Musings from Cambodia

Delicate wings, dragonflies shape blue and black cut-outs, butterfly patterns, hovering, hundreds to electric piano house, in the morning Sihanoukville daze. “To see the monks you say?” That smile breeds adventure, trekking to the Wat and leaving at dusk when all the English words have sprawled themselves across the sky like sparklers in the red-mud rain.

Barbequed seafood on the roof, Ganz Berg – “It’s German beer?” Beer is the only word they know, cans dropped and heaped like rubble collected for an extension to the Great Wall, everybody “Cheers!” and slurps the ice, slipping quickly in this heat. And “Cheers” again, a universal lifeline marks out the minutes of alienating sounds that blend together to be one long noise.

He only got one fare all day, three dollars to take some tourists into town and they would only pay him two. He’s got all the knowledge of the people, you know. Glosses his helmet with spit and a dollar for good luck. ‘A friend in need is a friend indeed’ is written upon the plastic seat and when the rain comes down the anorak goes on and still it dribbles in, sneaking around the edges, behind his eyes.

A young mother politely asks to milk your western blood, babe in between her arms. It’s “too expensive,” to feed that child. Fifteen dollars to ring it up. A line, single file, snakes three streets, like waiting for a bus. It’s for the children’s hospital, shuffling feet with loaded-up arms, pushing bottles over the fence and a kid on a drip. You thought our healthcare system was fucked.

Slum kids drop their shoes outside, hop the fence, over and through a wire-cut hole to the football field, kick, GOAL, dance and back out before being caught. Teenage boys share cigarettes on the waterfront, blush over girls with lurid bubble gum drinks, avoid the fake-ass monks with the bits of red twine and you think somethings are the same in every place.

Bats circle, squeaking and drawing in the light, carriers of blackness, darting. Crickets on sticks and cockroaches crackle in local saliva and women slurp durian fruits between their gums. The guts and brains and penises of animals are sprawled on the ground as a woman selects her live frogs from the hopping basket, like pastries from the bakery shelf at Sainsbury’s.

The Building Better Lives language school shrieks and teems with snotty noses, happy chanting as they take turns blowing bubbles and when you aren’t watching the tiny girl is munching another mouth full of filthy foam. The classrooms with paper chains cascading from their roofs, reciting English days of the week and making echoes like ghosts, except it’s not Halloween anymore.

“He came in from the province to get a job but when they tested his English they tested him on colours.” He doesn’t know any colours, so back to the province he goes. Tin roofs by the coconut trees, red squares with ladders and hammocks swinging low above the torrent water rising, knees and soaking toes, shoulders and head, a rhyme recited, they know the rest.

Beer girls tap up lonely men, single travellers while away afternoons with books and half dollar bottles of Angkor, watch the storms amass their fleets and light up the sky. Children play naked in sprinklers outside the Royal Palace. The current king is a girl who lives in France and likes to dance, “a pussy, we’d say in English.” He doesn’t see the Cambodia I see.