“You sit here” the bus conductor screamed at me for the third time. His face snarling – he was even kind enough to spit on me a little. Our eyes met, and battle commenced.
“I think he would like you to sit there” the kind hearted, but slightly obvious man sitting opposite whispered to me. My assigned seat for the next seven hours had me placed next to an old, frail man – who unfortunately smelled of rotten egg. I had glanced around – and seeing exactly twelve people on a bus that could seat over fifty, I moved to a free seat. I crossed my arms in defiance. We glared at each other for what may have been hours – but probably wasn’t – until he broke; stomping angrily to the front of the bus. I had won. I gave a small victorious nod to the man opposite me. He looked away shaking his head.
Saigon is an expansive city. A full hour and a half after leaving the station we were still crawling through its heavily clogged arteries, at times the bus barely moving.
The bladder must surely be the most irritatingly stupid body part. You ask it politely before a long journey if it needs to be emptied – it replies in the negative, with great assurance. Half an hour later it changes its mind. There was no toilet on the bus. After the confrontation with the conductor, and the odd dirty look he hurled my way, I suspected any request for a toilet stop would not only be denied – but he would do it with a glorious satisfaction. I gritted my teeth as I went from bad to spectacularly awful. It’s peculiar the way the brain reacts to such a crisis. Simple, logical matters become horribly complicated. I began to wonder – just how socially unacceptable is wetting yourself on a long distance bus journey? On a scale of 1-10 I mean?
At the border I scrambled from the bus before it had even completely stopped. I staggered into the main building and saw my holy grail – a male toilet. I was going to make it.
“Passport” a policeman shouted over at me.
“To go to the fucking toilet?” I squealed, more to myself than him. He marched over to me, filled with a level of bureaucraticbullshit I have come to despise in Vietnam. Predictably it was in the last pocket I checked. He took his time, clearly enjoying seeing me sway back and forth with a growing look of panic. Finally he handed it back and made it to the toilet – with a combination of running, waddling and crawling.
The border crossing was a peculiar one – disembarking and embarking the same bus four times – to go a distance of no more than 100m, but it was all done relatively quickly. The Cambodian border town is a relentless torrent of awful casinos – large, hulking and bland – with predictable names like Crown, or Palace. The enormous amount of motorbikes haphazardly strewn about the car parks, told me two things:
1) The casinos are phenomenally popular – it being 10.30am and all.
2) The patrons were undoubtedly intoxicated upon on entry. One motorbike lay on its side next to a tree – a good twenty meters from the nearest parked motorbike.
The bus bounced happily through the Cambodian countryside for the next four hours. Rarely seeing anything larger than a group of dusty stilt housed homes. The landscape was flat and dry, but still fertile – rice fields stretched far in all directions.
Phnom Penh slowly came into view. As many cities do it began with a series of non-descript surburbs and slowly grew into a bustling city. I hopped off the bus just before we reached the station. Within seconds a tuk tuk had pulled up beside me. The first two guesthouses were full. At the third I received a shrug of the shoulders from the owner
“I have only one room, take a look” he tossed the key to a nearby boy who led me down a dark corridor, past something that looked worryingly like a panic room, and up the stairs. The room was missing the very tops of the walls – finishing a good three feet from the ceiling, as if constructed by a gang of lazy little people who forgot their ladders. I was tired and sweaty so, I threw my bags down and took the room.
Phnom Penh is a wonderful mix of life. It made me think of the American West, mixed with France, with a large amount of India. It is chaotic but charming – dirty but beautiful – and more than a little hedonistic, especially to foreigners. A sign opposite my guest house proclaimed loudly that they sold strong Viagra (followed by three smiley faces) and also extra big condoms (only one smiley face). It felt like the type of city that anything was possible – a place of desires, many of which I took for fairly dark. I spent the afternoon walking back and forth through the streets – getting my bearing while simultaneously getting completely lost – which is really the only way to do it.
As the night takes control a very different side of Phnom Penh creeps out. Now it would be amiss of me to say that they were all prostitutes – but then again if the women slouched outside bars with such imaginative names as Hot Girls, and Fun Time Bar, wearing what seemed like clothing specifically for children in mind – while calling out “Hello Big Boy” to any passerby – have any other job – I can’t think of it. Tuk Tuk drivers suddenly take on the role of ‘facilitator’. One plucky young man, who can’t have been far past his sixteenth birthday sidled up to me.
“You want weed?” he whispered. I shook my head, not even breaking stride but he stayed with me and persisted.
“You want skunk, coke – brown – girls, special girls – boys – young girls – young boys” he said barely even trying to whisper now. I continued to walk but stared over at him. ‘Special Girls’ was an intriguing thought – Three armed? Mermaids? Cyborgs? The possibilities are endless, but thought it best not delve for information. I’ve had offers like this in third world countries before but, never from somebody who I suspected would not be allowed to buy cigarettes back in England. The fact this entrepreneuring young child was able to make such a wide, far reaching offer was both impressive and greatly disturbing. I wondered else he could get? Perhaps I could ask him for a Thierry Henry shiny Premier League collector sticker from 2002, which had proved so elusive back in the day. If anybody could get it, I suspected he could.
I needed a beer, but didn’t fancy the gauntlet of ladies outside many of the bars. I walked further out and found one that looked promising. A waitress quickly took my order and seconds later three young ladies converged around me – squealing in an annoying fake delight.
“Hello what name?” said the first (twitchy), who fluttered her eye lids at such a rapid pace, it genuinely scared me. The second was strangely disproportioned, a relatively slim body with a thin masculine neck leading to an enormous head – which was, unfortunately for her, as unattractive as they come. The third was relatively plain – but had a smile that stretched across her whole face – much like the joker from Batman –which was not a good thing. Together they formed quite the terrifying Charlie’s Angels trio. I couldn’t quite decide who was the most uncomfortable to look at so I stared at the floor.
“Raymond” I said quickly (why Raymond was the first name to pop into my head I’m not sure). My beer arrived and I stared disappointingly at it. For the briefest of moments I considered downing it all and making a break for it. I calculated I could be at the door in under 10 seconds. I don’t have anything against women who wish to make a living like this – it’s just not for me though.
I continued to stare at my beer, trying to rank this moment in the most awkward moments of my life. I raised my eyes briefly, Twitchy was either giving me her sexy look or having a mild epileptic fit.
“Do you want to play pool” Big Head asked.
“Yes, please, ok,” I said quickly, trying to not show the wave of relief. The pool table was on the other side of the room. I was asked to pick a partner – I picked Joker based on a purely tolerance level.
While we played they asked the usual questions. Where are you from? Are you married? How long are you here? – Could I tell the difference in Pepsi and Coke? – the latter providing fierce debate.
Now of course it has to be taken into account that I was playing against two prostitutes in Cambodia – one of which, considering her eye issues, surely had less than 50% vision – but I wiped the floor with them. It was a brutal, devastating victory. As I slammed the black ball into the pocket and completed the obligatory victory dance – I also flung the remnants of my beer down my throat.
“I have to go” I yelled over at them, waving like you would to an old lady rather than three prostitutes. They all howled in protest, but I simply shrugged my shoulders and walked to the bar to pay for my drink. Their looks took on a frostier feel. Insults began to be hurled over in Khmer – from the hand gestures I took them as questioning my sexual preferences. The barmaid took my money and scowled at me. Serves me right for going to a bar and just buying a beer I suppose. I got out as quickly as possible. I hadn’t noticed the name as I entered, but now as I scampered away I tuned to see it – Candy Fun Times Bar. I could only shake my head. Idiot.