Cambodia – Kampot
Some years back, in September, I rattled into Phnom Penh in one of the dusty coaches from Kampot. The Tuk-Tuk driver, who had invited me at the bus station to go looking for a hotel in his vehicle, could speak a little bit English and let me in on the newest talk of the town: The Kampot Bar, together with the two French owners including their Cambodian wives, was burned down last night.
„Much stink!“ Whereby he held his nose in ostentation. A young Cambodian who had worked in the bar was seemingly responsible and had been arrested. „But is safe, no worries, is safe.“
My driver took me to a reasonably priced hotel, who’s owner accidentally was a friend of his, then he took off with a few dollars more in his pocket. After a shower I started my inquiry about the Cambodian boy and the French. The lady at the reception wouldn’t say anything but “sad, very sad”. But the Cambodian Daily, which I found in the common area, reported on it under the head line Bartender Burns Down Kampot Bar And French Owners. In the short time they had gathered only little information: Sopheak Nhek, the Cambodian boy, 17 years old, had been taken in care by the owner of the newly opened Kampot Bar, Jacques Deville, 48, when he was 7 years old; the parents had been paid an unknown amount. Since then Sopheak lived most of his time with Deville and worked for him in different ways, recently as bar tender. Last year Deville had married Sopheak’s older sister Neary Nhek a couple of days after her 18th birthday. She died in the fire alongside the second owner of the bar, Franc Moreau, 52, and his wife.
“Crazy son of bitch, this Richard.“ On the next table a French was sitting, strong accent, about 30 years old, who was rolling himself a joint while addressing me. “Richard?” “Richard. Sopheak. Same Same. It is his European name.“ Before he answered my further inquiry he calmly finished rolling his joint, lit it and then said he had been frequenting the Kampot Bar many times in the past weeks. He didn’t want to say any more. He just rocked his head when I talked, then held out his hand with the joint and said: “You talk to Richard, is better. You want to smoke?“
A couple of hours later I called the police station and could, thankfully in English, arrange a meeting with the responsible policeman on the bank of the Teuk Chhou river. A few years back a fellow story collector, who works for a big newspaper, had been so friendly to issue a fake press card on my name. The police in this part of the world don’t have computers to check things like that. And they probably wouldn’t do it either way.
“Elias Vester, journalist.” The policeman looked at me slightly irritated and then shook my offered hand. “Sakngea Sen, I am police officer.“ “Could you tell me anything about what happened in the bar?“ Sakngea very slowly took a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and then asked, exhaling smoke: “Let us walk, yes?“
So we walked along the water, past the strange bridge built in different styles, very slowly as the police officer wished it. He put on a thoughtful face while smoking one cigarette after the other. At some point he stopped at a small wall on the side of the street and pointed with cigarette in hand towards the other side of the river, to the mountains on the horizon. “You know once we were famous, our pepper. Kampot pepper.“ He smoked deeply a few times without averting his gaze from the mountains. “But not so much anymore.” He let the only half finished cigarette he was smoking fall to the ground and lit another one. Then he moved his head towards the way and walked on. “Jacques Deville and his friends, they worked prostitution. They sold women, I mean. Drugs too.“ He thought he saw something questioning in my face, and said: “They always pay good. And not so many problems.“ I nodded confirmatively. “So what you want? You want write a story about Sopheak?“ “Yes.“ He stopped in the shadows of one of the trees, took his police cap from his head and fanned himself with it. “Okay.”
Two days later I walked though the gates of the Kampot Prison, after I showed the friendly guard my press card, past the ruined old French colonial prison to the new building. There I was led into a stark room with a table in its middle. I sat on one of the two chairs and the guard positioned himself in the corner. Shortly afterwards two guards brought in Sopheak in handcuffs and sat him across from me on the other chair. He was tall for a Cambodian, had a well-proportioned face, bronze coloured skin and wore a hidden sneer.
I offered him my hand, smiled friendly and asked him if I should call him Sopheak or Richard. He frowned, then smiled a little bit himself, trustworthy, shook my hand firmly and drew his eyebrows together again. “My name is Sopheak. They“ – stressed – “called me Richard, but that’s not my real name.“ He talked very clear, with only a hint of accent. “I would like to hear your story, Sopheak, how you met Jacques Deville.“ “Hm yes, I will tell you my story“; he looked only seemingly bashful at the table. “It seems everybody wants to hear my story nowadays, eh?“ He looked me in the eye and let out a small smile. “Hmm where to start… I will start with my childhood, yes?
My father is a fisherman like almost everybody here, on the coast, at least it used to be like that. You can work in tourism too, in the broad sense, which means everything connected to the tourists and their money. It’s like that.
I was born in a village close to Sihannoukville. We were very poor, you know“ – his face resembled the pathos of the voice – “and I have five siblings, so it was very tough for our family.
We needed to help earning money very early. I was only seven years old when my father told me I needed to work too, but on the fishing boat I wouldn’t be a great help: too young and too clumsy, you know.“ Sopheak was sitting very still and concentrated all of his attention on me. “So my father took me to Sihannoukville together with my older brother Munny on his boat before going fishing for begging. We both wore our worst clothes for the sake of pity, you know.
So there I was with Munny, on this nice beach, with all the white people with their sunglasses, their beach dresses, alcohol and their stupid happy-go-lucky faces. I was very scared.
Without Munny I wouldn’t have known what I should do, he took me with him the first days, he showed me around, you know. There were a lot other boys, some girls and everybody had a different way of begging, it’s an art, you know, a real art, begging.
First I needed to learn English, not real English, only some phrases and these you had to pronounce properly, so the tourists understood you. They bombarded me with questions then“ – he laughed – “I didn’t understand anything and just kept repeating my phrases stubbornly with almost perfect pronounciation.“ Now Sopheak didn’t pay me much attention.
„One of the most important things in the business of begging is learning to be insolent. I learned that very quickly. And you have to be aware of things. The tourists, for example, they wanna have a good time; they wanna lie in the sun, they wanna drink alcohol, smoke marihuana, fuck, like that, mostly. Little brown boys in rags, looking miserable and begging them for money in whining voices, that’s not a good time. Some boys still do that. I don’t know why. I entertained the whities. Be funny and smart, and insolent, and you earn much more. I earned more than Munny after only some weeks, I was a quick learner.
There are so many different ways of getting the tourists to give you their money. Bob Marley for example; I earned a lot with the help of Bob Marley. He is everywhere where the tourists are, the incarnation of having a good time, and feeling so good, Have no worries, my friend! For them it is spiritual music, it celebrates love, peace and smoking marihuana. At least they honestly feel about smoking marihuana.
So after some time, when my English had improved I changed some Bob Marley lines for my begging business: One love, one heart, one dollar.
Or: So much trouble in the world, all you got to do: give me a little.
My most successful line was: C’mon, open your heart, open your mind, open your wallet!
The tourists, they laughed so hard and opened their wallets, really easy.
But instead of begging for money you could also beg for goods; milk for example. You tell them you don’t want money, only some milk for your family. A lot of the tourists don’t like to give money, but milk? Everybody needs that, no? So you take the hesitant ones by the hand and drag them the first meters towards the shop; be insolent! Then you don’t give them time to think, take the milk powder for 7 dollars to the cashier, the tourist is too surprised not to pay, he pays. Later you sell it a little bit cheaper and earned maybe 4 dollars from one single tourist, worth it!“
Sopheak stopped here, stared into space and then said: „Sorry I got carried away…“ and laughed drily. “You wanted to hear about Jacques.
I met him when I was 10 years old, seven years ago, during my morning routine on the beach, I was begging for three years already, you know, a real professional. So I noticed a Whity staring at me. But when I asked him for money he just smiled and shook his head.
It was a crowded day on the beach and I made good money that day, all the time watched by this rather ugly, thin Whity. In the afternoon, just as I was getting ready to leave, maybe he smelled it with his big nose, I don’t know, he waved at me, signalling me to come. “You are good“, he said with his French accent, so hard to understand at first. “Very smart, no?“ He looked at me for some time, I looked at him. “But you are becoming old, too old for begging here, no?“ I really was getting too old with my 10 years. He smiled at me, held out his hand and said: “I am Jacques.“
I just continued staring into his thin face with his stuppy, grey beard. He frowned and then took out a 20-dollar note: “I give this if you bring me to your father, okay?“ Okay, I brought him with me to my father’s boat.
When my father saw me walking to the boat with Jacques he looked very concerned. Then they shook hands and Jacques said clearly and slowly: “My name ist Jacques, Jacques Deville. I would like to talk about your son with you.“ Still wary my father agreed. Jacques smiled at me, put the 20 dollars in my hand and took a stroll with my father.
One week later my career as professional begger ended. Jacques came to our house twice talking to my father and looking at Neary, my older sister.“ A little bit angry. “After he and my father had bargained for the monthly payment for me, Jacques took me to Kampot, to his newly opened bar, the Kampot Bar. Just like that, you know. “Don’t worry, young friend. Don’t worry, it is very comfortable, you will feel comfortable, my young friend.“ Bob Marley all over again.
It was comfortable. Instead of my mat, I had a bed for the first time, in my own tiny room. It was right above the Kampot Bar, which was just one room with a bar, stools, two bar tables, two sofas inside and two just outside the open bar and tables with it. Its name was written in awful colourful letters above the bar, but everything was new, shiny.
The first weeks were very hard for me, you know, in a new town away from my family and no friends. Jacques took me to visit my family every sunday, but still. You know.“
Sopheak streched himself and lit a cigarette. “I didn’t plan to go into that much detail“, he shrugged. “You listen good.“ I nodded.
“During the first time I mostly did simple chores; I bought drinks, food and stuff for the bar and him, cleaned the bar every morning, emptied the ash trays, cleaned up the spilled alcohol, swept the floor, things like that you know. When they were drinking and smoking in the evening I was mostly in my room and only heard them. “It is not for young boys. Later, when you are older“, he told me. Only sometimes I would see some of the guests, which were often the same: Frenchmen mostly, some English and passing tourists too; only later I got to know them better.
Jacques treated me alright, I have to say, no beating, enough food, a bed and a new name, Richard. He gave it to me on one of my first days, after he struggled pronouncing Sopheak several times.
Franc, the co-owner of the bar, he lived in a house close to the bar, him I didn’t like. Really unfriendly bastard, not only to me, to everybody. Especially to the girls. In the first two years I only saw them sometimes, mostly poor girls from small villages and I didn’t realise what they did, what they worked. Franc fought with them often, sometimes beating them, I heard from upstairs; once I saw it. Later I understood that they were prostitutes. Jacques made me help sell them too, you know, later.
Later was when I grew 14, „Now you are man, Richard.“ We celebrated my birthday in the bar, with the guests, my first time getting drunk, my first time smoking marihuana too; “Now he is man!“, Jacques shouted from time to time. The next morning I had to clean up my vomit together with the beer, the ashes and the dirt.
From this time on, I spent much more time in the bar, especially in the evenings, serving drinks, after some time serving marihuana too and still after some time serving women too, so to speak. Of course we didn’t sell them in the bar, but in different rented apartments in the city.
I wasn’t comfortable with that of course. But there wasn’t much I could do, I didn’t really have a choice, you know. But apart from that the work in the bar was alright.
As the bartender I got to know all the different people who came to drink and to smoke. Very often they would make music together too, Jacques played the guitar alright, his singing was pretty bad. Franc didn’t play anything, thankfully. There were different friends of Jacques who sometimes came for two weeks straight, then didn’t come at all for a year or so, then came back, like that. There was this long Jew, for example, an Irish, who didn’t drink. He only smoked a lot, and he played the bass. He would come in, tall and thin as he was, a cap on his head, long greyish black, curly hair and the long beard, moving in slow motion. He would come in very slowly, you know, put his bass carrying case besides one of the bar tables, took out his long papes, his grinder, the weed I sold him some days before, then rolled for 10 minutes, then smoked, all in slow motion. His name was Scott.
Francois was another of the regulars, he lived in Kampot, but he and Jacques often fought, literally, and then Francois would stay away for some weeks, then come back as if nothing happened. He was about 30 years old, much younger than Jacques or Franc, handsome, and spent more time with the girls than anybody else, also more money than everybody else. He only drank, a lot, only whisky.
Then there was this American, Raymond, an old nasty fucker. I think back in America he was quite the big shot. Raymond came every year in winter for 2 weeks, in which he smoked, drank, sniffed coke and fucked as much as he could, and that was a lot. We always had problems with the police because of him; he often beat the girls, quite badly too; but he always paid good, you know, that was enough for Jacques and Franc. I wouldn’t have allowed him that, but I didn’t have any choice, I was only the bartender, you know.
That was also the main point on which Jacques and me had our disputes, the girls I mean. I couldn’t stand the way they were treated, you know, how they were used. So our relationship became a little tensed. And then, last year, it was over for me. I told you how he looked at Neary, my sister, he had always wanted her I think, since he saw her for the first time. He even visited my family without me, you know, only I didn’t know. And then, last year, he told me he will marry Neary, my beautiful sister, this old pimp. He just laughed at me when I told him I don’t want it. And he married her shortly after.“ Sopheak breathed very angrily. “Just like that. And I didn’t know what he would do to her too, you know, how he would treat her; I only knew what he did to the other girls. And she was my sister, see, my … I would have stopped working, but I had to keep an eye out for her of course, so I worked still, for these French bastards.“ He inhaled deeply, exhaled and then, calmer: “At first he treated her alright, but after some months had passed he was treating her more and more roughly, at least in private, I think he even hit her sometimes. He hit her! Me and Jacques had very strong disputes, I punched him once too; but he still wouldn’t kick me out. I think for him it was like a game, he liked to torture me, you know. He even manipulated Neary so she wouldn’t talk to me properly anymore; maybe he threatened her.“ Sopheak stared into space for a couple of minutes.
“And then, one week ago, after the bar had closed I overheard Jacques saying to Franc that Neary should work as a prostitute too. He was serious, you know, he really was. I couldn’t hold it anymore and I flew myself at Jacques and we punched each other through the room, smashing bottles, tables and chairs, Franc laughed all the time. Jacques was stronger than me, you know, he beat me very badly. I was so furious, you know, both French bastards were laughing at me, I didn’t even think, I took a bottle of our cheap palm schnaps, took off my t-shirt and out my lighter. Franc and Jacques completly lost it, these bastards. Maybe if they didn’t laugh I wouldn’t have done it, but, you know, I couldn’t think anymore, nothing; I poured the alcohol on the t-shirt, put it in the bottle and I lighted it and then I threw it.“ Sopheak drew deeply on his cigarette a couple of times. “Just when I threw it, when the bottle left my hand, the backdoor opened and Neary and Francs wife Bopha stepped into the room, just then, you know, so close, so fucking close.
Then everything was on fire, it was crazy how fast it spread, it was impossible for me to do anything; I tried to step into the fire, you know, but it was simply too much, too hot, everything was too fucking crazy. I fell some steps back and all I could do was watch it all burn and listen to the screams. People started gathering and I lost my conscience.“
Sopheak ran his fingers over his face, inhaled deeply, exhaled, rubbed his red eyes and then said: “I am sorry, I need some rest, I don’t feel so good … Thank you for listening to my story.“ He shook my hand. “Thank you Sopheak for your story.“
I stayed in Kampot for a couple of days more to meet the French from the hotel again. After two days waiting I found him sitting again on the same table, with the new edition of The Cambodian Daily in his hands. In it Sopheak’s story, written by a Cambodian journalist, was printed, almost word for word the same story he had told me, only much shorter. The article had the character of a defence of the boy, something about him being the victim of the French.
“Hahaha you seen this?“, the French asked me as I approached him. “Such a smart boy, Richard, so smart. Haha.“ I gave him a bag of weed I bought in the city. “Please tell me more about Jacques and Richard.“ He held the bag up with two hands, in thanks: “Merci.” I sat on a chair on the other side of the table and waited while he rolled himself a joint from the weed. “I cannot tell you much”, he said almost incomprehensible with the joint in his mouth, “but a lot of bullshit here”, tipped on the newspaper and laughed. „Richard was responsible for prostitutes, haha, I mean they belonged to Jacques and Franc, mais Richard sell them, and good he selled them. He like selling them, I think. You understand?“ I nodded. „And this sister of Richard, one time she come to the bar, very nice, beautiful. But nasty too. She made much fun about Richard, in front of all people, Richard was so angry haha. Later I talk a little bit with Jacques and he tell me that Richard wants her, understand? Wants to fuck her a long time, but she only makes fun of him.“ Short pause. „It is all I know.“
Just for the sake of completeness I asked him if he wouldn’t be interested in clearing things up with the police. He shrugged: “Not really” and puffed on the joint with his head laid back.