Brides and Arseholes in Cambodia
It was 3am, and I’d been swaying to mindless chart music at a beach bar in Sihanoukville for far too long. When I’d arrived in the Cambodian town the previous day, I was sorely disappointed by what I had found. I’d read about pristine beaches dotted with local food stalls – a paradise unweathered by the noxious disease I help spread that is tourism. What I found, however, was a patch of dirt that had been denigrated into a pop-up glitter strip. The otherwise-bare landscape was crowded with Soviet-style hotels, and seedy bars lined the disposable nappy-riddled coastline, brimming with creepy old men and fat Russian families streaked with sunburn.
Despite my bitterness, I succumbed to the nightlife’s tempestuous allure as soon as the sun went down, making my way to JJs: one of the cookie-cutter beach bars. There, I befriended a gaggle of Swedes who painted me from head to toe in the type of fluoro paint that doesn’t come out in the wash, and drank and danced until the early hours of the morning.
Once I’d had my fill of hedonism, I wandered down to the water to clear my head and try to wash the green splatters from my legs. I only succeeded in further embedding the paint into my pores, so flopped onto a beach chair and started chatting to the couple next to me. Matthew was 32 years old and from Sydney; Mei was a Cambodian girl who told me she was 25. She was petite, feisty and beautiful, with the type of body Australian women spend thousands trying to achieve. He was tall, pale and prematurely balding, and had paired a business shirt with jeans and sandals in some strange business-meets-pleasure combo. Mei sat on his lap with a vibrant, almost desperate energy, her hands entwined in his.
While exchanging the usual small talk, I learned that Matthew was one of those nondescript consultants who flit around south-east Asia for work, and had come to Sihanoukville for a meeting about expanding a hotel chain. After telling me all about himself without asking a single question in return, he stood up and offered to buy us both a drink.
“I love you!” squealed Mei with all the excitement of a 16-year-old girl as he rose from the chair. Matthew returned the sentiment, and the pair smooched passionately before he stalked off to the bar.
“Isn’t he handsome!” Mei purred as soon as he was out of earshot. “I love him, I love him, I love him!” She pressed her palms to her cheeks in genuine adoration, her perfect teeth sparkling in the moonlight.
“How long have you guys been together?” I offered with a smile. She looked around for a moment before leaning in and placing her hand on my leg.
“Three days,” she whispered, her wide eyes inky pools of black. She looked from side to side, as if to make sure no one was listening. “I told him I am 25, but really, I am 33.” She gave a mischievous giggle, pleased as punch with herself. I laughed in response.
Mei then went on to gush about the short but passionate relationship that had blossomed between her and Matthew after a chance encounter at a bar. She was a dressmaker by trade, carving out a challenging existence trying to support her ageing parents. Although she hadn’t gone to school, she’d managed to learn semi-fluent English by sitting in bars and striking up shy conversations with travelling westerners. Three nights previous, Matthew had offered to buy her a drink, which led to sex. They hadn’t left each other’s side in 72 hours, and she had been staying with him at his hotel.
“He leaves in two weeks, and I’m going with him,” Mei said, nodding earnestly, “back to Australia.” She paused, holding her hand to her heart with obvious sincerity: “I am so happy – all my life I have waited to meet someone like him, someone who can save me from this shithole and give me a proper life. It’s like I’m dreaming, but it’s real. I’m going to start a clothing label in Australia and we will be a proper couple. I’ve never left Sihanoukville before, let alone ridden on a plane!” She sighed with bliss, reflecting on the perfection of her realised daydream.
“But please – don’t tell my real age!” she cried, snapping back to reality. “He might not love me anymore!”
I crossed my heart and hoped to die just as Matthew returned with the drinks. Mei resumed her place on his lap and slurped at her straw contentedly while the three of us looked up to the prickle of stars. As soon as we’d downed our beverages, Mei leapt up and insisted on buying me another drink. Knowing two vodkas from the western-owned bar would probably cost her a day’s wages, I tried to refuse, but she wouldn’t hear of it and sped off to the bar in a flurry of sass and determination.
I turned to Matthew. “So you’re taking Mei with you back to Australia with you to live – that’s really cool,” I said. Matthew raised his eyebrows without altering his facial expression.
“You mean her?” he gestured behind him.
“Yeah, Mei,” I said, confused. “She was just telling me about your flat in Sydney and how you’re going to help her with her clothing label.”
“Is that her name?” he snorted, stretching his thin lips into an arrogant smile. “She thinks we’re getting married.” He threw his head back and guffawed like a horse, revealing long, narrow nostrils crowded with wiry hairs.
“Wait… what? You mean you’re just completely bullshitting her?”
“I fucking love Asian women,” he smirked, ignoring my question. “They’re all the same – so easy, nice and slim and slaves in the bedroom. You wouldn’t believe the number of women I’ve slept with here.” I sat aghast, too shocked and disgusted to reply. I could feel the alcohol rising in my throat and mingling with hot saliva as though I was going to vomit.
“This one’s a particularly good fuck,” he mused, oblivious to the hatred bubbling in my chest. “Quite young, too. But an idiot. She’s obsessive – keeps calling me her husband.”
“You’re an arsehole,” I said. “An absolute fucking arsehole.”
He shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly and sipped from his drink. Sweat had beaded on his pockmarked temple, but he didn’t wipe it away.
“Don’t know why you care,” he finally replied. “You’re not Cambodian. In fact, you’re really hot. Do you have plans for tomorrow night? We should get a drink – not here, somewhere nice.”
I stood up, swaying with drunkenness and shock at how vile the human being I had just encountered was.
“Bye,” I said, and stumbled to the bar to locate Mei.
I never found her.
Cover by Christopher Sardegna