IT'S FRIDAY, OCTOBER 5TH, and I've been in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, for about two hours and I'm already depressed. It's a gray, blustery day, and since it's the rainy season, the beaches are empty but for middle-aged foreigners, some fat, all looking washed up, like flotsam and jetsam. I'm sitting in a bar called Crow overlooking the Gulf of Thailand and being besieged by flies and desperately poor women selling seafood, mostly crabs and squid, which they plop in my face and wait interminably while I reject them three, four, five times. There is a kid behind me, he looks fifteen and totally wasted, like he's been huffing glue. I saw a legless guy earlier, who'd wrapped his stumps first in a plastic bag and then rubber to prevent chafing as he drags himself along the sidewalk on sticks. I just saw a guy go by with one leg, who'd wrapped his entire lower body in rubber so he wouldn't chafe his ass as he dragged himself along the ground in a one-legged crabwalk, his hands on flip flops. A little girl just came buy pulling her dad by his hat. He was blind and she was begging for money. While she begged, he'd sing. Nobody gave her a dime.
I'd heard that Sihanoukville in the off-season is depressing because it's basically full of old men trolling for women. And that seems pretty accurate. The bars at 3:30 in the afternoon are occupied by ex-pats, most of whom look like Mickey Rourke in Barfly. They look like America or England or Australia spit them out and Cambodia, with little say in the matter, took them in. The bar next door has been playing classic rock. Right now it's playing Neil Young's "Helpless."
Fishing boats dot the horizon and the ones closest to the beach sway in the waves, looking as though they're trying to decide if they should just turn over and head for the bottom. There are two black dogs providing some entertainment. They're very playful, rollicking with passersby and the wait staff. Earlier, they looked like they were going to challenge a couple of dogs that wandered by, but all ended rather peacefully, despite a couple of half-hearted woofs from the little black one. The bigger one, a new mother, looks like a mutt that might have had Doberman grandparents. She's awfully pretty, and her beautiful little side-kick is about the size of a Corgi (without the Corgi body). She's black with a white chest. Both look better cared for than the gourds drinking in this bar. The air smells of salt and brine.
A boy just walked in carrying a large chunk of ice with a mean looking icepick buried in its side. This place is weather-worn, the wood wet and splintered, the floor dusted in sand. It may be the weather, but in full sun this place wouldn't be paradise. It is a place to go to never be seen again, a place where days are measured not in tea spoons but by the tide and Angkor drafts.
My hotel room is more like a shack than anything. It's elevated off the ground, like so many houses in Cambodia, and the floor and walls are 1x6’s, no more. It's $5 a night. I have a large bed and a fan, and a warped and peeling piece of furniture of some sort, sitting next to a brittle wicker shelf. I can see the sky through the ceiling in the bathroom, the walls of which have been wrapped in some kind of hard plastic to protect them from the shower. There is no proper shower stall. You shower in the middle of the bathroom, water pouring on the ground, the sink, the toilet, and hopefully making its way to the drain. This is how it was in my apartment in China, so I showered and then shaved in an inch of water, which then took some four or five hours to recede. It's quite possible the water, if the drain is plugged, will overflow the lip that separates the bathroom from my bedroom, creating a mini-water fall. This just may be the saddest place on earth.
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