Poetry is not coming to me, but writing up experiences of the past 10 months is. I’ve appended a token few lines to the end of this prose, in an attempt to make it look slightly poetic.
Subterranean Battambang Blues
In Cambodia he feels the absence of Vietnam, a hard ball in his gut. Siem Reap is tourism on steroids. It’s selfie-sticks and climbing over sacred sites for the picture that will get the most likes. He avoids the throng, finds a small restaurant on the wrong side of the river. The wrong side if you’re a young, party going, good time guy looking for action; the wrong side if you want to hear a Led Zeppelin tribute band (admittedly they sound quite good), the right side if you want a quiet, friendly place to eat in unpretentious surroundings. He orders a vegan Amok – a Khmer curry. It’s warming and flavourful. The drinks menu has a simple pricing system – every drink is a dollar. He could work his way through the whole menu – four types of beer, eight types of soft drink, four types of juice and fifteen types of cocktail for $31. He decides against it. After three beers he orders a Margarita.
The next day he gets a small bus to Battambang. His hotel has arranged a tuk-tuk driver to meet him at the bus station. When he arrives, three or four men hold up cards with the name of his hotel. Some have several cards, one for each hotel in Battambang it seems. They are flashing them like Bob Dylan’s in his video of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. He’s almost inside one of the tuk-tuks when he realises their game, and spots the right driver holding a card with his name on it.
That evening he gets a ride into town and eats at a place where you leave your shoes in the doorway. He nudges his expensive trainers into the shadows. By 9:30 p.m. the town seems almost deserted. Cafes and bars are open, but the only people in them are staff, their faces illuminated by the glow of phones. He finds a pub with a group of expats sitting outside on couches and armchairs around a low table. The owner, a tall Canadian guy, welcomes him. “Come over and sit with these guys and talk. They’re all interesting”, he says. “I don’t want to intrude”. “No, no, sit with them, I’ll introduce you. That’s my shtick.” He walks over to the group with the owner. “That’s Jack, he’s an Aussie, and that’s Jasmine, his ladyboyfriend….”. He continues with the introductions: a Swiss guy who runs a NGO, three German tourists, an American guy who used to run a school in Saigon. The Aussie, Jack, is an ex-marine. He’s leathery and totally pissed, but in a benign way. He clearly adores his ladyboyfriend and she/he him. The Swiss guy talks to her in fluent Khmer. Most of the talk around the table is about Cambodia, how Sihanoukville has been ruined by the Chinese as has most of the country, they say. “There’s raw sewage running in the streets. They’ve built so many hotels, but no basic infrastructure”. The American guy says “Battambang is the last redoubt”.
He has a few more beers, swaps stories about Da Nang, Hanoi, Saigon, Phnom Penh. Tells them about the silent retreat he’s going on about twenty kilometres away the next day. They tell him to report back in ten days’ time. He says he will. By now it’s gone 11, too late in this town to find a tuk-tuk. He walks back to his hotel. The night is warm, humid. The sky is clear, unpolluted. He follows the Google map directions which, thirty minutes later, lead him down a pitch-black alley where dogs bark from every small house. He’s waking up the whole neighbourhood. He is near the hotel, but at the back of it, which is high-walled with no way in. He turns on the torch on his phone. A figure appears behind him, a young man, he thinks, who says something in Khmer. He can’t tell if it’s friendly or threatening. He keeps the light pointed towards the guy, whilst walking in the opposite direction. The guy keeps his distance but tracks him down the alley. The dogs are in a barking frenzy. He decides he needs to turn around, return to the main road. He walks towards the young guy, hoping that his phone battery doesn’t give out. The guy steps aside, the barking subsides, he finds the right lane to his hotel. The hotel gate is locked. He rings the bell, waking a shirtless security guard who opens up, giving him an accusing glare.
No, I haven’t been chasing women
although I admit to several alcoholic drinks
and the presence of a ladyboy
Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018
Image : Mike Hopkins
(Some / most of these could be rightly described as “chopped up text”. But that’s how first drafts often look.)