I felt as though I would never get the grime off. I had only been in Phnom Penh a few days but no matter how often I showered or changed my clothes I couldn’t escape feeling dirty. The heat was outrageous – high thirties with a humidity level I wouldn’t even want to consider. But I had to come back, even though I had been through all this before. There’s just something about this city, the way it tugs at your heart and never lets you forget.
It had been a long day, as they tend to be in Cambodia. It often feels that once the sun has set it’s just itching to creep back up again. My heart felt heavy. There are reminders throughout the city of what life was like a mere thirty years ago. During the regime, as they say. By the time it’s dark, you’re ready to forget.
My friends jokingly say we should go to an infamous happy pizza restaurant, where you can ask for your pizza to be ‘happy’ – to have marijuana cooked into it. Even though they said it jokingly, we start walking to one we had seen by the riverfront earlier that day.
It’s just like a normal restaurant. We order our pizzas.
“Can you make them happy?” my boyfriend asks, with a smile on his face. We’re trying to act casual about the whole thing, to not seem too touristy and to not draw any more attention to ourselves than we already do.
“Yes. Happy.” The waitress replies, as if it’s nothing. I suppose this is just another order for her. People come and go every day.
I wonder what it would be like to be a beautiful Khmer woman who doesn’t sweat as soon as it hits twenty-five degrees. I eye her as she takes the order for the table next to us. Her makeup is flawless. Does she do drugs to forget about the past too?
As we eat a man in a monk’s robe comes up to our table, holding a jar that he clinks with prayer beads. He says nothing. “Aw tay,” I say in my rough Khmer, shaking my head to emphasise just in case my tone is wrong. No. I don’t want to give him money. I always feel as though I’m being set up for a scam. But as he walks away I have a distinct feeling I’m going to hell anyway. I continue eating my happy pizza.
As we descend into a stupor we sit, chain smoking cheap cigarettes and drinking cheap beer. I hate every puff and butt mine out before they’re done, but immediately light another. I’m not sure what else I should be doing. Tourists come and go, but my friends seem content to sit in silence.
A small boy and his group of friends walk around the restaurant with baskets of trinkets and souvenirs. Nobody wants to buy anything. “Aw tay aw kun, aw tay aw kun.” No thank you, no thank you. Some days it feels like it’s all you say.
“Watch your stuff lady,” the boy says to me. “Someone might steal it.” I laugh nervously and pull my bag in closer, uncertain if that was a threat or a warning.
I feel restless after that encounter, so I leave my friends and wander around the corner to a convenience store. There are three Spaniards crowded around the cashier, negotiating the price of a few bottles of red wine and asking if they can play the acoustic guitar sitting behind the counter. The cashier solemnly shakes his head at them and they walk away without any purchases. I buy three big bottles of water and cradle them in my arms like babies walking back to the hotel.
I lie on top of the covers of the queen size bed, my skin stinging from a mixture of insect repellent and heat from the day. My boyfriend comes back. He’s high, much higher than I am. I hate it when people are higher than me because I end up feeling sober and stupid and irritated by everything.
I excuse myself and go to the bathroom. I turn the shower on full blast and ice cold, and strip off my damp and crusty clothes. I let the water run over me and try to relax. It’s late and the noise from the streets has finally lulled, nobody is interested in selling anything anymore, it’s time to go home and rest.
Bianca Martin is a writer and musician living in Melbourne, Australia. She plays in a feminist punk band and curates Miniatures Zine. She has been published in Lip Mag, Ash Tree Journal, Mary Journal, amongst other publications. She tweets @beeeeonka and blogs at oldcarsdontgoveryfast.com