A flare on the side of the road, kerosene smell, women’s chatter and the crackle of oil, the hiss of fish sauce in a wok. One of the women stomps at the strays that have come begging for scraps, their barks full of obsequious slobber. The bus picks up speed and moves past a thatch-roofed kiosk selling soap, shrimp crackers, flip-flops, mosquito nets, candles, batteries, whisky, and cigarettes. The landscape turns to blurred jungle for a few metres before the outlines of my face emerge again, afloat in the dark window of the red-eye.
Across the border, in Cambodia, the greenery recedes and gaudy casinos rise in yellow billows of dust. Children rush and ambush with cheap souvenirs and diced pineapple, its flesh speckled and anaemic compared to the lush fruit in Thailand. They ask for candy and money; I hand out pencils. The children grimace.
“Madam, madam, you buy pineapple.” A girl grabs my hand. Her skin feels rough and calloused. “No mama no papa,” she says.
I buy pineapple.
A rumour travels up and down the immigration queue: “It’s thirty dollars for a visa. Thirty! Cash only.”
“But they said twenty!”
“What a rip off! It is twenty. We should report them.”
“Yeah, report them! It says twenty in the book!”
My twenty is pressed between the pages of my Lonely Planet. Traveller’s cheques, which they won’t accept, make up the rest of my money. But wait. My small-change pocket contains a five and ten ones. Since crossing the border, I’ve bought a Pepsi, eighty cents (got the change back in Cambodian Riel—useless); a Khmer scarf, two dollars (the sun was grilling my scalp and it was cheaper than a hat); sunscreen, a dollar fifty (more change in Riel). And the pineapple fermenting in my backpack. Shit. OK, but I’ve got Thai Baht. Will they take Baht? I put the question to the queue of travellers.
“You don’t have dollars?”
“They’ll take Baht but they’ll charge you more.”
“Thirty dollars,” says the border guard, and I pile all my cash on the counter, hoping he’ll accept my rag-tag assortment of currency.
“No Baht. No Riel. Dollars only.”
“But the book says—”
“No Baht no Riel.” He pushes the mound of green and red bills and pathetic coins away.
“Could I speak to—”
A hand reaches over my shoulder and slaps a ten on the counter.
“Here. Take this.” Leo the Austrian. I recognize her accent, the blond hairs on her arm, and her smell: sweat and dust laced with clove cigarette smoke.
I don’t want to accept Leo’s money, but spending a night in border-town limbo is not an option; I need to get to Phnom Penh. Tom and his sister are waiting for me. The three of us are catching a bus to the beaches in Sihanoukville at 8:30 p.m.
“Thank you,” I say to Leo. I take the ten.
“Passport,” the border guard says.
I slide it over and watch as he riffles through it, try to see what he sees, what image of me emerges from the rubber stamps and the tangles of script in tongues I cannot decipher.
I take a deep breath and finally face Leo. I clear my throat.
“Where are you staying in Phnom Penh?” I ask her. “I want to pay you back.”
She shrugs and tips her hat, a worn-out straw fedora. I can’t tell whether the gesture is genuine. Her hat was one of the first things I noticed about her.
I met Leo a few days before. I’d just been to the General Post Office in Bangkok’s China Town and picked up a letter from Tom, to my poste restante address, with instructions for our reunion in Cambodia. I read it on the commuter boat as it wound its way along Bangkok’s Chao Phraya, slaloming from bank to bank: Memorial Bridge, Wat Arun, Grand Palace, The Shangri-La.
“Thewet Market,” I said to the conductor. I placed three coins in her palm and she tore a ticket from a metal tube at her waist.
The conductor had been blocking the sun, and when she moved, I squinted, mesmerized by a lanky figure in a fedora leaning against a pole, chatting with a group of young monks. Man or woman? Thai or farang? Couldn’t tell. Behind them, the sun had become a perfect orange circle, its colour a reflection of the monks’ robes. I made my way to the railing, grateful for the cool misty breeze that grazed my face as the boat picked up speed.
The conductor’s lilting voice named the stations along the river in melodic Thai: Pra Atit, Pra Pinklao Bridge, Thewet Market. I pushed my way to the front of the boat, and there was Fedora. She stepped off the boat, and I stood there, stunned by the coincidence. Was she also staying in the Thewet Market district? Frantic waves lapped at the foot-long gap between the boat and the dock. I’d jumped it hundreds of times. But Fedora read my distracted hesitation as fear, and offered her hand to help me disembark.
“I know a good place. Cheap tickets to Phnom Penh,” Leo said when I told her I had to be there in a few days. I followed her to a small bus-tour operator on the edges of Thewet Market.
Leo bought a ticket, too. For the same bus.
“I have wanted to go there for awhile. Maybe we can travel together. You are alone also, yes?” Her grin caught me off guard. I bit my lip to keep my mouth from dropping open.
I didn’t mention Tom. Leo and I walked through the market, under skinned carcasses and past flower stalls, mounds of chili peppers, jackfruit, coconut, lychee, guava, mango, papaya. Sprockets, clutch caps and helmets. Bolts of cloth, skeins of thread, buttons, zippers, pincushions, needles. By the gleaming kitchenware, Leo came so close our hips touched. I got hold of her arm and kissed her. I kissed her again. With the third kiss, I panicked.
“I have a boyfriend. Tom.”
She put her hand on my arm. I frowned and pulled away.
Leo keeps her distance as we file onto the second bus, the one that will take us from Poi Pet on the Thai border to Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. She sits at the front with a Québecois who keeps popping up on my itinerary, introducing me to an ever-shifting cast of dread-locked and tattooed travellers. You can hang with us, he’s told me more than once, stamping me with approval. About thirty kilometres out of Poi Pet, the bus stops. The driver stands, tells us there’s engine trouble and points to a restaurant a few metres down the road. I am so hungry. I’m hoping for toast and jam, but will probably settle for rice-noodle soup, which Tom taught me to appreciate as a breakfast dish.
Tom was my TA for a course on East Asian politics. I’d hang out at the shabby café in the Arts Building basement, where I often saw him writing with a fountain pen in a spiral notebook.
“What are you writing?” I asked when I worked up the courage to talk to him.
“Letters. I don’t do email.”
I fell in love with the uneven shades of blue, the dark points where the nib pressed harder, revealing, perhaps, a fluctuation in emotion. When I graduated that autumn, I followed him to Japan, where he was teaching for one term. Our first morning in Kyoto, it was raining. We skipped the Zen gardens and sat to a late breakfast. I licked a smudge from the corner of his mouth: strawberry jam, salted butter, crumbs, and stubble underneath the creamy texture.
It’s now 11 a.m. The bus driver is bent over the engine. It’s a six-hour drive to Phnom Penh, and I want to get there in time to grab dinner with Tom before our bus to Sihanoukville. I’ll be exhausted, catching back-to-back red-eyes, but I look forward to falling asleep next to Tom, my head on his shoulder, not alone anymore. I sip from a bottle of orange Fanta and watch Leo and the Quebecois, who’ve struck up a conversation with a woman nursing a baby in front of one of the thatched-roofed houses that line the highway. I’m saving my appetite for a reunion meal with Tom.
Back on the bus, a wasp lands on my window. My torso twists away and my hands shoot up defensively. Leo leans over me, aiming her fedora slowly, carefully at the wasp, arm so close that my nose twitches in anticipation of blond hairs tickling it. I inhale the dusty, slightly metallic smell of her skin, and it spreads across my tongue. She traps the wasp, opens the window, and it flies away. In a movie, I would hold her gaze and there would be a kiss. Instead, I look at my lap and she walks away.
Six-thirty p.m. No rush hour traffic on the road into Phnom Penh. The bus ambles alongside ox-carts, tuk-tuks, and car models from a few decades back. The engine breaks down again. So close to the city I see a cluster of buildings through the pink smog.
It’s 8:35 when we finally reach our destination. The red-eye to Sihanoukville is long gone, but maybe, just maybe, Tom and his sister are waiting for me, despite her tight schedule. I wonder if I should stop and talk to Leo, make arrangements for paying her back. It’s probably the right thing to do, but I rush past her and off the bus, stepping into a lively but darkened and disorienting city. The bus driver takes my backpack out of the luggage compartment. Before I can get hold of it, a sinewy arm reaches down and grabs it.
“Where to? Good price for you.”
I know better than to jump on the back of a moto-taxi without negotiating the price first, but the driver’s holding onto my bag, and I’m too desperate to argue. He revs up the engine and says:
“No, I’m meeting a friend at Prat Nah Guesthouse.”
I’ve memorized the name from Tom’s letter.
“Prat Nah? No good. I’ll take you to Hamburger House.”
“No! My friend is waiting for me at Prat Nah.”
But Tom is gone by the time I get there. He’s left a note: Change of plans: My sister’s stuck in Bangkok. She’s flying back to L.A. in two days. Will be at Peachy Guesthouse near Khao San. Hope to see you there. I’m disappointed; it’s not even written in fountain pen.
“Do you have rooms?” I ask.
“No rooms,” says the clerk.
I wish I hadn’t sent the driver away. Hamburger Guesthouse sounds appealing right now. I’m famished and wonder if they actually have hamburgers. Hamburgers and fries. I walk toward the main drag. As I turn the corner I see a light illuminating a sign at the end of the street. I get closer and read: L’Hôtel Belle Indochine. More upscale than the Hamburger or Prat Nah. I’ve quit my job editing English-language reports for a women’s rights NGO, thinking I’ll follow Tom around and pick up some tutoring here and there. I shouldn’t be wasting money, but I’m exhausted.
In the morning, I descend the teak staircase to the lobby and dining room, a three-wall structure that opens onto the street. Green tablecloths and chair cushions with leafy designs decorate the rattan furniture. I order the continental breakfast. The strawberry jelly is too sweet, too pink, too gelatinous, but I am grateful for its hint of familiar flavour and gobble up three slices of toast.
I step out of the shade after breakfast, onto the street. Someone waves. I squint in the sunlight. A skinny, lanky frame. My intake of breath is sharp, my heartbeat thudding—it’s her/it’s not her/it’s her/it’s not her/it’s her/it’s not her—like windshield wipers in a storm.
“Hello hello! Madam. My name is Prak. I have moto-taxi. You want Killing Fields?”
I shade my eyes with my hand.
“No, thank you.”
“Tuol Seng Prison?”
“No. I’m just going for a walk.”
“You want shopping? I take you Russian Market.” I shake my head.
I need to find a travel agent and book a flight to Bangkok. Meeting Tom’s sister feels like a rite of passage I can’t miss. I turn a corner onto Sisowath Quay,a busy tourist street that winds along the curves of Phnom Penh’s Tonle Sap River.
“Madam, you buy book from me? Five dolla only.”
The voice comes from a tiny boy. A plaid-patterned scarf cuts between his shoulder blades and across the front of his T-shirt. It’s a traditional Khmer scarf attached to a book-laden plastic bin that rests heavily on the boy’s hip. This is no student’s school bag; the boy is a working man. He holds up titles about Cambodia’s chilling past.
The Killing Fields.
“Please, madam, you buy book from me? This one small, not heavy.”
Sun burnt skin stretches across my nose as I squint down Sisowath Quay. Hiding behind the tuk-tuks parked on fragmented pavement, amidst drivers asleep or playing cards or haggling with customers, in the shade of restaurant terraces where tourists laugh over dope-laced pizza, or sulk, or plot their next cheap thrill, gleam the hawk eyes of the adult responsible for this midget hustler. The boy grabs my hand and my fingers curl instinctively around his. I pull away and quicken my pace. He follows me.
First, They Killed My Father.
His dazzling smile fades and he pouts. I propose a compromise.
“Do you sell newspapers?” Might as well. I haven’t read a newspaper in weeks. I heard something about protests in Bangkok this morning.
“Four dolla,” the boy says.
“For a newspaper?”
“Two dolla newspaper, one dolla go by moto-taxi, one dolla come back.”
I hand over four green bills. The boy pockets them, leaves his plastic bin with a friend and sprints away, his bare feet churning up dust. Twenty minutes later he’s back with the International Herald Tribune and a triumphant smile.
“Tomorrow you buy newspaper again, okay? You meet me here. What time?”
My jaw drops. I stare at the sea of yellow shirts, and at the headline that accompanies the full-page photo.
“Madam, what time? What time tomorrow you meet?”
Bangkok airport shut down by anti-government protesters.
“I’m leaving tonight,” I tell the boy.
At the bus station, I feel ridiculous, buying a ticket for the same redeye to Bangkok that dropped me off less than twenty-four hours ago.
The moto-taxi driver from this morning is sitting on some plastic chairs in front of L’Hôtel Belle Indochine, having lunch with a couple of friends. My body tenses. The heat is exhausting, and all I want is to lie in my bed with the AC on full blast. As I sneak by, my back is tense with the expectation that he’ll volley another pitch at me. Hello hello! Madam, Russian Market? Killing Fields? But he keeps laughing and talking with his friends, his voice animated, excited. I pause by the teak staircase and take my ticket out of my pocket. Ten hours until my departure. Time stretches before me, long and gloomy. I step back outside.
“Hello. Prak?” I say uncertainly, hoping I remember his name correctly.
He waves at me and smiles. I don’t want to launch into a cold business transaction right away, so I ask: “How are you?”
One of his friends slaps him on the back and says: “Oh! Mr. Prak is very happy today.”
Prak laughs. “My new baby. Born last night.” He extends his phone toward me.
“Beautiful. Your first baby?” I ask because he looks so young. Younger than me, barely twenty.
“No. I have one daughter.” He presses some buttons on his phone and hands it to me again. “My wife and my daughter.”
“Eat?” He says, pointing at the meal of rice and grilled fish he’s sharing with the two other guys.
“No thank you. I had lunch already.” I stand there awkwardly, trying to make the most of this connection, the first that has felt real since I got here. I wait for him to make a pitch, and when he doesn’t, I ask:
“When you finish, could you take me to the Killing Fields?”
The Killing Fields. The grass sends up in the radiating sun a smell of earth and summer. Same smell that impregnates my mother’s tomatoes and gives them their radiant blush in late August. This is, indeed, a field. A winding row of signposts tells how it came to be coupled with killing.
THE TRUCK STOPPED HERE, says the first sign. Block letters, black on white, no fanfare. PRISONERS WERE KEPT HERE. GUARDS SLEPT HERE.
Then, next to a surprisingly shallow depression in the ground:
And a few feet on:
MASS GRAVE. MASS GRAVE. MASS GRAVE. But the buildings are gone. There is nothing left but the insistent whine of crickets. In the centre of the field stands a glass tower filled with skulls. A sign asks us to be quiet and respectful, to think about the dead. I try. My body assumes a quasi-religious position: bare feet, head bowed, eyes fixed on the object of reverence. In this case, a skull. Small, it seems to me, with a gash just above where the ear would have been.
A woman, about thirty years old, stands behind a small table laden with roses. She is wearing a skirt and a striped shirt and her hair is pulled back and held just above the nape of her neck with a plastic clip that glitters in the sun. Next to her, a man around the same age sports a tie and neatly parted hair. My shoulders tense at the sight of them. So it has become an instinct now, this preparation for the haggle, for the fight not so much with them as with my own conscience. Yes, I will buy flowers, and I will pay what they ask. Fifty cents? One dollar? Five? Sure. A fair price … I look at the glass tower behind them … but a cop-out too; an easy way to pay for my passage out of guilt.
Who did you lose? I wonder, as I dig yet another dollar out of my pocket. What did you see? But a quick calculation tells me that these two flower sellers are too young. They weren’t even born on April 18th, 1975, when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge army drove tanks into Phnom Penh, evacuated the city and separated families, sending them to labour camps scattered across the countryside.
I think about Prak, and Prak’s children. I think about the pineapple monger and the bookseller. The Killing Fields. Year Zero. First, They Killed my Father.
“No money,” says the woman, her smile so earnest I turn away from it in shame. “These flowers are for remember and never forget.”
Translucent fish bones float in the remnants of a Sauce Crème de Champignons and a dab or two of mashed potatoes. Not exactly a dinner suited for the tropics, but L’Hôtel Belle Indochine insists on colonial nostalgia, though the young staff speak American English rather than French.
“Hey!” It’s Leo.
“Your ten!” I take it out of my shorts pocket, where I’ve been keeping it in case I run into her.
“Want a beer? On me,” I say.
“No. I must pack. I will take the night bus to Siem Reap. Angkor Watt. You?” She raises a sandalled foot, pointing it at the backpack under my chair.
“Bangkok,” I say.
“Aha. Yes. Boyfriend?”
An hour later, all the red-eyes are lined up in front of the Russian Market. The Bangkok bus, covered in a giant picture of the Royal Palace and its glittering reflection on the river, is hard to miss. I’m about to step into it when I hear an announcement for Siem Reap.
“Ticket to Siem Reap! Angkor Wat! Crocodile Farm! Minefield Museum! Ticket to Siem Reap!”
It’s a split-second decision. I grab my bag and sprint towards the voice.
I dig a thick wad of cash out of my pocket and pick out the US dollars. The conductor hands me change in Riel. When I get in the van, I’m surprised to see the Québecois there alone.
“Where’s Leo?” I ask.
I sit in the front row.
“No, wait!” I say as the driver shuts the door and manoeuvres the vehicle onto the street.
I stay put, paralyzed with fear of making another terrible decision.
The van stops. Traffic jam at the intersection of Street 163 and Mao Tse Toung Boulevard. The driver turns off the engine, and the van, now deprived of AC, fills with hot, humid air. I roll down the window. The Bangkok bus is stopped next to ours, and when I look up, I see a fedora hat at one of the rolled-down windows. In a movie, I would call her name. She’d raise her hat in salute. We’d both rush out, and there’d be a kiss in the middle of the street among angry honks and shouts. But the traffic clears and we’re moving again. Air conditioned coolness fills the van, and I roll up my window. On the highway, out of the glare of city lights, there is nothing in the opaque glass but some vague outline, a scrawl of cheekbones and forehead and chin.
It’s just my face, and I’m heading nowhere.
Helen Polychronakos is the editor of Room Magazine 38.3: Trespass. She co-facilitates a creative writing workshop at the Drug Users’ Resource Centre in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side. Her poetry, prose, and non-fiction have appeared in Joyland, The Tyee, rabble.ca, Plenitude, Filling Station, and others. Originally from Montreal, Helen spent several years travelling, working, volunteering, and writing in Japan and Thailand before making Vancouver her home. @HelenEleni