I confess that over the years I have got drunk in some strange and somewhat seedy places. When I was in Cambodia, journos like myself used to hang out at the Gecko bar in USSR Boulevard. It was easy enough to find, if only because of the two metre tall concrete Gecko standing outside the bar. It had red unblinking eyes, which were not unlike my own, after a serious session there. In those days, we used to get around town on cyclos; three wheeled pushbikes with a cane armchair attached to the front, so that the passenger could travel in comfort.
The Gecko was set up on the footpath, so the cyclos could push right up to the tables. You could sit in your cyclo armchairs; drink steadily in the steaming heat, until enough was too much. You could then give the driver US$1 and be cycled seamlessly and safely home.
Or mostly safely. I remember an incident one night when we were heading back to the Cathay, a local one star much favoured by Australian freelancers, SAS hit men and the occasional drug merchant. (Intrepid Japanese and American journalists stayed at the Cambodiana, Phnom Penh’s only five star which not only had a swimming pool but which also sold bacteria free bottled water!)
We were with the other cyclists streaming down the main street, passing our bottle of Quantro from cyclo to cyclo, and savouring the scent of the Frangipanis, when a fellow got popped in the street in front of us. He was lying with his shattered head in a spreading pool of blood with his nemesis standing over him, AK 47 in hand. A Japanese TV crew emerged from a restaurant, camera running, lights flicked on. Our pal with the AK 47 just turned his head towards them. They got the message. They genuflected and retreated back to their sumptuous dinner.
Our drivers wheeled about the blood pool and pedaled us home. The incident definitely took the gloss off the evening. Back home at the Cathay Hotel, I asked the night manager, “What does the Cathay do about security?” He was a young man who appeared to have been much scarred by shrapnel at an even more tender age. He was wearing shorts and watching American wrestling on satellite TV.
“Security?” the night manager said as he pulled a cut down AK from under his desk. On the screen a wrestler with golden curls howled as a fat man in a mask pretended to jump on his stomach. I thought of the Cambodian war veterans who would gently tap their stumps on the restaurant windows, as they held out their palms
I must not have looked reassured. The night manager reached down again and produced a rocket grenade. I thought about what a weapon like that would do in the confined space of the Cathay foyer.
It didn’t bear thinking about. Sometimes its better to stay drunk.