Wednesday, September 17, 2014

NIGHTLIFE IN THE HEART OF DARKNESS

'Heart of Darkness' club in Phnom Penh (arch photo)
Going out tonight, I pass an unusual street scene by the corner of my hotel. The cyclo drivers and motorbike-taxi drivers are settled in for the night. Lined up together for safety, more than 30 are all sound asleep, lying on their bikes! I'm amazed they can sleep like this, especially the motorbike drivers. Their trick is parking their motorbikes level, up on their dual kickstands. Then they lie on their backs on the bike seat, their legs stretched out over the handlebars. Well, that's one way to make sure nobody steals your motorbike: sleep atop it. How do they sleep like that all night, without falling off?

As I'm learning, night life is decidedly different in Cambodia. When I was in Saigon, (Ho Chi Minh City) the hottest nightspot was 'Apocalypse Now'. Now I'm in Phnom Penh, and the hottest place in town has an equally forbidding name, 'Heart of Darkness'. The disco's name is taken from the dark Joseph Conrad novel, and it's fitting.

'Heart', as it's known by locals, is located across the street from what used to be a jail, that has since been torn down. (How's that for atmosphere.) As a disco it's small on size, but big on its bad reputation.

After security frisks me for weapons at the door, I enter this infamous place with reddened walls. The party's in full swing, so I step up to the bar, and order my usual draught beer. Unlike Vietnam and Laos, they actually have draught beer in Cambodia. The two brands of locally made lager are: 'Angkor', (named after the ancient Khmer kingdom), and another brand, so uniquely named, 'Anchor'.

Taking a sip from my mug, I survey the eclectic crowd. Tonight the usual suspects are here. Foreigners, locals, rich and poor. There are Khmer businessmen, trying to impress by reserving tables and buying full bottles of whiskey. There are pesky prostitutes, and a few foreign English teachers. There are working class Khmers; they came to dance, but can't afford to buy drinks on their meager salaries. Finally are the tourists, including shabbily dressed backpackers.
This sign is posted at the entrance of many Phnom Penh night spots. It's needed.

As I watch the night unfold, I'm approached by a white twenty-something with dark beard stubble, and poorly dyed blonde hair. His accent is something European, and he's already drunk. He walks straight up to me and asks, “Yoo arh Amercan?”

“Yes,” I reply, “and where are you from?”

“Eye yam Amercahn. Eye yam frome California.”

I stated the obvious, “You don’t sound like you’re from California.”

This brought forth a nearly spitting tirade of obscenities. He finished on an unintentionally humorous note, by tripping himself up with his own words. Pointing his finger at me, he says, “That’s thuh probelem with yoo Amercahns!”

He shuffles off, presumably to look for someone more gullible. I don’t know what was more pathetic: how stupidly drunk he was, or that he would try and pass himself off as American, when he obviously wasn’t. I once met a Liberian who tried to convince me that he was a black American, but this was the first time I'd seen a European try this ruse. Fortunately the drunken poseur didn't try to start a fight with me. Unlike Saigon, I don't see many bar fights here, but that hasn't always been the case. Heart of Darkness has not always been such a safe place to party.

One of my English teacher buddies named Ken, was partying here one night a few years before. Before his very eyes, he saw a young Khmer man walk in, raise a pistol to the head of another, and pull the trigger. The victim fell to the floor dead. The murderer calmly walked out with the pistol at his side, cooler than Michael Corleone. Sadly, the killer was never even arrested, as he was from a family of the rich elite. Who knows why he pulled the trigger, but in post-war Cambodia, scores were often settled this way.

Fortunately, this kind of violence has declined in Phnom Penh. That's why I was frisked for weapons tonight when I came in the front door; they don't need any more murders in this heart of darkness.


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