Thursday, January 24, 2008

Babes, Booze and Bullshit-On the Road in Cambodia by Saigon Charlie

Siem Reap to Phnom Penh - Day 1, Thursday
by Saigon Charlie

Up this morning to take a shower and than head south to the coast for another overland journey through the monsoon soaked landscape of Cambodia but the morning starts off with a bit of an unusual "twist" as I watch two peering eyes and a mop of hair stare at me in the mirror from over the wall of the adjoining shower stall. At 6AM in the morning, even by SE Asian standards, this is a bit much and I tell the fucker to bugger off. Management informs me a bit later after relating the event that it was most probably the "ladyboy" who had just moved in two days before. I just shake my head, grab my rucksack and call out to a moto driver and head for the bus to Phnom Penh.

My chosen mode of transportation, the Mekong Express Bus is a bit more expensive ($6 instead of $4) but experience has taught me that the extra $2 is more than worth it as the bus is a real coach with a toilet and wide, comfortable seats with the trip to Phnom Penh taking about an hour less due to only a single stop. This can be especially nice if the previous evening was spent in the bars and bumping along Cambodian roads is not your ideal method of transportation or some of the last tasty dishes you had have started to disagree with you. Combined with a bottle of water, a decent box meal consisting of a sandwich and some pastries, it seems a no brainer to me.

Siem Reap in late July and early August is experiencing extensive days of overcast skies and afternoon monsoon rains. The temperatures are however quite pleasant and for me, even a fan isn't necessary at night.

It is so funny as I verbally fence with the touts hanging around the "bus station" (actually more a stop) as everyone always wants to know "where you go?". This line will always be a prelude to somehow figuring out how they can make a commission from you on your destination's end. They do however choke when you reply, "I'm going to hell!". That usually leaves them confused and unsure what to say as the conversation has left the pre-learnt script.

Just last evening I was talking with Rose, a teacher from New Zealand in from Dubai about her experiences around the temples in the past three days as well as her impression of the Khmer guide she had.

As an English teacher, she became more interested in his scripted descriptions and inability to answer any of her "off script" questions. Having talked with many tourists to the temples before, it is obvious that these guys are educated on what to say but have no real deep knowledge of their own culture or history. Sad but true...

As the actual Mekong Express Bus Station is at the Central Market (next to the SBC Bank and DHL office), a moto driver arrives from the bus company and a minute later he drops me off at the waiting buses. As I wait to board, I buy a large loaf of fresh French bread for a 1,000 riel and stare up the street to the next corner where the massive Sokha Angkor Resort is being built.

Having just been to the opening of their new 5-star resort in Sihanoukville in April and knowing of their ownership of the concession for the temples of Angkor ($20 a day for 1,000,000 tourists-you do the math!), these people have some big plans for the future. Combine that with their activities with the Ariston Group's new airport and golf and beach resort in Sihanoukville, all these big boys are betting on Cambodian tourism in a big way. I just hope political events underway in Cambodia (King's abdication likely to happen) keep things on track for everyone...

Anyway. As I stare down at the $6 ticket in my hand, it reminds of the consistent transportation pricing that seems to be in place across the country which equals about $1 an hour. It seems to make no difference whether you hire a tuk-tuk, a cyclo or a bus for a 6 hour bus ride, it works out to about a $1 an hour. Funny how that works.

We board the bus and I am hoping for an on-time departure but 07:30 comes and goes. Two French girls board the bus and they finally realize they are on the wrong bus (I knew they were even before they got on) and we have to wait while they find their backpacks in the cargo compartment and unload their gear. After this huge production that only the French could undertake, we finally make our way out of Siem Reap and at 07:45 head south out of town.

The road is pretty much paved all the way to Phnom Penh now. Other than some ongoing bridge work and some short gaps through a village or two, we have finally achieved the unachievable, a continuously paved road from Siem Reap in the north of Cambodia to Sihanoukville on the southern coast!

As we leave the city and breach into the countryside, I can't help but be in awe of the beauty of it all. Everything is so incredibly green but not just your normal, everyday "green". No, it can only be described as "luminous" it is so brilliant. Ponds that were only caked holes of dry mud are now filled with water and alive with life. Ducks swimming, children playing and floating water Lillis with amazing flowers with colors of pink and red. Actually, this part of Cambodia reminds me in many way of the topology of southern Florida in the United States, both in vegetation and landscape.

At just around 9AM after crossing the very ancient bridge of Nagas at 08:45, I hear a dull "thud" and at once people in the front of the bus are rising from their seats and turning around to look behind the bus. The driver starts to slow down a bit and as he does so, 4 other buses in our "convoy" wiz past us.

I am trying to ascertain what has happened but whatever it is, it becomes obvious the driver isn't stopping and we begin to accelerate again. It was only later at the restaurant that the Irish lady behind me asked the bus attendant what happened and we learned we had hit a motorcycle with two people on it and they had swerved off the road into a ditch. Driving Rule #1 in Asia is if involved in an accident and you can still drive, keep on driving and don't look back, especially here in Cambodia as you don't know if the person in the car you just hit (or who hit you) has a weapon and what the likely hood of it being used on you is (actually quite probable in Phnom Penh ...).

As we cross the large river and bridge into the town which marks Stong District, we are constantly having to slow for wandering cattle and numerous pony carts on the road. This now slows our progress southward more than the previously missing bridges and numerous potholes.

With the start of August, rice harvest is underway and with that, the spreading of seeds for another crop. Water levels are high everywhere which is a welcomed blessing from the harshness of May's heat and drought and low/non-existent water levels.

As we approach a segment of the Tonle Sap, the bus start to slow down and with a few "chugs" lurches to a stop. As I stare out the window however and think to myself it there's a place I have to be broken down, this isn't so bad as the waters are only a few meters away and their is plenty of shade.

The driver however leaps out of the bus and with a few wrenches crawls under my side of the bus only to reappear a few minutes later. Whatever had to be fixed is apparently fixed and we are once again winging our way southward to Phnom Penh.

At 10AM after crossing yet another large river and bridge we make the mandatory Mekong Express Bus stop at the "Arunas Restaurant". Having done this many times before I know this isn't the cheapest nor fastest way to get fed and immediately head back towards the market we have just passed and find the food vendor I always eat with. For 2,000 riel my large plate of rice is filled with some delicious selections from the pots on the table. A moment later a glass with ice arrives and I pour some Khmer tea into the glass. Not bad for .50.

We continue south a half hour later and with no further incidents make our way down the narrow road that enters into Phnom Penh. Traffic congestion is intense and the buses' horn is forever sounding as we pass around every form of transportation known to man.

We do make the mandatory stop at the "taxi station" just north of town where you will see a sign for the "Cambodian Naval Headquarters". It wasn't that long ago this was the place where you had to leave the bus and grab a taxi into town as the police were demanding a fee from the bus companies to enter the city and this being Cambodia, the bus companies refused to pay it and just dumped their passengers outside the city. Fortunately, at least for now, the police are still there but the bus (with paying passengers) continue on into the city across the Tonle Sap River and large "Japanese Bridge".

Another thing that makes Mekong Express Bus better for me as it terminates on the waterfront within walking distance of one of my (and many others) water holes called "Mikeys".

Mikey's rooms are full this particular day (it is also a hotel with 7 really nice rooms upstairs) so I decide to keep it on the cheap and head back towards the bus station and turn up Street 110 to my favorite Indian Restaurant, "Chi Cha", which is also a guest house with some amazingly cheap rooms ($4 with a bathroom and fan) given its proximity to Sisoway Quay (riverfront) and the bars where I hang out.

I receive a warm greeting from the owner, a smile from the woman who serves the meals and after checking into my normal room, drop my bags and head back for the boys (and girls) at Mikeys. Like in the movie Casablanca where Captain Louis "Louie" Renault (Claude Rains) orders his police to "round up the usual suspects", Mikeys has once again "rounded them up" as well.

Day One of the adventure had started off a bit weird with the peeping tom incident, running motorcycles off the road and now, just after ordering my first beer, I started seeing elephants! Jesus, I thought, what next?

It seemed the 5 o'clock elephant from Wat Phnom was a bit early today due to the light drizzle. I really don't mind seeing elephants as I drink, I really only start to get worried when they're pink and start flying by. Believe you me however, these days do exist in Cambodia!

Peter was there (the new Partner with Doug at Mikeys) and after a bit of conversation, we agreed we would hook up again at the Rose Bar around 7:30PM. Captain Y was also there as well.

Capt. Y MatikainenCaptain "Y" being his ever lovable self.

It wasn't long before Y and I were talking flying again as Y is a 737/727 "driver", or if you prefer to give him a lot of credit, some might say "pilot". Having once cruised the skies of a couple of continents myself, it is always great to hook up with another kindred soul and tell tons of lies.

I only took a few minutes and once again, I was trying to help setup an airline and recover a stolen aircraft now located in a "secret" hangar in a "secret" area deep in the wilds of Africa. I was also trying to maintain a conversation about Uncle Jack's Texas chili cookout the next day. Damn, I hadn't even had two beers yet and already I was trying to recover stolen aircraft, set up an airline, watch elephants stroll by and plan the next day's events around some Texas Chili....yawn....just another boring day in Phnom Penh.

Uncle Jack and Doug at Mikeys

Well, to liven things up a bit, I finally managed to get off my bar stool and headed back to my $2 a night "villa", grab the mandatory shower to wash the grime of the day's journey off and make a madd dash over to the "Rose Bar" on Street 104, just down from Wat Phnom.

"Uncle" Jack and Doug at Mikeys on the riverfront in Phnom Penh

The ever enchanting Ms. Rose in all her glory.

As I entered the establishment a bit late from the agreed upon time of 7:30 PM, it appeared Peter had started without me as a slightly "pissed" (drunk) Peter was awaiting my presence with a lovely "Rose girl" snuggled up to him.

After profusely apologizing for being later, the conversation quickly took on a more intellectual tone than the previous conversations about airlines, aircraft and chili and we started to discuss the finer points of why the local girls are so hairy and they never shave. Actually, this is something that had escaped my attention and I could only guess as to the true reasons. Looking at Peter, I could only ask, "Is it because they can't afford razors?"

As Peter stroked the young lady's shapely and bare thigh (it was getting barer as his hand moved her skirt farther north), he indicated he was actually becoming quite fond of hairy knees. I thereupon told him if he touched mine I would punch him...

The ladies from the Rose Bar

Some of the beautiful ladies from the Rose Bar.

I also noticed Ms. Rose this evening (hard not to as I always have my eyes glued to her when she is in the bar) as she was wearing the most amazing thong panties one can envision (and I can envision a lot of things). She was wearing a pair of jeans that she had obviously got into a tub of water with as that is the only way they could be that tight and there was no doubt about the color, design or lack of material to the thong she was wearing for today's was a very skimpy, design with nothing but a silky, white leaf connecting the back of the thong to the strings heading in various directions around here derriere. Oh my Buddha!!! I start to sweat when I see this woman!

As I had more intellectual pursuits to follow and it was getting really hot inside the Rose Bar (had someone turned on the heat?), I parted company with Peter and indicated we would hook up the next day in the afternoon at Uncle Jack's chili cookout at Mikeys. From the looks of things, Peter had other plans for the evening and they looked pretty damn good!

I went outside and as I waited for a motorcycle, I saw a that the new bar across the street from Rose was lively and made a mental note to come back a bit later and give it a whirl.

The motorcycle driver I got was either drunk or couldn't drive, or both. I almost hopped off but as we only had to go along the waterfront to the Riverside, I closed my eyes and prayed to Buddha. Buddha took care of me once again and after forking over 1,000 riel to the young entrepreneur, I strolled into another favorite place, DV8 (Get it...DEVIATE.)

Barry putting one of his famous B-52s together.

Aaahhhh....young Barry was there in regal fashion; stuffing some form of meat into his mouth as he greeted me, wearing a slightly too small DV8 t-shirt (or is that because his Buddha belly is getting bigger?) and wearing some form of canvas trousers with holes in the crouch. Aaahhhh...yessssss....your typical up and coming, entrepreneurial proprietor of one of the finer "gentlemen's club" in Phnom Penh.

I've known Barry and his lovely bride pretty much since they started to make their mark on the Phnom Penh bar scene. Great kids actually and they have done an amazing job of turning nothing into something. Each time I return there is something new or something added to. Today he showed me his new selection of spirits and a few new additions to the furniture...but Barry, what about the girls? What's new there? (See photos of DV8's lovely ladies!)

Ms. Wee, one of the more lovely freelance ladies that have been known to make men happy.

Actually Barry's ladies are always pretty and charming (obvious Barry isn't training them) and are always willing to please your every desire ("for a fee, Ugarte, for a fee..."). Personally, I have found Barry's ladies to be some of the nicer ladies in town with the hassle factor at "zero" . Hard to say that about other establishments like Sharky or Martini.

We talked about what has been happening since my last jaunt down from Siem Reap two months ago. It seems he is trying to expand his operation and take the building next door as well as start a guesthouse. Seemed like a great idea to me...

Also found out the Expat Star at Wat Phnom Circle had renamed itself to "Coyote Ugly", and had an ownership re-shuffle. From my past experiences there, neither surprised me and the name actually seemed more appropriate...

Gossiped about the other bars, owners and businesses a bit and than decided to hop on his motorbike to take a mini-tour of some of the new or relocated clubs.

First place we pulled up in front of was a new bar called "Memphis". Rather stark exterior and the interior wasn't much different. It was obvious someone had been to some dark and dingy music club in Soho or Memphis, TN and was trying to mirror the feel. With a few musical instruments propped up on the wall and a handful of customers plopped on bar stools, I listened to the woman singing along with the band.

As I nursed the $1.50 Angkor beer, the music I was listening to sounded pretty good and her voice even better. I even thought it was good enough to clap after each rendition.

I hadn't been there long when another acquaintance walked in with a friend of his. Mr. Andrew is another reason ex-pats come and stay here in Cambodia; teaching.

Andrew came up from Aussie land to take the helm of a monster English school known commonly as "ACE" or more technically correct, the "Australia Centre for Education". A legend in their own mind...oooppss, I meant time. With the title of "Director of Studies", I guess he had a lot on his plate there.

Competition amongst the English schools and many of the teachers is legendary and territorial rights being the rule of the day. ACE is pretty much at the top of the "heap" with wages that are actually quite reasonable. They even pay on time! (What a concept!)

But hell, let's leave the school and teaching crap for another day....and what about the girls??!! Oh yeah...almost forgot as this article is about "Babes, Booze and Billiards"...oooppps , I meant "Bullshit"!

After finishing the beer and listening to a handful of rather decent sounds, we plopped onto the bike again and tore off for the "New Martini", located 100 meters from the Chinese Embassy off of Mao Tse Toung Blvd. (I wonder which China is in that Embassy?)

The "new one", like the "old one", takes a bit of effort to get to from the waterfront. Personally, other than some fresh paint, a few stalls that looked like they might last the season and a dance floor much smaller than before, it looked like someone had lifted the old bar up and placed it down in a new location. I'm not really a Martini guy, but many like it.

The main "bar" is more a courtyard than a bar. In Thailand, I would refer to the actual place as a "beer garden" which is surrounded by food stalls and smaller bars.

The courtyard itself has the mandatory tables and chairs and in Martini's case, a large, 120 inch screen TV located behind the stage. There use to be a live band at the old Martini's but since this is Thursday night, only music videos are playing. It seems the live bands are reserved for Friday and Saturday nights only.

In Martini's advertising they always use the expression, "Lonely, bored, hungry? We have everything you need!" . Well for me this evening I wasn't all that lonely nor hungry but I was damn thirsty! Funny they don't mention that?

If you are lonely however, the reason for Martini's existence is girls!!! They are everywhere! There are short ones, fat ones, skinny ones, tall ones, pretty ones, ugly ones, sweet ones and down right mean ones! They are just everywhere...including dancing by themselves in the "disco" trying to look as sultry, or mean, or pretty, or sweet...depending on what they think you want after you start eyeing them. If you approach them for a "dance", you will hopefully have a wad of freshly minted US $20 dollar bills in your wallet. Now that would be heaven on earth!

After watching the evening's festivities unfold, Barry begins chatting with numerous individuals which the owner and proprietor of a gentlemen's club in Phnom Penh would be expected to know. One individual was quite generous buying several rounds of drinks for both us and others that joined the conversation. It was getting late however and as I had had a very long day to say the least, so with fond farewell to the cute looking female security guard protecting our motorcycle, we motored our way back home....but wait!!! Another bar we have never seen before!

As we turn around in the street and head back for the sign indicating the "New Whisky" bar (their spelling, not mine), we pull up in front and there are obviously some nice looking ladies standing behind the bar, all dressed in what I would refer to as "Candy Cane" tops. Sort of reminded me of something we once called in the States, "Candy Stripers", which were young girls that volunteered in hospitals. Damn, am I really that old??!!

Well shit, I am and they aren't, so what's a guy to do? Guess we need to belly up to the bar and find out.

Midnight has now come and gone (with me going home anytime soon becoming less and less) and it was very obvious as we started to drink our beers and chat up the young ladies that the Khmer fellow to our left talking with the Barang (foreigner) was over his limit for drinks for the evening. As Khmers have a difficult time handling anything more than one, it was anyone's guess how much this young lad had consumed or how long he had been there.

It was also obvious his English was great and he was gay as a trivet. The Barang seemed amused by the Khmer's rantings and ravings while Barry and I instead focused our attention on the young ladies behind the bar in the tight fitting, bumble-bee tops. It also became obvious that the older woman at the end of the bar with her head in her hand and elbow on the bar was the owner. She even made an effort to greet us.

Her business card indicated she was a "Mrs." (so I guess she belonged to someone) and was known as "Chetana", the manager of some type of travel company and "Business Services". From the looks around the bar and the girls, I wondered just what kind of "services" she was providing to "businesses"? In the States we would have called it "Monkey Business"...

Ok. That was enough so we pay our bill, hop back on the bike and with little traffic on Sisoway Quay roar up Street 104 (Rose Bar) but instead of heading to the left, we enter the establishment on the right, "Zanzibar".

Zanzibar is a tad difficult to explain but if you have been to the Rose Bar across the street, it is modeled after it on a much smaller scale but looses something in the downscaling. As is typical throughout Asia, copy what you can, do it next door to what you copied and charge less for the product that has been copied....all a business model obviously being employed here with the Zanzibar.

I will say this however about this Zanzibar, it is a hell of a lot classier than the bar with the same namesake in Siem Reap. Actually, in Siem Reap there is also a Martinis as well and for my money, Phnom Penh's establishments are far better.

As Barry and I made our way down to the end of the bar for a seat, his wife calls and is checking on his whereabouts. I must say I find this rather humorous as he lives and works in a "gentlemen's club" so what could he possibly do here that he couldn't do there?

Anyway, it is obvious he can't convince her he is at the Zanzibar so he hands the phone to one of the ladies to have her tell his wife where he is at. I'm thinking this is rather strange as well as there is nothing in the bar that can't be bought for $20 and I'm not talking about the paintings on the wall. Are some gentlemen's clubs OK and some not OK? hmmmm

During all this I have walked to the rear of the establishment and noticed a table of men, most of whom I know. One was a recent arrival from Phuket, Thailand where he had worked as a Food and Beverage manager in a 5-star resort. I had met him some months before in Siem Reap and and offered him my Phnom Penh apartment when I was giving it up.

He did take it and only two night later witnessed a wicked firefight between the police and a couple of young guys who were armed with AK-47s. As the pursuit made its way from the riverfront, it turned up the street behind the post office (where the apartment is) and with bullets ricocheting off the house, he watched the two kids who were making a stand, get gunned down (dead) by the police. So much for me telling him my apartment was in a safe and decent neighborhood in Phnom Penh.

The other two at the table I knew were recent arrivals to Phnom Penh as well. One being with the US Embassy and the other making his way in Phnom Penh as an "IT and Web consultant". Thinking to myself this was a rather eclectic group with some pretty diverse backgrounds; I wondered what was the topic of conversation?

Alan, Charlie and Barry at DV8After a few greetings, Barry had by now convinced his wife that he was where he "should be" and we finally set down and as always, ordered another drink. As is always required at such moments for new "customers", a young lady joins me...but not Barry as they know he is "off limits".

Alan, Charlie and Barry at DV8

The lady that joins me isn't really that pretty and it is getting rather late. She also has an expression on here face that tells the world she is tired and wants to go home. Trying to make the best of the situation and make it a bit more pleasant, I put my arm around her and she immediately places her head on my shoulder. I gently start stroking her right arm and a small smile returns to her face. I guess in life, sometimes simple is good.

As we set there talking about this and that, particularly this new bar and its clientele, Andrew (from the Memphis Bar earlier) and his friend stroll in. (I'm starting to wonder what his wife is thinking about all this....) We once again exchange greetings and agree that we will inform them of our next destination with a laugh.

The time has definitely come to head back for the "villa" so after paying our bill, Barry takes me back to Chi Cha. Obviously, as with all guest houses, they have locked their steel doors long ago, so after a bit of persistent pounding, a tired and sleepy Cambodian Indian opens the gates and I finally manage to end Day 1 of another journey around Cambodia.

Charlie and his own Rose Girl!

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