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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Laos

Boom Town
Charlie Graham

Boom!!! There she was, 5'2 of pure unadulterated, uninhibited fun,breasts unbefitting of someone so small; and all yours for $5. Welcome to Cambodia: Under the expert guidance of our very own chewbacca we navigated our way to the Lakeside area. With a back deck that spread across the lake, a pool table and a very cool little dude working there callled 'Chilly' we settled in.

Phnom Phen is hard to imagine. It is a lawless, hectic, smoggy, people-hole and it is not the place for the fainthearted.
Day one saw us chilling out, we had just been scammed from Laos.
Here's the Scam:
Don Dhet lies in the south of Laos, a little place called the Four Thousand Island where the Makong encapsulates the land and divides them. Upon arrival in this place we had noticed that we all had little money kleft and there was no ATM's for at least 200 miles. We, as a group of seven at this point, pooled our money. All of us had enough to get to Phnom Phen as long as we made it in one trip. Our day started with the driver claiming that he wasn't allowed to drive. He said he had a friend who would take us. This all seemed fine. We got to the bus station and managed to find a driver, and funnily enough a van.

Out from under a huge sheet of Tarpolin limped a blue mini-van. This was to be our chariot so we thought. The van had been sitting so long that a nest of mosquito's had formed in the AC resevoir. As soon as he turned it on we got flooded, our comfy space suddenly became a malaria mini-van. Ten miles down the road he ran out of fuel.

At this point we were still in the van, waiting from a replacement bus. Then behind us appeared a massive fat french girl attached to a scooter -enter 'le baguette'- she had to get on our bus, and rightfully so she had to pay for it. However, she happened to be the only girl travelling the country with only Australian dollars. This caused confusion as three taxi drivers all tried to figure out what it was, then they tried to use us as an exchange bank, we had no money, eventually the behemoth got in. And the oxygen got out.

"On the road again" was sung as we approached the border. Everything was going smoothly, we had avoided the 1$ surcharge that makes border police richer than the rest. Walking away it turns out that the baguette, not only had she hijacked our chariot, she had also overstayed on her Visa. Not wise. So another delay. As you can imagine by this point tempers were freying.

Through the border "On the road again" got sung, again. We had been going for about two hours in this sweat box when he turned off the road, onto a smaller road then a smaller one again and again and again, eventually we pulled into a guest house.

From here on in the driver miraculously forgot how to speak English. Lucky for him. He tried to get us out. 8 people, we were not moving. He tried again at which point the other guy, who was sitting awaiting our arrival decreed that we could not get to Phnom Phen, there was no ATM and we had to stay in his hotel.

By this point Ray was ready to kill someone, Paul was reading his book, Jo was smoking, and I had manouvered myself into the front seat.

Randomly I started blowing the horn. Being a little idiot as you can imagine. This went on for an hour. We had a cavalcade of Cambodians ready for a fight, the tour operator from the Cambodian side and THIS IDIOT who owned the hotel.

In the end we had to stay. Everybody paid one dollar, I took everything from the room in an act of divine retribution. Toothbrush, comb, TV if it had fitted in my bag.

We left at 7am on a local bus, for free. The guy got his mini-van back, and in the end we made it to an ATM.
Back to Phnom Phen.

The Russian market is like Toys'R'us for big kids. You literally could buy a child here if you wanted. The food was great and I got some 'real' aviators. After the Russian market we went to S21 and the killing fields.

Nothing can prepare you for this. Three huge blocks, think 1960's high school. Iron bars on all the windows, barbed wire over the edges to deter people from committing suicide, a gallows in the middle where people where tortured. Rooms upstairs for women and children. Pol Pot used this place to interrogate largely innocent people and torture them. I took one photo. That was it. Rooms full of photo's of women, children and men young and old who where killed within these walls. It gives you the shivers.

Then, to brighten up our day we went to the killing fields. This is where people were brought after S21. Here they where maimed, beaten, raped and humiliated before being clubbed over the backl of the head to die in a mass grave.
Signs around the place inform you that:
"This tree was used to beat children"
"Here they hung loud speakers to drown the noise of those who where dying" and my favourite: "Please do not walk through the mass grave".

In the middle of this complex there is a huge monument full of skulls, skulls of those who died here. I didn't really enjoy that day, I found it hard to smile after. I had to go to KFC.

Phnom Phen was coming to an end. So we went out on a bender to a club: "The Heart of Darkness" We walked in, a straight invisible line was drawn down the middle that seperated the foreigners and the locals, we went to the locals. I did not come travelling to play shit head all night with people from Brighton. I came for the experience and boy did we get one.

At some point during the night everybody apart from Gringo and Felix left. Somehow, Felix managed to bring a girl home, innocent enough. The bus left at 8am. Felix and Gringo got back in at around 6am. They missed the bus. They awoke to find a girl sleeping in their bed, a khmer girl. Dashing around like idiots, they ate breakfast in three minutes, packed and went back to the room to find this khmer girl asking for money. "We didn't do anything, if anything you should pay us for the room!" they exclaimed and left. Leaving the girl in the room with Chewie, who had absolutely nothing to do with it.

That is how I left Phnom Phen in a blaze of glory to the sound of Eric Claptons "I feel free".
We certainly did for those five days feel unbelievably free.

© Charlie Graham August 2009

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