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Friday, 08 June 2007

Battenbang, Cambodia

Written by Ross Hilton
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The bus was delayed because there was a man trying to squeeze a bag of live cobras into the luggage compartment. The commotion went on for about twenty minutes until my throbbing head could take no more and I decided to get off and stay another night. I sat down in the café of the Chinese guesthouse and ordered a beer. Mr Ra was at the bar.

“I told you you’d never leave” he smirked from his position across the room.

I lifted my bottle towards him in mock salute.

The previous night had been messy. Mr Ra, a diminutive Khmer moto driver and his friends had treated me to a typical Cambodian night out. Proceedings had begun predictably enough with the usual ‘lets see how much the foreigner can drink’ rounds of toasting and degenerated into a real crazy battle. Six of us, three to each moto, had sped off into the jungle to experience the real Khmer people. After fifty minutes on a single-track through moonlit deserted paddy fields I began to wonder if I had made the right decision. I did trust my companions but where the hell were we?

Soon enough I found out as we approached a group of lights on the edge of the Tonle Sap Lake. The floating village was reached via a reed causeway. On the artificial island there was a large bamboo building. Inside, about twenty Khmer families were glued to an imported Chinese King-fu movie blaring away on the far wall. We sat down at the bar and ordered tins of warm beer from the pretty girl that served us. Soon enough, the movie was over and the families filed out the open door, making a respectful effort not to stare at me as they did so. Mr. Ra jabbered away to the proprietor and turned back to me:

“You like karaoke?” he asked.

I nodded. Four chairs were lined up in front of the screen and Mr. Ra placed a battered microphone into my hand. The music started; a mixed backdrop of Careless Whisper and Club Tropicana to high pitch Khmer lyrics. I plumped to sing the original lyrics from memory, as I could not read the blurred characters scrolling across the screen. The images were mostly soft-focus Cambodian-Americans in Long Beach, California and seemed as from another world.

By my third song I was feeling pretty drunk, and beginning to get into the lyrics; I had started to sing in a kind of bastardized English, that is, English with a heavy mock Cambodian accent. I felt the urge to go for a piss so I asked Ra where the toilets were. He motioned outside the floating shack through the open door into the sticky night. I got up and lurched outside. The path ahead was a narrow gangplank, about a foot wide, extending over the lake. I pondered this obstacle for at least two minutes hanging onto the side of the solid building. I decided that it would be humiliating to crawl over on all fours so I decided be to tackle the bastard as quickly as I could. I pulled myself upright and sprinted as fast as I could along the narrow walkway. One foot after another, speeding up now, almost there, right! Made it to the end!

Buoyed by my success, I opened the improvised door and looked inside. The toilet was not exactly what I had in mind. It was a clapboard cubicle open on one side. Inside there was a large hole leading directly down to the lake just one foot below. Running across the hole were two narrow, wet, planks each the width of a shoe. This was going to be tricky, but the alcohol urged me get on with the job in hand.

Gingerly, I extended my left leg and put one foot down. Good-Now for the other foot. That was easy. I paused for a moment to appraise my progress – I was standing directly above the hole with my legs roughly a foot apart. Not ideal for the purpose I had in mind… I would have to squat. I should have edged backwards on my hands. Still, it should be possible to enter a squat from this position. Better lower my trousers and pants first. That’s it. Now all I need to do is lower my backside slowly by bending my legs. My left foot slipped and re-gained its’ footing. Unbalanced, I lifted my right foot and lowered it… into nothing! I felt my whole body plunge feet first into the water, first my legs and then my abdomen, until my fall was broken, with some force, by the two planks wedged under my stretched armpits, the level of the water touching my chin.

I hung prone in this position for a long moment whilst I recovered from the shock of the situation. I was suspended, almost to the mouth, in a stinking, primitive toilet. Still, the coolness of the water was a pleasant contrast to the heat of the night air. I paused to reflect on this. Something gently nudged me in the cheek. I strained my eyes downwards. A solid. My arms spasmed and I catapulted out the water and back on to the gangplank. I sprinted back over and burst into the light of the bar. To my horror, I was covered from my toes to my neck, in a brown sludge of medium viscosity. The three Khmer men turned towards me and raised a smile. Ra pulled out my chair and said:

“Come on, you sing Michael Jackson now.”

Flabbergasted, and too bewildered to question, I sat down. I stared at him open mouthed and motioned towards my stinking body. He said casually:

“It happen all the time, don’t worry.”

“What happened to the last person?” I replied.

“I stopped using that toilet. I use that one now.” He motioned towards a door at the end of the bar with the sign ‘WC, please flush after use’ on it.

© Ross Hilton

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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