Cheap Booze at the Heart of Darkness

As much as I hate to perpetuate an often published misconception (like that the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok is one of the top 10 things to see),  I’ve  read too often that walking the streets of Phnom Penh at night is a dumb move. And really didn’t feel like challenging this assumption. Not that I ever felt the least bit unsafe in Cambodia. But hey, why take chances? And there is little doubt in your mind when you visit Cambodia that life here is not held in too high of a regard.

So I found myself back at my hotel before night fall on the first few nights of my trip. But I needed some rest anyway and I had a load of pirated DVD’s to watch, to boot. But then I made my new BFF out of Mr. Jeat  and he wasn’t taking no for an answer when he invited me out for a night on the town. Which was cool. I am a night person. And figured braving the dark with a local at your side had to be ok. Or at least a bit safer.

I was actually looking forward to our outting figuring we’d end up at some locale version of a bar. You see these down small alleys throughout SE Asia. Small. Lots of those damn little plastic stools not made for a white person’s ass. Often with unlabeled beer bottles on the tables. Hangover be damned, I was going to get a local’s night out on the town experience. Or so I thought.

Mr. Jeat had different plans. First, he made the wrong assumption that I’d not appreciate a local watering hole. Second, like in Thailand, in Cambodia it’s a given that whoever has the most cash in their pocket will be paying for the night’s bill. And that would obviously be me. So why go to his nightly hang out when he had a chance to hit a place he’d never be able to afford on his own? And while we’re dreaming, why not share his good luck with a few friends? And that’s how I ended up getting plastered with three Khmer guys at the famous / infamous Heart of Darkness bar/club.

The Heart of Darkness has a long reputation as it was the original go-to bar in Phnom Penh. It’s expanded over the years and is now more of a club than bar, but still a bit on the dank and dodgy side (which really sooooo fits Phnom Penh!) A mere five minutes away from my hotel by motorcycle, we set off a bit early in the night (11 PM) after Mr. Jeat’s friend #1 showed up. Nice guy. A cop. Somewhere in his early 30’s. Spoke absolutely zero English. But still was communicative as all hell. Somewhere during the introductions I’m sure his name was said, but having totally missed it I dubbed him Juan for the night (a traditional choice on my part with a lengthy lineage amongst unpronounceable named guys I’ve met the world over). And he totally got that and was thumbing his chest and saying, “Juan” before the night was through.

Phnom Penh at night

Stupid Tourist Tricks #4: Riding a motorcycle in Phnom Penh

During the ride over Jeat negotiated road hazards and the crappy driving habits of his fellow countrymen while dialing up another fiend to invite him along for the night. A chance to party in the big time was evidently a great draw as we didn’t have to wait long outside the club for Nok to show up. Not my tuk tuk driver Nok, but a new Nok. Which technically made him Nok Nok and I was immediately giggling over the whole knock knock thing and then trying to explain it to my new friends who were totally not getting it and beginning to wonder what kind of lunatic they’d hooked up with. No problemo though, a night’s drinking was at hand.

Security is pretty heavy at the Heart of Darkness ever since they had a shoot out inside several years ago. So we all went through a metal detector and then as the sole white guy I got a pat down to boot (yeah, ‘cuz the 50 something old white touri guy is really gonna be your problem). The club wasn’t too packed, but that rapidly began to change and it was pretty much standing room only by 2am. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Juan had been here before and knew the layout so we grabbed some beers from the bar and headed upstairs where there was better seating. And then started the typical conversation of comparing life (prices) in our respective countries. I find this is not only a good ice breaker when travelling but is always of interest, too. So we did beer (eh), smokes (what!), traffic tickets (wide eyes, total disbelief, much repeating of each infraction’s cost), etc. as round two and three were consumed with me sampling various local brews and the boys happily ordering up foreign brands costing more than they made in a day. A slow conversation though as Jeat  had to stop and translate for Juan.” And, why did we bring him again?” I thought.

By round four, or maybe five, we were all feeling quite happy with ourselves as the bar ground into top gear. The white folk arriving were mostly backpackers with the guys looking like they’d found heaven and the few women looking like they couldn’t wait to escape. The locals, on the other hand, were all obviously from a different social class than my new friends. Dressed to kill (though hopefully not literally) and flashing whatever they could afford to flash. And one thing they all seemed to flash was bodyguards, which was quickly pointed out to me by Nok (in almost a reverent tone). OK. Ah, what the hell. Fate. Karma. When it’s your time to go . . . and besides, I was sure if trouble started no one was going to go after the old white guy first anyway.

Turns out though that there was a reason for Juan’s presence. I guess being a cop doesn’t pay all that well in Phnom Penh so most moonlight as bodyguards for the monied class. And half of the scary guys scowling at the room were his friends. I guess being a bodyguard in Phnom Penh isn’t the same as providing security and protection back in the States ‘cuz I was soon being introduced to most of them (and since it was by Juan, all in Khmer, of course) and buying even more bottles each round as our little corner soon became bodyguard central. And the big smile and wink from Juan clued me into that even though he spoke no English he’d perfectly followed my entire line of thought.

Now one of the truly fucked up things about being in your fifties and still feeling and acting like you’re in your twenties is that when you hit a club solo and feel like dancing it’s difficult to find a partner who won’t view you as some old leach. I think when I hit 80 it’ll be ok and I’ll then just be the cute old codger who wants to boogie. But at 50 it’s a problem. And I felt like dancing. Mostly because as more and more people piled in the music kept getting louder and by now conversation was impossible so dancing was all that was left.

So I started looking about for a white woman to pull out onto the dance floor and saw that with the exception of a few who had not yet been able to drag their backpacker boyfriend outta there the female ratio of any race was down to about .001%. Somewhat befuddled I looked over at Jeat and yelled questioningly, “women?” And he laughed. A lot. And then scooted closer to point out the groups around the floor starting with the local gay guys (a large contingent) around the DJ, the touri gay guys (small group) behind them and then the ‘not gay’ group that encompassed the rest of the club’s patrons but didn’t encompass any women. And I cracked up. I’d managed to end up in a not gay bar filled with nothing but hot young Cambodian guys with a large majority of them being gay.

Heart of Darkness

And my chances of finding someone to dance with suddenly increased 100 fold. ‘Cuz even at 50 when you feel like bogeying and you’re in bar in SE Asia half filled with gay guys, you’re gonna have plenty of partners to choose from. Not that I had time to choose. Juan, Mr. mind-reader no-speak-English, figured it out, grabbed my hand and with a big smile and much laughter pulled me downstairs and onto the dance floor. And the boy could dance! And, damn if he wasn’t hot, to boot. So of course, then my mind’s going, “Soooooo?” and Juan did his physic thing again, dancing closer and grabbing me where no straight guy, not even a TSA agent, is ever gonna grab another guy. Straight? Gay? Bisexual? Who knows. That’s one of the things about guys in SE Asia, there always seems to be a fluidity in their sexual repertoire that boils down more to having a good time than anything else.

We danced, we drank, we watched two separate minor fist fights break out. And sometime in the early morning hours headed back outside where Nok and Jeat mounted their motorcycles to head home to their wives and I hopped onto Juan’s bitch seat and headed back to the hotel. I guess if he spoke English we’d have spent a few uncomfortable minutes back at the hotel doing the ‘ya wanna come up’ thing but instead we both let our smiles do the talking.

The next morning a bleary eyed Jeat was on duty already when we came down for breakfast. I asked him to ask Juan if he wanted to go out again that night and the translated reply was he couldn’t cuz his wife would get mad if he was out two nights in a row. Gotta love Cambodia!

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