurts there. I help Lea lift Sophea up from the floor and we walk her to her mattress. She is shaking badly, her pain almost visible. I feel her forehead. She is terribly hot, burning hot. We lie her down on her bed. She shakes her head, no, and crawls onto the cold concrete floor by the mattress, lying on her side. Her breathing is shallow. She is shivering and shaking. Suddenly she smiles at me.
“Hello Mark, how are you?”

How am I?

“We’ve got to get her fever down,” i whisper to Lea. “We need aspirin, and we need to get her to a hospital. Is there a doctor around here? Can we take her to Naga Clinic? Why isn’t she in hospital?”
“She need ten dollars. She no have ten dollars.” Lea shrugs, and takes the towel to the kitchen sink. She runs it under the tap, then crouches beside her sister, wiping her forehead, neck, arms.
“She sick same same before?”
Lea nods. “Yes, same same before.”
“Where she sick? How?”
Lea puts her hand on her stomach. “Too hot here - now too hot here.” She puts her hand on the back of her head.
I touch my forehead. “Here? Same?”
“Same, same before. When she sick here.” Lea puts her hand on her stomach again. “You know, when you like…Mark, you member when I burn my hand here?” she points to a tiny scar by the base of her thumb. “You member, I burn my hand here, with…how you say, happy birthday?”
“Happy birthday?” This is getting surreal. Lea looks exasperated. “You know Makroy, happy birthday, happy birthday.” She makes as if she is flicking a lighter.
“Oh. A candle?”
“Yes, you know a candle, you member i burn my hand with a candle here. Sophea sick like that, only inside, here - and here.” This is making very little sense. “The doctor, he make picture.”
“Uh huh. Can I see it?”
Lea talks to Sophea, who raises a thin arm and points to a rattan shelf.
“Yes sir.” Lea comes back with a sheaf of papers, and what looks like an ultrasound image. The medical documents are all in French. The image shows a dark patch where Sophea’s liver might be. Two smaller ones either side of the base of her spine. Cancer? i whisper to myself.
“Tumour?” I whisper to Lea, pointing at the dark area. She looks at Sophea.
“I dunno,” Lea says.

I try to make sense of the French doctor’s clinical notes. A waste of time, I decide. She’ll die from the fever alone if we don’t do something soon. I hand Lea a crumpled pile of notes, a few thousand riel.
“Go to the pharmacy, get some aspirin.” While she is gone i get Speedy on the phone. He says he can’t do the taxi at the moment, and gives me another number. His friend can’t do the taxi either. Sophea waves her hand, weakly. “Mark,” she says. “Is ok. I so sorry.”
“No, no, it’s fine, don’t worry. We'll get you to the hospital.” I feel her forehead. You could fry an egg on it. Sophea stops shivering and starts sweating again. I put more cold water on the towel, wiping her neck and her brow. She takes a sip of water and lies back down, talking, something about a movie, something she has seen on TV. I don’t understand what she is saying.

Lea comes back in with a handful of pills. Ibuprofen.
“This is not aspirin, Lea.”
“Same, same,” she says.
“But different?”
She laughs. “Fuck you Mark.”
Is ibuprofen any good for a fever? I can’t remember. I don’t know. I get on my mobile and call Dr John in Australia.
“Yeah mate, ibuprofen will help take down a fever. How many milligrams? OK - give her two now, two in an hour. No, the codeine won’t matter. Just keep her cool, a high fever will kill her. Get her in a cold bath. With ice."
I explain there is no bathtub, let alone a refrigerator. Let alone ice.
“Cold towels. Water. Just keep her cool; get those pills into her. What's she got? She coughing? Sore joints? Swollen glands?”
“Don’t know mate. Hard to get a straight answer. Not sure she’ll keep these pills down. I’ll call you back.” Lea holds Sophea’s head and hand as she swallows two pills, then she turns to me.
“Before, she take her medicine, last of her medicine, she take, but no good, no can keep inside,” Lea says. “She sick.”
“Tell her she’s got to keep these down,” I say. I look dumbly at my phone. “I can’t find a taxi.”
“I get tuk-tuk,” says Lea. “Taxi driver no good.” She puts her head out the door. “Tuk-tuk!” she shouts. “Lu luoen, lu luoen!”

The hospital costs two hundred dollars, bit by bit, over two days. Everything is pay as you go. The medicine. The IV drip. The blood tests. The X-rays. The food. The bed. The water. When she arrived, Sophea had a temperature of 41.9. So. What was I supposed to do? Say, sorry, Sophea, not my problem. I have to go now. I have a lifestyle magazine to do.

Give the doctors the money, they’ll take the money and she won’t get treated. Give her the money – well. She’s not likely to stay in hospital.
Sophea seems to be putting up with the doctors’ prodding and probing good-naturedly, as if to humour me – to thank me, in her way. She doesn’t much believe in any of it. Lea comes back from the market with a small bunch of bananas, some lychees, and some incense. She gives her sister a yoghurt drink then takes me outside. We place the pathetic offerings on the Buddhist shrine outside the emergency ward. Lea lights the incense and bows her head, holding her hands silent contemplation. This, it seems, is the only thing that can help her sister. This is the only thing to do to keep her smiling. And when we return to the ward, where the mosquitoes circle lazily, Sophea is indeed sitting up, smiling.

“Is ok, Mark,” she explains. “No worry. I see you next lifetime.”
She lies back down and closes her eyes, still smiling. She’s deranged, I think. They must have filled that saline drip full of fucking LSD.

The next day Lea and I arrive at the hospital with another hundred US dollars. I go out for food, and when I return, Lea meets me at the gate. She takes me to the other side of the hospital grounds, past buildings that still stand shattered from the Khmer Rouge. We go upstairs to the second floor, where I meet some Western doctors. An American woman in a white coat explains her cell count is low enough for her to qualify for free medicine at what she explains is a non-government clinic. I sign a form for Sophea, and Lea and i are taken in a small white van back to the emergency ward, back to Sophea’s bedside. Her fever is down now, and she is no longer in pain. She is weak and wants to go home. She smiles, and says something in her sing-song Khmer to Lea.

“She want to talk to you,” Lea says, and leaves, going out onto the verandah to talk with the relatives of the old woman in the bed next to us. Sophea beckons me over. I sit on the bed.
“Mark, thank you for help me,” she says. She puts out her hand and I take it in both of mine. “Now I tell you…I…I…” but her lower lip starts to quiver as she squeezes my hand hard and looks down. "I have the HIV.”
She starts to cry. “Mark, I tell you because you my brother.”
I hold her as she cries some more.
She’s only 26, I keep thinking. She’s only 26.
“I so sorry,” she says.
“Shh. It’s ok. It’s ok.”

Me, I don’t cry. Not til I get back to work, when I try to explain where I’ve been these past two days.

1984 ~ 2010

Sunday, May 16, 2010


I've never seen such a mirror ball. From the darkened mezzanine, i watch as it rotates in a gigantic, slow saturnalia, its rings of light flashing from the shiny surfaces of the distant bar and the jewellery of the dancers below. It's big.

We are the only Westerners in the club, a club tricked out with the gaudiest of Phnom Penh's elite, in their brutal hate couture. Women with hair piled high over hooped earrings are gambolling in the flickering light with men dressed as characters from a Korean soap opera, their carefully mussed hair and flashy rings underlining the fact that their countrymen are living on a dollar a day. With their ostentatious wealth and their power to chronically abuse power, they are relaxing this Friday night, taking a break from selling the land out from underneath its people.

Neal is dressed, as always, in a suit and tie. With his mate Travis, and Travis's wife, Sokleang, we have ramshackled our way through the chaotic streets in a tuk tuk in search of Holiday, otherwise known as Manhattan Club. It's duplicitous namesake makes it difficult to find. But we're here. It's an old army trick, assigning code names to crucial rendezvous points. Try finding Snowy's, for instance, where one can sit and sip cocktails and watch the sun set over the river from a precariously perched verandah - a verandah which will, in all likelihood, and in the very near future, topple headlong into the slow-moving, lily-strewn Mekong, taking the bar and all its inebriated customers with it - Snowy's, where one can sit and watch the sun set over the river - if only one can find the damn place. No easy task, given the bar is actually called Maxine's.

After locating Holiday, Neal leads us through a glistening wet car park towards a garishly lit entrance, beneath a neon sign which reads 'Manhattan Club'. "You can usually score ketamine around here," Neal says, waving a stylishly suited arm around at flash Hummers, fancy cars, and a dalliance of young men and women in the shadows. He pauses for a moment, and we stop and stand with him, in the torpid, humid aroma of Phnom Penh's streets after rain, half expecting someone to step forward and proffer a plastic bag. If we were lakeside, or even riverside, there would be no end of shamelessly unimaginative entrepreneurs on hand to offer us drugs. But this is the high end, the pointy end, of the Cambodian netherworld. These kids are connected to generals and ministers - their money comes from on high, not from the street.

But why would anyone with half a brain left would want to score ketamine, i wonder as the doorman pats us down for weapons. It's beyond me. I remember trying special K with Mickey T a couple of years ago, back when Miss Mayhem was staying with us in Carnarvon. As you do, in an outback town where one form of after-hours entertainment is to snort Bundaberg rum until it comes out your eyeballs. We began experimenting after the local veterinary surgeon gave Mickey T a couple of vials to administer to his injured dog. But i had other ideas - as did Mickey T, who, after curing his dog's bad shoulder with reiki, handed the drugs over to me. We medicated ourselves and dropped quickly and drastically into the k-hole. Barely able to move, we could not speak at all - only growl, or occasionally bark, while rolling about on the floor. Which frightened poor Miss Mayhem, when she came home from work, nearly out of her wits.

But Neal seems intent on the ketamine experience, so, after the waitress arrives with our drinks, i peel my ears and mingle with the crowd on the mezzanine, sipping on my Heineken and looking about. I hear Neal ask the waitress to go find him a girl. I shake my head, counting in it the number of times he's asked me to do the exact same thing. He can't seem to pick out a girl for his own self - probably because he can't actually see. The girls need to be brought within a few inches of his designer frames. I bump into a well-dressed, thick set Khmer man, who turns around and surprises me by asking in English where i am from.

"Australia. But i like it here better. It's more fun."
"Ah. And you are looking for fun tonight?" He lights a cigarette.
I look around and nod. "Always looking for fun."
"Too easy," he says. "There's plenty of girls." He raises his head and blows a plume of smoke over the handrail in the direction of the dance floor. The waitress reappears at the top of the stair with a dumpy-looking girl wearing too much eye-shadow. She takes a quick look at Neal from underneath her false eyelashes before turning abruptly and walking back down the stairs.

"I'm not looking for a girl," i say.
He nods. "So. You want ketamine?"
My eyebrows shoot up. This really is too easy.
"Yes. I mean, no. My friend wants some." I nod at Neal, standing a few metres away. "Any around?" Neal glares at me, and beckons me over hastily.
The Khmer puts his hand on my shoulder. "Wait here, my friend." He slips away into the crowd. The mirror ball rotates ever slowly as the music gets ever louder. I slalom through the crowd to Neal, who grabs me by the arm and leans in, whispering in my ear.
"What do you think are you doing? You've got to watch yourself here. That guy is a gangster."
"Just asking about some K."
"Are you crazy? You don't just ask those guys for K. This isn't lakeside." I nod, and sip on my beer. "Why don't you go and find us some girls?" I shrug, and walk over to the bright chromium rail. I look down at the crowd. A pretty Khmer woman in a white fur coat looks up from the dance floor. I smile. She smiles back. So they do wear fur coats here. And i thought all that Japanese clothing sent as aid - with little regard for Cambodia's location in the tropics - was only bought by barang on their way back to the chill north of the hemisphere. But i doubt this woman bought that coat from Tokyo Thrift.

She returns to dancing with her female friend, who is equally expensively dressed, minus the fashion model looks. She glances up at me again, and i raise my drink. She smiles. I turn around and the Khmer gangster is standing there in front of me with his fist clenched. He raises his fist, slowly, until it is just below the level of my eyes. Right in my face. I dart a glance at Neal, who is standing, frozen, watching for the inevitable attack. The gangster smiles, and i see there is a line of white powder on the uppermost side of his fist, between thumb and clenched fingers.

Photo: Safari Bob

Neal buys fifty dollars worth, which gets us a lounge outside a private room on the mezzanine, and an unending supply of horse tranquilizer. The gangster sits with us and sets about disengaging our minds from our bodies. After a couple more lines i'm happily giddy, and tell Neal i'm going downstairs to find him a girl. He grins, and does another line from a plate which has appeared from who knows where. The kitchen.

I float downstairs to the girl in the polar bear coat. She speaks no English. And i can barely speak at all. The music is way loud. I point upstairs, then lean in to her ear and say: "Party? You? Your friend?" which comes out sounding like "woof woof woof." She shakes her head no. I shrug, and float back upstairs. The party has moved on from the lounge to a stainless steel table, where we have a new round of beers. My gangster friend is giggling like a lunatic at something Sokleang is saying. He beckons me over for another beer and a line. A security guard appears, dressed in black, his uniform bearing markings in the style of a New York cop.

Torch in hand, the security guard walks over and shines the light onto our plate. I thank him and do another line. This is no Carnarvon K-hole. This really is 'too easy'. I start to giggle. This seems the understatement of the decade. The security guards are helping us do lines. I waft over to the rail and the polar bear girl and her friend look up and see me. I can't help laughing. They laugh back, and, after a brief exchange of words, head up the stairs.

After a couple of lines. the polar bear girl sidles up to me and Neal begins dancing, quite up close and personal, with her friend. They're drinking and having a good time. I'm feeling kind of warm and fuzzy. Or is that the coat? After a few more drinks, i notice Neal has turned a distinct shade of green. He has backed away from the dancing girl, and begun an urgent, whispered discussion with Travis and Sokleang. They both look at the girl, still blithely dancing away, and shake their heads. Something is wrong. Neal looks even more sweaty than usual. Positively uncomfortable. I beckon Travis over.

"What's wrong?"
Travis shakes his head. "Neal is convinced the girl is a ladyboy."
I snort into my drink, and beer froths everywhere. "You've got to be joking."
"I know. She clearly isn't, but we can't convince him otherwise." Travis shrugs.
My head starts to spin. Ladyboys? Oh dear. What have i done? Now even i am not so sure. The coat. The makeup. I feel giddy, and sit down on a couch far too quickly, dragging the polar bear with me. She laughs and her nails dig into my skin. Suddenly i remember the story of the friend of my late wife, the one who climbed into the concrete polar bear pen at the Perth zoo while on acid and was torn apart in front of his horrified, tripping friends. Oh god. Ladybears. What have i done. I look desperately around, but there is no escape. I am surrounded by polar bears. My legs refuse to move, as legs will inevitably do in a nightclub, or is it a nightmare? as the impending disaster draws ever near. And i begin to realise, too late, just how easily a fine mind is lost to the lure of the K-hole.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


The Prince D'Angkor Hotel. King Sihanouk himself and his royal entourage are rumoured to have stayed in this four-star resort in the French Quarter of Angkor Wat's tourist mecca town. So why shouldn't i? Never let poor accommodation get in the way of a good story, i say.

Held at XBar in Siem Reap, the second annual Porkula 1 is an event on Cambodia's social events calendar not to be missed. Or so i tell my senior editor when i request two return air tickets plus expenses to cover the event for the social pages. Thankfully he is so deeply involved in his own personal crises, as he lurches from one disaster to the next, that he scarcely notices any requisitions i file for supplies, or claims i make for expenses. I mean, i didn't even make it to the Tonle Sap lake to file the story on the seasonal snake harvest after my interpreter failed to turn up at midnight at the agreed bar. But i still had the expenses in my hand. And after a while, the barman had most of the expenses in his hand as meanwhile i fell out of a tuk tuk on my arrival at the Pontoon nightclub in the early hours. But such is the nature of journalism.

So when i booked Elvira and i into a deluxe suite at no charge at the Prince D'Angkor, it is on the somewhat surprising premise that i would write a feature article on their hotel. Surprising in the fact that i did eventually write a feature article on their hotel, for which they were very grateful - so grateful in fact that they allowed me back six months later, with a murderous and meth-addicted bar girl in tow, to write another one. And they even gave us a better suite. But when i was there with Elvira, i very nearly didn't file anything at all. I was lucky remain in a sanguine state long enough to collect sufficient notes to file any kind of story whatsoever.

You see, Elvira, fresh off the plane from a London-based motorcycling magazine, is very keen on her marijuana. But then, she is very keen on a whole number of things. There is no shortage of enthusiasm or energy with Elvira. It radiates from her in the newsroom like shrapnel from a landmine as she hurls instructions about like ninja stars. Oh, but i'm a big fan of shouting in newsrooms. It's up there with pig racing, believe me.

It was because of Elvira's predilection for the herb that we wound up at a happy pizza shop near Pub Street a few hours before the chequered flag was due to fall. There is a whole street of these herbal pizzerias. In typically Asian fashion, all the shops of one type tend to be concentrated in one area - be it plumbing supplies, carved wooden sword shops, or eateries. If you walk down this particular street you will see a sign with a happy face proclaiming Happy Pizza, followed by another with a happier but more stoned-looking face, tongue lolling, which is the shopfront for Extra Happy Pizza. Then there is Ecstatic Pizza, with a caricature on the shop display with a face like a necrophiliac making love to Janis Joplin. I think we eventually ate at We Are Totally Off Our Fucking Tits On Ridiculously Barmy Pizza Which Is Pretty Much All Marijuana With No Actual Nutritional Value Which Is Why We Are So Fucking Happy Pizza. Or something along those lines.

The pizza was my first mistake. It was upon checking back into the hotel suite, in preparation for the races, that the panic struck.

"Oh, god, what if there's nobody there tonight?" i wail at Elvira. I'd been up to XBar the night before for a quiet drink, and believe me, it was a quiet drink. There was, apart from me, only two people in the bar. And they were the bar staff. At the time i figured i was just early. A quiet night. XBar is open late, and warms up as the other bars close down. But tonight, after the four slices of Extra Happy kicked in, i am paranoid.

"What if nobody comes?" i repeat.
Elvira is playing around with the buttons on the console by the bed, switching the lights on and looking around the room to see where they come on, then switching them off again.
"Oh this is good. And look, you can turn on the television from here." She switches the TV on. A frantic Khmer melody fills the room, and we watch as a heavily made-up woman in a bright green dress begins to methodically destroy our remaining peace of mind. "Do you want room service?" Elvira asks. "I'm hungry. Where's the menu? Oh, here it is. How about a drink?"
She goes back to the buttons, and starts pushing one button relentlessly. "Where's the make-up room?" She looks to the bathroom as she presses the button, but to no avail.
"Who am i going to photograph if no-one turns up?" I shake my head. I can't come back with absolutely nothing for Monday's page 17. Anything i write on the hotel won't be published until the magazine comes out. I need social pictures, with a story on an event. "I suppose i could just photograph the pigs," i say.

Elvira doesn't appear to be listening. She is talking to herself and the TV is very loud. I go to the bedside table to study the console. There are buttons for the bathroom, the sofa and balcony, the bed left and right, the main room, and the make-up room.
"Where is the make-up room?" i ask, and pressing the button.
Elvira is now looking at the menu. "What do you want from room service? I'm having the filet mignon and a Bloody Mary."
"Do you think i could just shoot the pigs?" I ask. After all, she is the National News Editor. She must have some news sense. "I mean, they've all got names. And sponsors. If no-one actually turns up for the racing, i suppose we could just publish a social page full of pigs' faces with their names underneath. What do you think? Would anyone notice? I'll have the pasta marinara. And an Asahi. Maybe there's one in the fridge." I press the make-up room switch again, and it glows green. I look around. "I would have thought it would have been above the dresser, where your jewellery is."

The make-up room switch is my second mistake. Because there is no light above the dresser. Meanwhile, Elvira has changed channels, and a different woman is wailing loudly on the television, now tuned to a long-running Cambodian soap opera. Someone is beating her, slapping her back and forth across the face repeatedly with an open hand. This seems to go on for quite some time. I take the remote from Elvira and press MUTE. The slapping continues, only silently. Elvira picks up the phone and orders the food, then begins to ramble something about the motorcycle magazine, hashish, and narrow roads. In my mind's eye, i'm picturing the Out and About page full of pigs' faces, with their names captioned neatly underneath. It should work. But i'm starting to feel paranoid. I haven't had pot in ages and the happy pizza has hit me like a sledgehammer. There is no way i can go out to a bar. There is no way i can even leave this room. What if there are people out there? I try the make-up room switch again - on, off, on, off - but nothing in the room is changing. Except Elvira's ranting has now increased to a full-blown holler to fill the void left by the mute tv. "Test riding a Ducati, now there's a job. I remember one time out on one of the back lanes, i'd just crested a hill, when -" I point the TV remote at her and press MUTE, only half-joking. "You're ranting," i say. "The windows are open, all the lights are on, the TV was on full - we must be making one hell of a racket."
"Oh, did i tell you? I'm ADHD," she says. "Whenever i take marijuana, i just go ballistic."
I sit down suddenly on the bed. There is a knock at the door. "That was quick," she says. "I'm starving."

I open the door on two short, identical-looking Khmer maids who stand staring silently at me with an accusing glare. White towels in hand. No trays of food and drink. Here's trouble, i think. They just stand there, staring at me.
"Please - sir - turn down - room?" one of them says, eventually, in halting English.
"Of course. Yes. I'm sorry." I shut the door on them and walk back into the suite.
"Where's the food?" asks Elvira.
"Maids," i explain. "I told you. We're making too much noise. They want us to shut up. Oh, god, there's no way i can go out tonight. The room is spinning." I sit down on the bed again, wishing i could make it to the bathroom and splash cold water on my face. I'm suddenly extremely thirsty, and my mouth and throat are parched. "I need a beer. I'm totally paranoid. No-one is going to be at the pig racing. Where's the camera, anyway? Oh god, a page full of pigs' faces."
"What utter nonsense," says Elvira. "It's the deluxe suite. We can make as much noise as we damn well like. What did they actually say, Mister Paranoid, if you don't mind me asking?"
I mimic the maid's voice. "'Please, sir, turn down room.' Maybe we can get away with it, just this once. Maybe it's actually a brilliant idea. It's just what this town needs. Like when i ran a one-off shooting page in Carnarvon, with a picture a dead and bloodied goat someone had shot, after Bazza forgot to file his fishing column." Elvira pauses for the first time since we returned from happy pizza. A strange look comes over her face
"Oh god," she says.
"Turn down room. They want to turn down the fucking bed!" She walks briskly over to the console beside the bed. "The fucking hyphen!" she moans. "Why are there no decent sub-editors in this godforsaken country?"
"What are you babbling about?" I walk over and stare at where her finger is pointing, accusingly, at the lit "Make-up room" button.
"There is no make-up room. We've been asking them to make up the room."
I pause as this sinks in. There is another knock at the door.
"No," i say. "We've been asking them to make up the room, then not make up the room. Then make up the room. Then not make up the room."
Elvira begins to laugh. "Make up the room. No, actually, don't. On second thoughts, do. Yes, make up the room."
"No, don't make up the room." I collapse into a fit of laughter. "Make up the room." Elvira staggers to the door to open it for the room service waiter, who enters with two silver trays. We are falling about the place, unable to stop laughing. There are tears rolling down my cheeks.
"Those poor maids," i sputter. "I said, 'Yes, of course' and shut the door in their faces." We clutch our sides, unable to control our laughter. Not so much, i suppose, because doing things to annoy hotel staff is so very funny. But more because there is a good reason why they call it 'happy pizza'.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010


(Written for The Phnom Penh Post 2009)

Bareback buffalo racing is a spectacle not to be missed – so why do so few tourists witness this annual event in this small Cambodian village? It’s hard to understand why this is not one of Cambodia’s premier tourist events.

Whereas Spain has its running of the bulls, the small village of Vihear Suor, just 50 kilometres northeast of Phnom Penh, has its buffalo racing. That’s right. Buffalo races, the likes of which are held nowhere else in Cambodia.

Horns and heads bedecked and bejewelled, these krobei are quite a sight – and when a loose herd of them get moving amongst the crowd at speed, it is scarcely less chaotic and spectacular than Pamplona. And, at times, just as terrifying. When these guys race, there is no holding them back. With nothing but a thin rope through their mounts’ nostrils, a pair of bareback racers whip their wilful beasts along at an astounding pace.

Appearing seemingly out of nowhere, a trio of buffaloes pound their way underneath a temple archway and along a narrow, muddied track to the finishing line. That’s around a tonne of unpredictable animal hurtling past a seething throng of wildly cheering spectators. Then they turn around, line up, and race back. And did I mention the wrestling? And the bareback horse racing? And the sideshows?

Oh. And did I mention the mud?

Though it is utterly amazing to stand back and watch these Khmer buffalo-wranglers pelt through the crowds lining the clay quagmire that serves as a racetrack, it is another thing altogether negotiating a similarly torturous “road” for 20 kilometres or so from the ferry on Highway 6. The wet clay is so slippery you can barely stand upright on it, let alone ride a bike. Particularly when you chose a fast and flashy Honda street bike with slick tyres, as opposed to a far more practical dirt bike, for the trip.

Clay is soft, at least – a quality I found most appealing when the bike slipped out from underneath me. And I wasn’t the only one who came unstuck along this treacherous road. Perhaps it is this perilous journey that explains why the Vihear Suor buffalo races are not so high on the average tourist’s “must-see” list.

To add insult to injury, the races are held at the height of the rainy season. And the 7am start time – meaning a 5:30am departure from the capital – also deters most Westerners. I counted just six barang amongst the thousands of visiting Khmer villagers. But why some budding local entrepreneur doesn’t organise a bus tour to this event I have no idea. Because believe it or not, it was worth all the mud and bruises.

There is no betting or prize money for these races. It is just part of the tradition of the Pchum Ben festival in this village, part of the spirituality of the gathering. The horns of the beasts are wrapped in the same cloth as the monks’ robes. And the decorative pieces on the pointy end aren’t just there for decoration – they also provide protection for the riders.

Apart from the unique spectacle of buffalo racing, I was equally entranced by the wildly entertaining bareback horse racing. Children climbed trees and the temple archway for a better view, while orange-robed monks and beautifully adorned women lined the track to be spattered with mud along with the rest of us. The buffalo disappeared from the races early, however, and by around nine o’clock the racing was all but over.

People continued to observe Pchum Ben at the pagoda; vendors continued selling their food; people threw darts at a wall of balloons at the sideshow. Hundreds more headed to the ring to watch the Khmer wrestling. Meanwhile, I tracked down a buffalo for a quick ride. Having negotiated the roads to Vihear Suor on a motorbike, and taken a ferry across the Mekong, the opportunity to add buffalo to the day’s modes of transport was too great to resist.

Not that I rode very far. Or fast. But was it worth the trek? I’d venture an unequivocal “yes”. And if two-wheeled clay skating is not your thing, there is always the shared taxi, albeit costly over the holiday period.

If you do manage to get there, intact, the colourful chaos that is Vihear Suor buffalo racing is a day at the races you are never likely to forget.