As I waited at the Siem Reap bus station for the next ride into Phnom Pehn, a tall Canadian woman appeared and sat beside me. She was curvy and blonde, and said her name was Carol. She had been teaching English for the past three years in Bangkok. We were the only foreigners in the bus when it came, so we took seats next to each other and chatted about the temples of Angkor Wat.

I passed the trip between her pleasant, long-legged conversation and snippets of the google-eyed, slack-jawed ravings of Amit Gilboa’s “Off the Rails in Phnom Pehn,” an atrociously written (but widely read) book about ex-pat life that was to be my first introduction to the capital of Cambodia. If I was to believe its hyperbolic prose, the metropolis was a monstrous slum of unprecedented squalor, overflowing with two-dollar, pre-pubescent prostitutes and five-dollar garbage bags full of high-grade heroin.

If only it had been so straightforward.

We arrived in the evening and checked into a hotel together, then meandered out to look for dinner. Finding the Lonely-Planet-recommended “Happy Herb’s Pizza,” we sat down and pored over the menu. In the place where a normal restaurant would have written “small,” “medium,” or “large,” Happy Herb, whoever he was, had put “happy,” “very happy,” and “ecstatic.” Apparently size was irrelevant.

The pizzas in the city are notorious for being loaded with hash, opium, and god alone knows what other “medicinal” ingredients, depending on who you ask about it. We consulted quickly and ordered a “happy” Hawaiian pizza. Not “ecstatic,” nor even “very happy,” mind you, but just “happy.”

Within a few minutes, the grinning waiter slapped a large, greasy disc of ham and pineapple-covered dough on the table. Feeling adventurous, we quickly gobbled down the narcotic culinary delight, curious tastebuds sifting the tantalizing and unfamiliar flavours.

Half an hour later, we were walking down the road complaining to each other about the pizza’s lack of publicized effect, when a car-sized mouse suddenly loomed up from behind a nearby bush and poked its massive, quivering snout at me.

“Jesus… Jesus Christ!” I spluttered apoplectically, staggering backwards in a paroxysm of howling panic. “That’s a… huge fucking mouse!”

“What mouse?” asked Carol, bewildered by my abrupt and freakish reaction. I looked back at the bush and the mouse was gone.

After that the hallucinations started piling in thick and fast for both of us. Soon we were sharing the bed in my room, but far too messed up to even think about messing around. Monstrous figures were pushing aside the curtains to look in at us, as we mumbled non sequitors to each other in a feverish, temporally disjointed confusion.

After a few hours I had it all figured out. The tall blonde stretching her long, sexy legs against the wall, it was only a matter of time before she left me penniless and gibbering in an irrecoverable chemical catatonia! She had spiked the meal with junk or meth or strychnine or something even further beyond the pale, and I had to get her out of the room at all costs! I told her to leave and made her scramble for her scattered clothes and possessions as I threatened to physically throw her out. She was taken aback, half-naked, tripping nasty and justly freaked out.

Then she was gone, and I spent the next twenty-four wide-eyed hours splayed out on my back, feeling the walls hyperventilate. The paranoia became even more extreme: the hotel people were going to break into my room! They had even planted a spy under my bed! I caught glimpses of a sinister head bobbing out from under the edge of the mattress every time I dared look, and numerous other jagged-toothed demons kept drifting by my window, staring at me malevolently before flickering away into hazy blackness.

Being a graphomaniac, I made sure to keep a record, and it was certainly one of the most bizarre scrawls ever penned by the hand of man; nearly twenty pages of masturbatory multilingual monomania. The ink flooded the paper like an unstoppable plague of locusts, as I formulated a roiling diatribe against the corrupt Cambodian government and the insidious Canadian “agent” they had set on me. Japanese and Chinese characters were sketched over frightening portraits of the monsters I was seeing in the windows. Spanish flipped into French mid-sentence, and then German a few words later. Thoughts were left unfinished as my pen could not keep up with my frantic, overworked brain. I would read and reread it later on, and realize that I had gone fantastically and utterly mad.

Further on in my voyage, I would meet numerous hardened drug fiends who proffered their emphatic and belated caveats against Cambodia’s chemical insanity. Nothing they had ever tried anywhere else, they would say, even came close to the psychological effects of what they referred to as “Cambodian carnage.”

I reconciled with poor, disenchanted Carol two days later, after the raging pandemonium in our brains had finally started to dissipate. She had been assaulted by her own unholy host of happy pizza horrors, and soon forgave my bizarrely understandable transgressions. We commiserated a while over a couple of happy-negative hamburgers and decided to ground ourselves in some hard reality by taking a tour of the Cambodian killing fields.

We staggered to a motorcycle taxi and piled on, with me in the middle and her riding side-saddle on the back of the seat. We zipped out of the city, and headed down a bumpy gravel road that the driver told us headed towards our destination. As we were cruising along at around 80 kilometers an hour, another bike with two men on it roared past, and the guy in the rear snatched one of the handles of Carol’s handbag, which she was holding in her lap.

Man, did they choose the wrong girl. Carol was built solid, and held on to the other strap of the bag like a pedigree pit fighter in full lockjaw. It was ten seconds of emotion-jacked terror, as both bikes lurched maniacally over the rutted path, while my blonde companion and the would-be thief struggled like Hercules and Hippolyta. I twisted in my seat, slamming one arm around the driver’s thin stomach and wrapping the other around Carol’s squirming waist, barely keeping her from falling off the back of her precarious perch into a faceful of high-speed gravel. Finally, the other strap broke under the strain, and the girl yanked her bag into her stomach with a blast of hearty North American invective. The two men sped off without looking back, doubtless petrified of the brawny, cussing valkyrie at their back.

We pulled over the car and took a shaking breath. It had been a near thing for everyone, and the adrenaline was pumping hard.[1]

A few minutes later, after clambering back on the bike, we arrived at Choeng Ek, one of Cambodia’s notorious “killing fields.” Once the site of one of the most astonishing atrocities in human history, the ground is now just a vast sprawl of open pits left over from semi-excavated mass graves, with fragments of teeth and bones still jutting from the packed earth. I listened as a guide explained how Pol Pot’s child army used to beat infants to death against one of the nearby trees, and how a nearby pagoda that towered over the scene was loaded with more than 8,000 human skulls collected by the land owners to memorialize the horror.

The three dollar entry fee to the killing fields goes to JC Royal, the guide told me, a Japanese company that has privatized the genocide site.

Nearby was a school where I could see young children playing soccer five meters from the barbed wire that surrounded the mass graves, and I found it oddly life-affirming to watch the game. As we got on the back of the bike to head out, the driver asked me whether or not I would like to go to the nearby shooting range. No gun license was required, he said, and you can use a B-40 grenade launcher to blow up a living cow! You can also buy a sheep for fifteen dollars and shoot it up with an AK-47! All the tourists did it, he said with an eager smile.

Later I was to hear, from three independent sources, of a very special service available to gun loving tourists. You could shoot a live Cambodian child for $5,000. Apparently there exists a particularly diabolical mafia that buys small children from poor families and offers them to be killed by foreigners.

Now, why so shocked?

What kind of a world did you think you were living in?


[1] I recently talked with Carol after a hiatus of several years, and learned that she had just fought off another would-be mugger in Mexico City. Canada 2: Evil-doers 0.

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