Arriving in Phnom Penh in an aeroplane which had propellers on the wings – was not what I had expected. Having been delayed in Heathrow by two hours before setting off, when we made it to Kuala Lumpur there was precious little chance of making my connection.
Nevertheless dashing out of the plane, I found a man holding a sign saying transit to Phnom Penh – charging over to him I desperately asked where I should go for the Phnom Penh flight – he directed me to gate G10, and told me I would have to hurry.
Hurry I did, bowling along through the sedate ranks of travellers, already looking slightly dishevelled after an 11 hour flight, and finding suddenly that my bags were much too heavy to carry when running.
But within the 15 minute deadline I had made it to gate G10, flinging myself through the security with gusto, and presenting myself boarding pass in hand at the desk.
The Malay girl at the counter looked confused.
“You are going to Phnom Penh?” She asked.
“This is not the gate for Phnom Penh. This is Phuket.”
I felt like I was going on a bear hunt… ‘You can’t go round it, you can’t go over it, oh no, you have got to go through it! Through the mud, squelch squerch, squelch squerch, through the river, splish splash, splish splash…’
Newly redirected to gate H10, I set off again, charging along like an out of breath red-faced animal, wild eyed and flailing. Reaching the gate I again attempted to breeze through security. But they found my contraband.
“I am sorry sir, we need to look in your bag”
“Yes, yes, ok, but please quick!”
They were not quick.
“I am sorry sir, but you can’t take this on the plane.” The stern security guard holds up the 120ml bottle of mosquito repellent purchased 13 hours before hand in Boots, in the Heathrow departure lounge.
I look at the guy…
“I bought that in Heathrow departure lounge!” I protest dimly.
“Nothing more than 100mls sir.”
“FINE!” I yell, grabbing bags and coat and sweatily heading towards the desk.
“Oh sir, you are late!”
“Yes, I know, I am on the delayed flight from London.”
“Oh sir, you are too late.”
“No! No I’m not!”
“Yes sir, too late.”
“But there’s the plane. I can see it!”
“Sorry sir, doors closed.”
“No! Please, please let me on the plane!”
“Sorry sir, you’re too late.”
“But, but, they sent me to the wrong gate… I ran all the way, but they sent me to the wrong place…”
“Sir, why didn’t you check?”
“Because I was running! And anyway, the guy wrote it on the boarding pass, look!”
“Very sorry sir. Too late.”
As I spoke I looked again at the plane, and saw the tunnel begin to retract from the doorway. At that point I realised the futility of my quest.
“My bags?” I bleated plaintively.
“Don’t worry sir, your bags are not on the plane.”
On hearing that, I was suddenly glad that I’m not either.
The next flight to Phnom Penh was leaving in 5 hours… via Ho Chi Min city.
“Great”, I thought, eating a chewy microwaved croissant, and trying fruitlessly to log on to the wireless signal to check email. I love it when wireless signal is partial… just enough to keep you trying, but not enough to actually do anything. So productive and encouraging.
Ho Chi Min was wet – dashing from plane to bus and later from bus to considerably smaller plane I could smell and hear the thunder and see the lightning crack above me.
“Great.” I thought. “Good flying weather.”
Despite the rather shaky flight I made it to a much drier Phnom Penh to be reunited with my baggage! Even better a friend turned up to take me to my hotel… where I checked in and slept the sleep of the dog tired traveller.
Easing myself through the first day I made it out to a friend’s house for a chat about business. In the early evening I got to a meeting with some friends which was great, and then headed off to meet a contact for a drink and a chat.
My drink and chat meeting went really well – we began to understand each other and things were feeling very positive, we come from pretty different points of view, he would probably describe himself as a bhuddist if anything, but I found myself agreeing with his comments about the problems concerning the church, and its triumphalist, imperialist approach to spreading the gospel.
As I stepped from the motorbike which took me back to the hotel, I noticed what seemed to be an unusual amount of activity in the street for the time of night. Heading up to my room I wondered again about what was happening outside.
Leaving the lights off, I walked to the window and looked out.
“That hairdresser’s is open unusually late” I mused, as I watched a group of young women mill around in front of the shop.
Then I watched as a motorbike rider pulled up outside the shop, and after a short conversation, one girl detached herself from the group, climbed on the back of the bike and rode off.
“Oh.” I thought.
For the next couple of hours I internally lamented the fact that the hotel I was booked to stay in for the next twelve nights was slap opposite a brothel.
Thinking that as a journalist I should attempt to document this outrage I held my phone up to the window, setting it on video capture mode I shot some footage of the girls milling around outside their workplace.
As I mused despondently on the tragedy of their situation in a country where the spectre of aids and other venereal disease looms large, and brutality is far from uncommon, I saw one of them glance up at the window where a dim glow was being emitted by the phone.
I withdrew it at once, feeling immediate shame at the fact that I was powerless to help these young women – and worrying that in filming them I had further commoditised their plight.
With the noise of the street and the sadness inside me I only got about four hours sleep that night.
Despite my lack of sleep, I managed to get to the shop, and internet café before being picked up from the hotel at 6.45 am.
After a brief moto ride, I jumped into the back seat of a slightly rusty Toyota pick up truck and headed out of the city.
There were eight of us in total – three people joined the original five, jumping in the back of the pick up, and clinging to the sides as we jostled through the traffic.
Looking out of the back window I saw one of the rear passengers was a young woman, and felt an immediate pang of guilt. Why was I sitting in the air conditioned interior when she was perched in the trailer?
At the next stop I made my move – “Would you like to go inside?” I asked, feeling noble.
After about five minutes of hurtling along the road, overtaking lorries and swerving to avoid rogue motorbikes, I no longer felt so noble.
I began to think of those games you play sometimes, when you have to choose who would be thrown out of a sinking boat. If you can only carry three people in the boat, and four people are in it, then who should be chucked out?
As the needle wobbled around the 80 mark, I began to think that while I may have done a good thing letting the girl take my place in the relative safety inside the car, I doubted my wife and kids would share my feelings should an accident happen.
I looked at my two companions in the trailer, both wearing motorbike helmets, and felt the inadequacy of my own floppy sun hat, as the brim slapped me in the eye.
I then began to wonder if my travel insurance would cover this kind of activity… somehow I doubted it.
A good chat at the village ended with me being given a bunch of picked cotton, which was very exciting. As we talked and laughed, me mostly laughing as I had no real idea what was being said for most of the time, I felt a sense of comfort and community. I watched puppies scamper on the ground nearby, and heard goats bleat from their small home a few feet away.
I began to wonder what would be for lunch, my usual vegetarian status had been updated to ‘freegan’ or ‘eat whatever I’m given’ setting as is usual when I’m travelling in places like this. Still my stomach doesn’t like meat, and doesn’t cope terribly well with digesting it these days.
Then one of my friends from the back of the pick up, who had come to teach the village kids, turned to me with glee. “Today they kill goat!”
“Oh good.” I thought.
The goat was surprisingly tender, although one piece that I had was suspiciously spherical. I managed to avoid the sour soup and stick with the goat, which was curried beautifully. The rice was local, and it tasted very good, my friends didn’t seem to mind that I ate mainly rice, leaving them to attack the goat curry and sour soup with gusto.
When I was a child we had goats. In my memory we lived in a kind of rural idyll – and I often long to go back to it. Our goats (the ones I remember) were called Nanny and Skippy. We didn’t eat them
One of them I recall eating washing from the line, and once or twice I remember one goat having an identity crisis and thinking it was a sheepdog, rounding up sheep in the pasture behind our house.
Our goats were, I’m sure, a bigger kind than the sort kept by the Khmer. Even so, I felt sentimentally sorry for the goats I saw living in a kind of goat prison, raised up from the ground on stilts. I have a fairly utilitarian view of these kind of animals, but I do like to see them kept in greater comfort.
I took another look at the goat prison, and felt a sudden jolt as I realised that one enterprising guy had managed to get out of the prison’s inner sanctum, and perch on the outside edge of the goat house, about ten feet from the ground.
I don’t think that goat would have any real problem jumping from such a height – they are such strong creatures. But this one was making no attempt at further escape. He just looked at me with deep dark eyes – lacking the confidence to take the next step which would lead to an attempt at freedom.
“Perhaps,” I considered, “He just has nowhere to go. No escape route seems open to him. Perhaps he lacks the necessary self confidence to go it alone, away from what he knows. He just feels trapped.”
In my mind the goat became the young prostitute who had gazed dimly up at the window the previous night. Meat for someone, a commodity, a possession for another. Lacking the escape route, the self confidence necessary to make a change – living a life that she is trapped in.
Arriving back in Phnom Penh after another two hours in the pick up trailer clinging on for grim death, I thought about the journey. I had clung to the side, feeling the peril of the journey, while one guy simply sat on the ice box they had taken for water. Seemingly unnerved by the perils of the journey, only occasionally did he lurch forward or back when we took a sharp turn or braked suddenly.
On the way back to my hotel I made a detour via a shop and bought some cotton wool to put in my ears and perhaps help me get some sleep that night.
Only when I got to my room did I consider the irony of having bought a bag of cotton wool balls, when I had just returned from the village with a bag of raw, organic cotton. “Ho hum.” I thought.
At the hotel I needed to pay for my room, taking the plunge and confirming the booking there for the remainder of my stay, I handed over the money. The manager gave me a sly glance.
“You want a girl? In your room?”
“Oh! No – no thank you!”
“Um, well, I mean, I’m married!”
I twisted my wedding ring around my finger as if for good luck, the manager gave me another sideways look, clearly unimpressed by my reasoning, and wondering whether to strengthen his pitch.
Before he got the chance I was in the lift and heading up to my room for a sound night’s sleep, wishing all the while that I’d been able to come up with a better off-the-cuff response.