One Chants Out Between Two Worlds

Posted on May 27, 2010 by


Dusty boots shuffling along the dirt road that leads from my current lodgings back towards the town itself… my head down against the hammering sun and the inevitable calls of “Tuktuk sir? Where you go?” Other than a brief chat with a girl from eastern Europe two nights ago, it’s been almost ten days since my last really meaningful conversation. That was in Thailand, on the eve of a military crackdown.

All I’ve really had since getting away from the Redshirt-inspired craziness is my writing, and reading some essays by Hunter S Thompson that I’ve searched for for years; dispatches from the comparative comfort of room 224 of the Lane Xang Hotel in Vientiane, Laos, May of 1975. He’d escaped Vietnam to write about the fall of Saigon.

I’m not far along the track towards town when I hear the familiar conversation starter…

“Hello sir, how are you?”

Atypically, I fall for the gambit, turning towards the guy lounging in the back of his tuktuk. I reply, “I’m well, thanks, how are you?”

“Fine thank you sir,” he says, sitting up. “Where you go?”

“Not far,” I tell him. “I’m working today.”

A well-used line by me, and while it can be very effective in getting tuktuk guys to back off, it’s not strictly true. I’m not getting paid for it, but to write is something I feel strongly compelled towards. It doesn’t necessarily feel like work as such, more of a duty.

“Ah!” the driver says, understanding. “You work in Siem Reap?”

“For now,” I say. “I live in Phnom Penh but I’m here on a break. I was in Thailand last week, so…”

Sometimes I say that I was there to write about the Red Shirt protests. In truth, I was invited along by a beautiful woman with sapphire eyes and a lovely smile. We’d met in Cambodia and she asked me to go back to the Thai capital with her before she flew back home. I did write a little about what was going on in Thailand, but that was very much incidental.

“And later today? You go to see temple?”

I make some vague mumbling effort at a knockback, but I smile throughout the exchange. It’s something that goes over well in this part of the world. Even to argue with a smile seems to make things a lot smoother. As I say my farewells, the driver smiles and says, “Thank you sir, good luck for you.”

Kicked-up dust swirls about my ankles, dogs and chickens run about along the roadside, a group of young children wait until I’m about two feet away before half of them bellow, “Hellooooo!!” and wave frantically.

“Hello,” I respond, and wave. “How are you?”

Three reply in unison: “Fine-thanks-how-are-you?” Then they all break into effervescent giggles and hide sunshine smiles behind dirty hands. It’s a performance I’ve seen dozens of times now, but it always warms my heart.

Another tuktuk driver accosts me, unfolds the usual spiel about showing me the temples, and I reply with my usual “no thank you” line, and he pulls out what looks like a loyalty card, explaining to me that if he gets a fare for the day he can stamp off one of the squares, and when he’s stamped 10 squares off he then gets a US$10 bonus. From whom, I’ve no idea; possibly a tour operator or something.

The thing is that I’ve done the temple tour twice now, and will be doing it at least one more time before I head back to Australia. And the ticket prices are not cheap. I’m on a budget. And I know that it’s hard for the locals to grasp that idea, for a rich Westerner to have to watch what they spend… but I’m only rich here, comparatively, and certainly not back in my own country.

No sooner have I convinced one tuktuk driver that I don’t need his services than the one sitting right next to him, six feet away, pipes up with, “Tuktuk, sir?”


I’m now in Café Central, indulging in the stereotypically “lefty intellectual wanker” pastime of latte sipping. I’ve just had Vegemite on toast for the first time in just over two months. The Red Piano, a favourite hangout of mine and Angelina Jolie’s (though not at the same time) is just up the street a little. There are two excellent secondhand bookstores here (D’s Books and the Blue Apsara), as well as a narrow laneway between Streets 8 and 10 that is full of little restaurants and bars and boutique clothing stores. Tiny art galleries which outnumber the pubs. Monks in bright orange, carrying bowls, out collecting their morning alms, early afternoon clouds heavy with rain are gathering for the afternoon downpour. Westerners having Westerner conversations over Westerner food and drink, dressed as if for the beach, or at least a beachside promenade. Sometimes it’s very easy for me to forget that I’m not in Australia. One thing that reminds me of the fact that I’m not is that it’s almost impossible to get a cab in Sydney, where in southeast Asia you can’t walk 10 meters without being offered 5 tuktuk rides. Also, you can buy beer and smoke cigarettes everywhere. Perhaps that’s why I’m feeling out of sorts; Siem Reap isn’t Cambodian enough.


Je la manque. Je manque son sourire incandescent et ses yeux bleus-océaniques, son contact décontracté, ses observations élégantes de ce monde et son charme provoquant sans effort.


Years ago, following a traumatic breakup, I entertained the fantasy of leaving civilisation for a little cabin in the wilderness. I wanted to spend some time there to regather myself and go through all the grief and contemplation that I felt I needed to experience. I’d be there, utterly alone, for a fortnight or maybe a month, with no contact with the rest of the world for the duration of my stay. No phone, no Internet, no radio. Just me and some music and pens & notebooks. I drew inspiration for this idea from Jack Kerouac’s book Big Sur.

Now I find myself alone but in company. I’m in a busy town in Cambodia but haven’t really spoken to many people. I’m wondering if my Big Sur plan would’ve been doable. Or if, like Kerouac himself, I might’ve gone a little stir-crazy with the craving for contact and conversation that he also missed so much.


There’s a cool arty vibe in this town that I’ve not seen elsewhere in Cambodia. Not even in the capital. No doubt there are bits of Phnom Penh that I’ve not adequately explored. so it may exist there.

Siem Reap’s “arty vibe” is due to mass tourism, of course; there’d be no boutique stores unless there were people with money to frequent them. Tourism is a double-edged sword, and at the same time I can rail against how it changes the character of a place for the worse, I can enjoy the benefits of it myself; decent coffee and good bookstores.

Walk just a few blocks away from the main drag and the gazillion fish massage places and you’ll find dirt streets and local shops, beauticians next to machinists, chickens and cows and the call to prayer from a backstreet mosque drifting through the heavy evening air. A mobile phone seller/travel agent who rent bicycles for a dollar a day.

The wind picks up, shifting direction, heralding the rain that will soon fall on this town that feels like an odd mash-up of Cambodia and the West.

I wonder which side will win, and what the benefits and the costs of that victory will be…

Posted in: Travel, Writing