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The Traveler Ghetto of Phomn Penh, Cambodia

When guesthouse rooms are priced on how high they are above the sewage in the street, you know you’ve arrived in the biggest traveler ghetto in the world. Welcome to Cambodia.

Cambodia was a rush of blood and strange chemicals into an already diseased mind. You simply couldn’t escape the perfect hedonism of the place. For $30 you could rent heavy weaponry and just go use it in the mountains, shoot whatever you like and no one would say anything about it. Weed was so cheap and available that you didn’t even need to buy it. Go to any bar in Phnom Penh or talk with any backpacker who’s been around for a few days and they’ll just give you a big pile of it. Everywhere you walk on the main tourist streets someone will be whispering strange things in your ear.

‘You wan smoke? You wan hard stuff? You like speeee…?’ They come in closer, so that their face would almost be touching your shoulder, gesturing to tell you a secret but only raising their voice.

‘You wan girl?’

‘You wan fuck? I get you girl. You wan little boy? I get you what you wan. I take you!’ It stopped being an offer but a demand. I was in a dark Cambodian tourist ghetto. There was something illegal or morally wrong that I wanted to do, and he was damn sure of that. I shook him off and stumbled down the street.

The stench of the open sewers was so powerful that the hotels charged depending on which floor you slept on. The bottom floor started at $2. Two stories up and the price rose to $4, where you could actually lay in bed at night without being sick from the rot of shit, piss and broken souls below.

I laid in my $2 bed and thought about it, lighting a fat joint of my free bud and thinking about how filthy and worthless I was at that moment in my life. I had just arrived in Phomn Penh, Cambodia, the day before my 19th birthday.

My hobby had become joint rolling. I was actually just learning to roll, having mastered various forms of improvised pipes, from cans to coconuts. There was nothing else to do really. I decided to take a shower. It was a heavy choice. Just looking at the bathroom brought the whole situation to a new perspective.

It was atrocious. The bathroom was shared by everyone on the floor: one spigot for a ‘shower’, one toilet, no sink for at least 20 rooms and it looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since the initial construction. The toilet was nothing more than a hole in the concrete. A large bucket sat in the middle of the room filled with water for all bathroom purposes, showering, flushing toilet, and cleaning your ass when done. The toilet water often overflowed into the shower area and the room literally smelled like shit. The air was damp and stagnant as there were no windows or natural light and a thick mold coated the walls. A single, weak incandescent light bulb hung from the ceiling, supported only by its cord, giving off the radiance of a small candle light.

I threw a few splashes of water on my head, soaped down, threw a few more splashes of water on my body and finished. I immediately felt better, the cold water having cut through the humidity and haziness of my mind. I was renewed enough to change clothes and stumble downstairs to the main lobby, where 3 ancient computers sat waiting for the next backpacker to check his email. I logged on.

It was all some strange kind of gibberish. Happy Birthday! I hope you’re alright and do something nice for your birthday. I paid at the desk and walked back out into the brutally hot street. I gazed on all those vice dealers and just had to turn back around. I retreated back to my bedbug ridden mattress and smoked another joint before falling into smoke-filled dreams.

Some time later, I woke up in a sweat, my mouth as parched as the landmine-ridden desert I had crossed the day before. I reached for my water bottle. My throat was so dry I found it hard to swallow but choked down the requisite nutrition. I stared at the bottle for a minute, awestruck and hazy from the hangover effect of the weed. Relaxxx, was the name of the brand. The reverse side was the strange square forms of the Khmer alphabet. I drained the rest of the bottle and let it fall to the floor with an empty thud. When you’re living in a garbage heap, the trash goes where you sleep.

I scratched my head, feeling the bumps below the mangled long hair. I noticed that pieces of skin were deposited under my fingernails from my scalp. This was normal. I put my sandals on over my blackening, infected feet and reached for one of the pre-rolled joints I had piled in my ashtray. I puffed hard, over and over; filling my lungs with resinous smoke and spewing it back into my cramped little room. I stood up and gazed out of my window to the world: a concrete wall, dropping down one story to the foul open sewer below. I needed to change rooms. I could afford something better now.

After finishing the joint and making sure everything was secure and locked away in my room, I went to the reception desk to ask. There was a 12 year old Cambodian girl working there.

I spoke to her in English, ‘Do you have any rooms for $3-$4?’

She seemed frenzied by the question, obviously not understanding my language. Her father arrived from somewhere. The weed was strong in my head again.

‘You wan new room?’

‘Yeah, you got any for $3?’

‘No, but you like $4?’

‘Yeah, fine, private shower?’

‘Yes, yes, private, hot water!’

‘Yeahhh…’ Hot water wasn’t really necessary in 100 degree heat with 90 percent humidity, but sometimes it was nice. ‘I’ll take a look.’

I followed him up the three flights of metal stairs. It was hard to breath with all that smoke and resin in my lungs, and by the time we reached the top I was in a full-on sweat. He was perfectly unaffected by the heat, as for him this was winter. He opened the lock after a brief struggle and led me in.

It was a huge improvement. The bed was large and comfortable, the walls were painted white, I had two windows breathing beautiful natural light into my life and there was a clean bathroom that I had all to myself. I thanked him and accepted the key. I grabbed my things from my former cave-like dwelling and moved up the stairs to a better life.

By the time I reached my room and threw my pack down, I was dripping sweat. I stripped down to my boxers and sprawled out on the bed, stretching to the maximum to increase cooling. I hadn’t even bothered to shut the door. After a minute, I looked up to see that the girl from downstairs was staring at me laying there.

Our eyes met for an awkward moment before she scurried down the hall. I got up and shut the door, wondering how long she had been there watching me. I stepped into the bathroom and opened the water on the sink to wash the sweat off of my face. It was then that I looked into the mirror.

It was shocking. At first it was hard for me to even recognize myself. My hair had grown long and tangled down over my face… and that face… It wasn’t the boy that left Ohio 8 months before. Not even close. Lines had grown over this face. The eyes reflected experience well past 19 years. A thick beard had grown over nearly everything but the nose, which was painfully red from the fierce equatorial sun. I became lost in that strange face, finding it hard to believe that I had changed so much. After several minutes, I looked away slowly, cautiously.

Eventually, I recovered slightly from this uneasy revelation and returned to my bed, still lost in thought. Finally, it was hunger that distracted me from these musings, and I left my room in search of something to fill my stomach. The obvious choice in the ungodly heat was a smoothie from one of the restaurants that lined the little backpacker street around the hotel. My favorite place was just down the street, where a little middle-aged Khmer woman sat waiting behind the bar to take my order. She smiled when she saw me, remembering me from the morning, when I had left a tip.

I ordered my typical banana smoothie, which had become something of a routine everywhere I went in SE Asia, as they were dirt cheap and delicious. This was $.50. I sat on the bench across the bar, being the only visitor for the afternoon. I asked if I could smoke a joint there, and she smiled and confirmed. I lit up and smoked, marveling how much individual freedom thrives in the poorest places on earth. There was no fear of the police, because there were no police.

After the standard 20 minute wait for the drink to arrive (everything was hand cut and smashed, blenders being non-existent in a country coming out of 60 years of war and genocide), I drank deeply. I thought back to home, the dreary, boring, winter in Ohio with nothing to do. There was no point in going back, no matter what else happened I never wanted to live there again.

As the smoothie came to an end and I felt the sugar enter my body, I glanced back up to the Cambodian lady. She smiled at me and looked around the restaurant to see if anyone was looking before refilling my glass halfway. She grinned again and filled half a glass for herself. I hammered the rest of the fruit/ice/sugar mix and paid $1 for the drink, telling her to keep the change. She refused, though, handing me back my change in Cambodian riels, and not accepting the tip. She was a friend that I didn’t need to buy. I thanked her and left the restaurant feeling better, impressed that someone in the world noticed my existence as something more than the money in my pocket.

After relaxing until evening and rolling more joints, I lurched back down to the communal area of the hostel to catch the sunset over the little lake view. There were several little plastic tables and chairs, all facing out across the lake to the slums beyond. I took a seat at an empty table next to a couple of English guys I had met the night before, and produced one of my pre-rolled joints.

They were trashed. They had been trashed for weeks now, on everything and anything. I offered them a joint, but they declined, laughing that they had plenty. On their table sat a dozen bottles of beer and liquor. The older, drunker one could barely keep from falling out of his chair.

‘Beau-ti-ful fuck-in sun-set. Look….’ The words afterward became so garbled and slurred that I couldn’t understand. The day before I had spoken with these guys, and they had made their mission clear: party to the death. After three weeks in Phomn Penh, they spoke to me with a new perspective, having fought and perhaps won the war with the depths of their minds and the health of their livers.

‘Too much… too fuckin’ much. I’ve gotta get outta this bloody shithole.’ His more sober friend remarked staring 1,000 miles into his oversized bottle of beer.

I lit my joint and stared out on the lake. It reeked of pollution and genocide, that lake. Across the lake was one of the worst shanties in the city. Over there, there would be no rats or dogs. Everything would be eaten. This was home now, as much as anywhere on earth. The sun was on its way toward setting, but became lost in the smoggy haze that hung over the rest of the city. I breathed smoke, natural, pure smoke from my ganja.

I left my English friends to continue their war and walked down the street to find a bar. Within two minutes I was pulled into one by a Nepalese man who told me he had a big party going on that day.

‘We’ve got the United Nations, man! Come on in!’

He seemed alright, so I walked into one of the most interesting bars in the world. I was directed up some stairs by a young white backpacker with deep, dark, tired eyes. He asked if I was hungry or thirsty, more like a friend than a waiter. When I said no, he seemed to be relieved and sat down across from me on one of the many floor cushions that served for seats. We began the typical backpacker conversation.

He was a few days older than me, having turned 19 just days before, and planned on living in Cambodia for the unforeseeable future, which in the world of a SE Asian backpacker could be anything from 3 days to 30 years.

Eventually another guy showed up in the lounge from Sri Lanka. He greeted me with a huge, perfectly white grin and introduced himself as a prince. I laughed but he was dead serious. He asked me if I smoked, and produced a massive, cone-shaped joint made from no less than 4 papers.

After some time, another small group, this time of two more Americans from near my hometown showed up with two local prostitutes on their arms. The conversation in the room had become rancorous at this point, as everyone was pretty drunk or high. I was talking with the other guys from Ohio and they were telling me the details of their story.

Apparently, they had decided to travel around SE Asia playing bluegrass music and were playing the next day at the bar. I promised I would come over and hear them play. I asked them out of curiousity what kind of work they did. One of the guys winked at the girls and told me bluntly:

‘I tape him in bed with Vietnamese prostitutes, then we put it on the internet.’

I openly laughed at the idea, but before I could ask any other questions from the guys, another man climbed up the steps into the already full lounge. He immediately grabbed all the empty plates and glasses from the table in the middle of the room, put them back on the step, and sat down next to the man from Sri Lanka, almost sitting on his lap. A young Cambodian girl followed him, but stopped at the steps and only watched.

The new guy was wired, scanning the room for familiar faces and searching me thoroughly with his eyes. He smiled at the group, which was silent by now. He broke out in Spanish, then perfect English in an American accent:

‘Look what I brought from the Peruvian embassy!’

Suddenly, a large bag of cocaine materialized from his pocket and he began a long conversation in rapid Spanish with the old man.

At some point, paranoia persuaded him to pocket the coke and he began flirting with the Sri Lankan, telling of his sexual experiences with Indian men. He pulled hairs from prince’s exposed chest and shot glances back to the Cambodian girl, who was still standing on the stairs.

The night raged on, joints being passed and more people coming and going, from everywhere in the world, Colombia, Kenya, Australia, or anywhere else. At one point, strange ambassadors from five of our world’s continents sat smoking weed, getting drunk and enjoying the ridiculousness of life in Cambodia together.

Late in the night, I found myself stumbling alone back to the hostel on an empty street. The night was peaceful: unbothered and free.

M.J. Lloyd

James Tramplefoot has been, and will continue to be on the road indefinitely, for years and probably decades.