There’s stoned, very stoned and then there’s that ppint where you hold onto your hat and watch Cambodia go bye-bye.
It was a fitting end to a wildly convoluted journey. I had been waiting in Trat, Thailand for several days, and had another week to linger before a flight that would carry me back across the world. I spent my days eating market food and reading books and my nights in a $3 guesthouse, trying to live cheaply. I was bored.
On a sultry afternoon, as I was walking down the street toward the market, I met two young Asian women carrying big backpacks and seeming lost. One of them, a stunningly cute girl with big, deep brown eyes and soft, sensual, light-colored skin spoke to me in good, if deeply accented English. She was smoking a cigarette.
“Do you know where a hotel is?” she asked me.
“Yes, I do,” I said with a smile, watching her take another hit off of her cigarette, her small, curvy body bending uncomfortably under the weight of her pack. She said something to her friend, who was milling about in a shop, and they stepped toward me.
“C’mon, I’ll show you…. Where are you from?” I asked.
” Korea … you?”
“I had a boyfriend from America …” she informed me, much to my interest.
“You like American men?” I asked her playfully as we arrived at the guesthouse.
“Kind of… but not all…” she said with a smile.
“Hmmm… well, I’m the good kind, I promise…” I said with a wink and a smile.
I followed them into the guesthouse and went to my room. When I emerged, they were waiting in the lobby, buying tickets to Siem Riep, Cambodia . I was disheartened by this, but continued talking with her. We spent the rest of the day wandering around town together, and went to the bar later in the evening. One drink became many, and we found ourselves outside, dancing in the moonlight. She intrigued me immensely, and though such feelings cannot be called love, they are a passionate form of lust that can become something stronger. I believed, perhaps idealistically, that such feelings are more than just powerful base urges, but are rather something to be listened to carefully.
The next morning, I was up at sunrise, surmounting a hangover and packing my bags for Cambodia. I bought a ticket on the same bus as the girls and ran to the market to buy my new friend a red rose, for it was Valentine’s Day.
“Thank you!” she exclaimed as I gave it to her, my heart racing and a heavy sweat dripping from my brow onto the table. “That is so… thoughtful!”
I kissed her.
“I’m going to Cambodia with you, if you don’t mind…” I told her, trying to contain my rapid breathing.
“Really? Wow, that’s great!” she said enthusiastically.
And it was done. We rode all day, arriving in Siem Riep along a dusty highway that was quite improved since my previous visit more than three years before. Indeed, I barely recognized the town. The streets were quite clean by Cambodian standards and almost all the roads had been paved. It held little in common with the dusty construction site that I had experienced as an eighteen year old boy.
The girls checked into a room, and I got my own, a very decent place with cable TV and private bathroom for $5 a night. They decided to go to bed early, exhausted from the road, and I went downstairs for a beer and food. I met a few friends from the bus, and one small beer turned into quite a few large bottles, which inevitably brought on talk of Happy Pizza.
After another round of Beer Laos, it was settled. The four of us piled into a roaring tuk-tuk and we rolled down the dusty highway to the center of town. It was a peaceful night by Cambodian standards, and it took me back to long, weird odysseys in Phnom Penh and a life I thought I’d left behind forever. Within a few minutes, we arrived at the ‘Bar Street,’ which was accompanied by what could rightfully be called the ‘Happy Pizza Street.’ A series of restaurants specializing in pizzas covered in marijuana were lined up along the side of the road with names like ‘Happy Special Pizza,’ ‘Happy Herb Pizza,’ or simply, ‘Ecstatic Pizza.’
We stumbled into the first one we saw, and ordered two large happy pizzas.
“Listen,” I said to the waiter, or potentially the owner, as he took our order. “I write travel guides, and will recommend this pizza if it’s properly done. I mean, I want a HAPPY pizza, do you understand? SUPER EXTRA HAPPY.”
“Yes, sir,” he confirmed.
“Yeah, I want to hallucinate, do you understand that…?” I continued, which drew reproaches from my drunken friends.
“You can leave mine just a little bit happy, eh, I won’t be needin’ all that…” an Irishman who looked like he hadn’t slept in a week said in a thick accent.
“Don’t worry, man. This has all been tested and approved… You’ll manage just fine,” I assured him. I was by far the youngest in the group, but with several months of living in Cambodia under my belt, I was the obvious leader.
We ordered more beer and eventually the pizza came, with a small bowl of marijuana on the side. I took the liberty of sprinkling it all on my side of the pizza, and though I shared it with whoever wanted an extra strong slice, I ate two thirds of it. It was quite tasty, as marijuana generally is on a pizza, and when we finished we requested the bill.
The other three men had correct change, but I only had a twenty dollar note. When the waiter came back with my change, he was carrying a ridiculous combination of American dollars, Thai baht, and Cambodian riel that didn’t add up to close to what the change should have been by my accounting.
“What the fuck is this?” I asked.
“You change, sir.”
“I don’t want Thai baht. Are we in Thailand?”
“I change for you, sir,” the waiter remarked as he disappeared. I laughed with my friends and told them this was typical, probably a mistake in arithmetic.
He returned with a handful of Cambodian riel and American Dollars, but it was still quite short. I shook my head in disgust as I saw it and said bluntly, “That’s not enough, what the fuck are you trying to do here…?”
He looked at me as if he couldn’t understand and disappeared again. The other men questioned me briefly, saying that I should just let it go, but were quickly dissuaded from their positions when I added up everything that we had given and compared it to the total, realizing that we were owed at least $14 in change.
When the waiter returned, this time after a rather extended recess in the bowels of the restaurant, he came back with $10 in Cambodian riel.
I glared at him in scorn, and slammed my fist on the table like a drunken Russian gangster. My friends were all taken aback, and noticeably flinched at my aggression.
“Dolar dap bun!” I demanded in Khmer.
At this, he disappeared yet again for a moment, and returned apologetically with the proper change. We thanked him and wandered together into the street, quickly being absorbed into ‘Bar Street.’
I seemed to have taken only a few steps when I ran into an attractive group of girls outside of a packed bar. I was propelled to them by some unseen force, probably lust and alcohol, and began making drunken conversation, offering to buy them all drinks, an absurdly expensive proposition. We went to the bar and I emptied my wallet, dancing with one of the girls, an American with deep blue eyes that I managed to convince that I was Peruvian by speaking only in Spanish to her.
Eventually, I lost track of her while making out with a tremendously drunken British girl with sunk-in, expatriate-in-Cambodia-style eyes. I might have offered to go somewhere and have wild sex with her, but the notion didn’t even occur to me, and the entire scene just became too weird. I was feeling suddenly tremendously stoned, and needed fresh air.
I stumbled out of the bar and into the street. Up the street, I found a long series of food stalls, and I fell into a chair and ordered a meal for myself. Two young boys came up to me begging for food or money, and I offered to buy them dinner.
“Go ahead, guys, order whatever you want…” I said, handing them the menu and rubbing my face with my grubby hands, trying to re-gain my composure. I felt awkward as the boys were waiting for their food, and tried to avoid eye contact. Eventually, when their food finally came, they ran down the street with it in plastic bags, and I was left sitting alone under a dim streetlight, waiting for my meal.
Suddenly, I felt an irresistible urge to laughter. I tried my hardest to conceal it and act normal, but it was impossible to control. Much to my embarrassment, I began laughing hysterically, clutching my sides and nearly falling out of my chair. A Cambodian man who was watching me began to laugh as well, which brought me to hysterics. I felt everyone around staring at me and most of them probably thought I was insane. Fortunately, it was totally normal and acceptable for a foreigner to behave in this way.
When my food finally came: a plate of fried rice with chicken and vegetables dripping in oil, I calmed down enough to eat. Afterward, I continued walking down the street. As I arrived at a grocery store, a little girl dressed in rags and wearing a pitiful frown met me in the street. She pleaded with me in a way that tore at my conscience, though she didn’t speak a word of English. She led me into the grocery store, and pointed to the baby formula. I didn’t understand at first, and pointed to regular milk, thinking that she was too old for formula.
She looked up desperately, and again pointed at the formula. A couple of sale’s assistants came up to us and I asked them in English why the girl wanted the baby formula.
“Baby sister,” one of them said in broken English.
The fact that this little girl would ask nothing for herself, though she almost certainly lived on a daily basis with hunger affected me with both deep pity and growing pride in this wonderful little person. I bought the formula and offered her anything else that she wanted in the store, though when all she wanted was chocolate I convinced her to take some dried fruit instead. As she disappeared after I paid, I felt a small relief from the months, or years, of cold shouldering every poor person that I met on the street, every pathetic soul who had the misfortune of being born in a poor country, every sad story and product of poverty.
As I walked back into the humid street, I was met by a woman holding a sick baby, who begged me for food or money. I couldn’t give any more help, I said, and propelled myself down the street, this time waving down a tuk-tuk to take me back to my hotel. He jumped at the opportunity, and knew where to take me when I produced a business card from my wallet. When we arrived at the guesthouse, I paid him with the last note from my wallet. I stumbled up the stairs and sprawled out in bed.
The high seemed more powerful than marijuana, and mild hallucinations began to set in.
The faint pillar of light from the window seemed to glow from a far away corner of existence. When I closed my eyes, mad colored lights spun inside of me, leaving me slightly panicked.
“Help! Help!” I thought I heard a woman screaming in an alley far below, an alley who’s existence was both unknown and unlikely. The sound was unclear, barely perceptible, but seemed terrifyingly real.
“Is this possible…?” I wondered. “Jesus, I need to go to sleep… I must just be drunk… but wait… I’ve been drunk before… and I’ve been stoned before… but I’ve never felt like this…”
Comfortable warmth seemed to work its way from the back of my head and down my spine. I rolled from side to side, finally sitting up and looking around in the strange darkness, barely able to keep my balance. I desperately forced down as much water as I could from the water bottle beside the bed, choking on the last gulp and nearly vomiting.
Finally, I stood up woozily, stumbling into the bathroom and switching the lights on.
I was immediately blinded by the incredible light, and fell onto the toilet in an effort not to completely collapse to the ground.
“What is this…?” I asked myself, unable to find a definition from previous experience with any substance. “LSD?”
I lifted myself off the toilet and stumbled to the sink, where I looked into the mirror. My eyes seemed psychotic, blood red and stupefied. I tried to focus on them, yet my balance failed me and I found myself spinning around, magically turning the light off, and falling unconscious into bed.