Thursday, June 19, 2014


I awaken in the “Indochine 2”, a curious name for a hotel, since nobody refers to Southeast Asia as Indochina anymore. It’s a comfortable place in downtown Phnom Penh, easy on the wallet, and only a block from the Tonle Sap River.

Decaying downtown building where 'Broken Bricks' was located
It’s a lovely day outside, and I check out the scenery outside my window. Pulling back the curtains, my entire view is taken up by a large old French colonial across the street. This was once a beautiful building, but no longer. The French shutters, detailed ironwork, and stylish balconies are all seriously decayed. Many windows are broken. The faded yellow structure is mostly abandoned. Except for one apartment holdout and a cheap ground floor restaurant, this old shell sits dark and empty.

The humble little restaurant has a history of its own. It used to be a bar with a rather unusual name: “Broken Bricks”. The former owner of this bar spent years in Phnom Penh, and his story is worth telling.

'Steven' was from England, and first came to Cambodia back in the 1990’s, a time when Cambodia was even more lawless than it is now. Steven liked to party, and he fell in love with the place. He also fell in love with a local Khmer woman, and they eventually married.

One tragic day, a grenade was thrown at the house of his neighbor. It exploded outside, and a piece of shrapnel penetrated his home, and struck his wife, killing her. Attacks such as this to settle scores were common here in those days. Predictably for Cambodia, the killer was never caught.

Despite this tragedy, Steven didn’t leave Cambodia. He still liked the place, and he opened a bar known as the “Peace Bar”. His establishment became very popular with the expatriate community, and for some time business went very well.

Steven also began his own personal program of disarmament in the city. Back then there were many machine guns and other weapons left over from the war, that were now in private hands. As the weeks passed, Steven found himself in possession of a sizable cache of small arms. Then the Khmer police found out about it. His storage room was raided, and all the weapons confiscated. Steven was arrested. Eventually, after a great deal of explaining, he was released. The police kept the weapons.

Of course, Steven was no weapons dealer. He was planning on hauling all the guns out to an open field, dumping them in a pile, pouring on gasoline, and setting them all ablaze. (This had been done with other disarmament programs.) He just hadn’t gotten around to the bonfire part yet.

As years went by, it became apparent to Steven’s friends that he was enjoying himself far too much. By this time, he had become a drug addict.

“Too much ‘yaba’, one of his Kiwi friends said, referring to the local slang word for crystal methamphetamine.

Trying to stay in the bar business, he opened “Broken Bricks” in this dilapidated building across the street from me now. But this bar was very small, and business faltered. His Kiwi friend complained that when he stopped at the bar for a drink, they didn’t even have any beer.

Then one night, things finally went too far. While working at Broken Bricks, an argument with his Cambodian waitress escalated into violence. The fight escalated, and eventually his angry Cambodian neighbors jumped into the fray. If this angry mob hadn’t been stopped, they would probably have beaten Steven to death. But he was pulled from the melee by acquaintances and the police. He was arrested, and finally put in jail.

Upon examining his passport, police discovered that his visa had expired years ago. Since he was an almost broke drug addict by this time, he didn’t have the money to pay a lawyer to try and get him out of this legal mess. After a month in jail, his remaining foreign friends in Phnom Penh took up a collection. His ‘fines’ were paid, and they bought him a one way ticket back to England. He was then deported. Last heard, he was wandering the streets of Birmingham.

Steven’s story is not unique. There are occasionally foreigners who come to Cambodia, and they get completely caught up in a free for all of excess. They party far too much, they stay far longer than they should, and sooner or later, they hit rock bottom. Some of them are now in prison. Others end up dead from drug overdoses.

A cautionary tale, he is one that got out alive.

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