It was one of those most uncomfortable journeys. Although just a short two-hour flight, it was much too long for the condition I was in. I wanted so badly to be fresh for this trip. I knew I had only a few days and I had to make the most of it.
But hell, I was in bad shape. To be more specific, Bangkok-bent bad-shape.
You see I tried everything to stay out of trouble. I attempted self-induced food-poisoning by eating a week-old corn-filled hotdog at the Seven-Eleven.
I stayed away from the food markets and beer-halls and had three haircuts instead. I avoided all ladies calling for massages with happy endings and drank enough cups of condensed milk sweetened ice-coffee to put me in a hyperglycemic coma for life. I deliberately exposed myself to toxic gasses by taking a long, cross-city journey in a tuk-tuk without a mask. I even burned fake money and incense at a temple.
After a week in this city I realized that I was weak, without meaningful defense and at its mercy. Thus, with the conviction of a recovering junkie, I tried to give it up. If only I would just get ever so slightly sick, I would not be able to go out. I would be cured, at least until I got to my next destination.
And then I answered my phone. It was Francois, the self-professed hedonistic Frenchman I met in Malaysia.
And together we dived, yet again, head first into the intoxicating waters that is Bangkok. A city where the bars are temples but the girls ain’t free. Where insects are midnight snack-food and bar games are played with hammer and nail.
No man, however great amounts of fake money you’ve burned to secure salvation, can stand tall and aim straight after a few shots of Mekong Whiskey. Take my word for it or if you don’t believe me, ask any of the bar girls. No man. Or for that matter, no woman or ladyboy either. I had succumbed yet again.
And so in the company of two Jehova’s Witnesses pounding my fried-up brain and Mekong Whiskey leaking from every pore, I stepped off the plane and into Cambodia. Land of the Khmer people, the Angkor temples and yet more ladyboys.
At the taxi counter they gave me a little yellow slip with a number on it. My designated taxi and driver into Siem Riep. Another simple twist of fate.
“Me, Dara. First time Cambodia?”
Our eyes met briefly in his rearview mirror and I knew immediately that he knew. That he’d seen and smelt it many times before: the pathetic, musty leftovers of a Bangkok binge.
With a quiet chuckle and a shake of the head he switched on the air-conditioner, rolled down his window and handed me a bottle of water.
For the remainder of my time in Siem Riep, Dara would be my fixer, my wingman. My salvation and my frustration. My guardian and my nemesis.
He hooked my up with his friend Phalla who acts as guide to the temples. Phalla visibly limped.
Phalla arrived each morning sharply dressed in his guide uniform with a determined plan for the day. This we’d discussed over sweet coffee served in the Old Market where he listened attentively to my every request and then came up with suggestions that were uniquely his own.
As a limping temple guide Phalla was in a league of his own. With a smile and accent he explained the complex history of each of the twelve temples we visited. Angkor Wat, built by Hindu King Suryavaman in the 12th century, Angkor Thom built by King Jayavarman VII, Ta Phrom, Banteay Srei, Bayon, Pre Rup and Ta Nei, and he knew everything about them all.
It was as if he’d met and known the apsaras (celestial dancing nymphs carved on various temple walls) personally and prayed to all the gods in whose honor these temples were erected.
I was intoxicated by the sway of his arms, the shifts in his eyes, the pointing of his fingers and the tone of his voice as he drew me ever deeper into the mystic intricacies of these ancient civilizations.
Because you see, I could not understand a single word he spoke.
Broken bits of English forced through a coarse Khmer filter became my mantra. As if chanted by a thousand praying monks, it droned out the noise of a million visitors and intruders. And nearly put me to sleep. Twice.
It was during lunch on the third day that Phalla got up to fetch us drinks. In doing so, he whacked his limping leg against the sharp corner of the bench we were sitting on.
The hollow thunk-like sound and the smile on his face told me something was wrong. Seriously wrong. No man gives his shin a whack like that and smiles about it.
The look on my face must have told Dara something else was wrong. Seriously wrong.
Then Phara and Dara burst out laughing. Paused to discuss something in Khmer, and then continued laughing. They laughed for what seemed a long time. Pausing once or twice to wipe tears from their eyes before continuing their laughter with renewed vigor.
Phalla lifted his leg and gave it a few taps. More thunk-like sounds. “Plastic”. More smiles. “Landmine”. “Boooom!”
And those were honestly the only three consecutive English words from Phalla I understood the whole trip.
The estimated number of undetected landmines in Cambodia today, is somewhere between 4 and 6 million. One in every 236 Cambodians has been maimed by landmines, like Phalla, making it the most disabled country in the world today. On the way back to Siem Riep, Dara stopped at a school. Children of all ages were exercising their maimed bodies on simple bamboo mats. Some were being taught to play musical instruments.
Dara’s late father was a teacher, one of nearly 15,000 educators who were either killed or forced to leave the country. By the end of the Khmer Rouge revolution in 1979 Cambodia had no textbooks, no educational equipment and no schools. They had nearly succeeded in dragging Cambodia back to “year-zero”.
I had enough of temples. It was time to go.
On the way to the airport we stopped for a final lunch. By then I had gotten used to them ordering the food. Usually they’d order a variety of small mains with rice on the side for all of us to share.
This time they asked me to order. Not being able to read the menu, I went to the chef and asked for his best dish. Dara translated.
What came to the table encapsulated everything I’d learned about Cambodia.
The dried Indian spices that points to the ancient Hindu kings, the rice from paddies once called the “killing fields” and the Kampot pepper that now symbolizes the resurgence of the Khmer people. It’ s a Saraman Beef Curry braised with peanuts.
It is now almost two years ago that I last heard from from Dara. It was short e-mail and to the point:
“Phalla no more”.