“There’s a monster in your tummy”. “Huh?!” I exclaimed. “Yes, there’s definitely something in there. It happens a lot here” said the doctor. I was lying in his refined, tiny office: a world away from the dusty chaos going on outside in Phnom Penh. He was like a well aged whisky: rich, dignified, firm in his word and definitely a little nutty. Did I dare tell him I had been eating ants a couple of days before? I swiftly decided to keep it on the down low and pressed my lips shut.
Day three of my time in Phnom Penh and oh how the tables had turned. Dave had spent considerable time in the bathroom a couple of nights before whilst I was dodging knifes. After that fiasco, it was my turn to sit in the bathroom and feel really sorry for myself. The critters from Mars had clearly not been kosher and I was paying the price for ingesting them. So much so that I had ended up here, in a weird time-warped surgery, praying for relief.
Yes, I had volcanoes exploding deep within my gut: thankfully it was nothing as bad as my struggles in Siem Reap and as an extra bonus, this doctor was a genuine gem. His prices were extortionate. This meant he didn’t have many customers though so we had time to hang out whilst he investigated. As a result, my time with him was worth every penny.
This guy had been in Phnom Penh for ten years. We talked about Cambodia’s horrific past and its current struggles. We talked about the Khmer Rouge, money-making scams and babies being stolen and sold again. We discussed how Vietnam was stealing Cambodia’s electricity and hence the constant power cuts. We also shared our unease of how Phnom Penh’s character changes the minute its lights go out at night.
Then we really started to converse
Changing from exasperated sighs to an almost robotic tone, he shared his frustrations and lack of power to change the corruption in this city: ‘People don’t have a passion to go to school here: it’s not what you know, it’s who you know…You can work so hard but if you don’t have the money and the connections, you won’t get anywhere. Cambodians give up before they’ve even started and that greatly adds to their lack of concern about their own life‘.
I slowly dragged myself out of the clinic back into the Cambodian whirlwind. I was armed with the pills to change and rid myself of the tummy monster but couldn’t see Cambodia’s corruption changing so easily any time soon. ‘Devi!’ beckoned the Doctor. A young guy in a cute, cream shirt spun round and strode towards us. Devi, take this lady to the pharmacy, OK?‘ Hushing his voice to appear like he was being confidential but wholeheartedly speaking within Devi’s earshot, the doctor said, ‘I try and look after these boys but they won’t listen. He never puts his helmet on. He thinks he looks handsome and cool without that helmet on. Tell him to put in on will you? He’ll listen to you‘.
‘OK Devi! You’re cute! Put the helmet on OK!’ I said. Devi chuckled and threw another helmet at me. It was an eggshell like most ‘protective’ gear but at least it was something. He whizzed me to the pharmacy, back home to my door and all was good.
After a dinner of eating frogs (frogs are more safe right?) me and a bunch of travellers decided to head to the fun fair. Curious about how Cambodians get their kicks and the trippy camera shots I might get, I was eager to go. When Tom, a big bushy bearded bear of a man, asked me to get on one contraption, I politely declined. I was hardly full of gusto: “Sorry dude, I’m still kung fu fighting ants here”.
At the far end of the park, we could hear squeals of excitement mixed with a drop of terror. Locals ‘ooooohed‘ and ‘aaaaaahed‘ at the tallest, widest and most exhilarating ride Phnom Penh had. Do you know that ride where everyone will sit in a horizontal line together facing forward? The long seat the revellers sit in is attached to a forceful arm, which swings you around like a clock hand on crack. It’s known as the ‘Moby Dick’. The speed slowly but surely increases: tick, tick, tick, tick: tick…tock…tick…tock, ticktock, ticktock, ticktock, ticktock, ticktockticktockticktockticktock and before you know it, you feel like you’re a loose penny accidentally flung in the washing machine with everything else.
“Let’s do it” roared Tom and his mates! “Uuuhhhhhh” I murmured as I was swiftly scooped up and carried onwards. We joined the captivated audience and stared up at the passengers as the arm became stronger and stronger. Faster. Faster. I scanned the riders faces and connected with their feelings of euphoria. I laughed with the little girl on the end who was holding her sister’s hand and giggled at the grown man in the middle who was clearly experiencing more than he had bargained for.
Then, everything changed
In the middle of the ride, one lady’s face contorted and twisted from experiencing pure pleasure to tremendous terror. Her seatbelt ripped apart and flung through the air. She desperately grabbed her friends either side of her and scrunched her eyes tight shut. The arm continued at full force and swung around and around. ‘Turn it off, turn it off’ we screamed. We were terrified. Powerless. Everybody began to panic. ‘TURN IT OFF! PLEASE TURN IT OFF!’ She couldn’t hold on anymore. Rocketing through the air, she wailed and crashed onto the concrete ground with a sound I’ll never forget.
Death had briefly flashed its face to me a couple of nights ago but now it was screeching out loud, smudging its heavy and black dirty fingers all over me. Tom and his friends couldn’t cope. Tears streamed down their cheeks. ‘We need to get out of here, we need to leave now, let’s go, let’s go’. As we stood there shell-shocked, the locals were like aliens to us. Some laughed. Some simply saw the ride as broken and headed on off to another one. Customers continued to buy their ice cream, knock down some coconuts and purchase their ride tickets. Others acknowledged the situation but were keen to get some souvenir photos and gawp at the mess.
The present time
What can one say to facing death in Cambodia? When Cambodians have seen so much death, so many short-lived opportunities, so little of something which is guaranteed and stable…can you blame them for their reactions? This lady to them may just be another brick in the wall of a struggling but determined society. A society which is still trying to discover who they really are and break free of what once was.
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