• Gray Beards of Phnom Penh

Gray Beards of Phnom Penh

I’ve been living in Battambang for the better part of a year now, but I still visit Phnom Penh about once a month. When there I do see a lot of gray haired foreign men about town. Most of those I see are Westerners, though there are a lot of Chinese on the other side of town. They might be alone, or in pairs, even the odd trio. They come in all sizes (quite often large) and all shapes (most often pear). I do not think they have come to take the waters.  In fairness, though, I have met some who are here for a simple and quiet retirement, stretching a miserly pension and avoiding Winter. They lead quiet, inoffensive lives; for as many years or months that remain to them. 

Some others have come simply to die and make an end to it. Life has chased them here. And why not? It’s as good a place as any to be cornered. Better than some, at any rate. No creditors or ex-wives. No one showing up at the door to say, “Do you remember a young girl, eighteen years old, about thirty years ago?” No busy-body doctor to remind them that the end is nigh, but a change of habits might buy them another year or so. Just check into a residential hotel. Let its runners supply your basic needs. Go softly into that good night. Well, you hope it goes softly. In the low end expat neighborhood the coroner is called about once a month. Monks then come chanting to purify the room, or the street corner, where they expired.

All that said, a disturbing number of those old duffers are Viagra gulping sex-pats. Their drug of choice is available over the counter at a buck a blue pill. Their age of choice is best not dwelt upon. "You want young girl, Mister?" And except for size and the pear shape, and the lack of tattoos, I find that I now look like them! It’s funny, really. I lead an active life teaching at the university, writing for local publications, socializing, hob-nobbing and schmoozing. The sex-pats keep to themselves, largely. I don’t smoke. The sex-pats exhale enough tobacco and marijuana smoke to create smog. I no longer drink to excess. (I swear!) They think beer is one of the 7 basic food groups, along with whiskey, wine, Doritos, Slim Jims and baked beans. They spend the day putting double dents in barstools. On my 64th birthday I went on a 25 mile group bicycle ride and stayed ahead of a pack of youngsters all the way. And yet, to many people, I look like an old “pedo”!

This came home especially not long ago. I was on my bike waiting for a long red light to turn green. A skinny little girl of about eight or ten wove her way through the crowded intersection to my location. She tapped my leg and said, “Boom boom. Sister me.” I told her to bugger off and pimp her sister somewhere else. It was certainly not the first time in my life I had fielded such an offer. I first encountered child pimps 40 years ago. 

The red light was long, the day was hot, the traffic heavy and the kid insistent. “Boom boom. Sister me,” she said, now tapping my leg harder with a closed little fist. “Boom boom. Sister me!” 

I said, “Beat it, kid. No boom boom. I don’t care if your sister is only 14 years old, or whatever. No boom boom.” 

To which she responded in a raised little voice, “Okay, boom boom me!” 

I ran the red light.