Cambodia

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We were the only foreigners in the bus to Phnom Penh, so we took seats next to each other and chatted about the temples of Angkor Wat.

I passed the trip between her pleasant, long-legged conversation and snippets of the google-eyed, slack-jawed ravings of Amit Gilboa’s “Off the Rails in Phnom Pehn,” an atrociously written (but widely read) book about ex-pat life that was to be my first introduction to the capital of Cambodia. If I was to believe its hyperbolic prose, the metropolis was a monstrous slum of unprecedented squalor, overflowing with two-dollar, pre-pubescent prostitutes and five-dollar garbage bags full of high-grade heroin.

If only it had been so straightforward.

We arrived in the evening and checked into a hotel together, then meandered out to look for dinner. Finding the Lonely-Planet-recommended “Happy Herb’s Pizza,” we sat down and pored over the menu. In the place where a normal restaurant would have written “small,” “medium,” or “large,” Happy Herb, whoever he was, had put “happy,” “very happy,” and “ecstatic.” Apparently size was irrelevant.

The pizzas in the city are notorious for being loaded with hash, opium, and god alone knows what other “medicinal” ingredients, depending on who you ask about it. We consulted quickly and ordered a “happy” Hawaiian pizza. Not “ecstatic,” nor even “very happy,” mind you, but just “happy.”

Within a few minutes, the grinning waiter slapped a large, greasy disc of pineapple-covered dough on the table. Feeling adventurous, we quickly gobbled down the narcotic culinary delight, curious tastebuds sifting the tantalizing and unfamiliar flavours.

Half an hour later, we were walking down the road complaining to each other about the pizza’s lack of publicized effect, when a car-sized mouse suddenly loomed up from behind a nearby bush and poked its massive, quivering snout at me.

“Jesus!” I spluttered apoplectically, staggering backwards in a paroxysm of howling panic. “That’s a… HUGE mouse!”

“What mouse?” asked my companion, bewildered by my abrupt and freakish reaction. I looked back at the bush and the mouse was gone.

After that the hallucinations started coming thick and fast for both of us. Soon we were in our separate hotel rooms, far too messed up to even think about messing around. Monstrous figures were pushing aside the curtains to look in at me, as I rolled about the bed for twenty-four feverish, wide-eyed hours, feeling the walls hyperventilate. Every time I dared look, jagged-toothed demons kept drifting by my window, staring at me malevolently before flickering away into hazy blackness.

Further on in my voyage, I would meet numerous hardened drug fiends who proffered their emphatic and belated caveats against Cambodia’s chemical insanity. Nothing they had tried anywhere else, they would say, even came close to the psychological effects of what they referred to as “the Cambodian carnage.”

My traveling companion had been assaulted by her own unholy host of happy pizza horrors, and we commiserated a while over a couple of happy-negative hamburgers. We decided to ground ourselves in some hard reality by taking a tour of the famous Cambodian killing fields.

We staggered to a motorcycle taxi and piled on, with me in the middle and her riding side-saddle on the back. We zipped out of the city, and headed down a bumpy gravel road. As we were cruising along at around 60 kilometers an hour, another bike with two men on it roared past, and the guy in the rear snatched one of the straps of my friend’s handbag, which she was holding in her lap.

Man, did they choose the wrong girl. She was built solid, and held on to the other strap of the bag like a pedigree pit fighter in full lockjaw. It was ten seconds of adrenaline-flooded terror, as both bikes lurched maniacally along the rutted path, while my blonde companion and the would-be thief struggled like Hercules and Hippolyta. I twisted in my seat, putting one arm around the driver’s thin stomach and wrapping the other around the girl’s squirming waist, catching her before she fell into a faceful of high-speed gravel. Finally, the other strap broke under the strain, and the girl yanked her bag into her stomach with a blast of hearty North American invective. The two men sped off without looking back, doubtless petrified of the brawny, cussing valkyrie at their back.

We pulled over the car and took a shaking breath. It had been a near thing for everyone, and the blood was pumping hard.

A few minutes later, after clambering back on the bike, we arrived at Choeng Ek. Once the site of one of the most astonishing atrocities in human history, the ground is now just a vast sprawl of open pits left over from semi-excavated mass graves, with fragments of teeth and bones still jutting from the packed earth. I listened as a guide explained how Pol Pot’s child army used to beat infants to death against one of the nearby trees, and how a nearby pagoda that towered over the scene was loaded with more than 8,000 human skulls collected by the land owners to memorialize the horror.

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