“Prison In Cambodia, 2011”
It was funky when I was in prison in Cambodia. I was one of two white guys in the entire prison out of some multiple elongated buildings and thousands of inmates. The other white guy was a septuagenarian Swiss man accused of molesting his Khmer/Swiss Cambodian children. He had his own separate room and chef. Obviously he’d been there for a while. I, on the other hand, was in with the general population, almost all Khmer except for a few non-white foreigners. Some Vietnamese, a non-white Australian, a load of Korean businessmen was brought in (busted with underage girls). Mostly pure Cambodian folk, called the Khmer, speaking the Khmer language. For language purposes many inside were learning or spoke English. Their ability could be ranged along a continuum from nothing (mostly rural folk but this was changing circa 2009 with a rise in the increase of computers), and the foreigners spoke English also.
Cambodia in the Khmer language is Kampuchea. Democratic Kampuchea is the name given the country by the Khmer Rouge Communist Movement when it took control of the government from 1976 – 1979. I was incarcerated at the prison outside Siem Reap, Cambodia, some miles outside the city. I was in for shooting at police, destruction of private property, and possession of cannabis. The battle royal that put me there – involving me versus robbers and the police – I’ll go into later. For now let me speak of the big house, or life in one of the long cement, wood, and tin buildings I was housed in.
Entry was through a smallish plastic and wood door. An eight foot wide some seventy foot long smooth-floor concrete hallway lined on either side with smallish steel bolted doors. The doors lining the hallway lead to seven to nine individual cells – filled with thirty-five or so inmates. One slept on the concrete, with what blankets one could find, in thin prison-garb top and trousers and flip-flops. Also everyone had a krama; the ubiquitous red, black, or blue checkered headscarf worn by Cambodians. I traded cigarettes and some of my food for a blue and white checked one, used, from the old Khmer fellow who ran the cigarette, instant coffee and snack-food racket in our building.
Inside the cells there were various levels of concrete tiers. These tiers went around the room and the prisoners with their blanket bedding laid upon it at night. During the day everybody scampered. In a corner of the room was a toilet of slightly raised concrete walls which one squatted between. Your defecating body, when squatting, was hidden from the other prisoners, but your head was visible to all. Shitting, however, was usually not an everyday occurrence. Most new prisoners didn’t exactly shit real well when assigned to and placed in a cell. The other white guy, the Swiss incest pedophile guy, didn’t eat nor poop the entire first month he was in. His stomach shrank down to the size of a walnut, they told me, and he could only hold small morsels down when he did again begin eating. He did have a separate room, his own fresh food brought in daily, cooked for him and served by a Vietnamese woman so he was doing much better than I, and I wanted what he had. The first night in, when they deposited me hung-over, bloody, and collapsing-shaking on the floor of a cell my fellow prisoners threw a blanket over me. The next day in the afternoon I awakened as they were gently trying to spoon rice into my mouth. Apparently I also looked a little famished.
When I remembered where I was, and swallowed, slowly I sat up. There were concrete slanting “windows” on the outside wall and the light coming in told me it was afternoon. I had a tremendous hangover, my body ached, the hand-cuffs had tightened and ripped into my wrist flesh during the night’s struggles; I lay on concrete among others lying around me, and even more attending to tasks in the hall and in the cell. As it turned out the routine was arise at six am, shower in three toilet stalls outside on the far end of the building. Water was stored in a large concrete structure and carried in plastic empty food container buckets; we poured it over ourselves with plastic bowls scooped into the buckets. There were vendors, around the showers, as the prisoners disgorged from our building. The vendors were fellow prisoners who worked selling these wonderful traditional Khmer hard donuts and other
“sweetmeat” kind of small rolled fried dough formations of various size, sweetness, and texture. Cambodia is interesting in that cooks often pair meats or savory with sweet breads. But there I was, in prison, the lone white zoo animal out there hamming it up for the crowd showering and eating these wonderful made fresh in prison breakfast sweets, smoking French Alain Delon cigarettes being included in everybody’s attempt at English conversation.
For example, eventually I had five “sons”. The first son was an annoying friendly young man whom in a jealous rage chopped a rival lover from his neck down to his abdomen with a mightily swung large saw blade when he was seventeen. He was now twenty-seven, his time almost up and he was eager to get out. Hence the need for immediate English teaching so he could get a better job outside. He followed me around incessantly asking me what is the word for this in English. He would just look around and start pointing at and picking stuff up and ask me what was its name in English? He told me he had been studying English for five years but I highly doubted that hearing him try to speak. When a fluent guy visited our building I asked him if my son had really been studying English for five years and he said yes. I then asked why he can barely speak English? “You just call that stupid,” he said, and we both looked at my son and my son just beamed a huge smile.
“Yeah he must not have practiced much,” was all I said.
Eventually there were five sons, but he was always son number one.
Days after I was put in the cell I was moved. My business partner’s wife paid extra and I was moved into the large hallway that fronted all the cells. The trustees and other privileged people lived here plopping our blankets and mosquito nets down to hang out and sleep on both sides of the hall walls. One day, during our nap time from two pm to three, son number one saw me break down crying, sobbing softly into my palms. Immediately he came over to me and sat by me. “Papa,” he said, “please don’t cry. When I see you cry I want to cry too.” I stifled myself and resolved oh boy these Khmer really do have a huge heart. Sons two to five were worthless and only jumping on the be my son bandwagon. They couldn’t speak English and I put them to work doing odd jobs such as getting my hallway bedding and mosquito netting in place at night and rolling it up and putting it away at six in the morning. I paid them in French brand cigarettes. Some folks liked me because, well, I guess I was just cool. I guess you could say I was irreverent at best.
One eager young sergeant days into my stay brought me into his office and said he wanted to check my pee. He had a small clear plastic cup he wanted me to pee into. I told him this was American pee.
He said “yeah?”
“Yeah,” I said, “it’s special.. Protected by the Geneva Convention I think. This ain’t no Cambodian pee. I think the UN protects it too. Besides I’m guilty I confess on the cannabis. You don’t have to check my pee I’m telling you I’m guilty. (The cooks at the hotel used marijuana on our ‘Happy Pizza’; a Khmer tourist tradition.) “And what am I gonna do?” I said, “ pull my pants (prison threadbare issue) down and pee in that thimble right here?”
“Well, yeah,” he said.
“Okay You hold it and I’ll fire from over here and maybe a few drops that won’t get on you might go in. I’m guilty anyhow I tell you you guys got me good job. And isn’t the shooting at cops charge and the destruction of private property charge a little more important than extracting my pee anyhow? I mean jeez you guys!” This was criminal justice teacher confidence coming through for me. It was rapidly becoming clear these Khmer were Keystone Cops and were eager to learn Western incarceration methods and norms. And the war on cannabis, at least, wasn’t flying in Cambodia.
He thought for a second, and held the cup at me.
“Can I go?” I asked and I returned to stake my claim among my new friends in the general
One day as we foreigners were being interrogated in a small guard shack in front of the entrance to our building I met @. I was seated next to him being asked questions in broken English by Khmer smoking cigarettes. The interrogating guards in no way understood @ and my responses and for the life of me I wondered what they were writing down. While seated next to each other, naturally @ and I, as fellow foreigners, native English speakers, and incarcerates, began to talk. In the long pauses while we waited for our interrogators to forms words in English and supposedly write down our responses, @ told me call him At, like the email @. This was fine as I – like the interrogators – in no way could pronounce his long swami-sounding name. He said he was from Australia (Melbourne) and he grew up in the suburbs. He said his parents were both teachers. But that’s about all he said. He didn’t say what he was in for and even in Cambodia, it’s bad form to ask until you know someone, or, as with the Swiss incest-pedophile, we all knew. Later as we hung out when @ was let out of the cell, in our endless prison BS, he would tell me about the Brahma. Apparently, he was from the priestly class of India.
There too was the politician’s son. Never did get his Khmer name nor could I probably pronounce it if I did but he called himself Teacher. His father was an established Cambodian politician, others said so and he himself had national Cambodian magazines with pictures of and stories about his father in them. He had free reign to go unaccompanied to any building or workshop inside the compound’s
walls and one could tell he wasn’t getting out anytime soon. Nevertheless, like the entire inmate population it seemed he was effusive, gregarious, and happy. I was beginning to think with these terminally happy Khmer I was at some kind of summer camp. It turns out some two national elections back Teacher ‘assisted’ his father’s political party (politics are rather strenuous in Cambodia) by gunning down seven of the opponent’s supporters. I believe he was in for life, but one never knows I suppose with small (or large) nation’s judicial systems. Due the nature of his crimes (multiple murders) his powerful Dad couldn’t help him. He was about twenty-seven years old.
Anyway Teacher taught English classes and was a sort of a roving English minstrel. He’d meet and greet all in English cheerily keeping everyone’s spirit up or going with the general happy-go-lucky-Oriental outlook. He helped me much hooking me up with my own Vietnamese chef, often bringing her cooked food to me, he relayed to me decisions being taken by prison authorities; he even came to get me and escort me out when I was, after three months in, finally disgorged from captive walls. And he was so happy for and proud of me when I got out. I think due to the violent and spiteful nature of his crimes he lived for being of service to all and I guess like his politician father he would be a leader of good inside as his father might be outside prison. I wished him the best and Buddha-speed in repenting his crimes.
Teacher also said his family had Pol Pot’s personal items. He wanted to create a Khmer Rouge museum. He had a four year old magazine with an article on (in Khmer script) and photos of Pol Pot’s items; his shoes, spectacles, camera, clothes, his washbasin, towels, etc. probably toothbrush too, that he said his family was in possession of. It reminded me of when my brother and I toured Bob Marley’s house high and the tour guide stopped the tour while coming down a winding staircase into the kitchen where she pointed out Bob’s blender and said it “was constantly whirring whipping up healthful fruit juices”. We all kind of focused intently on the great man’s blender. It was a regular size push button many speed faded puke green plastic job. I quietly mentioned to my brother as we single file passed by it. “Gee, looks kinda cheap. You’d think a health conscious superstar would have better than that?” Then it dawned on us. “Oh yeah! Too high to get another!”
Now that I’ve mentioned food let me describe prison fare. There was none. Well they did offer
boiled brown rice with sand grit. A steaming sort of vendor cart was wheeled around once a day. I never ate any nor did I see anyone eat any. There was a prison shop where one could get some items and there were concrete round tables and concrete benches out in the open air where inmates could have coffee, snacks, and talk. I met a lot of good incarcerated chaps around those tables, educated and cultured, speaking perfect English, prodigal sons from good families, it appeared, dudes that just want to joke and have fun. They all told me where they were from, some from Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, one big handsome guy from Africa of which I’ll speak later, the Swiss horn-dog, even the old men in a thatch roof open ‘home’ for about five behind our building at the wilderness beyond and unmanned guard tower wall – old lifers put out to pasture in the back forty of prison grounds. No TV, no electricity, I watched them from a window from the locked door at the end of our building. I saw no reading activity, nobody ever spoke; they cooked in their own pot and chased chickens a lot, an isolated and fenced off separate world some fifty-feet away from where we all milled.
Word had gotten around so they knew what I was in for; I was a sort of cause celeb. I didn’t want to ask them what they were in for and they didn’t offer up any details and we got along grand. Real carefree jocular banter. Something inside me kind of gave. I guess I just felt really free I couldn’t be busted. This release of freedom I felt moved me I guess to be very loud and nonstop with the zinger jokes. I even started breaking into bars from the song, “Me and Bobbie McGee”: “freedom ain’t worth nothin’ but it’s free….”
The other guys told me to pipe down. Quiet. It was an Asian thing. Do not create too much of a fuss, don’t raise voices or laugh too much. When I was spasming freedom this idea did not go over well with me. I asked, “what are they going to do, arrest me?”
“No,” I was told, “solitary confinement”.
“Really?” I queried, “I can get solitary?” I later tried but when they found out I was eager to try/get it they turned me down. And no doubt my lounge area friends feared such punishments – they were from the other buildings where the long timers stay, with Teacher. In our building were those getting ready to get out, those just come in, and various folk in between. Most, however, were there for temporary detention. This is the French system of jurisprudence, adopted in Cambodia while under French colonial rule and persisting into independence. For my purposes this system embodies pre-trial incarceration. Whereas in the United States we embrace habeous corpus, allowing police just forty-eight hours to hold you before charging you with a crime, in a Napoleonic Code system you may be held for a length of unknown duration while a case and charges are prepared against you. In Cambodia this ‘length of unknown duration’ could be soon after you’ve got enough to pay a penalty including graft charges. (Having a lawyer who is friends with the judge helps too.) When your case comes before the judge and is adjudicated one way or another you remain in prison. No money no seeing the judge, or, it could be some time. Better get some money from the kin folk! Because until then, more sandy brown rice. Or get in line to be another ‘son’ of mine.
My food situation was solved by Teacher and my contacts outside. The eventful night leading up to my arrest, when I was tossed about winding up handcuffed in a chain-link kennel thing freezing giving a manic tongue-lashing to a fat Khmer sitting outside my pleine-air cell, in a large coat on a folding chair. Good thing he didn’t understand English. Jeez, the emotion I was expending! Anyway, when I bounced here the only thing of value I had on me were my rings. I had a blue sapphire and diamond creation set in white gold: SE Asia is a fabulous place for colorful exotic gems.
Within days of my arrival I gave the ring to one of my outside contacts to pawn. Resell on gems in Cambodia is high. Gold, for instance, is a second or first currency and gold shops, bright and gleaming,
abound. Golden chains abound and hanging in these shops, with lights and mirrors, and all open in the
evening, these stores look like glowing ships of light on an often unpaved and unlit street where there might be up to five such shops clustered together.
My ring must have brought in a lot. Because after she sold it I was moved from cell to the spacious hall, and my food intake became bounteous. Two or three times a week she brought me deli items from the western style deli. I thought I was a “Goodfellas” incarceree. I usually received multiple items, including cheesecake. I’d share my items as it was more than I could eat, especially I shared with @ (At), as the other inmates mostly did not so much like western food, and he was stuck in a cell eating sand. Often I’d pass him items through the bars in the small opening in the door leading into the cell.
In addition to this edible largess I ate the sweet breads from vendor prisoners in the morning, Cambodian funky snacks from racketeers operating on credit inside our building, and Teacher lined me up with the Vietnamese woman working the grill so I had freshly cooked Vietnamese stir fry. So delicious especially for me whom most Khmer just assume I want western fare and only by my associates at my hotel would gather for me fresh market fare of curious Cambodian delicacies. In prison, Cambodian delicacies were as authentic as possible and the prisoner vendors and other inmates much enjoyed introducing me to new and exciting (for me) Cambodian foods. There are few home ovens and baked goods in Cambodia and all of Asia. Baked wheat is a western thing, though of course with Cambodia being a French colony, unlike other English colonized nations and Thailand (never colonized), the elongated French baguette is ubiquitous. Khmer vendors with their rolling carts selling baguettes line the sides of the roads and stack them in the markets. I think the aversion to baking and having an oven in the home, in addition to reflecting specific cultural tastes, also is determined by the heat an oven exudes. In near one-hundred degree Fahrenheit heat every day an oven in the home becomes prohibitively warm. In my thrice weekly deliveries I requested less already prepared items (like quiche and baked goods) and more fresh beef, chicken and pork, along with fresh vegetables, and of course the best rice (Thai jasmine) for the Viet woman to stir fry a fitting balanced meal starting around four PM every day. What I couldn’t eat I’d give to one of my sons.
One day I was sitting along the stone benches at the entrance to our oblong Quonset hut. I was hanging out near the small wooden guardhouse shack where two guards were stationed during the day, just in front of the building’s entrance. At six PM the guards left for the night and the trustees take over. We are then locked in the building and the UN-wealthy and nonwhite are locked into these tiered some forty-person cells. Tiered level concrete cells with a hole surrounded by a not quite high enough poured concrete wall that folks could see over and view you squatting grunting trying to dislodge the impact-ion that seems to be an initial pervasive concern for new-arriving inmates. At least, that’s the way it was for this tourist. I didn’t shit at all when confronted with the open public area within the concrete, among the many, often laying down, cheek to jowl with Khmer, in the cell. I waited for funds from the ring to kick back and I was moved out to now dwell in the hall. The hall was strewn with multiples of blankets serving as bedding and individual and some larger mosquito nets hanging from however they did it over each person’s bedding area. Not sure how they did it exactly because I was busy thinking I was Rudyard Kipling or something – the exalted foreigner, the guest, the only white guy out of the hundreds of folks in our football field (American football) long torpedo shaped building. They called me “Papa” for Christ’s sake!! And I had like five ‘helpers’ expertly doing my chores for me. I paid them in up to three French cigarettes per chore so flush was I in prison. It was odd nobody would even take a Cambodian-made cigarette if you gave it to them.
Anyway to get back to my non-defecation. At the end of the hall for we paid up hallway prisoners and the trustees – and one odd but friendly Vietnamese who grinned missing his front teeth a lot – whom was older and had his bedroll and mosquito net set up permanently in there – was a room and separate
toilet. The old boy selling cigarettes, Khmer made snacks, lottery chances and Nescafe instant coffee (which is huge throughout SE Asia) his operations were run from this smallish room. Also there was a
similar open air low concrete toilet and floor white porcelain ‘saddle’ you straddle in the room. We hall denizens utilized this toilet and laundered our shared prison pajamas in there. To cut to the chase I didn’t, couldn’t poop since I arrived. I tried and almost had an Elvis. Squatting, hovering over those two porcelain white feet-treads paralleling the depths of the open chasm I so wanted to fill nothing happened but a lot of strain. After too many failed attempts, too much disgust with only expelling gas and no meat and potatoes, I resolved I had to do it. It was prison after all – in a third world country – and none of these long-timer cat’s spoke any English nor cared about anyone who did. My sons had to ask permission from trustee or we old men others to enter our sacred area and for damned sure my young sons couldn’t use our toilet. They were permitted to bring my bedding in every morning and take it out again each night, and some were allowed to do their laundry in there and that’s about all. In the mornings every day the young cell-folk mopped the entire hallway stooped running like human wheelbarrows with wet rags in their outstretched hands all down the floor. I had to do something, ass hovering farting over that water slide. So I did, I reached first fingers and then my pyramided fingers up into my rectum and aggressively took hold of and wrested that blockage free. Messy, it’s what ER doctors do, in extreme cases, and there was only a little blood. I felt a debulking that was sorely needed and light years better.
Our hall end rondevous room too had tubeless automobile tires piled two feet high along the wall toward the farthest corner. This was where I would come and lay in the mornings after we all awoke at six am. At six the cells were emptied, by trustees, and everybody headed outside the building for air. The coolies began to clean their cells and pick up blanket bedrolls, storing them for the daylight hours in we old inmates end room. I woke up, let the sons gather and stow by blank-roll and followed it into our room where I covered myself with blankets and stretched out among the tires in the corner of the room. There I slept until noon as King Vendor did deals next to me, and the toothless Vietnamese guy, who had a tent-like structure permanently set up in there came out of his den to say nothing and smile his missing front teeth smile at us and clean out a bowl or something, then go back to laying or sitting in his tent-den. Others went outside to enjoy the chill of morning, get water, eat vendor-tasty sweet morning treats, stand around, BS, have tea or coffee if they had the money, and start lining up to shower, from a large open concrete tank water source. Some headed into the fields that surrounded each large prisoner barracks buildings, to hoe weeds and water crops growing there. No vegetables now, though, shoots were just coming up. It was Christmas 2011; my first Christmas in prison.
I gradually became aware the prison was full of communist Khmer Rouge supporters/members! And what a welcoming jovial lot! Apparently the prison there, and the whole of the Siem Reap area all the way to the border with Thailand, is the original and last stronghold of Khmer Rouge and Democratic Kampuchia strength. Pol Pot (Saloth Sar) died and was thrown down a well close by. People still come to the well for blessings and to pray. In light of the murderous-ness of Pol Pot’s regime, go figure. Learning of the peasant bent in these regions and in this prison (not that I have been in many or any before!), I decided on a cursory survey of louts in lock-up. Only a few fellow inmates spoke more than words of English and they translated for me.
I began by asking King Vendor. He ran the rackets, sold French brand cigarettes, sold bagged handmade Cambodian snacks, tins of sweet milk and the pervasive Nescafe instant coffee. One day I caught him cheating me while I was paying up my credit charges and that night I stole his krama. It was blue and white checked and when he confronted me with it upon my bedroll he broke into a smile grabbed it back and took it away. For a brief moment there however, before the smile, I didn’t know
what to expect. No matter, however, earlier I had made a shiv.
I asked King. At the time he was wearing no shirt. I asked him and the other older fellas how did they survive warring and the years of the Khmer Rouge before and after? I told them I don’t see any bullet holes in them and they had to be around a lot of fighting. Immediately after translation King raised his palm and hand held out as if waving pushed it toward my eyes. In his palm was a tattoo. “A Buddhist blessing,” they told me, “for protection”. I looked around, other old guys had them too and no bullet wounds. On one or both palms, along with other Buddhist tattoos all over their bodies they all had palm tatoos. It’s the tattoo(s) that saved them was the general consensus, the palm tattoos.
Of course I heartedly agreed. And I started thinking. “Damn,” I thought, “I better get one.” So, when I was sprung Gnok, the Tu-tuk driver who assisted at the hotel I managed, took me to a Khmer tattoo guy. He knew exactly what to do. He showed me a few designs, I picked one, and he from sight emblazoned the image on my palm. I only could not take it once as palm pain consumed me. Only place more painful for a tattoo I’ve heard is the penis, or your eyelids. Took a long time to heal, too. It was months later before the negative karma from my decision really began to take its toll. Currently, as I sit in my hometown typing this six years later, looking down at my tattoo, I think darn I’ll never get a job at the bank with that.
One day they brought a tall well-built, well-dressed, African man in. He was the size of and had the shape of the boxer Muhhamed Ali. He spoke French and English and was from a French speaking country in Africa. I believe he never told us which one. He claimed he was in for a mix-up regarding a woman he was staying with and her missing computer. She called the cops on him claiming he stole it which did not say much for the strength or length of his relationship with her and her choice of letting him in. It always seemed if African blacks were in Asia and they were’nt teaching English then what in the hell were they doing there and it always seemed nefarious whatever they were doing. Anyway he claimed it was all a mistake and she would soon come to clear it up and he’d be out. She never came and until she did he and his fine white shirt and dark trousers were thrown into a cell just next to the front barracks entrance, across from we old cogers toilet and day room. Along with like thirty plus limited or no English or French Khmer. Kids, basically, Khmer kids often on their first trip out of their village, to prison. Some were as young as twelve and thirteen, and there was one extremely shy “ladyboy” or transsexual in our building who I saw only once, timid and briefly, come out of the cell. There was a separate ward and smaller building for prisoners with HIV and AIDs that the UN paid for and sent representatives around to check on them. The irony was that when these prisoners’ sentence ended so too did the drugs given them to prolong their life in prison. And they often went back to prostitution.
Anyway, when the big African came in he only had his street clothes on. No matter, they tossed him well-dressed into one of the forty man cells. Then, the following night, he began to make a ruckus. Apparently, according to him because no one else in the cell spoke adequate English, the small Cambodians were attempting to hump him or masturbating on him. The trustees called me in special. They told me do what you can we only want things to go smoothly around here. I got up off my hallway bedroll and trotted on down to the building’s entrance where he was in the first cell by the building’s entrance. His head was at the bars of the peep hole in the door.
“What’s the matter?” I asked him, “the guards asked me to come up and speak to you.” I knelt down to talk to him as the aperature was halfway down the door.
“I’m weak,” he told me, “there’s something wrong with my stomache.”
“What can we do for you?”
“Let me out,” he said, “I’m so weak.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” I consulted with the trustees. Could he wait until morning they asked. “I’ll see,” I said. I was feeling a real sense of importance here; negotiating for a prisoner’s non-release. “I don’t think they will,” I told him, “or they’d rather not until morning. Can you just rest easy until dawn?” I asked.
“I don’t think so,” he said. His voice was soft, running out of steam.
“Let me talk to them.” The trustees began to notify the far away outside guards, who in turn began to notify the Warden. The outside guards had the small wooden shack outside the single-door entrance to the long building. I think there was one slouched baton wielding skinny cigarette smoking guy there maybe sometimes at night. During the day at times two men were there, in olive shabby untucked uniforms, but at no time day or night, were the watchtowers manned. And as always, there was nary a single gun to be seen about the place.
We waited. I continued on at the barred aperature. The trustees consulted. “What’s wrong with him?” they asked again. I looked at the man from outside the bars. His face was very close. He was sitting down flush against the cell door, seemingly exhausted.
“They want to know what’s wrong with you?” I said.
“I can’t sleep. I’m so weak. My stomache….” he persisted.
“Why can’t you sleep?” I asked. “I mean beyond the obvious reasons.”
“They jump on me,” he said.
“They jump on my legs when I try to sleep. They’re trying to hump me or something.” I got it, nothing wrong with his stomache beyond the ordinary two day prison blues. What was freaking him out was every time he dozed off some little Khmer freak would go kamikaze and try to buttfuck him! He’d been tossing them all around the cell all night! It was these thudding disturbances that brought the attention of the trustees, and me, and ultimately, presumably, the Warden. He had worked his way around the cell tossing Khmer about the room until he was against the bars on the door talking to me. The Khmer, thirty or so of them, were bunched together in a sort of rugby scrum at the most polar opposite of him in the cell. Understandably, considering the violence that had already ensued the trustees, the guards, probably the Warden too were choosing not to let him out.
“You’re gonna have to make it to morning,” I told him and I told the huddled spring-ready Khmer in the room to stay where they were and leave him be. Things appeared calmer but tense as I left him to return to my mosquito net and bedroll where I set up every night at the other end of the building. He seemed resolved to his fate when I left, resigned, and ready to hold out until morning. I was called back to the door one other time and again calmed him into a stupor and returned to my bed.
At six am I was up and over to the cell door. He was real frazzled, or else he was playing spent, to fool the Khmer, I don’t know. But when they unlocked the door – me standing right there when they opened it – Muhammed Ali bolted out of the cell, out the door, winding up outside by the shack guard house on the concrete where he had room to move. And the swarm of tiny Khmer burst out right behind him and ran to make a stand against him further down the sidewalk oppossing him. Me and my favorite Khmer Korean language student trustee ran out behind them both and took up a position standing with our English speaking French African buddy. Nothing against the bunched Khmer, but I, for one, wanted to be on the winning side. The black was statuesque, handsome, probably tri-lingual, in a soiled white button down long-sleeve shirt, black trousers, and black patent leather shoes. No wonder the Khmer liked him.
Anyway there they stood. A standoff. The African, the comedic trustee and me, faced by some
twenty-five feet away thirty Khmer getting ready to attack en masse. I looked at the big black and Khmer pre-charge vanguard movements. “Oh you’re going to kill them!” I told the black behemoth. It looked like Muhammed Ali getting ready to take on Billy Barty. And sure enough, like the tiniest Khmer was most viscious and came Kung fu-ing in wildly at the black guy. I was yelling “don’t do it! Don’t do it you guys!” but the little guy came kicking and karate-chopping in and ten or so followed him. I stepped aside and Muhammed did this like beautiful punch and just nailed little Bruce (the guy looked more Chinese than Khmer, and way young). The young man was stopped stone cold by a huge right hand from hands that were alone as big as the kid’s head. You could hear a resounding thwack in the still dawn air. And the kid just fell and lay there on his back. A huge gash appeared on the right side of his forehead splitting down into the kid’s eye. The swelling was massive and immediate. The other Khmer immediately backed off and dispersed. I rushed over to the kid. “I told you guys!” I chastised. They listened to Papa. In their eyes I was quite old, and a teacher to boot. Though I don’t think they knew what a PhD was. There wasn’t too much blood yet. I could see the thing throb and the skull bone expand exponetionally. I thought the brain would swell to death. Soon the guards and trustees came with a strecher and they took the kid away. They took him to the medical building from which we heard later he’d live. The kid appeared to be about thirteen but many Khmer appear preternaturally young.
The medical facility brought about a curious conundrum. As I touched on below due to U.N. influence the prison was set up to house and treat inmates with HIV or AIDS. They were segregated from the general population and many of them were women. They would transfer about the prison yard together walking briskly around or through we regular inmates should we encounter. The tragedy was these folk had to be in prison to get their anti-retroviral drugs and when their sentence was over they were released to stigma and eventual death. Many were “ladyboys” or transexual and transvestite men. Only a few “Toms”, or women living as men, were in the prison.
At about this time in the narrative you might be asking yourself, well, we know what he was in for, but how the heck did all that happen? Of course I was in for the charges of destruction of private property, cannabis posession, and, ah…“shooting at police”. It was pretrial incarceration. Some of the guys in our building had been there for up to a year or longer without coming before a judge. Monetary payment and a lawyer sped things along immeasurably. In Cambodia they say money doesn’t talk, money screams. Money screams in the Wild East.
But it didn’t really scream for me. In my case money appeared to be a deaf-mute. First of all after scrimshawing to use the one international capable mobile phone in the bunker-like phone room, family sent me lawyer money. Two thousand five hundred dollars later a Cambodian lawyer requested my presence in a small common area room just down from the phone bunker. I met him there. He invited me to sit down and shut the door. He threw a newspaper down on the long table in front of me and stood on the other side. I looked down at the paper and on the front page there was a large color picture of me. It was taken at the site of the melee, my hotel front grounds. I was bloody and dishelved, held up by two large Khmer. I looked like a trophy they had bagged. I didn’t look at the photo long. I originally looked at the teenager with hope. He looked like he was just out of law school. He was one of the lawyers the US Embassy recommended to work with. Apparently this meant he spoke English. I knew I was in trouble with the first words he spoke.
“First of all we have to deal with this gun charge,” he said.
“What gun charge?” I responded. It had been all over the radio if you had one. The Swiss other white guy, the pedophile did, in his private room. He must have understood a plethora of languages including Khmer. I speak English, Spanish, and survival words in Thai. The Thai people, government,
and military have issues with the Khmer; skirmishes at their common border occur regularly. During my time in Cambodia (2001-2002 and 2009-2012) the issue was the world heritage temple site of Preah Veah and which country had rightful claims over it – and the tourist revenues it brought in.
He looked dumbfounded. He looked at me incredulously. “You don’t actually believe I was shooting at the police, do you?” I asked.
“Well, yes,” he said. “And first we have to address this charge.”
My mind was such that if he believed such a charge without asking me about it, he was dumber than I thought. We couldn’t waste time formulating a legal response to this ridiculous charge, I figured, when it was best diffused with humor. I told him I’ll take my chances in front of the judge by myself and I dismissed him, of course after paying his $3,000 fee. I didn’t want him to legally get me in so deep I couldn’t get out! I figured whatever evidence they had against me I had truth on my side. And whatever they had on me, truth was certainly far more odd than the fictions they were bent on presenting. Time, and me explaining, would tell. Or would I, or could I, be railroaded?
The first time I went before the judge I travelled to the administration building handcuffed sitting cross-legged in the enclosed back of a box-like rusted out truck. Another inmate sat next to me similarly handcuffed. We didn’t talk. He was a Khmer youth, dark-skinned and wearing shorts. I was in prison issue jammies. We both were resigned and bounced along like ragdolls as the truck skirted over gravel roads. When we arrived they opened the back door and the sudden sunblast blinded our eyes. Guards helped us to our feet, we were helped to the ground, and into the large rectangular granite building we went. It was interesting for me in that all Cambodian bureaucrats were very solicitous toward me and again, like the inmates were so smilingly nice to me. I love the Cambodian people!
When I got to see the judge he sat at the head of a long fine wood probably teak highly polished table. I sat along the opposite end, about five feet away, and an interpreter sat in the long distance between us, more nearer me than the judge. The judge spoke the charges against me. The interpreter interpretered and I end message back; yes I agree that’s your story. Then the judge got up, went briefly into another room and returned with what appeared to be an evidence bag. He set it up on my end of the long table and began to extract the physical “evidence” they had against me.
He pulled out a smashed 1600’s flintlock pistol, a few heavy glass bar-type ashtrays, and some other household items I chucked at ’em. And oddly though it made sense, a two plus pound bag of enriched white flour. The bag of flour was opened and he dipped his wettened finger into it and tasted it as he set it down. I guess it was the mother lode. “How do you answer for these!?” he asked.
“Easily,” I replied. It was readily apparent we all spoke English quite fluently. The need of the $200 dollar interpreter rapidly vanished and I began in ernest to plead my case. I spoke directly to the judge while keeping the interpreter in the conversation to affirm my logic. The gist of what I said I lay out below. This account is the whole of circumstances, however, from my point of view. I may have left some of this out when I spoke to the judge.
It started off strange. Of course stranger than fiction unless I write it. One night while feebly playing punk rock for abstract denizens at the small thatch-roof wall-less bar area at the Siem Reap small property hotel I ran, a rather elegant Khmer woman began snapping photos of me. Cinema Verte. She captured me in action – before the table-diving portion of the show. Two weeks later she returned with the 8 by 10 glossies of me shirtless. She gave them to me and checked into the hotel. Later that night when we closed down the bar she and I climbed the stairs together. She detoured into my room. Thereafter for a brief time she moved into the hotel and we were an item.
Then strange things began to occur. Not that strange things did not occur previously during my tenure at the hotel. Odd occurances played out all the time. The mere notion of me running a twelve
room hotel, with small bar and kitchen, given the freedom and vice of Cambodia, was in itself a unique proposition. But following her arrival things started to disappear. She brought these missing items to my attention daily. She even one night to prove to me I was being robbed put out a series of electric clothes irons for guests to use in their rooms. The next day she showed me they were gone. I was naive and dumbfounded. It has to be an inside job, I Columbo’ed, looking warily about me. I looked with new eyes upon the workers and hangers-on sleeping at night in the bar area. Everyone was a goddamned criminal!! and they had to go! I told everyone to go home for a while and stay away for a few days while I investigated. Then it was she and I and things still went missing! It had to be her! I was digesting this info when she convinced me to close down the hotel (there were no guests at this time) and take a vacation to Phnom Penh, the nation’s capitol and largest city. In Phnom Pehn she robbed me of $2,500; the rent due at the hotel. I’d been had, again! The local tourist cop in Siem Reap later charged her and brought her before me. She didn’t have it. First she said she was robbed, then admitted she’d gambled it away. She couldn’t pay me back. The tourist detective said it was up to me to file the necessary charges to put her in jail. I looked at her, looked at the detective, and looked at all the hanger-ons crowded around standing around where we sat. “No charges,” I said at length and motioned for her to go away.
But living in the hotel alone similar strange things occurred. Apparently they were coming in at night while I slept. So I deigned to sleep and instead arranged booby traps and sat up in darkness on the first floor waiting on someone to break in. I too poured flower on the floors so intruders would disturb and track it wherever they came in. Sitting on a portable chair in the pitch darkness of the first floor hallway I didn’t have to wait long. Someone forcefully jostled open the kitchen door, entered, and came creeping toward me sitting on the chair full quart bottle held by the neck prepared to strike. He (for I assume it was a he) came stealthily right up to me whereupon I stood up swinging the bottle at him and kicking at him. I knocked him down and he scampered to get back to his feet and run out the same doorway he had come in. When he was turning the corner to the kitchen and the way out I threw the bottle at him and it exploded against the kichen wall and sent whiskey and broken glass throughout the room. I wasted whiskey but I didn’t care; I had to stop this niggardly petty thievery. I ran this one out but unfortunately for me I didn’t stop there. This was war dammit and I had them on the run!! Righteousness filled me with indignation.
I began by gathering ammo. I had had it. At the end of my rope. To me it appeared as if the whole neighborhood was against me. It was Thanksgiving weekend and all the US Embassy offices were closed. I connected with custodial personnel only when I called. The tourist police didn’t answer the phone when I called. The British Embassy did answer and they sent a security analyst over to assist me with defence. He showed me where the hotel’s vulnerable spots were and said he couldn’t help me because I was not British. He left late afternoon and I was faced with the night and more nocturnal break-ins. So I did what any red blooded American should do in such a position of helplessness. I took the fight to the people – and wound up in jail.
When it became dark I climbed out on the roof with my sack of projectiles. Glass ashtrays, small fake jade green Buddha statues, empty bottles, what have you. The hotel was the tallest building on our street and I had the high ground looking down on the streets and houses leading up to the hotel. It was my intention to attack anyone coming up to the hotel on the streets below including neighbors out about in their yards. I let the projectiles speak for me pin pointing their landing in neighbors’ yards and near people walking near the hotel on the street. In no time a crowd began to surround the hotel property high metal fence and some called in English for me to come down. When the press came and started taking photos, I repaired to the second floor balcony which opened onto the main street facing the hotel.
I lugged and threw a solid wood couch over the balcony side. I moved inside and grabbed a long gun lighter that created a flame when you pulled the trigger, to light bar patrons’ cigarettes in a unique manner. I stuck the muzzle of this “gun” in the air over the balcony side and quickly dropped a large book from a height above my head to the granite floor of the second floor. Sounded just like a rifle shot as I knew it would and the people at the iron gate scattered. They returned in no time and yelled for me to give up but I was too far gone. Too far into the madness and frenzy of combat to give up now.
I was giving a speech and throwing original paintings at them when two guys from the US Embassy arrived. They called up to me “Randall could you please stop?” and I came in from the balcony and went down the great circular stone and wood balustrade stairway to the first floor. I went out the door to greet them. I was talking to them and inviting them into the compound, opening the ten foot high iron gate, when a commando squad of two Khmer fat guys ambushed me from behind. These guys were in uniform, though like all the previous police I was battling, none had guns. When they first gathered out side the walls and in force they had no uniforms and no guns – how was I to know they were police? – there were many regular people out there watching. Anyhow, initially the great gate was open, and given all the trouble I had been having with intruders I thought a large gang of them was gathering outside to attack. I admit, I was a little crazy at this time, due to lack of sleep, being alone, and the effects of the bottle of whiskey I was fortifying myself with during the ordeal. I did have enough fortitude of mind to grab the large fire extinguiser and confront the gathering force as I came through the large wooden front doors leading into to the hotel proper. Apparently they had scant familiarity with the potential uses of such a pressurized tool. For as I stood on the elevated portico of the wide grainite steps, weilding the extinguisher and nozzle, they attacked, in force. Twenty or so Khmer, ostensively policemen (one had a handheld radio), came running at me through the gate in a rectangular formation. I let loose with a sustained burst from the fire extinguisher and immediately the “fog” was so dense the formation stopped in its tracks and was invisible to all, including themselves. It was then I began hurling objects – ashtrays, salt shakers, little Buddha, Bayon, and Ganesh statues – into the opaque white. Whatever happened inside the cloud I am unsure. I surmise a few of these regular clothes and weaponless policemen got a body or headache.
Whatever occurred they retreated one and all. I stood proud and tall admiring my work when the cloud somewhat dissipated. Quickly I ran to close and secure the gate. I had won round one. I ran back inside to nourish my victory from the whiskey bottle. Adrenaline was high. In the interim things calmed down a bit and some of the crowd dispersed. The hotel owner (I was merely renting it) came by and through the fence told me to just stay inside. I did but I continued with slugs of whiskey, swigging straight from the bottle. I can’t remember the brand. Then, it occurred. Driven by renewed ferocity, such as whiskey and thought are prone to focus, I again appeared on the ledges of the hotel’s high roof. Like a mountain goat I clambored about high up outside the windows. And I continued to chuck things at the gathered police who never left. As the crowd returned – and took cover – and the press flash bulbs snapped away, the two US Embassy guys arrived. One white guy from Iowa, and a black guy.
The two Embassy guys began to call out to me by name and call me down. Comrades on my side outside the fence were shoving their hands in front of photographers lens when they attempted to get their pictures. Chants from the crowd of “Godfather!” echoed from those gathered. I had been showing the movie at our thatch-roof outdoor bar. When I came down to greet the Embassy fellows and open the gate to let them and everyone in, as I was opening the high heavy gate, the two uniformed fat guys came rushing at me from around the sides of the hotel. One guy grabbed me and threw me forcefully to the ground. I got up and one man held me while the other punched me. At the third or fourth punch the Iowa Embassy fellow remarked hey! that’s enough! But that didn’t stop my
tormenters. With one man holding my arms behind me the other then smashed another punch into my face. My mouth filled with blood and I spit the mouthful in my tormentor’s face. I don’t know how much if any English these two Khmer spoke but I told them after I spit that I would fall down from the force of the punches but you’re holding me up. And I added laughing, “Ha! Now you have AIDS!” In character I guess, I thought the whole ordeal so far a big joke. I even got the two holding and beating me to smile and chuckle as they did their “work”.
The two Embassy guys were a little in awe. When they arrived I was drunkenly giving a “speech” from the balcony portico and chucking things at those gathered. The crowd ducked and came up close under protection of the high iron fence. I came down and the Iowa guy, I think, must have thought wow! This guy is some Midwestern character! For soon after I came down, through my drunken adrenaline rush, I heard the plaintive voice of my father coming through speaker phone. The Iowa fellow had called him and he was on the line! “Randall, quit fighting!” he implored.
“Oh hi Dad,” I responded. And “but Dad, I’m winning!” Just after we ended our conversation I was taken down. Following the beating, me bleeding readily from mouth and nose, the two Khmer held me up like a trophy for the gathered press to take photos of. It was one of these photos that ended up on the front page of the Khmer language papers. I was, to put it mildly, a sweaty, bloody mess and I looked like a true drowned rat in the photos. Nevertheless I was taken, in handcuffs, to a small fenced in area in back of a large structure that sounded to me as if it held youthful female inmates. I sat handcuffed in the kennal while another fat Khmer man brought a chair up and sat down watching me. I berated him and I assume understanding little or no English, he took it well. It gets cold in Cambodia in November and as it was night and outdoors I soon laid on the ground and passed out. I remember trying to cover myself with some cardboard that was in my fenced in area to protect myself against the wind and the cold and the handcuffs cutting deeply into my wrists. I must have been in a daze for the next thing I knew I was deposited prone into the prison multi-person cell. As I’ve said I woke the next day around noon as the other inmates were trying to spoon rice into my mouth.
In the end the truth did set me free. I simply told the judge what really happened, and the interpreter and I convinced him I was largely innocent. Yes I did destroy property (I heaved the wooden couch off the balcony among other hotel items), the Khmer staff fessed up to using the cannabis to make the Happy Pizza, the flour turned out to be flour in spite of it looking like heroin or cocaine, or anthrax or what have you and I was believed when I said I was having previous problems with theft and robbers. Me claiming to believe the gathered police were just more robbers to battle apparently the judge believed. Though the judge attempted to remain stone faced and solemn I did see hints of an expression of mith on his face as I and and the interpreter tried to win him over to my side of the story. When the judge wrote the name and phone number of Khmer attorney Theng Meng down on a small sheet of paper and handed it to me I knew it was this man that was my passage to freedom. Probably his brother-in-law or something I paid Mr. Theng $3,000 and not even wanting to hear anything about my case he arranged for my release. Lawyer Theng picked me up in his Lexus SUV on the date of my release as Teacher and the others and I wistfully said our goodbyes. After three months I walked out of prison a totally free man. On the way into town I offered Theng Meng free lodging in the hotel while he was in Siem Reap (he was based in Phnom Penh) but he said no way would he stay in such a cheap place. Me miffed, he dropped me off at the hotel as my Khmer friends colleages and staff began to once again come around. It was then I began to go really off the deep end.