Christmas in Cambodia: Roulette, Expats and a Boil
When I wake up, the hostel room seems hotter and whiter than before, maybe even smaller, if that makes sense. My alarm’s ting-a-ling grows louder as it competes with Dunbar’s nasal snores. Dunbar’s nose was broken when he was a kid, and now he has trouble breathing, especially when he sleeps. It is 9:30am and it is Christmas. I don’t know why I set an alarm, but I’m glad I am awake.
I grab a crunchy white towel, the type occasionally provided at cheap hostels, and walk down the hallway to the shower. In the mirror I finger a fresh pimple which has sprouted on my neck. An infected fruit of last night’s sweaty sleep, fertilised with humidity, pollution, dirty sheets and pillows. I give it a good squeeze and a dribble of pus oozes out. The shower is cold and I don’t use any soap.
Back in the dorm, Dunbar is awake and doing something on his phone.
“Merry Christmas,” I say.
“Oh, I totally forgot,” Dunbar replies. He looks up from the phone and says “Sweet. What should we do?”
“Who knows man. We could go out for an expensive meal somewhere?”
“Yeah, but Christmas meals are meaty as fuck,” Dunbar says.
Dunbar checks his phone for restaurants while I get dressed.
“It’s all ham and turkey, and bacon-wrapped things.”
“I wouldn’t mind a burrito,” I say.
“Yeah Mexican would be dope”.
Dunbar climbs down from the top bunk and puts on the same clothes he partied in the night before. I head downstairs for some fresh air. At the hostel bar, an old man with an American accent is leaning against a chair. He asks a young couple, “So you guys are Australian right?”
“No, we are South African,” they reply.
“Oh, okay then; so how are you liking Cambodia?” he asks.
As I walk past, the old man throws me a friendly “Good morning, how are you?” as if we have been close for years.
“Good,” I say and quickly walk out onto the street.
I generally attempt to avoid white people in Phnom Penh. They always seem to be saying the same stuff, wearing the uniform, following the same guidebook. During the day, they counter hangovers with big breakfasts, then bargain for a cheap tuk tuk or taxi and visit the Killing Fields or the Genocide Museum, or pay to shoot a cow with a bazooka. In the afternoon, they might try a local cuisine at the markets (or stick to pizza because they have the runs), and when the sun falls, it’s straight to Street 51 to get plastered on 50c beers. When on a good and desperate drunk, many venture to the neon-lit riverfront for sex; others never leave it.
Dunbar meets me with a smile and we walk through the congested, dusty streets towards the Mexican restaurant. It’s only a 10-minute walk, but six different tuk-tuk drivers manage to ask us where we are from, what we are doing and if we are interested in visiting the Genocide Museum or the Grand Palace or the Killing Fields. By the sixth, I am a little bored, and when I ask for directions to the Mexican Restaurant, he offers me a ride for $2.
“Are you crazy? Two dollars is way too much,” I say. The man’s smile disappears.
“Why would you accuse me of being crazy when I’m offer you a ride? I don’t deserve your insult. Where you from?” he yells. Three or four Cambodians walk over.
“Sorry, you’re not crazy … I’m from Australia” I plead to the group.
“Australia? You’re crazy, you arrogant foreigners.” I apologise again and walk off.
Dunbar and I don’t talk again until we reach Cocina Cartel. We are the only customers in the new restaurant. Our burritos are massive and we enjoy them and the air-conditioning. Our voices echo off the fresh paint as we discuss our options for Christmas day. It is not long before we decide on the casino.
We pay $20 for the meal and Dunbar heads to the street to hustle a tuk while I walk upstairs to have a piss. The last time I entered a casino was three years ago. It was in Vegas, which is as good a place as any to end a five-year gambling addiction. Particularly when you spent eight days and two thousand dollars and failed to venture beyond the slots in your hotel lobby.
In the bathroom mirror, I check the pimple. It seems to have grown larger and redder. I try squeezing it again, but blood just comes out. When I return, Dunbar is taking a selfie with the driver. The Cambodian man is dressed all in black, he is smiling, his black gloves are stroking Dunbar’s messy beard.
We jump in the tuk and head to Phnom Penh’s biggest casino, the self-proclaimed “entertainment capital of Asia”, Naga World.
The front room of the 16-storey casino is full of Chinese men betting at the craps and roulette tables. They silently throw down huge money as their families stand around bored. We are told there is a $40 minimum and venture further into the casino.
We walk through the endless halls of poker machines jingling and tingling with the ups and downs of wins and losses, happiness and disappointment, dreams and nightmares. Their requiem rings throughout the casino, calling the lost and desperate to its rocky shores.
The beams of coloured light that shoot along the purple carpet and climb the stone walls, exploding in the crystal chandeliers that hang from the roof carved from Buddhist deities, go mostly unnoticed; all eyes and minds are tethered to dice and cards and colourful screens.
In the centre of the casino, a four-piece band plays a Cambodian rock rendition of Jingle Bells to a huge, empty floor. We head to the bar and watch for a couple of minutes. The beers cost 4.50, a high price set for rich tourists, so we decide to get drunk later.
We find video roulette tables in a small room in the back of the casino. Most machines are filled by quiet Cambodians, attentively winning or losing their money, some with notepads, others with cigarettes. Dunbar takes advantage of the one-dollar minimum and puts in three. He is soon up five and I am down 10.
The sickness and sadness of a gambling loss washes through me like a disease, even though I know $10 is a petty loss. When you love gambling, the amount of money you win or lose becomes inconsequential, your concern is reduced to winning or losing itself, and even then it can feel hollow. In Vegas I won $300 on the first machine I sat down on and as my friends cheered and laughed, I struggled to smile and be happy. When you love gambling, more and more and more is your only goal.
Once I am $30 down I convince myself that I am no longer addicted to gambling, and as Dunbar is $20 up, we decide to leave.
As we walk towards the exit, the loss arrests my visions for our Christmas day. I know we have a gig to go to tonight but under the shadow of a casino loss it no longer seems exciting. The idea of partying, talking, meeting and drinking tires me.
On our way out, I pass a blackjack table and throw down a quick 10. Ace and nine are dealt and I instantly double my money. The dealer waits impatiently as the allure of a win gently oils the rusty cogs of my old addiction. I bet 20 and win again.
We head back to the roulette tables and I insert my $40 and Dunbar inserts his 20. Dunbar sticks to his one-dollar strategy while my bets slowly increase from $10 to $20 to $30. As my stocks climb up over 70, we order beers and begin having a good time.
Two hours later we pull ourselves away, now up $200 and six beers, and late for the gig at the Laundry Machine. We nearly stay all night.
The graffiti and broken windows make the Laundry Machine look more like a junkie’s house than a bar. And the majority of its inhabitants aren’t any cleaner or less depraved than junkies – their paisley shirts, wads of local currency and worldly accents struggle to maintain their disguise.
I push past the crowd and broken furniture to the bathroom in the back. I sit down and diarrhoea spurts out of me into the broken toilet. I relax against the wall as my body rids itself of another foreign meal.
When I return, I sit next to an Australian woman who tells me through slurs and hazy eyes that they had a special Christmas lunch at the Laundry Machine for the expat crew who live in Phnom Penh. I try to seem interested as my fingers creep around the pimple on my neck (which has now developed into a boil), circling it, checking for weak spots, pressing down at times, causing it to grow bigger and bigger.
“Isn’t he great?” She asks, motioning towards the Cambodian singer who is belting out some old blues in an English accent in front of a two-piece band.
“Yeah sure,” I reply, pulling my hands away from the boil.
“That’s Saley; he is amazing,” she exalts, finishing another beer.
Saley is pretty amazing. Long hair, dark eyes, black clothes. His gravelly voice fills with passion as he kneels on the floor and releases his pent up things.
“He was the first punk in Cambodia but now he plays Blues” she says. “We love Sal, he is the greatest. Isn’t he the greatest Greg?” She asks a tall, wasted man leaning his head against the wall.
“Yeah, Sal,” he shouts.
The expats in the bar revere Saley. Between songs, he mingles among them, allowing drunken hands to clamber over him while sloppy mouths shout praise and love. Saley seems apathetic towards the crowd, tired and disinterested but too polite to say otherwise. The intrigue of his thick northern English accent both attracts and deflects.
His next song is heavier, the drumming stronger and faster. The expats tap hands and bang feet, and clap and sing the wrong words. All eyes are on Saley when he is playing. They adore him. He is killing it.
I look around at the white faces, all cheering and leering towards the single Cambodian on stage, and realise that Saley plays an important role for these expats, whether he knows it or not. He placates that inner doubt that all travellers with self-awareness face – do I belong here, am I integrating, is my presence here valuable?
For the English, Australian and American expats in this particular bar – arresting the microphone to sing Christmas carols, eating burgers with wine-stained teeth, mingling with other expats – Saley is that placation. His English is well-delivered and easy to understand. His disposition familiar yet exotic. Friendship with Sal justifies their general disregard for Cambodian culture. He is a soothing balm for colonial guilt.
I look to Dunbar who has a few empty pints around him, and seems to be ordering a couple more, while a short old woman tells him about her two years in Phnom Penh.
Back at the table, Saley sits opposite me. He is leaning back lazily in his chair and pounding beers. He fends off the expats who continually dive in for conversation. I try my luck.
“Hey dude, you rocked.”
“Thanks,” he replies, without making eye contact.
“Hey, I heard you switched from punk to blues,” I try to engage him.
Saley leans forward in his chair then says “Why does everyone have to put people in fucking boxes man? You can’t be something then be something else – you are just yourself all the time; fuck those people that label other people.” He finishes half his beer and then puts it down. “And fuck the people who think they are individuals too.”
“Yeah fuck individuals I reply,” stoked to be having a conversation with Sal.
Sal’s short rant leaves him quiet and dejected so I catch Dunbar’s attention and we head out back to play a few games of pool.
We watch through broken windows to the bar inside. It descends with every ball we sink. Sal is sitting alone and two expats have taken control of the mic and are destroying a Christmas song by the Pogues. Even their friends seem embarrassed.
Dunbar suggests we go to Street 51 and we leave without telling anyone.