On the Rails in Phnom Penh

We called him Eat Pray Paul. Because there were two Pauls and they were more or less indistinguishable — both red-faced old dudes who’d been kicking around Cambodia for years, smoking ice, shagging prostitutes and losing teeth until there wasn’t a whole lot left.

Both Pauls would wash up at George’s house from time to time, when shit got bad enough and they’d decide to hop on the wagon for a bit. More than anything they’d be looking for a quiet place to hide out from whatever mess they’d gotten themselves into, and George’s big fat villa was perfect for that: a place to smoke cigarettes, use a Western bathroom, drink the Nescafe the house staff provided, maybe bum a meal or two from the rest of us sober folks who hung around. Sometimes the Pauls would piece a little time together — 30, 60, even 90 days — before disappearing back on the other side of that razor-wired gate.

Eat Pray Paul’s main problem was that he didn’t have a visa. It had expired and he hadn’t gotten around to renewing it. That was seven years ago. They charge you $5 a day for overstaying your visa, so you do the math. Or don’t. Basically, Eat Pray Paul was fucked.

Without a valid visa, he could only get jobs at the shittiest, shadiest schools, the kind that were run by thugs and goons with ties to the government. Even then, after a few months Immigration would come around and Eat Pray Paul would have to pay em off. The longer it went, the more expensive the bribes got. Eventually he was reduced to hiding out in the bathroom.

We knew this because he’d talk about it, ad nauseum, in that droning voice of his that just seemed to go on and on. He wouldn’t talk about the obvious stuff — how he’d gotten into this situation or what was keeping him there — you know, questions that might occur to you, should you find yourself living in a third-world country in such a predicament.

Well, Sammy wasn’t as much of a cold-hearted hard-ass as me; he’d been in Cambodia longer but had less time clean. So one day he offered to take Paul out for lunch. Thought he was gonna carry the message. They went to a roadside restaurant, nothing fancy — plastic chairs and chicken bones — and Sammy thought, you know, they were gonna talk about sobriety, recovery. Maybe Paul was finally ready to hear it.

Well no. Paul pulled a book out of the breast pocket of a dingy old blazer: Eat Pray Love. He held it in his battered old hands. Had Sammy read it? Paul asked. Sammy thought it was some kind of joke — he’s not a middle-aged American housewife, so no, he hadn’t read it.

Paul shook his head long and slow and began to enlighten Sammy on the great spiritual lessons inherent to the text. Elizabeth Gilbert, he said, had it figured out. This book had the answer; nay, it was the answer.

Well, Sammy didn’t really know what to say. Eat Pray Love seemed about the last thing to solve Paul’s addiction and visa woes, but you know, far be it from him. So he listened along, paid for the soup, drove Paul back to his guesthouse.

Paul had been staying at one of the few guesthouses still standing by the old lakeside. There wasn’t even a lake for them to be beside anymore; after that Chinese company bought and drained the lake, and all the residents were evicted and their tin-roof shanties bulldozed, the former backpacker haunt became a bombed-out ghost town. The lake itself was just a vast stretch of sand, a sudden desert in the heart of the city.

But there were still a few spots left, $3-a-night digs with cement beds and squat toilets, lobbies filled with dead-eyed souls who sat picking at scabs, rocking themselves and murmuring. Paul had been there for months now, though he was a few weeks late on the rent.

Sammy saw him up to his room; Paul unlocked the door and there was jack shit in there. Just a battered old suitcase and a pack of smokes.

He set down his copy of Eat Pray Love.

Sammy told me about it all the next day while we were drinking lattes at one of those gleaming air-conditioned Western cafes I hated myself for loving.

The nickname stuck.


A typical day in Phnom Penh:

6:30am: Wake up to the sound of horns honking. Fan droning and I’ve kicked the sheet off.

Do ten minutes of half-assed yoga poses. Muesli and coffee in front of the computer. Sweep terrace, water plants, wash face, wash dishes. Read the day’s passage out of Courage to Change. Set timer and sit cross-legged for ten minutes of half-assed meditation.

All this takes an hour, over an hour actually, but I’ve discovered I can’t skimp on it. Any of it. Take one thing out of the equation — a downward dog, an unwashed bowl — and I feel wonky. Unsettled, ungrounded, off-center. Like the city were glass about to shatter. Or, more accurately, like the glass between me and the city were about to shatter.

Leave the apartment by 7:45: crawl down the steep cement steps, squeeze past row of motorbikes parked in the hall, jiggle the key in the lock. Begin to sweat before I’m even on the street.


Eat Pray Paul had two things he loved complaining about. One was his visa situation, the other was getting robbed.

“I’ve been robbed seventeen times this year,” he’d say, eyes trained down in a sallow fury. “They take my phone, my money, even my shoes.”

I didn’t go out much at night but seventeen seemed an excessive number.

“You know he doesn’t actually get robbed,” Sammy whispered one day.

“What do you mean?”

“George told me,” he said matter-of-factly. “He was coming home one night and saw Paul, outta his mind on ice and God knows what else. Hollering and screaming and carrying on. And get this,” Sammy pressed his fingertip into the plastic tabletop and leaned in.  “He was pulling shit outta his pockets. And just throwing it” — Sammy flicked his thick hands open — “everywhere. The security guards were all laughing. And then, then he took off his shoes and chucked those too.”

Sammy threw his hands up then let them flop back down in his lap.

But Eat Pray Paul started complaining less and less about the “robberies” and more and more about The Nephew. Kin to the owners of the shady school where Eat Pray Paul worked, The Nephew was insisting on being paid, to keep quiet about the visa. “He’s threatening to go to the police.”

What The Nephew seemed to be failing to grasp is that no one winds up stuck in Cambodia on an expired visa at the end of a winning streak. It got to be like a soap opera — you’d get the daily installments, you know: Paul hiding out, Paul trying to go back to work, Paul getting stiffed for shifts he’d work. “He says he could have me arrested,” he’d droned. “They could deport me.”

I sat on George’s lush landscaped patio and stared at the thin line of fire eating my cigarette. I tried not to roll my eyes. It was all a bit world’s-tiniest-violin for me, a little too boy-who-cried-wolf. I knew I should to be more tolerant, but that dark-cloud Eeyore shit starts to wear on you. Starts to eat at you, long and slow and deep.


8am: Arrive at preschool. Put on tattoo-covering leggings and long-sleeve shirt, then the synthetic frock uniform that makes me sweat even more.

Sit cross-legged before a circle of three-year-olds, sing nursery rhymes, feel my ankle bones digging into the linoleum. Make alphabet crafts, color worksheets, teach vocabulary. Snack time and playground. Give a series of high-fives as they file out the door.

Go to hide out in the “teachers’ lounge,” which is really just a closet with three old Dells mashed in there, where you can only use the internet one at a time. But the AC is strong so I usually while away my last half hour in there.

Since it’s a preschool all the foreign teachers are women, which is nice cause it negates the typical staff room discussions of girly bars and amphetamines. But I dunno — sometimes I think I’d rather work with sexpats and junkies, cause at least you know what their deal is. Mary is Sri Lankan, raised by missionaries; they’d promote her to head teacher, the owner had told her, if she weren’t so dark-skinned. Heather is an icy bleach-blond with ashen skin and bulimic breath. Daria would be gorgeous if it weren’t for the deep rings beneath her eyes. She came to Cambodia with her husband, some kind of businessman who she’s finally divorcing from. One day she leaves a tab open on the computer; it’s a Google search for “signs of domestic violence.”

But the strangest is Shelly. She’s young and American, so I try to chat with her. Her hands are jumpy and her eyes are always rimmed with red. She’s a vampire pale, damn near translucent, and this weird kind of fat — not like she eats too much but likes she’s puffy, like someone puffed her up with air. She talks a lot about how she can’t sleep. “I was up till 4 last night,” she’ll say at 8am.

One day she’s crying in the principal’s office; her dad has had a heart attack and she has to fly back to the States immediately, that night. She’s a wreck — blubbering about what a great school it is, how she’s so sad to leave, begging them to still pay her even though she has to break her contract. It’s hard to watch; I have to look away.

Three weeks later, I see her smoking outside a bar.

I don’t bother saying hi.


I found out in a text I got from Sammy one night. I was walking home through the trash and plastic bags that lined the street before the trash collectors came. I could hear them coming, hanging off the sides of a big rattly dumpster — thin boys with hunger-sharp faces, in flip-flops and skinny jeans. Leaping off the dumpster to pick through the trash with bare hands

I was balancing an ice-cream cone, sweaty in my exercise clothes. I felt my phone vibrate and I tried with one hand to fish it out of the space where I’d wedged it between my hip and the spandex. It was a precarious operation: weaving through the trash and the motorbikes and not losing the precious scoop of hand-churned French-style tart yogurt with mango chunks.

The little screen on the Nokia lit up and the text glowed green: “EP Paul arrested. Prolly getting deported. Don’t know the deets.”

I stopped in the middle of the trash pile and motorbike blaze. “Holy shit,” I said aloud.

I stood there for several seconds, just blinking at my phone. The dumpster heaved closer, boys scurrying like shadows around it.


12-4pm: The hottest part of the day.

It’s all about survival during these hours. Avoiding dehydration and direct sunlight. Keeping covered and lying low.

It’s funny how dehydration sneaks up on you — you won’t feel thirsty and won’t feel overheated but suddenly it’ll be on you: the nausea, the dizziness, the little black dots that swoon in your periphery, beckoning you to come off into the corners with them.

So I go to an air-conditioned Western café and spend half my hourly wage on a beverage, pretend to write and really just stream episodes of The Colbert Report. Or more often I stay at home, in my underpants in front of the fan with the lights off, pretend to write and really just stream episodes of The Colbert Report.

Sometimes I get stuck running errands. That’s the worst. Riding a moto cuts a breeze, but the sun burns on my skin, my blue eyes squint fiercely in the glare. Buy spring rolls at Central Market, imported cans of V8 at Lucky Mart, expensive tampons at U-Care.

Sometimes I have to go to the pharmacy to buy my thyroid medication. It’s cheaper in Cambodia, which is nice, and I don’t need a prescription. I wait for the pharmacist to get the box and try to avoid looking at the rows of other drugs — Valium, Ambien, Dexedrine, Xanax, Dramamine, all sealed, I imagine, with a thin layer of foil that sighs when you punched it open. That was always what I’d loved most about pills — how innocuous they were, how medicinal, how “self-medicating” didn’t have to be a metaphor.

There’re singles of Viagra at the register next to the breath mints.

I avoid making eye contact with the other customers who’ve come to buy these pills. They usually look surprisingly normal — sun-bleached and wiry and tired, but what Westerner doesn’t after awhile?

Drop off laundry, pick up laundry, the moto driver idling as I duck in and out of stores, clutching plastic bags and panting.


Eat Pray Paul was being held at the Immigration Office — a peeling-paint building on a dusty lot directly across from the airport.

We went out there the following Sunday, after a visit to the “rehab” we went to each week to talk to the inmates about sobriety through a former gang-banger translator. It was more of a detention facility than a rehab or even a detox; they just kind of held people there, literally in these caged cells, old fans shaking from precarious wires strung from the tin roof. The whole idea of addiction as a disease was new in Cambodia and we could never tell what the hell any of them made of us — a bunch of foreigners who came out each Sunday afternoon to sweat their asses off and talk about being sober.

“If anything,” George shrugged, “we’re the best show in town.”

We rode out there in George’s big Lexus; being in a car at all made me feel fancy so you can imagine. George had been in Cambodia for a decade, married a Cambodian woman, coupla kids. He had a way of laughing it all off, of taking it all in stride that I hadn’t yet mastered. Sometimes I thought I didn’t wanna master it.

But when he announced that on the way back from the rehab we were gonna stop by Immigration to drop some stuff off for Eat Pray Paul, there was nothing I could really say. Paul had been there a week by that point, just sitting there. No one knew what to do with him — there were massive fines and deportation fees that the British Embassy wasn’t keen to pay. It went without saying that Eat Pray Paul didn’t have the money. And Cambodia sure as hell wasn’t gonna let him out without having paid something to someone. “So there you have it,” George said as we pulled onto the grounds.

A guard in a faded old uniform was napping in the shade. He roused himself from his plastic chair, smoothed his hair down as he walked over to the window belly-first. George talked to him in a jerky Khmer. The guard grumbled and disappeared.

“What’d you bring him?” I asked.

George grinned in the rearview at me. “A coupla recovery books.”

I let out a wry laugh. “Oh, he’s gonna love that.”

We heard his voice then, coming from the second story of a back building. He called out and the sound ricocheted through the brown lot.

“Did you bring any eye drops?” he shouted.

“No,” George leaned his head out of the window and yelled back. “We got a coupla books for you.” He waved them in the air.

Eat Pray Love?”

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” I muttered.

“No, man,” George shouted back, “just these here recovery books.”

“I don’t need those!” Paul’s voice was gruff and strained, like it were choking on the dust and heat. I could see his arm flailing through the bars of the cell, battered old skin flashing in the light. “I need eye drops!”

George gave a good-natured laugh. “Alright then, buddy,” he handed the confused guard a plastic bag containing two sobriety-related texts. “I’ll try to get those for next time. Now you take care.” He gave a couple little toots of the horn as he maneuvered the car out of the brown lot.

“Eye drops!” Eat Pray Paul shouted after us, his voice disappearing as the automatic window zipped shut.

We pulled back on to the street, through motorbikes and SUVs and vendors with scarves around their faces pushing carts. Across the road, the line of tuk-tuks waited for passengers. A plane angled up into the sky, away from all the chaos and dust, taking its passengers somewhere far, I imagined — far from Cambodia.


5:30pm: Evening. The Golden Hour, when the sky is pink and the heat has broken and on the best of days, there’s a breeze. If it’s not raining or about to rain — branches whipping in the howling black — I go to Olympic Stadium. Dusty track and stair sprints, ring of women doing aerobic dancing to an electric version of “Hotel California.” Run for thirty minutes before the dehydration makes me nauseous. Sit at the top of the stadium, drink sugar cane juice, watch the bats swoop in the neon sky.

Go to writing group; met a friend for dinner; stroll down the Riverside.

But the best nights are kick-boxing nights. Sour gloves and sweat slick, splinters and bits of glass getting jammed into my bare feet. It’s Khmer style, which is more rugged than Muay Thai, and in each class I’ll have a moment when I’ll feel the thwack of my body’s weight against the pads and feel an anger rise up, through and out of me. It’ll be an anger I hadn’t known was there.

Walk home, flip-flops splashing little bits of rubble and dirt against the backs of my legs. Feel warm and tired and good. Pass all the girls, skinny girls with hot pants and malnutrition limbs; pass the Western men with glassy eyes and crispy skin; pass the teenagers huffing out of plastic bags. Pass the tourists with their feet in tanks, swarms of starved fish eating off the dead skin. Pass the two attendants in front of Tin Tin Hotel, who smile and wave and say, “I love you!” Buy a coconut from a vendor who grins with broken teeth.

Climb those concrete steps back up, yank open the little wire gate, plastic tarp flapping and duck my head through the frame. Shower. Cut up a bowl of jackfruit. Drink a soda water. Watch a DVD.

Rarely go out after 9pm.


Weeks went by. I kept getting these little updates from people — Eat Pray Paul was still in detention, George and Sammy were still bringing things out to him. He’d gotten in touch with his family and they actually wired money over, enough for the flight and the fees. But only a third of the money actually arrived and by that time the fees had almost doubled.

Every week it was “only one more week.” By the seventh week I decided to go out there with Sammy and George. I’d like to say it was outta some flash of Christian compassion, though I’m not Christian, but it was something else. Some need to see the other side, perhaps, to see what I’d been insulating myself against, pushing away or judging or blocking out. A long ride in an air-conditioned car sounded nice too.

We got there and the heat was dense, thick. By that time the guards all knew Sammy and George; they barely bothered to look up from their card game, smoke curling around their faces and the TV behind them blaring. We sat on plastic chairs and waited.

Eventually a guard went to get Eat Pray Paul and when he walked in, a strange kinda thing happened. It was him but not him. He wore a clean shirt and his skin was less red. He’d put on weight — not a lot, but enough to no longer look skeletal. There was a lightness to the way he moved and the air moved around him differently too.

I watched him sit down, fold his hands calmly on the table.

Sammy handed him a brown bag. “We got everything but the eye drops.”

Paul reached in his pocket, pulled out a modest fold of bills. Sammy waved his thick hand. Paul nodded and puts his money back.

I studied him. He was a different man.

“You look good,” I said cautiously.

He nodded.

“They’re feeding you out here, eh?” I asked with a smile.

He looked at his clasped hands. “Just the usual rice and soup. But a lot of the guys don’t eat, so they give me extra.”

“Paul here’s a downright favorite!” George exclaimed, slapping his oven-mitt hand on Paul’s shoulder. “These guys love him!” he pointed his thumb over to the guards, who nodded at us and smiled.

“Yeah?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Well sure. They’ve got some real firecrackers in here. Who was that guy?” George leaned towards Paul. “The South African fellow? Would fly into rages and holler all damn day?”

Paul nodded.

“Well, compared to that, Paul here’s a saint. A regular model citizen!” George chuckled and something happened then: Paul smiled. I didn’t realize it till then but I’d never seen him smile. It was a timid and unaccustomed smile, full of moldy teeth and thin lips, but an honest-to-God smile.

“How long has it been now Paul?” Sammy asked. “Since you drank?”

Paul looked sheepishly at his hands. “Six weeks I suppose.”

“Six weeks!” George exclaimed and slapped the table.

“It’d be easy to,” Paul began to explain to me. “I mean, the guards bring beer for any of us who’ll pay. But after the first week, I just decided, you know…” He trailed off and looked up at me for a moment. Our eyes met, and I realized it was the first time we’d met eyes in the months I’d known him.

We sat around and talked for a while. It was ungodly hot, even beside the fan. The guards had been telling him he’d get to leave in a few days, a week most. “I’ll believe it when I’m on the plane,” Paul said. But he said it without rancor or self-pity, or even resignation. Something like acceptance.

I gave him a hug when we got up to leave.

“Well, hey,” I said, “if I don’t see you again…” I looked at him, wondering what to say. “Good luck back in the UK.”

He nodded. “Thank you Lauren.” He paused then looked back up at me. “Good luck to you too.”

We walked through the heat back towards George’s car. Sammy sucked on a cigarette and I looked at my feet.

“I’ve never seen Paul that good,” I said.

Sammy nodded. “Blessing in disguise, this arrest. Probably gonna end up saving his life.”

George looked back at the detention building Paul had disappeared into, his face was suddenly serious. “He had to get out, man.” He said it without his usual joking gusto. It was a voice I hadn’t heard him use before. He stared at the cement structure, squinted into the sun. “It was killing him.”

He didn’t say what “it” was, but I knew. “It” wasn’t Cambodia and “it” wasn’t Paul. “It” was Paul in Cambodia.

We got into the car and headed back towards center. Planes arched up into the sky behind us.


11pm:  Cigarette on the terrace before bed.

I don’t smoke much in Cambodia, less than I have in a year or so, but I always have one at night. When the day is done and, usually, the heat has passed. There’ll be a breeze; the traffic will have died down; the neighbor’s dog will yap from the next balcony over. The lights down on the median will cast these orange halos on the tile and the city will seem like a gentle, still place.

The cigarettes are cheap and burn fast, but they allow me these few little minutes to just sit and watch the leaves sigh. To watch the stray motorbikes whiz and weave, dangling limbs of teenagers. To see the glow of the bank tower, the domed roof of the silly mall a few blocks away. To hear the clack-clack-clack of the late-night noodle vendor.

To look down on it all from a distance.

Do you ever sit on balconies and think about that scene from Forrest Gump? Where she stands on the railing in those platform heels and closes her eyes in the wind and then almost falls? Do you ever understand that impulse? Like there’s a certain kind of person who, when standing safely at a great height, will always feel the urge to jump. Even when they don’t really want to — like their bodies are beckoning them, like there’s some kind of weird, fucked-up gravity that only certain bodies feel.

Not that I ever actually want to jump. Just that the thought will come. Sometimes that’s enough to scare you.

But then the cigarette will be done. So I’ll stub it out and stand up: lock the chain link fence, yank the metal doors shut and click the light out, the dust of Phnom Penh sneaking through the cracks.




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