In the evening the eccentric family atmosphere at Otto’s is shattered by the arrival of the ugliest man I have ever seen. He is German, about 50 years old, with thin scabby legs and a belly that flops over his belt. His face resembles a bloated pig carcass, covered in purple blotches.
“No salt in my food!” Herr Pig Face orders the teenage girl in pajamas who brings him a menu. “No salt! Understand? You, understand? Answer me! No salt in my food!”
The girl escapes to the kitchen. Herr Pig Face glowers, muttering to himself in German. The air in the room is charged with loathing. Ryan and I share a silent ‘Yikes’ moment and go back out to the darkening street.
Five small children in dirty clothes fall into step behind us. A minute ago they were laughing, but now they let their faces fall and their eyes go slack. They point to their mouths and mumble “10 baht, 10 baht Mister, 10 baht.”
We walk faster.
Suddenly three wiry dogs rush at us from the side, teeth-bared, noses crinkled, eyes wide and rolling, blocking our path. We stop dead in our tracks and the street kids seize the chance to surround us, grasping and murmuring insistently. The biggest boy reaches for my pocket and I almost slap him.
“Do you hear that?” Ryan asks.
I listen. Above the wind, somewhere beyond the growling dogs and begging children there is music, distorted and faint but unmistakable – here on this back street of a Cambodian backwater, we’re listening to the Star Spangled Banner, Jimi Hendrix on electric guitar. Peering through the gloom, I can just make out a small shingle hanging from an iron gate with the word BAR scrawled on it in faint block letters. The gate leads into a garden and deep in the shadows within we can make out the glow of a fire. This is where the music is coming from. Ryan pulls open the creaky gate and we step inside. The street kids scatter and the dogs trot off, tails held stiff over their backs.
In the back of the garden by the fire one white man sits alone behind a bamboo bar. He is rack thin, with stringy hair that hangs down to his shoulders and a weeks growth of beard. Hendrix is screaming his guitar through the end of the anthem…And The Rockets…. Red Glare…The Bombs… Bursting… In Air… The thin man stares at us for a long time as we approach, then breaks his gaze away and starts hacking, his sunken chest flexing with each dry cough. Catching his breath, he motions for us to sit down. The anthem screeches to an end and out of the silence, a gecko chirrups four times.
“Whiskey,” the bartender rasps. “Whiskey or beer?”
We order beer. He reaches down into a cooler, places two cans of Angkor on the bar and holds our eyes. His pupils are totally dilated, like black pools in an underground river, and I realize that this man is stoned beyond all anxieties. Every movement and reaction he makes comes slow, with great deliberation and no trace of nerves. Only his coughs were jerky and uncontrolled, but the hacking fit is over now. With a sigh he turns his neck to one side and hawks a wad of phlegm into the fire-pit, then takes two glasses from a shelf and places them next to the cans of beer. I pour too quickly and foam spills over the lip of the glass. The three of us watch the beer puddle on the bar for what seems like a very long time.
“So,” says the bartender in a flat tone. “Who are you? Why are you here?”
“We’re staying at Otto’s,” I babble, unsure how to answer. “My name’s Tim. I’m from America.”
“And I’m from California,” says Ryan, who considers his home state to be separate and superior to America at large. “We’re traveling along the coast.”
“Healthy...young…sane…Americans. Traveling along the coast.”
The bartender considers, tilting his head back. Suddenly, as if making a snap decision, he shoots his hand across the bar for us to shake.
“I’m Jack. You boys smoke?”
“We’re set for now.”
Jack grins and makes a noise halfway between a laugh and a snort. He leans back, takes a cookie tin from the shelf and sets it down in front of us.
“Open that up,” he says.
The cookie tin is packed dense with marijuana, layers of tight green buds, not just dried leaves and stems. On top is a plastic bag filled with small pink pills. Jack picks up this bag and taps out the pills into his palm.
“You guys have heard of yabba, right?”
I have. Yabba means “crazy medicine” in Thai. It’s a synthetic methamphetamine, a highly addictive sort of speed.
“People make it out to be hardcore shit,” says Jack. “But yabba is actually pretty mild. This is locally produced, not Burmese. I took some just a few minutes before you guys came. I’m a little wired but that’s it. Normal.”
It’s not hot, but Jack is sweating.
“Beer is all good for me tonight,” I say, trying to sound casual. With another giggly snort, Jack returns the drugs to the cookie tin.
“So you’re going down the coast,” he says. “Sihanoukville?“
“Eventually,” says Ryan. “But first we want to explore around here for a while, then go out to the islands. Koh Sdach. Koh Rong.”
“You’ll want to be careful in those parts. Koh Sdach is a major smuggling center. The boss of the island is Thai and I’m sure he’s mixed up in it. If you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time you could get…in serious trouble.”
Jack shivers his shoulders as if shaking a spider off the back of his neck.
“Don’t let me scare you though. Nice boys like you will be fine. There are two ways to survive here. One way is to keep your head down and not get mixed up in anything. And the other…”
Jack leans in close over the bar, sweating, so close I can smell him. His dark eyes gleam in the firelight.
“The other way is to go just a little…crazy. Then the Khmers respect you. Then they leave you alone.”
A long pause. Our glasses are empty. Jack stares into space, breathing slow. Ryan and I each put a dollar on the bar and leave the garden. The street is empty and dogs howl in the distance.