“Lucky Guy”: a short story

Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 9.46.50 AM This story appears in the current Phnom Penh Weekly at restaurants, cafes and hotels throughout Cambodia (but not online).

Yama, the god of death and judgement, holds up a mirror to the dying soul. In it the soul sees all its past actions, and how they lead to the present.

This is only the case if the man dies a peaceful death, mindful of his own passing.

The man who dies by violence has no such good fortune. Unable to collect his mind, he becomes a haunting ghost, a khmouch, tied to the spot where he died.

*

Doug had a hard time getting settled in Cambodia. The work was ok, an accountant is an accountant no matter where, but outside the office nothing was like home.

His second Monday in Phnom Penh he had a bit of bad luck. He rented a motorbike, had an accident. Another bike, young kid looked like he couldn’t be over fourteen though they said later he was seventeen, ran into a car at an intersection. Right next to Doug. Wasn’t Doug’s fault at all, kid just whizzed past just as the lights changed and swerved and the car hit him. Police took Doug into custody, well, good thing, saved him from the mob, they would have lynched him, everyone at the office said so and the Country Director was on his side, just advised him to take tuk-tuks in future. Kid died, but it was ok for Doug because the kid’s father was so mad and making threats and everything but the office paid compensation to him and it was ok. Every man has his price.

Everyone told Doug he’d been lucky, but still, he felt bad. The guys at work tried to help. On Friday after work they took him to street 104, street 136, and street 51, finishing up at Pontoon.

Doug woke up with a girl in his bed and he couldn’t remember how she got there. She told him she was his for the weekend, a gift from his friends. “You lucky guy, such nice friends. Today I take you some places.”

At the Russian Market they found a stall selling lucky charms. The girl picked up a green naga and slipped it over her head and down her cleavage. She stroked the spot and said, “You like?”

“You buy, you buy,” said the stall lady. “Is jade. Good luck for you. Cheap-cheap!” It was getting to the end of the day and she hadn’t sold a thing all afternoon.

“I don’t believe in luck,” said Doug, because the charm looked like plastic and anyway accountants believe in logic not magic.

The girl pouted. Her lips were full and moist, her breasts were large and soft, and Doug’s belief melted like ice-cream. He paid the lady and the girl gave him a chaste kiss on the cheek while her nipples pressed against his shirt. “Now we eat,” she said.

At the restaurant Doug got sentimental and held the girl’s fingertips across the table. She slipped her hand out of his and pulled the lucky naga out for one more look. “We have good luck, sure,” she said.

They took a taxi to the casino. Doug had never been in a casino in his life before, and he was surprised at how tacky it looked, in an expensive sort of way. The lobby had red carpets and crystal chandeliers and there was an indoor fountain with a cardboard apsara. There were uniformed attendants, and Doug was sure they were looking at the girl’s bum tight as two onions in her jeans. He felt underdressed himself, and wondered why he had come here. He decided they’d leave when they’d lost fifty dollars.

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An attendant showed them the gaming rooms, full of grim-faced men taking their pleasure like pain. They scared him. He decided to ease his way in with the slot machines. The machines stood in long rows in a huge dim room, flashing and buzzing. There were many people, men in polo shirts and women in pastel blouses with lots of bling, but nobody spoke, each saw only the screen in front of him, and there was no joy in the room.

But the girl was excited. “I never come before,” she said, skipping around like a little fawn. The attendant explained that the machines took notes, and when they wanted to collect their winnings they should call her and she’d take them to the cashier

Doug gave his girl a dollar note and the symbols whizzed round and she lost. Her face fell. “No good!” Then she brightened. “Ok, you turn now, you lucky too!”

Doug fed a dollar in. He wished it were larger, so he could lose faster and they could leave. The lights flashed and music played. “You win, you win!” cried the girl, jumping up and down like a kid on a trampoline. “Again one more time!”

Every time Doug pressed the button he won, whee-whee-whee. He used bigger notes, and kept on winning. People were starting to stare. A man in a suit spoke into his lapel and two very tall girls appeared. Identical twins, Chinese, so beautiful that, when Doug noticed them (his eyes were on the screen), he gasped. They looked like a dream of princesses and magicians, skin like ivory, long glossy hair, aristocratic noses. One wore a dress of ruby silk, the other a dress of emerald.

“Hello,” said Ruby.

“Hi”, said Emerald.

“Beat it,” said Ruby, to Doug’s girl, in Khmer.

The man in the suit escorted Doug’s girl out of the casino and helped her find a tuk-tuk.

“You’re a lucky guy,” said Emerald as she took the seat Doug’s girl had vacated. “You come here often?” Her English was perfect, and charmingly accented.

“No,” said Doug.

“Sure,” said Ruby. “Maybe some of your luck can rub off on us, huh?”

It was uncanny. Every play Doug made, he won. Ruby and Emerald had to take him to the ATM in the lobby for more money. After a while the man in the suit spoke into his lapel and Emerald suggested they try the roulette table. On the way they stopped off at the cashier and Doug collected his winnings, in cash, in a bag.

Doug felt a little bit happy about moving to roulette – surely now he’d lose faster and be able to go home, because these girls and this place intimidated him. But also he had begun to feel a little excited. So he took a chair and started placing five-dollar bets.

Pretty soon they were twenty-dollar bets. He just couldn’t lose.

The man in the suit followed them, keeping discretely in the background. He muttered into his lapel and Emerald suggested they try a private room.

They went to the private room. Doug played poker with three serious men in polo shirts, two Khmer and one Thai. Ruby and Emerald gave him instructions on the technicalities, but he placed his own bets. He won. They played again, and this time he decided to bet everything. One big bet and he’d either go bust or … or what? He wasn’t sure any more.

He won.

The Thai stood up. “Finished,” he said. The two Khmers stood up. “Finished,” they agreed. One of them patted Doug on the shoulder. “You very lucky, my friend. Take care.”

Ruby and Emerald escorted Doug to the cashier, who counted the money out in bundles of hundred-dollar bills. The man in the suit was standing nearby, and when the money was all counted he coughed discretely to attract Doug’s attention. Would our honoured guest like a complimentary night in our Naga Suite?

“Yes,” said Ruby, and smiled.

“Oh yes,” said Emerald.

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They took the elevator up to the top floor, the man in the suit and Ruby and Emerald and a room-boy with a bottle of Champagne in an ice-bucket. The man in the suit opened the door and showed them how the Jacuzzi worked. He opened the drapes and Phnom Penh was spread out below them with the river like a black dragon. Nothing like home.

The room-boy placed the ice-bucket on a low table by the window and stood at attention next to it. Ruby put the bag of money on the table, took two hundred-dollar bills from it, and gave one each to the room-boy and the man in the suit. They bowed and smiled and expressed their hopes that the honoured guest would have pleasant night and shut the door as they left.

Doug was alone with Ruby and Emerald and the little old man, pot-bellied and naked from the waist up, who had been sitting in an easy chair next to the window all along. Doug had thought that was pretty strange from the moment he’d come in.

The second strange thing was that nobody seemed to see the little old man.

At least, nobody mentioned him. They didn’t even glance at him. When the man in the suit opened the drapes the little old man got up and stood aside for him, and then sat down again. Emerald and Ruby too had ignored him, likewise the boy with the ice-bucket. So Doug decided not to mention him. Perhaps he was the casino masseur. He looked like a masseur.

“Drink?” said Ruby.

“Jacuzzi?” said Emerald.

The little old man gave the three of them a little wave as they went into the bathroom. The ruby and emerald dresses were a tangle on the bathroom floor, and the girls looking better than ever.

The little old man was still there in the chair by the window when they came back to the bedroom. Doug was sure now he must be the masseur. Yes, they’d have some kind of complicated massage, for sure.

“Champagne again?” said one of the twins. Doug could no longer tell which was which.

“I’ll get it,” said the other twin.

“Cheers,” said one twin when they sitting together on the bed. She raised her glass.

“Chin-chin,” said the other, raising her glass.

The old man raised a hand and gave an ironic salute. He seemed to be looking straight at Doug.

Doug woke up. Sunlight was streaming in the open window. For a second he wondered what place this was, and then he remembered. He looked around for the twins, but there was nobody in the room.

Nobody except the old man sitting in the chair by the open window.

“Good morning,” the old man said. His voice was dry and rasping, and he spoke perfect English, with an accent not unlike Stephen Fry dealing out jokes on QI.

Doug, who wasn’t thinking clearly, stretched his neck out and put his head under the bed until it came out the other side. There were no twins, but the old man was still there.

“They’re gone,” said the old man.

That wasn’t all that was gone. The table where the money had been was now bare.

“There’s been an accident,” said the old man, raising one knee and placing a fist on it, in the manner of a man holding a stick. “The plan was that you’d be drugged and robbed. The casino would have apologised and offered you compensation, maybe a thousand dollars. Most customers are happy enough with that – they get a nice evening to remember and a thousand dollars. And if they don’t like it, they have to explain to their wives.”

“Wives?” said Doug, who wasn’t married.

“Even if they’re not married, it’s pretty embarrassing explaining it to their friends. Every man has his price, or so it seems. So that was the plan.”

“Whose plan?” said Doug. Then he said “Ouch!” because he’d just bumped his head on the ceiling.

The old man sighed. “Their plan. It’s a scam they’ve been working for years. Come down.”

Doug realised that he was standing with his feet on the ceiling. He turned right way up and drifted gently back to the floor. What astonished him most was that this didn’t astonish him at all. It seemed perfectly natural.

“But the girls slipped a little too much into the Champagne,” the old man went on. “Dreadful mistake, as they’ll find out in an hour or two when the room-boy brings your complimentary breakfast. Are you feeling hungry yet?”

Doug realised he was feeling hungry. Ravenous, in fact.

“It’s normal for someone in your situation to feel hungry,” said the old man. “Get used to it.”

Doug looked down. On the rumpled sheets he saw himself, peacefully sleeping, except that his eyes were wide open and staring at nothing. He tried to scream, but found he couldn’t open his mouth beyond a small hole.

“You can’t open your mouth properly,” said the old man. “That’s part of your condition. Long neck, tiny mouth, huge hands, huge pot belly. Situation normal.”

Doug cupped both huge hands over his new pot belly, which had begun rumbling with hunger. “Why?”

“Have you forgotten that boy you killed?”

“I never,” Doug screamed, so far as he was able. “It was an accident! Everyone said so!”

“You mean that’s what you told everybody. The truth…”

“No!” squeaked Doug.

“The truth is you swerved in front of him without warning, he swerved to avoid you, and, well, you know what happened. You killed him.”

“No!” Doug whispered. “I wasn’t responsible!”

“That’s what they all say. Makes me sad. But don’t worry, I’m not here to punish you, I’m here to hold a mirror up to your soul. We’ll be spending a long time together in a nice deluxe hotel room. Not like that poor boy, wandering up and down the street at this very moment. You’re a lucky guy.”

Romdoul Lich Tek

Romdoul Lich Tek: fashion designer, supermodel, perpetual work of art.

Cambodian Space Project

Screen Shot 2015-10-17 at 9.30.09 AMWho is this strange Khmermaid? A princess – she has a crown.  She seems to be fish from the waits down. And of yes, she prefers the naked-breast look. Not seen much since Angkor, not seen ever outside temples and bars. Intriguing.

Cambodian Space Project is Julien Poulson: “In 2009, Tasmanian musician Julien Poulson walked into a karaoke bar in Phnom Penh and heard a lone female voice singing Peggy Lee’s ‘Johnny Guitar’. This struck him as odd.” The rest is history. But not a word on that website about this painting.

Bruno Deniel Laurent might know more. I know nothing at all about him, except that he has a blog. It’s in French. If you don’t read French, rush out and buy a French/English dictionary, because he writes about the Khmer music scene inhabited by Space Project and Dengue Fever and Batshit. That’s where the picture of the Khmermaid comes from. See also Be-De-Hel on Facebook.

But I’m still intrigued by this image. Cambodia is so prudish. Always has been, ever since the apsaras went underground. But so was old Europe, and the masters found ways around it. Here’s what it reminds me of:

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Refugee leaves Cambodia

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Refugee accommodation on Nauru.

4 refugees, $55 million, one voluntarily returns to Myanmar. Then there were three. I amazed more isn’t being made of this in Australia.

From the ABC piece:

A spokesperson for the IOM said they could not discuss the man’s circumstances.

“Unfortunately, IOM can’t discuss the case due to confidentiality principles, as well as the direct request of the client,” they said.

“He has specifically asked IOM not to make any statements to the media regarding his case.”

“A spokesman for the Immigration Minister also declined to comment when contacted by the ABC.” Quelle surprise.

2015 Kampot Writers-&-Readers Festival

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The very first Kampot Writers’ & Readers’ Festival will be held 5-8 November.

In Kampot, of course.

Spirit Worlds will be launched there, plus plenty of other good things. (The link is to Amazon UK, which always shows up first on google, God knows why).

The program will be out on 15 October.

Follow updates on Facebook.

As of today, 2,000 people have been invited, 1,400 have said they’re going, and the remainder are checking accommodation. (Moral: don’t believe everything you read on Facebook).

The Executioners

511EjS1NWJL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Here is the big question: why did a Buddhist nation produce one of the 20th century’s worst genocides? A whole chapter in Spirit Worlds is devoted to this. For my answer I relied very heavily on Alexander Laban Hinton’s Why Did They Kill? This post therefore stands as a sort of review of Hinton’s book, which is essential reading for all those who want to understand Cambodia.

At one point I remark that underneath the Cambodian smile there lurks a capacity for “unimaginable violence”. It’s not original to me. I heard it used by Father Francois Ponchaud during the Q&A session of a documentary movie at Metahouse in Phnom Penh one evening; Ponchaud was the persons who first alerted the world to the massacres taking place in Cambodia in the later 70s, he’s spent a lifetime among the Khmers, and he should know.

*

Khmer culture, like every other, has strong taboos against taking life, and Hinton asks how and why these taboos could have broken down.

The first part of his answer is what he calls the Principle of Disproportionate Revenge, or ‘a head for an eye’, and he references Tum Teav  [a classic Khmer romance of love and death] to explain it.

In Romeo and Juliet the lovers die and their grieving families are reconciled over their corpses. This would seem quite inadequate to a Cambodian audience. At the end of Tum Teav the king gathers up all those responsible, plus many who are not, buries them up to their necks, and runs a plough over their heads. Wrongdoing, in short, brings punishment, not reconciliation, and the punishment is gruesomely disproportionate to the crime.

Khmer Rouge child-solderis enter Phnom Penh, April 1975 (from peteralanlloyd.com - image opens to source)

Khmer Rouge child-solderis enter Phnom Penh, April 1975 (from peteralanlloyd.com – image opens to source)

The Khmer Rouge drew their fighters and cadres from the rural poor. Often these were teenagers (Angkar deliberately recruited children), and mostly they came from families and communities ripped apart by bombing and civil war. In other words, the Khmer Rouge rank and file were immature, uneducated, deracinated and traumatized.

They actively encouraged the new recruits to take revenge against the ‘capitalists’ and ‘reactionary classes’ who, they taught them, were responsible for their suffering. A young Khmer Rouge soldier, ordered to execute ‘class enemies’, might therefore feel his action, and the order from his superiors, were justified in terms of Cambodian concepts of wrong-doing and revenge.

Another important element identified by Hinton is the way the Cambodian psyche manages anger. Anger is one of the ‘fires’ that Buddhism warns against; together with desire and delusion, it feeds the attachment to the world that is the root cause of suffering. Anger is also socially disruptive and psychically uncomfortable, and Cambodian village society has elaborate mechanisms for its management. Folktales teach children that he who is quick to anger, who has a ‘hot heart’, will suffer misfortune; faced with an anger-inducing situation, the ideal is to ‘calm the feeling’ and ‘cool the heart’, restoring the same state of balance that a woman who has just given birth restores by heating her body. Anger is repressed. The result is the smile of Asia that visitors remark on, but underneath the smile lurks a capacity for quite unimaginable violence.

Buddhism discourages anger, but the Khmer Rouge encouraged it. The young cadres and fighters were educated to feel the most extreme form of ‘painful anger’ against American bombing and the arrogance, real or perceived, of the Phnom Penh rich. The American bombers and the rich were out of reach, so the rage was directed at Lon Nol soldiers, the police and officials, and later, when the Khmer Rouge took power, against ‘class enemies’ and ‘traitors’. Victims arrested by Angkar and delivered up to the killing fields became the legitimate targets of ‘painful anger’.

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A further factor is the role of obedience and authority, which derive ultimately from the biological fact that humans are social animals and live in hierarchical bands. The famous experiments of Stanley Milgram in the 1960s are highly instructive in this regard. A teacher, T, gave instructions to a learner, L, under the direction of an experimenter, E. T believed that L was the subject of the experiment, but in fact he himself was the subject. L was set a task, and T was instructed to punish him with a harmless electric shock if he made a mistake. This, supposedly, would help L to learn. The shock increased with each successive mistake, with L first expressing pain, then pleading with T to stop. This continued until it ended in an ominous silence.

Milgram had expected that the teachers would refuse to continue at some point short of the perceived death of the learner, but most, prompted by the experimenter, continued to the end. He drew the conclusion that individuals can and will avoid personal responsibility for acts that they would normally consider morally wrong when they view themselves as no more than an agent for a higher authority. The experiment has been repeated in many different cultures with the same result.

If there is any specifically Cambodian aspect to obedience, it lies in the extremely hierarchical nature of Cambodian society. In Western societies children are all more or less equally powerless, set apart from a world of adults who are all more of less equally powerful and authoritative. The world of the Cambodian child, in contrast, is ranked.

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These rankings are codified (significantly) in the language. For example, English has a single word for the second person pronoun – everyone is ‘you’, from a cat to a king. Not so in Cambodia. In Khmer, the pronoun varies according to the status of the person addressed, and to use the wrong word is a terrible faux pas – a farmer would not address his neighbour with the same ‘you’ he uses for his oxen, nor would the ‘you’ he uses for the neighbour be used when addressing parents. Likewise with verbs: commoners and kings (and monks) have quite different words for actions like eating and sleeping. The closest analogy in English is to consider how animals have snouts and paws while humans have mouths and hands.

One further facet of the psychology of the Khmer Rouge killers needs mention: ritual cannibalism. Such cannibalism was not common, but it was not unknown either, and this needs to be explained.

Hinton describes an incident witnessed by a girl in a Khmer Rouge labour camp in Battambang province. A young man was condemned to be executed for digging up and eating some cassava roots – a crime because it showed ‘selfism’ and a refusal to accept the standards of communal eating. The girl, the daughter of a French father and Vietnamese mother, followed at a distance and watched from hiding as the condemned man was tied to a tree and blindfolded. One of the three executioners then took a knife, cut open the victim’s abdomen, and removed the liver while the man was still alive. The three then cooked and ate the liver.

In this case the three executioners may well have been psychopaths – the woman describes them as arrogant and bloodthirsty. Even so, the act seems ritualistic as well as sadistic.

Cannibalism is universal. In 19th century Fiji it was normal practice to eat a dead enemy; in France in 1580, in the course of a religious pogrom, Catholic townspeople cooked and ate the internal organs of a Protestant; more recently, a U.S. soldier has described his buddies laughing at the story of a soldier in another company who ate the charred flesh of an Iraqi civilian. In each case the act was a symbolic marking of the boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’: for the Fijians, eating a dead warrior prevented his spirit from aiding his comrades from the other world, the French Catholics may have symbolically eaten the enemy’s ‘courage’, and the American soldier was certainly not motivated by hunger.

What did the Khmer Rouge cannibals think they were doing? Only they could answer that question, and finding an ex-Khmer Rouge willing to admit to cannibalism, much less explain himself, would be even more difficult than finding one willing to admit to mass murder. But the symbolic dimension gives a clue as to why the Cambodian cannibals chose to eat their victim’s liver, since the liver, for Khmers, is the seat of daring: “I have a big liver and am not scared of anyone.”

Cambodian society is hierarchical, ranked, and repressive; war overturns everything, and those who never dared are scared of no one.

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Vietnamese soldiers assist two Cambodian children at Tuol Sleng torture centre after the liberation of Phnom Penh – peteralanlloyd.com

The Smiling Land

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 8.43.49 PMAn excerpt from Spirit Worlds, which will be in bookshops in Cambodia in the last week of this month. The chapter is on the Khmer Rouge genocide, and the question is how this happened in a nation of Buddhists, for whom the taking of life is the greatest sin.

*

Professor Alexander Laban Hinton, who specializes in genocide studies, wanted to find out why Buddhists, for whom the taking of life is the gravest of sins, became mass-murderers. Possibly 1.5 to million people were killed in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge period, but when Professor Hinton went looking for some to interview he couldn’t find any:  former soldiers and cadres all denied ever killing anyone outside the battlefield. Finally he was put in touch with Lor, a former guard from Ponhea Yat High School on street 113 in Phnom Penh. This is now the National Genocide Museum, better known as Tuol Sleng.

Hinton was told that Lor admitted to killing 400 people, although according to the few prisoners to survive Tuol Sleng the actual number was closer to 2,000. In his time at the prison Lor “was savage like a wild animal in the forest, like a wild dog or a tiger,” said one ex-prisoner who’d known him.

What does a mass killer look like? Hinton was expecting evil incarnate, but when Lor arrived he was a simple farmer with polite manners and a broad smile. He denied torturing or killing anyone, though he admitted having been a guard. He said his job had been receiving new arrivals, transporting prisoners to the killing field at Choeung Ek on the outskirts of the city, and checking names off the list as each was struck on the back of the neck with an iron bar. Personally, he never harmed a fly.

“So you never killed?”

Lor hesitated. Yes, he had killed one or two.

Hinton didn’t press the point. The numbers weren’t important. He asked Lor to explain why he had killed.

Lor explained that one day his boss had asked him if he had ever dared to kill a prisoner. Daring seems to be an important and deeply ambivalent quality in the Cambodian psyche. In normal life impulses are suppressed and the self abnegated in the interests of social harmony and daring is a negative quality, but for those who live a little outside the mainstream – soldiers, gangsters, police – daring is desirable. For those who lack natural daring there are tattoos and amulets. And in Lor’s case, there was the challenge from a superior to conform to a new set of values.

Addressing his superior respectfully, Lor admitted that he had never dared to kill.

A little way off a prisoner was kneeling in front of a guard. “Then,” said the superior, “like your heart isn’t cut off, go get that prisoner and try it once. Do it one time so I can see.”

Here we have another deeply Khmer phrase, the order to act ‘like your heart isn’t cut off’. Possibly it means to act with courage; possibly it’s an instruction to give up detachment and act in the fires of passion.

The guard held an iron bar. Lor took the bar and struck the prisoner on the back of the neck. “When my boss asked me to do this, if I didn’t do it [pause] … I couldn’t refuse.”

Hinton’s book is called “Why Did They Kill”, and it forms the backbone of the chapter in “Spirit Worlds”