Ai! Cobra in the toilet – or “All the sad young men”

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August 30th 2009
Published: August 30th 2009
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Going into the jungle with a George W. Bush hippie-clone, avoiding getting killed by a murder- coconut on a Robinson Crusoe kind of island, and drinking beer in a David Lynchish kind of karaoke-bar full of “sad young men”, are some of the experiences I had in south-Cambodia, but also here old ghosts from the Khmer Rouge, ruins of burned down villas, standing up like skeletons in the landscape. I just spend a few days here, but the impression of all the good people I met along the way, are everlasting ones.

Driving out of Phnom Pehn felt like a relief. Next to me sat a young man.
- Do you speak English? I asked.
- Just a little.
The usual Asian modesty, I’d say. Later on it turned out his English was probably much better than mine. He was studying psychology at an international university in Thailand, now he was going home for the summer to see his parents, and work.
- In Cambodia, we can’t study psychology as a major.
How bizarre. If there is one country in Asia where the population sure would need some therapy, it must be this one.
Four hours later, when we reached Kep, we were already good friends. As the bus drove away, I waved, hoping to meet him again somewhere - at least to know he had sorted out his degree and future.

The pleasant tout

Kep. Kep. Kep. Rain. Rain. Rain. What a pretty place, although the rain made the water muddy and brown. The excellent diving I had read about - forget it. The sunbathing - forget it. The sleeping at the beach - forget it.
- Where do you want to go?
A voice woke me up from my self-pity. A serious looking guy looked at me. Adil.
- Well, I wanted to go to these hotels, I said, pointing into my book.
Adil looked, then explained me where everything is, even giving the different places compliments of all sorts. Finally he asked if I would be interested to see “his” place. His attitude appealed to me. He explained that he would get a commission - only what kind of commission that would be - when the whole fee was a 7 dollars, I do not understand. However - Adil showed an attitude, that I so far experienced a lot; people would offer to help, or inform you about the alternatives, but they never really push you to go for the option that would be profitable for themselves. Very pleasant!

Hungarian rhapsodies, Jimi Hendrix and a hut from Grimm’s tales

At the hotel I met a few foreigners; Liz, a banker from England, Michael from Australia, and Barney, an English guy from Hong Kong. All of them had quit their jobs in order to pursue their dreams. We all sat down and started a communal lament-session about the weather.
The best way to withstand bad weather seem to be indulging in good things, like food and wine, so we sat off to fill our stomachs. Not far away, we came across a highly original building. It made me think about a hut from some Grimm-fairytale; all made up of twisted twigs and branches, brick-columns in the shape of giant mushrooms, and arty lamps, all set around a lotus-pond. To cross the pond you had to balance on a little bridge, easy now, but how would it be after the wine? As we rounded the corner, stepped into the empty bar, a beardy guy with a very special accent (Hungarian, we learnt), jumped out, greetings us with an expression that made my thoughts wander to something in between of a Woodstock-hippie and Santa Claus.
To the tones of Jimi Hendrix, we were lead to a cosy table in the corner. Thus, the second night in Cambodia, I fund myself in a bar listening to Jimi Hendrix’ “Little wing” while having a authentic Hungarian stew. And why not?

Natures' call? Take paper - and anti-venom!

The guy had build the whole place by himself, but now he tried to sell it - completely in vain. As a former bassplayer - had been playing in the national philharmonic in Budapest during communist times. Later on he switched to play rock, and once he even jammed with B.B. King during a festival in Vienna, but one day, he had cut his hand on a broken mirror, and his career was over.
He had come to Cambodia with his wife who suddenly passed away, to build a new life on Rabbit Island outside of Kep. Instead he is stuck with a huge pub. While eating, he was sending us curious glances, and as soon as we invited him to join our company - that was it! Some people have lifestories beyond belief. He talked for the rest of the night. In between he showed us the photo of his wife; a very busty Hungarian beauty. As we were sipping our drinks, his stories unfolded, like in 1001 night. Then Barney had a nature’s call.
- Toilet? The Hungarian said. - I ‘ll take you there.
- Just tell me where it is, Barney said.
- Well, the thing is, the path is dark, and there are a lot of cobras around.
- Cobras?
- Cobras, the Hungarian said with a little laughter. - And the local hospital has no anti-venom.
A minute later the two men disappeared together into the dark.
The stories continued. It was a peculiar situation; we sat around him like little children, and he told us wonderful, but mostly sad stories. When we left, he said: - I build all this with my own hands. I am sixty, and far from home. My only wish is to sell this, and get to play before I die.
We could do nothing but nod. As we left, we looked nervously around for cobras.

French ghosts in the landscape

The rainy season is definitely bad business. The locals seem to be sleeping all day in their hammocks. During the winter, it’s warm, the sea is clear - the business is going well. But now; The restaurants are all empty, so are the guesthouses. It is indeed a hibernating place. The people I ran into seemed surprised to discover a tourist. I hopped in the water. I had the beach to myself.
After the bath, the hotelguy, Adil suggested a trip up in the mountains. It was already dark. And as we drove, me sideways - Cambodian style - he too was talking about the cobras. The forest was dense, lush and full of sounds that are interesting as long as you don’t have to stay overnight there. On the way we passed numerous villas and mansions, all burnt and destroyed by Khmer Rouge, still standing like sad ghosts in the landscape, they constantly remind people of the past. Not that they don’t manage themselves. They actually do have an official hate-day, May the 20th, especially to commemorate the devilish deeds of Pol Pot.
At one point, we nearly crashed with wild monkeys, but - rather monkeys than cobras. Finally we arrived. The view was rewarding, the air cool and soothing. From the top one can see Vietnam, both the mainland, and the numerous islands just off the shore.
- If the fishermen go to close, the Vietnamese shoot. Previously people have died because of this, Adil said.

Monkeys in the palace and the boring girlfriend

Later on, we went to the crab market and had seafood, the most delicious food I have had for the last half year. Adil seemed embarrassed, and ate more rice than seafood. As soon as we finished, we sat off to the next destination; the shore. Driving there, we passed a junction.
- That is the road to the old palace.
- What palace?
- King Sihanouks’.
- Wow. Really? Anyone living there these days?
- Only monkeys.
The sound of the waves could be heard from far away. We sat at a patio, looking out into the night. Above us stars were twinkling. Around us, the fluorescent insects were flying, and in the sea the fluorescent particles made the water glitter every time the wave rolled in. Stars, stars, stars. Everywhere stars. It seemed like the moment for serious talk.
- Have you got a boyfriend? Adil asked, shyly.
- Nope. I am too busy for that, I answered rather swiftly, then adding: - And you? You do not have a steady girlfriend?
- No. My brother is married. So is my sister, but I am not.
- You don’t want to?
- I once had a girlfriend for five days. But we broke up.
- Why?
- It was boring.
The answers came slightly reluctantly. None of us felt like elaborating.

Vietnamese fire-water, Korean synth and all the sad young men; or - I am inside David Lynch’s head!

Back in the village, we went to his friends place. Seven men were drinking Vietnamese “wine”, and eating some Vietnamese speciality that, no matter how hard I tried, could identify as food I had ever seen before. They greeted us accordingly, and soon we were drinking like old brothers. As soon as the wine was over, the obvious mentor of the group declared: “Let us go to the hear music!” That meant down the stairs and across the street.
The drinking hall/ karaoke hall/ disco-pub was huge. The disco-wheel was turning frenetically, spreading its’ pearls of tinted light all around. As soon as we got there, the guys ordered a good eight - ten bottles of local beer. As soon as the beer arrived, the cheering started. Glasses, filled to the brim with enormous ice cubes, and less beer, were raised, and the atmosphere grew merry and cheerful. As soon as they drunk up, the male communication took over. Id est; silence. One fell asleep. Two others read the menu (at the other tables they did the same), three others stared at the big karaoke screen. The dance-floor was sadly empty, and I realized I was the only queen present.
- Not many girls here, I told Adil.
- There are some, but most of them have gone to Phnom Pehn, he said cryptically.
A man’s world indeed. The guys just sat there. Inevitably the song: “All the sad young men” came to my head.

. . . “All the sad young men
Sitting in the bars
Knowing neon nights
Missing all the stars
(. . .) Drifting through the town
Drinking up the night
Trying not to drown

All the sad young men
Singing in the cold
Trying to forget
That they're growing old. . .”

As we listened to the Korean boss playing his dreadful synth, singing along, we occasionally raised our glasses. The waiters were swarming about, making sure nobody was short of ice. In between the karaoke, there was Cambodian gangsta rap. The red curtains, the empty checkered-patterned dance-floor seemed unreal. Suddenly it came to me, like a revelation: “Formally I am in Cambodia, but in fact I have come to inhibit David Lynch’ head”.

In the banana-boat with hippie-George W. Bush

Rabbit island looks like a picture from a commercial. It’s the sort of place where you could bump into Adam and Eve or something.
In the tuk-tuk taking me down to the pier, there were no Adam nor were there any Eves, but a couple of pale English siblings and a merry barefooted veteran-hippie from Adelaide Australia with the longest toe-nails I have seen so far in my life - and whose accent I could barely understand - even when I concentrated were my companions.
We scrambled down in the boat, which resembled a huge wooden banana that seemed to flip over any moment. The Aussie jumped down with a huge grin. The more I looked at him, the more he resembled George Bush. He told med he is 60 something, and working as a DJ. The motor, though, was a gruesome invention, tied to the boat with a simple rope. When it started, it sounded like a jet had landed on the fleet. End of all small-talk.
We had to wade into the shore, then cross the island by foot. With the sound of the boat still ringing in my ear, I sat off. The jungle was dense, the path muddy. I am glad there were no leeches. The Aussie guy with the toe-nails and me soon lost sight of the others. My feet got constantly stuck. I kept hoping cobras are lazy snakes, too lazy to swim from the mainland.
- You know, one keeps looking at the ground for snakes, but the fact is that they can slip down from a tree, said the Aussie, curiously looking up. - . . . from a tree just like this one! he continued, and pointed at the nearest palm.
I pushed him further. But only to hear: - And look at that piece of dung! That size must an elephants! It’s just too big to come out of a cow. . .
I was so relieved when we caught sight of the bamboo huts on the other side of the island. Palms. Beaches. Clear water. Nothing else! I headed for the first little hut, slipped down in a hammock and was prepared to see Robinsons Crusoe coming out of the hut to offer me some coconutmilk or something. When I woke up, it was apparent I had forgotten the sunscreen. I looked like a clown, all red, with white circles where my sunglasses had been.

Let’s thank the snake!

I stayed at the island a few days. During the daytime I did a whole lot of nothing. During the night I sat in the little bar - a straw-hut with mud-floor. It was the only place where the aggregate was going, sharing a bit of light. I got to know the staff well. One of them told me he often works from 8 am till 2 am. Seven days a week. This gives him less than fifty dollars - a sum one can easily spend in one day. This kind of wage is typical for that kind of work. It was heartbreaking.
Mostly there were only a few people in the bar. At the whole island, we were only a handful of tourists. One night I had a talk with two Belgians, Stef and Karel. The bartender soon joined in.
- So, are there any cobras on the island? I asked.
- Nope!
- Ah great! I said, with a broad smile.
- . . . but this morning I found a fat python on the roof of my bar, he continued.
- A what?
- You know, snakes bring luck, now the business will go well, and I have to burn incense to show my gratitude to the snake, he said. - And by the way, often I find scorpions in my clothes and shoes inside the bungalow, he grinned. - They come through the bamboo at night.
I could swear he found it amusing.
Later, around eleven, we were still sitting in the bar, Karel and Stef because they were still in for a few drinks, me because I was terrified to go back to sleep. The Cambodians go to bed early - really early, some around 7 pm already, but in any case, 10 pm is considered really late. The yawning, red-eyed bartender seemed a little less amused now, and kept mumbling something like: - Well, to be honest, the scorpions only get into the bungalows when they are empty for a loooong while.
All the same. The damage was done. I did not feel like going back at all.

The travelling weather

I woke, thinking: - Dear God in heaven - I am alive.
It was time to move on. The owner of the bungalow drove me in very rough water back to the mainland, where I picked up the luggage. As I had my last meal, I sat staring at the horizon. It is the first time I could virtually see weather coming. Far away, there was a big dark belt. Soon it came across the sea like a black, angry whale, eating up all on its’ way. It was a matter of seconds. What a busy weather - it travelled from the horizon into the mainland in less than two minutes. Suddenly all hell broke loose. For an hour the wind and the rain kept blowing and pounding so hard, I was afraid the whole country would blow away. How lucky I had left Rabbit Island. Now all the snakes must blow off the roof of the bar, and for sure the Belgians had escaped the beach long ago.
When the bus to Phnom Pehn finally arrived, it was all over, though. I was sad to leave, but I had a distinct feeling there was more of that kind of weather to come. I got on. As the bus pulled out of the station, I saw Adil’s figure standing at the empty station. The sky made the ponds around him glitter in blue and white. He seemed so lonely. Really lonely. I wanted to tell him. But I turned my head, and crossed my fingers that he one day will come across that perfect girlfriend - one that won’t bore him. . .

The Ballad of the Sad Young Men

Sing a song of sad young men
Glasses full of rye
All the news is bad again so
Kiss your dreams goodbye

All the sad young men
Sitting in the bars
Knowing neon nights
Missing all the stars

All the sad young men
Drifting through the town
Drinking up the night
Trying not to drown

All the sad young men
Singing in the cold
Trying to forget
That they're growing old

All the sad young men
Choking on their youth
Trying to be brave
Running from the truth

Autumn turns the leaves to gold
Slowly dies the heart
Sad young men are growing old
That's the cruelest part

All the sad young men
Seek a certain smile
Someone they can hold
for a little while
Tired little bird, she
does the best she can
Trying to be gay for
her sad young man

While the grimy moon
Blossoms up above
All the sad young men
Play at making love

Misbegotten moon
Shine for sad young men
Let your gentle light
Guide them home again
All the sad young men

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