After a tough morning blasting away with an AK47 in a shooting range operated by the Cambodian Special Forces in the name of journalistic research, I decided I’d earned a few beers. So after having dinner on my tod in a café on Sisowath Quay; the tourist-heavy heart of Phnom Penh’s social scene, I opted to head off to find an establishment which featured that great icebreaker so beloved by lone male travellers the world over – a pool table. I wandered into a bar, chalked up my name and low behold, quickly found myself in conversation with the boozer’s 50-something-and-hammered-drunk Scottish owner.
Chats with drunken strangers can often be enlightening affairs, and Larry didn’t disappoint. In the absolute nicest possible sense, he was fascinating by virtue of his simplicity. You could fit the guy’s life story on one side of a postage stamp and his daily routine on the other. He’d left Glasgow in his teens and headed in the direction of Australia where he worked the mines for 30-odd years. He hadn’t been home yet when I spoke to him, but two years previously he had went on holiday to Thailand were he met, fell in love with and then married literally the first Thai woman he spoke to. With her encouragement, he effectively retired by investing in his Cambodian bar.
Larry got up every morning, ordered the same fry in the same café across the road and then returned to began his day’s drinking. He had his favourite seat close to the door and there he remained, smoking one cigarette per bottle of Heineken until the last customer left. He and his wife lived in an apartment directly above the bar so although he was rarely in a position to walk to bed, at least she didn’t have to carry him too far. His lifestyle wouldn’t be for everyone, but after his years split between the tenements of Glasgow and the mine shafts of the Australian Outback he was patently delighted with his lot.
Larry mentioned that there were quite a few Irish expats who had selected his bar as their watering hole of choice and it wasn’t long before one arrived. Paul, who had been working in Cambodia for just under a year as a computer networker for a multinational, was a cheerful late twenties traveller clearly enamoured with the country he how called home. It turned out that he and I both went to the same university at the same time and he grew up about 15 minutes walk from my own family home. I’m not sure exactly how incredible it was that we were meeting for the first time on the other side of the planet despite spending most of our lives on each other’s doorsteps, but we were locked by the time we discovered this anomaly so it certainly seemed quite the oddity through the beery haze.
As I filled Paul in on the reason behind my holiday/research mission in Cambodia ending with my trip to the firing range earlier that day, he was shuffling from one foot to the other in anticipation of his chance to tell a story. Apparently he had twice visited the Thunder Ranch, but only once got to shoot. The first time he pulled up at the shack of a building it was cordoned off and surrounded by jittery Cambodian cops and sobbing tourists. An American expat had rented a browning automatic with 20 rounds. He fired the first 19 at the target before putting number 20 into his head.
But Paul had got closer still to disaster as a result of the proliferation of arms in Cambodia. A couple of months previously he had taken the none too clever decision to walk home to his apartment after a night on the tiles. He made it as far as his own street when a moped with two Khmer teenagers whisked past him before stopping up ahead. He new he was in trouble when they spun and came back in his direction. Paul shoved his hands skyward and clamped his eyes shut when the driver produced a rifle and nervously cocked it against his temple. The moped passenger jumped off and after a quick frisk relieved Paul of his wallet and phone before the pair sped away.
“If you argue they’ll just shoot you!” he exclaimed with eyes bulging at the horror of his memory. “They would aye!” Larry roared in agreement from his favourite seat. I got the feeling that Paul’s story had echoed around the pool table more than once – but it was still a fucking good one.
© Rob Carry. All rights reserved by the author.