Monthly Archives: October 2014

Phnom Penh Traffic Part Nine: Tuk-Tuk

Please note that this is the last in the Phnom Penh Traffic Series, so it’s a bit spoiler-y if you haven’t read anything else here before. If you do want to read the series, Part One can be found here, while the central Phnom Penh Traffic Page is here.

Sam hadn’t taken it well.
“Now? We’re just hitting it big!
You’re in pretty deep.
And you think Narith is the kinda guy you can just fuck around with?”
“I booked my flight already.
I’m out this afternoon.”
Sam stared at him without blinking,
arms at his sides,
colour coming back to his cheeks,
and Jack firmed his grip on his beer bottle
very slightly.
But then Sam turned
and walked out without a word.

Now the tuk-tuk is clearing the intersection onto Russian Federation Boulevard
and joining a new traffic jam.
In front of them is another tuk-tuk
with a poster-ad on the back
for a Christian NGO,
sporting bible verses
and a photograph of a smiling soulful Cambodian child
in a white cotton shirt with a starched and folded collar.
They trundle slowly along the wide road,
passing minivans and SUVs on the left,
while streams of motos on the right pass them in turn.
A small boy on the back of one looks at Jack as he passes,
and Jack feels like he is being measured
and made to fit into the boy’s world.
A few adults glance his way
but he sees their eyes
flick
to the suitcase on the seat by his side
and dismiss him.

They pass petrol stations and road-side shops
filled with bottled drinks
and an old woman
sitting by two big orange ice-boxes
and a display stand
hung with plastic raincoats.
A low breeze runs through the tuk-tuk
and he lifts his arms from his sides to let the air pass through his shirt.
Then they pull to a stop
at a red light
beneath a rotating billboard
advertising cameras
worth six months of a Cambodian wage.

In the intersection, a police-officer stands
and waves his baton importantly,
directing traffic to go where it will go
whether he waves or not.

Jack realises there is someone standing by the tuk-tuk
and jumps.
It is a girl,
perhaps six years old,
or four. Or eight.
Who can tell?
Her yellow blouse is faded but
as yet
untorn.
Her palms are pressed together
and she murmurs,
inaudible beneath the growl and sputter of engines.
Jack stares at her
blinking.
You’re better not giving to beggars,
they told him.
Especially kids.
They have to give it to their bosses anyway.
After a moment she turns away.

“Wait a second,” he says suddenly, surprising himself,
and she is there again.
He hurriedly digs for his wallet
and pulls out the first note he finds,
a twenty.
Her eyes go wide as he pushes it at her
but she plucks it from his fingers
and is gone.

Jack glances up and sees the driver’s dark eyes on him in the mirror.
After a moment, he looks away.

The lights change,
and the traffic rolls ahead.
Jack wonders if she will keep the money
or lose it
or just buy glue.

The child with the white starched collar
stares at him from the tuk-tuk ahead,
smiling,
never moving.

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Phnom Penh Traffic Part Eight: Sports Club

It is strange, Jack thinks,
seeing blue water
here
in this city.
But the Club’s swimming pool could be anywhere in the world
with waiters from some other ethnic background staffing the bar.

Narith had led them to a table with a broad, cloth umbrella,
and now they sit in the shade
sipping cognac
which the day is still too hot for.
Expatriates,
pale and flabby
or taut and tanned
lie on sun-beds
or in the water.
A man in blue shorts,
his body long and muscular,
swims laps in the pool in front of them.
He splashes the ground close to their table as he goes by
rhythmically digging at the water with his arms,
head twisting to the left or right at every third stroke,
to breathe through the crook between elbow
and water.

Borey stands by the table
and stares at a blonde woman who is lying nearby
showing more skin than even the girls at the KTV bar.
Jack glances at him from time to time,
looking for the bulge of a gun under his shirt.

“So. Your product was good,”
Narith says, after swallowing the last of his drink.
“I think I paid a fair price.
I had no complaints.”
“We’re respectable men.”

Sam’s eyes flick toward Jack as he says it.
Jack looks down into his cognac.

“Can you get more?”

The man in the blue shorts swims past again,
going the other way.
Jack watches him,
the way he twists his face up and out of the water
to suck in the air,
snatch it under his arm,
before plunging it back into the water
and thrashing onward through the blue.

This is Part Eight in the series. Here is Part One. And the ninth (and final) part, ‘Tuk-Tuk’, is here.
The central Phnom Penh Traffic Page is here.

Phnom Penh Traffic Part Seven: Psar

The marketplace is alive with the sound of busy conversation in Khmer.
Sellers perch on low stools
behind their displays of fruits and vegetables,
close to the muddy ground
and call out to customers
or to one another.
Metal trays are laid out
and filled with still-flapping fish,
and a woman all in orange cotton clothes
(which look oddly like pyjamas)
picks one up
and deftly hacks off its head
before handing it over in sale.

A man on a little white moto
rides along the cramped street,
forcing shoppers to step aside and into stalls
which they seem to do
completely
unconsciously.
He stops next to an egg vendor,
and the two shout good-naturedly to one another for a minute
before the driver hands over a tight wad
of stained bank notes
and rides away,
a plastic bag containing thirty unprotected eggs
cradled on his lap.

A tall foreigner stops at a vegetable stall,
and chatters expertly in Khmer
as he buys his potatoes and broccoli and chili and strange mushrooms.
Locals point and laugh
because he speaks their language,
because he speaks with an accent,
because he is a man buying groceries with a list from his wife.

As he finishes shopping and turns away,
he makes eye-contact with Jack,
smiles,
and gives a quick flash of his eyebrows.
Jack smiles back
but stays at his spot under an awning
out of the way
drinking the juice out of a coconut with a straw.

The smile doesn’t quite fade as he stands there,
and he looks at the way the sunlight
comes through the colourful shade cloth overhead
and the people’s faces are light
then dark
then light
then dark
as they walk in and out of the heat.

“There you are!
You didn’t answer your phone!”
Jack turns to Sam, stepping toward him through the crowd,
and wonders what time he left the girl.

“Sorry, didn’t notice it ring.”

“Well, come on, we’re late.
Leave that.”
Sam lifts the coconut out of Jack’s hand,
tosses it onto a nearby pile
of plastic bags, cardboard boxes and scraps.

Jack follows Sam as he turns away,
glancing back at the fish seller one more time,
just as she brings down her cleaver
with a crunching thud.
She catches his eye,
smiles at him,
and goes back to work.

This is Part Seven in a series. Part One is here. The next part, ‘Sports Club,’ is here.
The central Phnom Penh Traffic Page is here.

Phnom Penh Traffic Part Six: Breakfast

Traffic in the intersection is consistent,
but the corner smells mainly of charcoal fire
and caramelising pork,
and Jack thinks it is the first time that Phnom Penh has ever smelled good.
A yellow mini-van goes by,
badly in need of a tune-up,
and almost spoils it,
but then it is gone, and the scent of breakfast returns.

He sits in a blue plastic chair,
resting his bare elbows on the metal trestle table,
and can feel the heat of the day brewing already.
In the junction, motos weave in and out around big SUVs,
careful not to touch them.
Jack looks away,
thinks about his hangover instead.

Across the road, a monk receives alms from the owner of a bicycle shop.
He chants a flat, nasal blessing
while she stands facing him,
eyes lowered,
palms pressed together before her face.
The monk looks about him as he chants,
then accepts her money in his orange pot.

A slim arm sets a green plastic bowl on the metal trestle
with a thunk.
It is laden with steamed white rice, grilled pork and fried egg,
and a mixed smell of soy sauce and fish sauce and spring onion
is oddly appealing for eight in the morning.

As he eats Jack watches an old woman shuffling along the road,
feet hardly leaving the ground,
shoulders curled forward.
When she reaches the bicycle shop she stops,
faces the doorway, palms held together in front of her,
and waits.
No one comes out and,
after a while,
she shuffles away.

When he finishes eating
he mutely hands a dollar bill to one of the women serving,
and she gives him back a thousand-riel note,
crumpled
and brown.

For many westerners, the idea of eating marinaded, grilled pork with rice for breakfast is just a bridge too far. But it’s become a part of my life that, frankly, I’m not sure how I’m ever going to go without again, should I eventually find myself living in a place where you can’t get it for 75c at the side of the road.

This is Part Six in a series. Part One is here. For the next part click here.
The central Phnom Penh Traffic Page is here.

Phnom Penh Traffic Part Five: Riverfront

They sit together on Narith’s balcony, looking over the traffic.
From below comes the rumble of engines
and the buzz of the local restaurants
and the calling of street vendors.
Across the way, the brown river makes its sullen way to the sea.
The air is hot, and Jack’s scalp itches.
He sips at the cheap scotch that Sam brought,
feels it scorch his mouth
and smoke out his throat,
like the gritty haze from the rubber fire burning nearby
that hangs in the air and pricks his eyes.
“Isn’t it funny,” Sam says
from nothing,
“how you reach a certain age and you think
all that emotional bullshit
is finally done with;
but then, out of nowhere, some
thing comes along
and makes you feel like you’re
bloody seventeen again.”

Jack sets down his glass and picks up the bottle,
and pours himself another long, bad drink.
In the street below, a skinny local goes by,
pedalling a cyclo with a fat tourist sitting in the front.
Jack swallows a full mouth of whiskey
and knows he will have a headache later.
“I guess,” he says at last,
“that I never really thought about it.”

This is Part Five in a series. Part One can be found here. Or you can read the next part, ‘Breakfast.
The central Phnom Penh Traffic Page is here.
If you have been a reader of this blog before this poem may seem familiar; indeed, it is a reworking of an older one. It just seemed to fit the tone, so I incorporated it.

Phnom Penh Traffic Part Four: KTV

Narith’s bar is near the airport,
and under the flight-path,
so that from time to time,
the glasses on the tables rattle and clink
as a commuter roars overhead,
lumbering toward Seoul
or Kuala Lumpur or Beijing.
The dim lights feel like they even sway a little,
but that, Jack thinks, is probably just his imagination.

Toward the front of the house is the stage,
a chaos of coloured lights
and drunk Khmer
crooning Backstreet Boys into a microphone
off-key,
of course.

Jack nurses an Anchor beer,
trying to believe the ice in it is clean,
and to ignore the way every swallow
sits worse and worse in the greasy mess
that the fried rice made of his stomach.

The young Khmer girl sitting on his left
said she was 19.
Sam says that means she’s probably at least 22 –
“They always pitch lower,
for the pedo-crowd, y’know?”
She is pretty
but looks bored,
staring at the man singing
because there is not much else to stare at.
When she notices Jack looking at her
she smiles,
turning on her face like a light switch.

Jack smiles queasily back
then sips his beer again to break eye-contact
which is not a good move.

He did try talking to her
but he has no Khmer
and her English is limited
and the bar is noisy.

He wonders where Narith has gone.

At the next table over
Sam is lost in his rapt attention
for his own girl.
A bottle of gin stands on the table –
the girl’s choice –
and Sam leans close to her,
talking,
laughing.
She laughs whenever he does,
and occasionally glances around the room.

A wave of nausea rolls over him,
and Jack belches
surprised.
The girl pretends not to notice.
He stands up, and she looks up
with some real concern.
He smiles at her thinly.
“Sorry.” He puts his hand to his stomach.
“I feel a little sick tonight.
I think I’ll go home.”
Her worry fades away and she nods,
unsurprised,
and turns back to the man with the microphone.

Jack catches Sam’s eye
with some effort
and indicates with gestures
that he is leaving,
sick.
Sam nods,
and turns back to his girl.

Jack threads his way to the front of the building,
and passes the gauntlet of working girls
seated on benches at the front door.
They watch him blankly as he leaves,
pink lips unmoving,
exposed cleavage and thighs made unerotic
by flat posture.

For a moment, he hopes the fresh night air might help.
But it is still hot outside
and something unidentifiable
stinks
somewhere.

“Tuk-tuk sir?” call out three voices at once.
He starts moving toward one of them,
bathed in the pink light from the bar,
his shadow cast long in front of him
by the illuminated
KTV
on the sign over the door.

Without warning, an Airbus tears apart the sky over his head
and a few people glance up
and the faded noise of the karaoke
sinks into momentary oblivion.

Jack hauls himself into the tuk-tuk’s shadowed interior.
He needs to vomit but,
knowing his body,
he won’t be able to.

The use of Karaoke bars along with massage parlours, hairdressers and low-rate hotels as (thinly) veiled brothels is pretty endemic on Cambodia. Within a ten minute drive of our house we could probably locate 20 brothels without any difficulty after dark. Fifteen minutes will get you to the street this poem is set on, where there are enough brothels we have lost count of them.

This is part four in the Phnom Penh Traffic Series. Part One can be found here. The next part, ‘Riverfront,’ is here.
The central Phnom Penh Traffic Page is here.

Phnom Penh Traffic Part Three: Lexus

The Lexus is black, of course,
the kind of SUV that makes
a statement
more than sense.
Jack sits in the front passenger seat
while Sam negotiates with the buyer in the back.
“My name is Narith,” he had said,
in accented English.
“It means Strong Man.”
The driver says nothing at all,
and just stares at the the traffic ahead,
occasionally slapping a meaty palm against the horn
the clear the road of motos.
Jack feels cool
and the leather seats are dry and comfortable.
A black Honda moto buzzes past his window
and he watches idly
until the young driver –
blue shirt and faux-leather satchel –
disappears ahead.

“We imported through Laos,” Sam says,
“because I have a friend who is a border guard there.
But it’s very high quality product.”
Narith smiles.
“So this is good.
My friend, he get me good product too.
From Myanmar.”
Back and forth.

A girl cruises slowly past.
She is twenty-two, perhaps? He can never tell.
He follows the line of her back
from her shoulder down to her buttocks
perched on that little Suzuki.
He smiles.

“We would like a unit price of twenty-five,”
Sam says. Narith laughs,
good naturedly.
“This is too expensive, brother.
Remember my profits also.”

The Lexus slows as they enter thicker traffic,
and the driver gives a longer blast of the horn.
Jack wonders what that will achieve.
Then there is the protracted
grinding
crunch
of metal on metal
and Jack’s head jerks around to look.

An older man
on an old, dark-red moto
stares down at the rear panel of the Lexus.
His eyes are wide,
his hair dishevelled by wind,
and his shirt a faded red check.

Narith’s face is expressionless
as he looks at him for a moment through the glass.
“Borey,” he says quietly,
and the driver opens his door
and steps out.
A wave of hot air, and the noise of the street roll inside
before the door shuts again.
Borey looks intently at the side of the Lexus,
then at the old man,
who stares back,
expressionless except for the yellow whites of his eyes
showing all around the dark irises.

Borey pulls a gun from somewhere
and smashes it into the man’s jaw.
Jack is startled by the stark red of the blood
that rises from the old man’s breaking teeth as he falls
in a tangle of legs
and red motorcycle.

Borey stands over the man,
finger curled through the trigger guard for a moment.
Then he opens the door
and slides into his seat
and all the sounds rush in with him
before he shuts it thud-click
and muffles everything again.

As the Lexus draws away,
manoeuvring around a young man from the country
on a battered Daelim
who stares at the old man,
Narith says,
“Tonight we will go to my bar.
We can do Karaoke
and you can choose a nice girl.”

Jack looks back once
at the gathering knot of people.
They crowd around the man
who has one bloodied hand over his mouth
and tears on his face
as he tries to get back to his feet.
They are pulling out iPhones
to take videos.

This is Part Three in the Phnom Penh Traffic Series. I feel like I should note that, while the assault on the moto-rider may seem melodramatic to western readers, it would probably elicit very little surprise in Phnom Penh. Though not based on any one actual event, it is the kind of thing than often does occur here between those with power and those without. I have tried to capture the sense of how these interactions play out as faithfully as possible.

If you just found this poem, you may like to start with Part One, ‘Window Seat’. Alternatively, the next part, called ‘KTV’, is right over here.
The central Phnom Penh Traffic Page is here.