Hit Cambodia for four days with Dewey. In the end it’s an amazingly weird thing to be married to a Korean woman. To have been busted as a lecherous bastard and to then less then a year later to allow me a trip with another known lecher to the most lecherous spot in Asia; this is beyond my own comprehension. But I’ve learned to go with the flow without question. To question it would be more dangerous, playing on thin ice as they say.
Phnom Penh itself is a trip, though I barely lurked beyond the seedy block I initially landed. Why try and be a normal law-abiding tourist in that seething, glaring, blinding and crippling heat? The first morning there when we attempted to walk along the river Dewey almost feinted from it, his ever-growing obesity causing him to completely wet his clothing. But that wasn’t even our first entrance, that morning.
We’d actually arrived the night before right at 11 p.m., just in time to watch the depravity come full swing. The street 136, as well as the rest of the city, barely ever makes it beyond two-stories tall, giving it a wild-west feel in the Hollywood sense. Though the architecture is French, as opposed to Tombstone or Silverado.
The streets around 136 are literally lined with brothels, all of them simply seething in skin. Every bar has fifteen girls to each guy, and every girl throws herself at every man. If you have shoulder, neck or back pain you’re in seventh heaven with all those fingers wringing your neck and asking for a drink. But in fact they don’t insist you even buy yourself a drink. I managed to sit on a bar’s balcony and watch the day go by without so much as glancing at the menu. Nothing but an ice water.
I don’t remember much of that first night but I do remember the next morning. Dewey bursting into my room at 11 p.m. with a slender young hooker casually petting his bare cornflake and drool flecked chest of hair, his freshly-dyed forelock flapping over his bald spot like an abominable admix of SNL’s Ed Grimly and Kingpin’s Eddie McCracken.
“You look like Kramer barging in here,” I tell him.
“Hey Sonny!” he says.
“Go get a shower and dressed,” I say. He wobbles off to his room, hooker and myself in tail. His room is covered in expensive gifts for the girl. So much chocolate cheesecake, pizza, purses, pants, panties, bikinis and everything else. This girl has found a temporary mother lode. She sits down and turns on one of her three IPhone.
“Make sure your wash your face too,” I tell him “And use hot and cold water! The night is young!”
“There’s beer in the fridge!” he says. We all three laugh and salute, crack and sip.
At about noon in the pool hall section of a bar on 136, aptly named The 136, we find a local white lecher camping out under a table, snoring away, no beer, no burger, no butt. He’s more than welcome to remain day and night because as soon as he wakes up he’s be sure and buy a beer. This is Dewey’s cue to remain in Cambodia. After ten years of getting his pockets picked every night in Saigon, he’s more than ready for Phnom Penh, where he can do what he loves to do best, spend money on cheap bar beer and pass out until sunrise, skipping out on a real bed.
With that in mind I leave Dewey at the bar to go rinse away the filth and wallow in air-con. Later I reach him at Red Fox. It’s 11 pm and he seems fine, smiling and talking to some Brits. I like the place, the Red Fox. Instead of hookers there’s a waitresses rolling Cuban quality joints for two dollars a pop. The customers initially seem to prefer a quieter, more classic kind of ambience, though the music hits me like a bad flashback. AC/DC, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath and Faith No More, good grief.
I fall into conversation with a guy from Australia who’d grown up in Hong Kong and lived in Greenwich Village most of his life. He seems normal enough but for a the occasional facial spasm. Tourette’s? We chat about job opportunities in Cambodia. Plenty of Koreans if that’s my shtick. We discuss local women. Cambodia, so he says, is a good place for hookers but it’s hard to hook up with a normal Khmer girl because they’re not supposed to date foreigners.
I doubt this, having heard the same excuse in Vietnam from guys who date hookers. After the description of his love life I doubt it more so. He’s managed to date several meth heads, claiming to have never recognized their addictions until deeply in love with them. He describes the local expat community as completely twisted, with Nigerians gunning one another down in the streets and locals keeping the crime rate down by publicly murdering anyone remotely suspected of theft. The hookers, he says, are introduced into their profession by mom, dad, aunts and uncles, all of whom have likely worked in the same profession at some point, and who tend to be the biggest providers for the family while simultaneously unable to come out of debt. Considering the situation in America however, I can’t doubt it. Stranger things exist.
At this point one may notice some inconsistencies in the story. How can one be both so in debt as to be unable to leave hookerdom, while also being the breadwinner for extended families of fifteen? This is a question one comes upon not only in Cambodia but also Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. It’s got to be so complex, so layered, so deep that even the locals don’t understand it completely, let alone the foreign expat with minimal education and even less knowledge of the local languages and customs. Still, everyone claims to understand it and everyone explains it with unapologetic contradictions and inconsistencies.
The Tourette’s guy invites a friend who passes me a joint and mentions offhandedly, “I’m a legally diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic.” After asking if he has access to the correct meds I politely change get up to look around the place.
It’s odd how classic, how iconic and full of cool wit these backwater bars can be. The joint-rolling waitress behind the bar wears a t-shirt, “Fuck!!! The Police!!!” Under it a picture of Sting and The Police. The wallpaper is collage of historical characters, Hollywood and otherwise. Nichole Kidman sitting on Chairman Mao’s lap smoking a hooter, Pol Pot arm in arm with Jane Fonda, Che Guevara kissing Angelina Jolie’s neck, Fidel Castro dancing with Halle Berry, Robert Duvall in full Apocalypse Now regalia in front of an explosive Agent Orange backdrop, smoking a long wood-filtered cigarette and drinking an olive-tipped martini, Uncle Ho with his arm around Al Pacino and Kim Jung Il making sweet love to Dennis Rodman.
While admiring the wallpaper a couple of Brits nudge me and point to Dewey, “You need to take him home, mate.”
Dewey is sitting straight up, aside from his chin, which is on his chest, his lower lip dangling, spittle dribbling all over his “who’s you’re daddy?” with its portraits of communist leaders. I’ve yet to see him out of that shirt for three years now, and still wonder how he’s been able to hook a job with it. He must have a dress shirt somewhere but I’ve never seen it.
I slap him several times on the back of the head, yank his ears, pinch his nose and gouge his closed eyelids. To no avail. He won’t budge but to babble, snort and choke. Seeing as how saving him is an impossibility, everyone in the bar takes turns posing with him, inserting joints into his ears, nose and lips. One guy manages to take a picture mid-saliva drip, while others drop toothpicks and cigarette butts into the crack of his half-mooned ass. A guy suggests permanent marker but I disallow it. I ask the waitress if there’s a risk of him getting his pockets picked.
“This is not like Vietnam!” she tells me, lying, “We like to keep our customers! He can stay all night if he doesn’t snore.” But he does snore. When it’s closing time we have to get him to his feet. He somehow comes to and makes it to the door, then to our hotel with the most frightful, terrorized look. The kind of look that comes from bad beer and better weed mixed at all the wrong moments into one of those hot/cold sweating, head spinning, dry-heaving sort of nights.
“The 136 is open all night,” I say, “Wanna get a beer?”
“Fuck no, mate!” he says, looking certain that at least one of us is insane but still uncertain as to which. His feet move in short quick steps beneath his chubbily tipping frame, “I gotta go home,” he says. Dewey views any spot containing his one small backpack as home. We say our goodnights and I attempt to get a drink at 136. I say attempt because upon entering the bar I’m accosted by so many massaging strangle holds that after a trip upstairs to see the pool table, I high-tail it out.
I go to bed for a while but find that although the service and joints at Red Fox’s are extremely good, the tap beer is like tap beer the world over. More of a headache than a buzz. So right about sunrise I get up to hit the pharmacy. 136 Street goes exactly from east to west. When I come outside I can look one way and see a bright orange and mistily clouded sun rising over the Mekong, then look in the other direction for an enormous full moon just as large and just as orange, setting over this small town city of sin.