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Into the Heart of Darkness

Guns, punks and Cambodia's deadliest snake. Yep, I finally decided to take it easy for a week.
When I'd left you all last I had just settled down in Chiang Mai and started work, but to be honest it was driving me nuts. So I figured it was time to explore some not-so-local culture.

One day, while making my usual morning sprint down to the local coffee shop for a newspaper and espresso - God I loved Thailand's small luxuries - I struck up a conversation with a pink-mohawked, leather-clad punk. Now while such gruff-looking, hair gel addicts may not seem that unusual walking down the streets of Melbourne or London, in Thailand's traditional and Buddhist Chiang Mai, seeing a punk standing on a street corner is akin to stumbling across the Pope at a gay pride rally. The punk's name was Rick and he handed me a crumpled leaflet from his pocket and, as we parted, he suggested that if I was interested in Chiang Mai's underbelly, I might want to check out 'The Crypt' on a Friday night.

Being a big fan of bellies, and all things under them, I decided to head on down.

Ok, ok, enough laughing. But come on, if I had gone to Thailand without riding at least one elephant, how would I be able to look at myself in the mirror? Enlarge »
The Crypt, as it turned out, was a pioneer in the rather new genre of piercing studios that also double as punk clubs. While the mezzanine floor had been fitted with the latest in piercing technology (their motto: "We can hang anything from anywhere") the ground floor had its own chain link bar, some couches - black, of course - and a 'band corner' that hosted a variety of untalented but eager locals who attempted in vain to thrash out death-metal songs with little talent, but an abundance of angry enthusiasm.

And believe it or not, people were actually trying to dance. Of course dancing to death metal songs is not for the faint-hearted; though those brave enough or stupid enough to attempt this act of physical masochism seem to garner the basics quickly: simply throw yourself with all your strength at the 'bouncers' - the crowd of fifty or so onlookers and inciters that encircle the dance floor - and then hope that when they hurl you violently back in to the center of the throng of thrashing comrades that you don't lose an eye to a wayward mohawk spike, or the odd metal stud.

With all the pushing, shoving and pent-up anti-establishment, anti-governance, anti-war - let's face it, anti-everything - rage bubbling under the surface, I knew it wouldn't be long until somebody got hurt. I just wish it hadn't been me.

While making my way slowly towards the door I was floored by a young, green-mohawked Thai guy who could have made his country proud, if only meaningless head-thrashing and arm flailing was an Olympic event. As I dusted myself off and accepted his shouted apologies, he insisted that he buy me a drink to apologise and five minutes later we were strolling down the quiet streets of Chiang Mai's old city, sipping Heineken's and introducing ourselves. My new friend's name was Chet and he was all of 22 years old.

We were still getting through the preliminaries when we rounded a corner and stumbled across a police officer writing a ticket to a drunken motorcyclist. Chet startled me by ensuring the policeman's back was turned and then bolting down a side alley. Hearing the sound of his falling footsteps, the cop turned and looked in my direction, so I just smiled back, whistled a Celine Dion tune that came to mind a little too easily for comfort and tried to look as innocuous as possible. As soon as his back was turned again, I quickly debated whether or not to follow Chet down the alley.

Unsurprisingly my curiosity got the better of me and within a few minutes I found Chet, still puffing and panting, behind the gate of one of Chiang Mai's many Buddhist temples. Unwilling to venture back out onto the street in case he was spotted by the policeman, Chet pulled a bottle of cheap Thai whiskey out of his pocket, sat down on the concrete step, helped himself to a healthy swig of grog, and then offered me a drink. Realising that I had nothing better planned I collapsed next to him, caught my breath, and drank down a mouthful of whiskey.

"So," I asked after a few silent minutes, "what was that all about?"

Seeing a punk standing on a street corner in Chiang Mai is akin to stumbling across the Pope at a gay pride rally
Chet, as it turned out, was not your everyday, run-of-the-mill punk. Raised by successful and widely-respected parents it was assumed that he'd follow a very particular path in life: university, then marriage to a suitable girl from Chiang Mai and finally a job as the assistant manager at his father's lucrative import company. Unsurprisingly, he resented it. Chet was so incensed by his family's inflexible expectations that from an early age he had set about trying to undermine their plans. At first it was petty theft as a teenager, then the occasional small-time drug deal; not enough to get him into any real legal trouble (that couldn't be bought off, at least) but just enough to cause his parents grief and anguish over their 'wild' son. Then one day Chet had spied a Rolling Stone magazine from the UK featuring an article on the punk-pioneer Sid Vicious and he saw the opportunity he'd been waiting for: a way to well and truly piss his parents off.

But while becoming a wild-haired, tongue-pierced punk had caused the intended grief for a brief period, Chet's parents had soon tired of his latest stunt, so Chet had been forced to resume his life of crime to regain his 'edge'. Unfortunately the police had now caught on to his act and were looking for a green-mohawked Thai guy who was in the habit of stealing tuk-tuks while their drivers took lunch at a nearby street hawker, driving three blocks, and then leaving the three-wheeled smog factories playing cheesy Thai pop music until their batteries ran flat.

Correctly figuring that peacock-haired Thai guys were not that common a sight in Chiang Mai, Chet had decided to keep a low profile as far as the police were concerned, at least until he figured out his next move.

"Why don't you just shave your hair off?" I asked.

"Because," he replied in his heavily accented, but impeccable English, "that would be giving in."

I'm sure there's a message in there somewhere, if you find it, let me know.



The life of a working man, however, was beginning to take its toll on me. Aside from a few weekend excursions out to the region's mountains, a brief but satisfying shirt-grabbing encounter with the Thai Prime Minister, the odd meal of raw, minced buffalo tripe marinated in stomach acid, and a much-prized photo opportunity with a beauty queen suffering from acute gigantism, my daily routine in Chiang Mai was beginning to take on a repetitive, mundane feel. So having finished my tour of duty with charity I was working for, I packed my bags and jumped on a bus headed south.

Taking a much needed break from a ten hour road trip to Siem Reap on the back of a ute. We were cutting across a dried rice paddy because the official road was non-existent. Enlarge »
After two days, three buses, a border checkpoint and seven gruelling hours desperately holding on in the cargo tray of a pickup truck as it swerved wildly from side to side in a vain attempt to avoid the knee-deep potholes of the sometimes sealed, but mostly non-existent road, I made it to Siem Riep, Cambodia. I may have had a steel rod dent imprinted permanently on my arse and the orange dust that had sandblasted my face for the last five hours may have left me looking like a oompa-loompa extra from a camp Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake, but at least I was alive.



The name 'Cambodia' to most people back home probably conjures up media-fed, negative images of poor villages, Khmer Rouge bandits and some unfriendly guy called Pol Pot … and admittedly my knowledge of the country before entering it was not much more detailed than that. Yet again, our perceptions are based on fact, but clouded by ignorance.

Cambodia is, along with Laos, one of the poorest countries in Asia. Infant mortality rates are pushing ten percent, average life expectancy is just a shade above fifty years and civil war has left the nation's infrastructure and economy in tatters. Yet beneath the shantytown slums and 'wild west' atmosphere that poverty, genocide and almost thirty years of armed conflict have ingrained into the Cambodian way of life, the warmth, humour and laid back attitude of the Khmer people shines through. Always ready to befriend a foreigner (especially a greenback-toting one) and rarely without a smile, the Khmer have the uncanny ability to make the aches and pains induced by hours spent sweltering under the sun and dust on Cambodian road transport melt away with a wry grin, a quick joke and a sympathetic slap on the back.

... the Khmer have the uncanny ability to make the aches and pains induced by hours spent sweltering under the sun and dust on Cambodian road transport melt away with a wry grin, a quick joke and a sympathetic slap on the back.
On a landscape that swings wildly between lush, green rice paddies and dusty, dry savannah depending on the season, the Cambodians work hard to eke a living from the inhospitable land that employs over eighty percent of the nation and yet still poses a very real threat to those who dare tame it. With around five million mines still dotting its countryside and the too-common sight of amputee men and children limping around the streets, begging bowls in hand, Cambodia is one of the few countries where simply taking a leak on to a bush beside a highway fills you with mine-filled terror.

But for all the pain and suffering their recent history has inflicted, the Khmer are acutely aware of the proud history and accomplishments of their ancestors, and there is no greater testament to their ability than the ruins of Angkor. Known to the West largely through the occasional documentary, and as the supporting location for Angelina Jolie's bouncing chest in the recent Tomb Raider film, the one hundred or so temples of Angkor are all that remain of the capital of the once mighty Khmer empire that had ruled most of Southern Asia.

Heading off from Siem Riep with Carrie, a girl from Melbourne I'd befriended en route, I spent my first day at Angkor marvelling at just how old everything was. I know it sounds strange, but when you've grown up in a country where history is deemed to have started with white settlement two hundred years ago, exploring tombs, temples and bas-reliefs that have been around for millennia leaves you somewhat confused.

What better place to sit down and study Enlarge »
Angkor did not lay dormant until its discovery in the 1860s, but instead sprang to life as a new habitat for the surrounding forest. The labyrinths of fallen stone columns, collapsed statues and the ever-present Buddha images of Angkor have enmeshed themselves into the surrounding plant life so that trees now grow atop of tombs, their entangling roots providing support for the crumbling walls. Stone foundations provide an elevated platform to help the trees in their chase sunlight and birds nest in the crack of a wall, while wild flowers spring out of the unlikeliest of stone floors.

When we weren't standing awe-struck by the sheer scale of Angkor, Carrie and I spent most of our time trying to fend off the army of souvenir vendors who would constantly harass you with offers on cheap drinks, cheap crafts and cheap 'authentic' antiques. Despite trying to ignore them all, one in particular caught my attention. A middle-aged man was dangling a small, green snake from between his fingers and offering to sell it to me for 8,000 rial (AUS $4).

"Why would I want snake?" I asked with my bargaining, poker-face smile.

"For pet," the man replied. "He make good pet."

Curious, I asked him, "Is it poisonous?"

"No, no," came the confident reply, "very safe. No bite. No die. Just for pet."

Figuring this would be the only time I'd ever own a snake, I haggled the vendor down to 2,000 rial, took my newfound friend by his head and walked away, wondering exactly what you're meant to do with a hyperactive, unleashable pet.

The most venomous species of snake in Cambodia? How the Hell was I supposed to know?! But you gotta admit, he is kind of cute. Enlarge »
Of course the sight of a crazy, 'rich' farang with a snake invariably attracted attention from the locals, and I was soon surrounded by a mob of children who would sidle up cautiously and then shriek and dive into a nearby pond when I brought Marvin - my pet's new name - out from behind my back and waved him at them accompanied by a suitably menacing roar ... much to the delight of their quietly chuckling parents.

After fifteen minutes of letting Marvin slither his way up and down my arms and neck and kissing his head for a photo-op while the children simply looked on with confusion and awe, I congratulated myself on a purchase well-made: at just under AUS $1, Marvin had was providing some economical entertainment, and he was kind of cute to boot.

But as you all know by now, nothing on my trip is ever that simple. Indeed after a few more minutes, I was approached by a mortified looking Angkor official who stared in horror at me as I casually clutched Marvin's head between my thumb and forefinger.

"Why you hold snake?" he asked. "Snake is very, very dangerous!"

"But the man said it was harmless," I replied, wondering where the vendor had wandered off to.

"No, snake is Hanuman snake. Very dangerous," the official continued. "it kill many Cambodians. Big problem! Kill very quickly after bite."

And I was clutching it? I had kissed it?!

My fingers began to tremble uncontrollably as I realised that it was a small, but deadly snake I was holding in my hand rather than the cute and adorable Marvin I'd come to know and love. Capitalising on the newfound freedom my relaxed grip offered, Marvin wriggled his way free of my fingers and dropped on to my shoe ... and then proceeded to slither up my leg and under my shorts.

Oh shit.

I'm not sure what the exact protocol is when faced with a deadly-snake-slithering-away-near-your-groin-type situation, but I don't think my very loud swearing and flailing of arms helped matters much. After calming down, and with all the local children now giggling hysterically, I stood stock-still, prayed silently and hoped that Marvin wasn't feeling particularly peckish for my pecker.

I'm not sure what the exact protocol is when faced with a deadly- snake-slithering-away- near-your-groin-type situation, but I don't think my very loud swearing and flailing of arms helped matters much.
It may have felt like years passed, but Marvin eventually realised that he'd reached a dead end and poked his light green head below the hem of my shorts. With deftness that would have made Albie Mangle and Steve Irwin proud, my hand darted down to his head, yanked him off my body, and threw the mini-killer as far as I could.

Moral of the Story: whether it's 'genuine' Rolexes, 'authentic' gems, or 'harmless' green snakes, never trust anything a vendor with a hip flask of whiskey in his back pocket and a five day growth tells you.



After two days of clambering up, down, into and out of countless ruins I had to push on. I'd decided to try and 'see' Cambodia in a little over six days, a difficult task when flying around the country, but a virtual impossibility when attempting it overland. After hitching a lift with another pick up truck headed south, I spent ten more hellish hours crammed between a seventy year-old lady and her trussed up pig in the cargo tray before reaching the Cambodia capital of Phnom Penh and getting a well needed night's sleep.

Phnom Penh is a poor, slightly run-down but bustling capital that is struggling desperately to recover from its depopulation in the late seventies at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Moto motorbike taxi drivers loiter on street corners with their customary uniform of leering grins and baseball caps, semi-naked children play a crude version of ten pin bowling using sandals and beer bottles in dank alleyways, and street vendors sell French baguettes for those with a big appetite but little cash. Phnom Penh is also a particularly dangerous city, one of the few places in South East Asia where walking the streets at night will more likely than not get you into some kind of trouble.

Given it's lack of actual 'sights' (or any discernable charm for that matter) and 'wild' reputation, Phnom Penh has become a city known for its institutions, all of which I attempted to visit on my one packed day in the capital in the company of Erik, a Californian with dreams of an unlimited bar tab that I'd first met in Shanghai, then again in Hong Kong and now for the third time in Cambodia.

The first two stops were the infamous Killing Fields and the lesser known, but equally disturbing S-21 prison. Now for those of you who aren't too flash on your Cambodian history, all you really need to know is that after being dragged into the Vietnam War conflict, Cambodia's border rebel fighters, the 'Khmer Rouge' were driven deep into their country and eventually 'claimed' Phnom Penh in 1975. The Khmer Rouge's leader Pol Pot renamed 1975 Year Zero and set about fulfilling his dream of making Cambodia an agrarian-focused, ultra-communist state.

The ugliest depths of humanity are only display at this memorial to those who died during Pol Pot's genocidal reign. Look closely at the skulls and you'll see the telltale signs of pick axe blades and hammers that killed these men, women and children. Enlarge »
In the three years in which they held power, the Khmer Rouge disbanded the postal system, cut telecommunications with the outside world, closed schools, hospitals and universities and forced urbanised Cambodians into labour gangs on communal farms. Pol Pot quickly realised that intellectuals had no place in his agrarian state and would only pose a threat to his power base, so he implemented a plan that saw over 2 million Cambodians - mainly teachers, clerks, diplomats, ministers, even people who wore glasses or spoke another language and their families - interrogated at the S-21 prison and then slaughtered at the nearby Choeung Ek extermination camp.

It's difficult feel sorrow when standing at one of the mass graves of Choeung Ek into which over twenty-thousand bodies were dumped, staring at a tree trunk against which thousands of babies heads were smashed, or looking at the skulls of the victims which still bear the scars of the axe blades and hammer-blows that killed them (bullets were considered too expensive to waste on extermination). The sheer scale of the atrocity simply leaves you feeling numb and a little eager to believe that despite the evidence before you, this is all just some kind of sick hoax. But then, just when you've allowed yourself to take refuge in the anonymity of two million people's pain - it's only a statistic, after all - you glance down and notice that you're standing on the pink sleeve of a little girl's tattered skirt that's been shaken loose from the grave below.



Despite our sombre mood we battled on to our next port of call: the Phnom Penh artillery range. In a country where arms are sold on almost every street corner, it's no real surprise that suitably cashed-up foreigners can try their hand firing a range of weaponry at a government-owned center. Pistols and machine guns are the popular choices here, but if you've got US $200 the friendly army officers will set you loose with a rocket launcher. Cough up an extra US $100 and they'll even throw in a cow for you to shoot at.

Probably not. But hey, at least you'd buy a used car off me, wouldn't you? Enlarge »
After selecting from a 'menu' that would make any self-respecting NRA member wet their pants with delight, Erik and I tried our hands at a handgun (nice kick, but no real fun), an AK 47 (lots of fun), and finally the fully automatic M60 machine gun (very, very fun). Although I was told that my 50% accuracy mark pretty good for someone who'd never held a gun before, I must admit that the expected rush of male hormones commanding me to grab a shotgun and go hunt some wabbits didn't overwhelm me. Instead I was left feeling strangely content that I now knew how to blow someone's head off, and worryingly eyeing the middle-aged Spanish man who was inspecting his hole-ridden target sheet for accuracy, but onto which he'd previously scrawled "Jana, die you fat bitch" and "Sara, Portugese Whore".

I asked the man who Jana and Sara were, and what they'd done to anger him so much.

"One is ex-girlfriend and one work colleague. I hate them both, and sometimes I think it is good ... how you say ... therapy to let all your anger out at one time. Sometimes I become so mad that I ... never mind."

Ohhhh - Kayyyy.



The last two stops on our tour of Phnom Penh's 'must sees' were of the culinary variety. First, Happy Herb's Pizza, where Herb and his pizzas pioneered the now ubiquitous 'happy meals' that have taken the backpacker circuit by storm. This Phnom Penh eatery has spawned hundreds of imitators across Indochina, and at countless farang-oriented cafes in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand you can ask for 'happy' pizzas, 'ecstatic' smoothies, 'don't worry be happy' brownies, 'chill out' green curry: you name it, and they'll spike it.

If you've got US $200 the friendly army officers will set you loose with a rocket launcher. Cough up an extra US $100 and they'll even throw in a cow for you to shoot at.
Ordering was simple enough, you choose the kind of pizza you want (AUS $6), and then tell the waiter whether you want it happy (for those with an evening to kill) or extra happy (for those who are content to lie dormant for a day or two). In the end it was fine pizza - in fact the first I'd eaten in over six months - and although it wasn't as happy as I might have expected, it was thankfully enough to make me forget the horrors I'd seen that morning.

Lastly we dropped in to the Heart of Darkness bar that, along with the Apocalypse Now chain in Vietnam, has taken a very depressing war movie based on a very depressing book and used it as an excuse to abuse our livers. As if we needed an excuse. Stylish, popular, but otherwise unremarkable, Heart of Darkness provided a low-key end to a rather full day and prepared me for the torture I'd be subjecting myself the following morning.

Eighteen hours of non-stop travel by bus, ferry, speed boat, taxi and tuk-tuk and I made it, barely awake, to the most famous backpacker's street in the world: Thanon Khao San.



This anonymous town on the southern coast of Cambodia was one of the countless villages we passed on a suicidal 24 hour dash from Pnomh Penh (Cambodia) to Bangkok (Thailand) overland. Enlarge »
It's just ticked past 6.00 am, and the clean up from last night's partying is being swept up from the notorious Khao Sanh road. A lone lady-boy is loitering outside the door of this internet cafe, desperately looking for a 'date' to make the cab fare back home. A dog is rummaging through the empty beer cans and Bacardi Breezer bottles looking for a scrap of food. A stall owner begins to unpack her rack of rip-off Diesel and Mambo t-shirts in preparation for another day of ruthless haggling. Upstairs in the scores of guesthouses young, drunken travellers are wildly groping their partners, making newfound 'friends' or sleeping soundly, unaware of the hangover that's brewing deep within the base of their skull.

Khao San Rd is like nothing on Earth. The extremes of backpacker culture are played out in a 500 metre strip of guesthouses, Internet cafes, laundries, bars, pubs and travel agents. Almost anything your heart desires: dreadlocks, tattoos, wood bead bracelets, deep fried scorpions, sarongs, country patches for your rucksack - all the essentials for an 'authentic' backpacker experience, of course - can be found at the stall that line the street. And at nights drunken yobs from around the globe spill out onto the street to drink cheap alcohol, act like wankers and chat about the "inspirational, life changing experience" they had at such-and-such temple while zooming past it on a VIP tourist bus at 100 clicks an hour.

I've got to get out of here.

Comments about this page

hey ally! this is the first time i've visited you're site and your travels seem... ineffable! :) i've been to siem reap once and i absolutely loved the temples of Angkor! i was especially awed when i saw the sunrise by one of the temples, extraordinarily beautiful!! it's probably one of my favorite places in the world
Bea (Philippines) on Aug 7, 2007 at 2:10 pm

Hi:
I have been to Asia, and as a spiritual healer I see many things thru the eyes from beyond. How you depict the duality of life is Great ! Others who have had this level of insight have turned suicidal. Yet, also on the levels of Above we come thru a twilight change of insight ... hopefully leaving these scenarios of agony from creation, soon. Frank
Frank Peschanel (Germany now) on May 12, 2010 at 5:24 am

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