Literary Fantasies in Phnom Penh
Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris is about a Hollywood screenwriter who unwittingly time travels back to the 1920s and meets his favourite dead writers. After chatting to Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, the protagonist decides that he should dump his fiancée and follow his dreams of becoming a novelist. The point of the film is that although it was cool to go to fantasyland and bro-down with his dead heroes, he should try harder to live in the present.
Overall, it’s a pretty cheesy rom-com but it’s kind of interesting to see Woody Allen’s fantasy of meeting his dead literary heroes played out on film. Recently in Cambodia, I realised that my literary fantasy is to hang with Iggy Pop in a dark, depressing Bukowski-style boarding house in Phnom Penh.
For the uninitiated, Iggy Pop is the godfather of punk and a legendary junkie who managed to kick it and survive. Once a self-proclaimed “street walkin’ cheetah with a heart full of napalm,” now he looks like this. Charles Bukowski was a German-American poet and novelist who wrote a lot about his own dysfunctional life. He was totally obsessed with abusing alcohol and chasing women. He seemed to spend a lot of time in rooming houses on skid row – places where old and lonely alcoholic men would go to drink themselves to death.
It was when I met Iggy Pop’s doppelganger, an old emaciated man named Rick, at a questionable establishment called ‘Happy 13 House’ that I came to terms with this abnormal and concerning part of my psyche.
“Have you seen the shower here?” Rick asks in a thick American accent. “It’s just a bucket of cold water with a little scoop to pour over yourself.”
He’s sullen. He doesn’t want to be here but he can’t afford anywhere better. He’s laying on the bottom bunk of the windowless room wearing basketball shorts and an old grey t-shirt.
“I haven’t used a fucking bucket shower in 20 years,” he laments.
“Gotta love the bucket shower,” I offer, trying in vain to keep the conversation positive.
“Yeah!” he scoffs, mistaking my optimism for sarcasm, “This place is a goddamned dump.”
Rick looks how Iggy Pop would look if he never got off heroin. He launches into a diatribe about the dusty dorm room, the oppressive heat and how Cambodian beer tastes like shit. He rants about Happy 13 House—which costs $3 per night and is admittedly quite ramshackle. Then he becomes disdainful of Cambodia itself. He’s nothing like the cheerful tourists who wear Angkor Wat t-shirts and eat at the restaurants along the riverside, which is refreshing, in a weird and kind of disgusting way. I soon learn that Rick is a bitter expatriate who lives in Kampot, a small town on a river in Southern Cambodia.
“Kampot is nice.” I say hopefully, wondering where I can stash my valuables without Rick seeing them.
“It’s really not,” he says, “It’s a boring place with a good bunch of expats.” I can’t think of a good answer so think for a second. “So Rick, what brings you to Phnom Penh?”
“I’ve got an infection and I came up to the capital to see a doctor. I’ve got to get treatment every day for the next week.”
I can only imagine the diseases he has contracted. Perhaps it’s polio (like Iggy Pop) or syphilis (which sounds more like Bukowski). I can’t help but conjure an image of his dilapidated penis oozing pus. He must have ruined it through years of unprotected intercourse with Cambodian sex slaves.
“So, just resting up?”
“Yeah, not drinking too much… I’m trying not to drink too much.”
He says it like a proper alcoholic, like he doesn’t even believe it. It occurs to me that Rick has the personality of Bukowski in Iggy’s body.
I excuse myself, deciding it’s time for a bucket shower. The bathroom is a tiny space beneath the stairwell with a toilet, a bum-gun and bucket. There is no sink, no windows and no ventilation, it’s just a festering crevice of stagnant water, like a steam room. I’m sweating as I scoop the water up and pour it down my back.
Returning to the room, I have to duck my head to avoid hitting it on the low door frame. Although it’s midday, Rick is still laying on the bottom bunk in complete darkness. There are no windows and I can’t see anything so I flick on the light, illuminating a naked bulb protruding from the wall. Rick mutters something about “the Indians” but I don’t understand so I leave the room.
The common area of Happy 13 House is a white tiled room littered with sawdust, hand-tools, plastic bags filled with clothing and old brochures advertising Cambodia’s most popular tourist destinations. For guests, there are a couple of chairs and a glass table littered with food scraps and a plastic coke bottle half filled with cigarette butts.
The owner of Happy 13 House is a slightly overweight man named Pheakaday (pronounced pack-a-day). He sits shirtless behind the desk and idly scrolls through his Facebook feed while speaking Khmer into an old handheld telephone. I notice a huge, bone-shaped scar on his shoulder. He doesn’t smile much but he’s friendly enough and I trust him.
When he hangs up the phone I ask if there’s a locker or a safe place to store my stuff. He says there isn’t, then gestures toward the dorm in which Rick is resting and says, “Don’t worry, he’s cool. He’s from Kampot.”
Pheakaday isn’t oblivious to Rick’s weird vibe, he’s just totally desensitised to dysfunctional foreigners. He seems to have dealt with a lot of lonely old men.
There’s a sign on the wall that reads, “NO DRUGS, NO SEX”. I ask Pheakaday about it and he recounts a story about a Scottish man who stayed here for three months during low season.
Pheakaday: “I found him with a needle hanging out of his arm. So I said to him ‘No heroin here.’”
Me: “So that’s why you made the sign?”
“Yes, after that I made the sign.”
“Did you kick him out?”
“Yes, but he didn’t have money to pay for the room.”
“I guess heroin gets expensive.
“Yes, so he left his passport here for until he comes back with the money.”
Pheakaday opens the desk drawer and produces an immaculate Scottish passport. The Cambodian entry stamp is over a year old.
“I’m still waiting for him to come back and pay but I don’t think he’s coming,” Pheakaday chuckles.
Between Rick, Pheakaday and this mysterious Scottish junkie, Happy 13 House makes me a little paranoid. I padlock my bag to the steel bed frame and throw a blanket over it, then I explore Phnom Penh. The riverside area is alive with friendly touts, old white sex tourists, local children selling trinkets and amputees begging for money. There’s a huge outdoor market not far away. Unrefrigerated hunks of meat are covered with flies and second hand electronics are for sale. I walk around the city, eat a barbecued banana, drink some Cambodian beer and come back sometime after 10pm.
Pheakaday is sitting in the common area with a bucket full of icy beers and two Argentinian men. He tells me Rick has disappeared without paying for the room. At $3 per night he’s $15 in debt. Worse, Rick apparently told Pheakaday’s wife that I owed him money and would pay his debts. Obviously this isn’t true and nobody questions me or demands the money. I head straight to the room and check to make sure that Rick hasn’t robbed me. I’m almost to surprised to find that he hasn’t. I sit down and start drinking to celebrate.
Everyone’s already quite drunk, chewing barbecued meat off sticks and talking loudly. A horrible Khmer pop-song is blaring and Pheakday sings along with emotion.
With the benefit of alcohol, Happy 13 House seems totally normal and fun. We drink heavily and exchange stories in broken English.
But I’m still curious about what happened to Rick. I wonder if he’s scoring drugs or fucking prostitutes or ranting bitterly – like Bukowski in Iggy Pop’s body. I would have liked to drink some beers with him and talk more about his infection. I guess that’s the thing with literary fantasies though, they don’t last forever. You’ve just got to enjoy them while they do.
Cover by Shannon