Holiday in Cambodia

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.


A Night on Ho’s Backpacker Street: Barefoot Brits and Toasty Toddlers.

“Temperate temperance is best. Intemperate temperance injures the cause of temperance, while temperate temperance helps it in its fight against intemperate intemperance. Fanatics will never learn that, though it be written in letters of gold across the sky.” Mark Twain.

At night on Bui Vien streets fill with foreigners and locals, drinking, eating, working, fucking, singing, dancing and drugging. Ice is readily available, as are other cocktails of unknown ingredients. The local mafia brings in street kids, feeds them a bowl of rice a day, then sends them out to stick venomous snakes down their throat and blow fire for tips. The flames shoot high, heating my face from fifteen meters. From the smiles I’d judge the young boys enjoy their jobs so far, deeming themselves daredevils.

They begin experimenting, as children their age do, so that the fires are spreading onto the rags of their clothing. They spin the their burning rags around their heads, unable to understand that this makes the flames leap. But they learn through experience. One child burns his face and fingers with the heat. I see it. Nobody else seems to. I point it out to Cedric. He recognizes the child is in pain as well. The boy stops and frets, rubs his face, rubs his hands and arms, looks around, uncertain whether to go on with his work. He’s singed, and will be in pain for weeks.

I don’t believe anyone other than that boy, me, and Cedric noticed this. Maybe I’m wrong. I hope I’m wrong, but the poor child is already so chaffed and char-burnt otherwise that it’s hard to tell the difference. I happened to be watching him when he did it, and saw the flame reach down too close. But afterwards you could look around and see the party going on, a mini Mardi Gras, the burnt child not particularly relevant, everyone so inside their own head with booze and festivity.

Along comes a beggar lady with a child she rents out to help earn sympathy from foreign tourists. Although the woman knows how to make herself appear poor and pitiful, she’s forgotten to keep the kid equally pathetic. The child is in nice new clean clothes, has an unblemished creamy complexion, a thick head of glossy hair, and is downright fat. Her teeth are clean and she’s grinning ear-to-ear. Her family must make a pretty penny renting her out nights.

I’m glad of it. I’m glad that not only does this baby bring in cash for her parents and other money-makers, but also her parents return it to her, feeding her well and keeping her clothing nice, new and clean. Nonetheless I know nothing about how things work here in Vietnam, especially when it comes to this. The culture is far more complex than Korean. Korea, being so isolated, tends towards clear-set and simple norms, to the point of stark black-and-white. On the other hand, Vietnam is smack in the middle of Southeast Asia, smack in the center of the seafood and rice belt. It’s much more Hindu-Buddhist and much less Confucius. Their society has borrowed from China, Europe and India. I’ve no doubt I could spend a decade here and still find a new layer to the onion.

Other characters stroll along the throng. A local kid on a Ducati with a little Asian hottie draped wetly around his shoulders and waist. A lady selling deep fried bananas. A man selling phone minutes and lottery tickets. A man with no legs that rides a bike powered by a pumpable handle/steering wheel. A chubby, well-dressed middle-age lady in gaudy gold jewelry comes along claiming she’s poor and hungry and will give you a back-rub; only ten bucks for ten minutes. This sounds like a good deal to those just arrived, or still in the west, but a few blocks away one can get a much better (real – not happy ending) massage including cupping that lasts twenty minutes for about three bucks.

Along strolls the next odd character, a Brit so drunk he‘s lost his shorts and shoes and has money falling from his pockets as he stumbles by. A short distance behind him the jackals encroach. I attempt to catch up with him, make sure he’s not broke by morning. But it’s too late. He’s lost in the crowd. I turn around and see that somehow Cedric has gone too. This is my cue to call it quits. It’s 4 a.m. Time to go home.

Welcome to the Ho

“I could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except congress.” Mark Twain.

Nomadic Matt said he’d never return to Vietnam because they cheated him, and openly boasted about it in Vietnamese to one another, assuming he couldn’t understand them, which is normally the case I’d assume. But it was my buddy Cedric gave me the lowdown on Vietnam. While we were in Turkey. Cheap living and high pay, a good exchange rate, enough money to save and enjoy, nice people and incredible girls.

“They’ll cheat you, for a dollar or two, and they’ll steal your motorcycle, but what’s to be expected from generations coming out of civil strife and third-world poverty? America bombed the fuck out of this country,” Cedric says to me, “when you’re hungry, the rule is that you take what you can get, and it’s only fair they do. Fair dues mate, fair dues.”

I agree.

“Anyways, it’s not like that anymore, unless you’re from way out in the sticks. For you, here, you’d have to try real hard to go broke. With your credentials you should expect the highest pay. Cheers mate!”  We clash our bottles of Tiger beer and order another round.

I remembered hearing Korean businessmen in 2000 saying they were transferring with their companies to Indonesia, Malaysia, China and Vietnam, and thinking that inevitably there’d be enough Koreans in some parts of Asia to feed a couple hundred good English teachers.

It’s not that difficult to teach in Ho Chi Min. Right now I teach Korean children, privately, twice a week for each class. Plus I teach at some Vietnamese public schools. So I teach about twenty hours a week and make enough to maintain a two-bedroom apartment and feed my family. But I need more money. This is only just enough to pay rent and eat.

Cedric wants to hire western teachers from overseas to teach business English at industrial complexes out in the rice paddies to Vietnamese, Japanese and Korean and then take a cut of the teachers’ pay. What English teachers refer to as a headhunting job. A despicable job, the go-betweener, in my opinion.  But, according to Cedric, it’s much more lucrative for the time spent doing it.  I ask him how come he’s not doing it now. He says it’s too much work on his own and it’s fun to have a partner.

Now Cedric is my bro. After all he hired me and Rita to teach in Turkey back when we were floating around in South Korea with our sons Josh and Caleb, wondering what we’d do next. And he was the one who turned me on to Saigon. I feel obligated to him in that.

But I think I know well enough he’s as much of a drunken flake as I am, and would blow it all off to drink and whore without end. I told him as much and he agreed. Maybe both of us need to get hired in a good school with a simple monthly payment.

Even as Vietnam calls itself communist or whatever, it defies all definitions. It’s socialist in some senses and communist in others. But as they say you can take an Asian out of capitalism but you can’t take capitalism out of an Asian. That’s about as deep into that topic as I care to delve.

Go to Cambodia. Get your visa in Sihanoukville, ironically the last place America occupied in that one war over here, the one with Rambo, now the designated spot for expat residency work visas. Once you have a clear local background check then you’re good to go. Unless the visa laws change. They do. All the time too. But for now this is the best visa. Only obtainable in Sihounakville, Cambodia.

“It’s a good place to read about American history, drink beer and shag birds,” says Cedric.

Medical is also something else here in Vietnam. It’s cheap and high quality from what I can tell, with loads of doctors everywhere, and they seem to know their stuff in a general sense. They fixed my back like no western doctor has done, ever, in thirty years of back pain. This I can say. I didn’t need American insurance. I had none. No insurance at all. But, for fifteen dollars they fixed my back. It’s the acupuncture needles, the cupping and yearly black medicine that fix my back. Walks, swimming, yoga and light weights help too. But also, even the western medicine here is higher quality than we imagine. Possibly better than America at the moment, where the medical system is so fucked up that a tummy ache cost me a couple grand in 2010. Here I can get antibiotics at any pharmacy for fifty cents.

If you get sick you’ll be taken care of, but you’re going to have to work to eat. This makes a whole lot of sense to me. You can call it Kung Fu Capitalism, Stephen Segal Socialism, or A Case of Butter for all I care. It’s all jobs and medical insurance for me for me right now, and I can’t find either of these back in the states.

Friends back home ask me if it’s difficult living under a repressive political system. Other than in reference to my time in America, I can’t say as I know. So far I haven’t been repressed, ever, in any way here in Vietnam. I can go out on the corner and advertise my teaching services while drinking a beer. Nobody cares. No one asks if I have a permit, if I’m an immigrant; legal or illegal, if I have a business license, the right passport stamp. None of this matters much as long as I mind my own business and don’t hurt anyone. Needless to say, one does not normally get ticketed for jay-walking in Saigon.

There are no vagrancy laws I can tell of. I like that, because I hate vagrancy laws. It’s illegal to smoke weed here. Nonetheless you can do it anywhere. No problems. No hassle. Do the deals and get your wheels.

I bought a Yamaha scooter for cash and drove off with naught but a piece of plastic with no picture on it. No license, permit, registration fees or proof of insurance. I have to wear a helmet. But if I get caught without one I pay ten dollars and it’s done. Compare this to California, where my wife was fined six-hundred dollars for rolling a red-light on an empty street and where the cops had likely times her on camera for five or more lights. When she opened the email it stated that opening the email is an admittance of guilt. Fuck that. Fuck the cops in America and the bullshit senseless laws created for nothing other than extorting money from the middle class.

Here in the Ho, you can park your scooter anywhere along the street, or on a sidewalk, or drive on the sidewalk, which is always fun. Nobody will ticket you for parking on the wrong side of the street on the wrong day, in the wrong position, with the wrong tint to your windows.

It might get stolen. All the old Aussies tell me my bike will get stolen no matter how ugly and old it is. But Cedric tells me that it’s much better here now, and that little mafia orphans used to dash down the streets stealing whatever was in your lap. Whereas now they just breathe fire, swallow pit vipers, beg and sell merchandise.

“But, they’ll still steal and cheat from you, mate! Be careful!” everyone tells me.

So, do I feel suppressed? I felt far more in the United States, where a love for long walks with beer, even a legal joint still might get me shot in the back. Whatever they might be Vietnam’s problems are not with me. And mine are not with it. We have reached symbiosis for now, Vietnam and me.

So long as I prosper in this free market system everyone here views my existence as a financial boon and a sign of progress. You know how it works. Same as America or any other country really. Only some places it’s officially sanctioned and others it’s not. I can afford it here but not back home. I have my white skin, American citizenship, my paper degrees and the capitalistic colonial history of the west that’s left me with business English to thank.

If I sound a little resentful to my own country, so what? I have never in my life been a patriot to any politician’s lies, laws, or lip service. Maybe I am a spoiled brat living off my native language in a country hungry for the opportunities English allows them.

Honestly, the bottom line is I like it here. I like Asia even for everything I hate about it.

But that’s not all. I can’t feed my family off our nation’s wars in the Middle East and I’m thankfully ineligible for food stamps back home. I refuse to go back to making ten dollars an hour with a master’s degree in a country where a cup of coffee costs the same.  In other words I like Asia at this particular moment in time as a white male native speaker of English. The pendulum has swung. Asia is on its way up still, just as it was 25 years ago when my mom was making loads in Japan with her free car and free gas and free everything else plus pay. And for a long time coming. Still, we can hope and pray that old Kip was right. East is East. Wests is West. Please, never ever shall the twain ever meet, praise glob.