The Abandoned Brothel
I am an election observer and I am in Cambodia and it is the
weekend before the vote and I am left to my devices. I desert my
colleagues in the UN training course and steal away to visit Keith,
a friend from my freelancer days in Ho Chi Minh City. It takes four
hours on a rented 250cc dirt bike to cover the one hundred miles
southwest from Phnom Penh to Kampot. Thirty minutes into the
journey, I lose sight of all power and telephone lines, something I
find disconcerting. It lends a hallucinatory quality to the
countryside silence. I catch the rich, slightly chocolaty smell of
wet mud as I drive. The coconut trees and palms lining the road sway
in the humid wind. Children and old women cease milling about at a
roadside jackfruit and pomelo stand to stare at me when I pull over
to check my tires and drink some water. No airplanes pass overhead.
No birds perch on wires. No phone lines bend and twist their way
through small brutally impoverished villages. The loudest sound I
hear is the tolling of a bell at a large wat squatting gold
and royal blue on a granite hilltop, calling the monks to their
Kampot is as advertised: a slow and lazy backwater. At the town
center, a tangled network of unpaved streets wind crookedly away
from a broad traffic circle, whose centerpiece is a dilapidated
statue of an Angkor king straddling a dragon. Just off the circle a
silt-choked river cuts the town from the shimmering green expanse of
rice fields leading to the sea. It is fiercely hot. There are flies
and baked dirt and crumbling French buildings of the colonial era
and wary dogs and naked toddlers chasing underfed oxen and
leather-faced women with dusty khramas wrapped around their
heads to ward off the sun and old men in sarongs carrying sun
umbrellas. In the market the meat is gone and the vendors sleep on
top of their wooden stalls. The town is so still and quiet I can
pretend I am alone in it, the director surveying his empty movie
Just before dark Keith and I take a table at a restaurant built
over the river. The fading sun disappears behind the palm groves at
the horizon and the night settles in inky and deep. We order river
snapper steamed in ginger and rice wine and green peppercorns, rice
porridge dotted with strands of chicken breast and scallions and
chili and sesame oil, and crabs fried in tamarind paste and spring
onions that we work at with nutcrackers and wear as much as we eat.
We drink Angkor beer served over ice and Keith smokes French
cigarettes whenever there is a lag in the food. We put away half a
bottle of Johnny Walker Black.
Afterwards, we find our motorbikes and take the bridge over the
river, diving into the dense forest at the edge of town. The paved
road soon ends and we turn onto a dirt path. I can barely keep pace
with Keith as he flies along the trail. Choking on his dust, I ask
myself why I haven't begged off and returned to my guesthouse. I
could have spent the night writing a letter to my wife. I could have
described what I'd eaten or the rancid-sweet smell of Kampot's
market or the hand-painted billboards lining the road into town that
exhort the Khmer abandon their weapons, reject drugs and
prostitution, and embrace traditional Khmer culture. I could have
gone to the small store across from my guesthouse and bought a tube
of Pringles and a pint of Crown Royal and spent the night gorging
and drinking and writing bad love poetry. I could have slept and
sweated and woke before dawn and stumbled onto the balcony of my
room to gulp down breath after breath of steaming hot air. I could
have caught the scent of mango trees and let myself ache with
homesickness. I look up as I ride and in the moonlight I see bats
hanging from the acacia trees along the path, and beyond, the
slow-moving river and the winking lights of the town.
The path ends at a rusted front gate behind which stands an
equally run-down looking cement building the size of a small-town
sports arena. Gnarled steel-grey banyan trees dominate the front
yard, burdened with screeching crickets. Mosquitoes buzz around the
Christmas lights hung over the windows and doors to the building.
Keith pulls the gate wide enough to allow our bikes to pass, and we
park beneath the trees.
"The Vietnamese built this place during the occupation. For when
their boys needed a beer and a cheap shag," Keith says. "Your basic
2000-square meter brothel and dance hall. Pulled straight from the
collective consciousness of Graham Greene, wouldn't you agree?"
A group of Khmer women exit the front door and stand quietly in
the winking glow of the Christmas lights. They are young; girls
really, dressed in short skirts, baggy t-shirts and flip-flops. They
know Keith. He walks inside with them, pausing only to turn and
gesture for me to follow. We enter a mammoth abandoned dance hall.
Its crumbling cement floor is covered with a thick film of dust, and
nearly all the fluorescent lights on the walls have burnt out; the
remaining ones cast a sour and dull half-glow that hurts my head. A
small bandstand sits in the corner, complete with a drum kit,
microphones, and music stands, all covered in dust. I try to imagine
the hall filled with Vietnamese soldiers, dress uniforms wrinkled
with sweat and spilled beer, green jungle hats lying forgotten on
the floor as they dance to Vietnamese pop tunes with Khmer hookers.
My mind balks at the image, at the utter incongruity of this place.
Keith goes behind the bandstand and retrieves a small cassette
player. He plugs it into an electrical outlet and plays the tape
inside: a bootleg version of Bob Dylan's To Be Alone With You.
The girls immediately begin to dance, smiling nervously. They watch
Keith watching them, anxious for his approval. He has done this
"I found that the first time I was here. None of the girls know
where it came from."
"Must have been some tourist who left it."
"I've always thought it belonged to a Vietnamese, a soldier from
Vung Tao or Long Binh or Bien Hoa, one of those towns the Americans
used for bases; his uncle or older brother swiped it off a Yank GI,
or took it as a kill-trophy, then passed it to the soldier-kid. Like
an heirloom. The kid brings the tape and a picture of his mother and
nothing else to this fucked-up place. He gives it a play when the
band is on a break from butchering Elvis Presley or Mick Jagger. He
wanders outside and gets whacked by some KR holdout smuggling horse
and AK-47's from Sihanoukville to Angola." Keith smiles, pleased
with this scenario. "This tape is a cultural artifact."
"If you say so."
Keith stops the music and we walk outside to a wooden deck built
over the river. We take one of fifty empty tables. Two girls
accompany us. A heavy-set teenager with a gratingly loud laugh and
heavily rouged eyes sits by Keith. A quieter girl dressed in an
ankle-length denim skirt and a stained Bruce Springsteen Born In
The USA t-shirt, a relic from some long-past UNICEF program,
joins me. She keeps her face out of the glare of the floodlights
hanging from the deck's corrugated plastic roof, making it is
impossible to gauge her age. A sullen Khmer pimp appears bearing
quarts of Angkor beer, glasses, and a bucket of ice, packs of
American cigarettes and chewing gum, boiled peanuts, a platter of
sliced pineapple and mango, salt and chili for the fruit, and a
bottle of Thai whiskey. Keith's girl lights his cigarette and he
smokes it like a man accustomed to having cigarettes lit for him.
Keith, an English teacher at small language center in town, probably
makes ten thousand dollars a year and owns only two pairs of shoes.
The girls help themselves to the fruit and peanuts.
"I don't want a girl, Keith. It makes me uncomfortable."
"No one says you have to touch her. But if you send her away the
Mama will be angry and it won't be good."
"You think these girls are here by themselves? There's always a
"Where is she?"
"Doesn't come here much. Place runs itself. Only seen her once
myself. As you would expect—all fat and menace. She lives in a
village not far from here. They say she has satellite television in
her hut." Keith finds this funny for some reason.
I light my first cigarette in five years and blow smoke rings and
sip at my beer. The tobacco makes my head spin. I feel a growing
urge to see the face of the girl sitting next to me. I want to see
her and feel sympathy for her. I want her to be human and sad and
shy and understanding. I want her to be repulsively ugly so I can
tell my wife about her and laugh about everything that happened this
night. I know that isn't going to happen but I still want it.
Keith's girl has abandoned her chair for a perch on his lap. He
plays a hand up and down her side and strokes her arms and the sides
of her belly. She laughs and smacks him lightly on the nose, calls
him a "Naughty Boy" in an English so off it is nearly
unrecognizable. Keith keeps a wary eye on me.
"I thought you would understand this place."
"No, I mean, what makes it so interesting to me. It's not the
"You know, I have friends in Phnom Penh, good friends, and they
have Khmer girlfriends."
"That sounds reasonable to me."
"Well, you know, they met the girls in places like this, brothels
and bars and the like."
"You don't understand. A lot of these girls have AIDS."
"No, you don't know. My friends, they know the girls have it…and
they stay with them anyway."
Keith stares out over the river.
"I could never do that," he says.
We finish our beers and most of the whiskey, eat the peanuts and
toss the shells in the river. My girl disappears for a moment and
returns with a tray loaded with more beer and a plate of stir-fried
rice noodles with bok choy and wood mushrooms, and a few packets of
pickled Chinese sausage wrapped in banana leaves. She covers the
noodles with soy sauce and unwraps two sausages and I fall in on the
food with unexpected hunger. I down a whole beer at a go and then I
have to pee. I stagger toward the dance floor, drunker than I had
imagined. My girl follows, ignoring my attempts to tell her to sit.
She pulls me toward a dark corridor off the deck.
"Toilet," I mutter, but I don't think she understands.
The hallway is unlit and smells of must, rotten beer, and dirty
mop water. There are six open doorways on either side of it, harsh
white light spilling from each of them. The girl pushes me gently
forward, and I when I pass the first open door, I notice a karaoke
machine and a bed inside. I stop and try to turn around, but the
girl won't let me. She pushes me again, insistent. I want to explain
to her that I have a real life back home; that my wife's name is
Jacqueline; that we have a dog, Frankie, and a mortgage; I want to
thank her and kindly say no, I'm not interested in this sort of
thing anymore. But I can't see her face, and for some reason this
keeps me silent.
We reach a closed door at the end of the hallway. I catch the
smell of urine and bleach—the bathroom. When I return to the deck,
Keith is gone and his girl presents me with the bill. I pay and
leave for town, pushing my motorcycle past speeds I can safely
handle. At one point, I nearly lose my head to a low-hanging tree
branch and I skid to a stop. I remove my helmet and draw a long
series of deep breaths. The night is black and the moon has set. A
water buffalo groans somewhere beyond the trees. The wild garlic
growing in the weeds by the river casts its scent on the air. To no
one but myself, I say, "I am alone on a dark path in the countryside
in Cambodia. I am thirty years old." There will be no looking back
The next day, Keith and I are supposed to visit the ruins of a
casino on a mountaintop outside of town. I read about it in my
guidebook. The view should be excellent, and it is guaranteed to be
empty because the locals think the casino, which shut its doors
nearly ten years earlier after the mysterious death of its owner, is
haunted. I wake at five-thirty, spend a few moments watching the
heavy sun burn a hole in the gray damp, then leave for Phnom Penh. I
don't say good-bye.
Theodore Ross is an editor of Harper's Magazine. His
writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Harper's, The
Believer, McSweeney's, Pindeldyboz, the
Southern California Anthology, and elsewhere. He lives in