Oun Srolanh Bong (Girl loves Boy) by Steven W. Palmer

Oun Srolanh Bong (Girl loves Boy) by Steven W. Palmer


Boy meets girl, it’s one of the oldest stories in the world. From casual meetings outside a cave through to spilling her drink in a club, little has changed in the basic format for thousands of years. A glance across a crowded room leads to a nervous introduction and a whole lot of hormones getting overactive.

Even this meeting had little new to offer. Yet another seedy bar in a seedy Phnom Penh street, its clichéd name marked outside in flickering neon. Bored looking girls sat outside eating kuy teav or bai sach chrouk while they awaited their overweight white knight to arrive in a haze of happy hour beer. Those that weren’t eating gazed into the heat of the night with methamphetamine glazed eyes, the soul-destroying embrace of the drug a more attractive option than full awareness of the sad trade they were trapped in. Vacant gazes turned to fake smiles every time a prospective customer walked by, and should any choose to venture in, the girls transformed into a busy scourge of mosquitoes round a pool of stagnant water.

Transient nobodies escaping humdrum existences in humdrum towns were granted temporary royal status as they chose which peasant wench would have the privilege of releasing their alcohol tainted seed for that night. For a few hours and a few dollars these tourists’ self-esteem would be temporarily boosted, beauty they can only gaze at on dating sites at home suddenly ripe for the plucking and ripe for the fucking. Beauty that should have stayed untainted on the farm or in the village but which is forced by poverty and desperation to be little more than vessels for the empty dreams of empty men.

There’s an almost magnetic tragedy in watching these spectacles unfold, pity and disgust mixing in equal parts, yet you cannot tear your eyes away, cannot close your mind from knowing how the rest of the night will play out.

Her name was Bopha, which means ‘flower’ in Khmer, and she was 19. But it wasn’t her real name, it was the one suggested by the bar’s mamasan as she knew that when she explained it to the barang customers it would always elicit a positive response. Her real name was Makara but now no-one called her that except on the rare occasions she went back to her small village of Kampi on the banks of the mighty Mekong in Kratie province. She spoke good English, better than most of the other provincial girls in the bar, thanks mainly to the tourists who flocked to Kampi to see the endangered Irawaddy Dolphins. During the tourist season she had worked on one of the many boats which took the tourists out to see the dolphins, and in low season she mainly worked helping her father in his butchery business. But then a year previously her father had died of a heart attack at the age of 45 and suddenly the family went from being comfortable – but not wealthy – to being close to destitution.

It was her friend Chantavy who had suggested she move to Phnom Penh and work in a bar. Chantavy had moved the year before and sent back $400 almost every month to her family in Kampi. She told Makara it was easy work, that someone as pretty as Makara could choose who to sleep with, and that even if she didn’t want to have sex with customers she could still make a good salary just from lady drinks. Makara didn’t know what to do; she was still a virgin and the idea of sleeping with strangers made her feel sick. But she had two sisters and a brother at home, all of them still at school, and she knew she could never earn enough money in Kampi to pay all their school costs. So she finally summoned up the courage and made the move to the capital. She felt the worst thing about it was having to lie to her mother, telling her that she had been offered a good job at a restaurant popular with tourists. Chantavy had arranged a room in the same building as her, and also an interview in the bar next to the one she worked in.

She had never been to Phnom Penh before, and when she got off the crowded minivan she felt claustrophobic with so many people and buildings around her. Chantavy was waiting for her and her friend’s infectious excitement at Makara being there soon cancelled out any nervousness. Once she was settled in her room Chantavy took her shopping, telling her than none of the clothes she had brought with her would be suitable for work. So two hours later Makara had three bags of new clothes, none of which she would ever have dared wear at home, and which if her mother ever saw her in them would probably lead to a major argument.

Chantavy had arranged for her to see the boss of the bar at 5pm so they spent an hour getting ready, her friend doing her hair and makeup so she looked good for the meeting. Makara was now very nervous, unsure if she would get the job, but Chantavy assured her that it was an almost certain thing.

The owner of the bar was a Khmer woman of about 50, who took Makara into the office along with the bar’s mamasan, an imposing woman with a hard face but kind eyes. When they found out that Makara was a virgin their faces lit up. They told her that she could make lots of money from losing her virginity and that because she was so pretty she could choose which customers she would sleep with from the bar once she was no longer a virgin. Makara wasn’t sure, she’d always thought of her virginity as something to give to her husband, not to be sold like some piece of meat at the market. But when they told her that they may be able to get as much as $2,000, half of which they would keep for arranging things, she suddenly saw in her mind her sisters and brother at school and heading for a better life rather than seeing all her own dreams defiled in a hotel room somewhere in Phnom Penh.

And so she began working in ‘Sexy Girls’ bar the next night, though she was not available to be bar-fined while the owner looked for someone willing to buy her virginity. She was soon popular, her innocent looks and good English ability proving a winning combination with customers only too happy to buy her lady drinks for a few hours of her company in the bar. For a time she even wondered if maybe she could just keep working like this, especially as she didn’t like alcohol which meant she could make more from the drinks bought for her.

But two weeks later the mamasan sent her up to the office to speak to the owner, who told her she had found someone who wanted to spend the night with Makara. He was a Chinese business owner, the boss told her, very wealthy and willing to pay $2,500 for one night with Makara. $1,250 was a lot of money, and would pay her siblings’ school fees for a long time as well as ensuring her family back in Kampi would eat well. So, for the sake of her family, she agreed to sleep with the Chinese businessman.

When the day came, her boss, Sopheak, took her to a fancy salon to get her hair, nails and makeup done. Then she took her to buy a new dress, black and sleek but nicer than anything Makara had owned before. The man was going to pick Makara up from Sopheak’s house, take her to dinner and then back to his hotel for the night. Sopheak gave Makara a small blue tablet called diazepam and said it would help relax her since Makara didn’t want to drink alcohol. She wasn’t sure about taking it but trusted Sopheak so put it in her bag. The time came, the man arriving in a white BMW SUV. He looked old. Old and fat. Makara was even more nervous now but Sopheak hugged her and told her it would all be alright, and that she should make sure the man drank a lot at dinner because that way he would fall asleep quickly after sex. When the man came into the house, Sopheak introduced him as Liu Haifeng. For such a large man he had a soft voice and was charming and polite to both Sopheak and Makara. He handed a large envelope to Sopheak who discretely put it away in a drawer then he announced they would have to leave as their dinner reservation was soon.

He drove them to a small restaurant on Street 294 called Mok Mony, with a leafy courtyard setting or modern looking interior their options.

“It may not look that fancy,” said Liu, “but it serves some of the finest food in the city.”

To Makara, a girl from a small riverside village, it was fancier than anywhere she had been before. Liu ordered drinks for them both, beer for him and water for Makara. He talked about his business; he owned a factory on the outskirts of Phnom Penh making shoes, and Makara nodded politely and smiled at what she thought were the right times. He also ordered all their food, though he did first ask Makara if there was anything she didn’t like. Grilled Betel Leaf with Marinated Beef and Deep Fried Wonton for starters, Blue Mekong Prawns and Mun Char Kern for main course. She remembered Sopheak’s advice and constantly refilled his glass, so that by the time the main dishes arrived he was already on his fifth beer. To be fair on him, she did note that he was attentive, asking her if she was enjoying the food, then questioning her on her life in Kampi. There almost came a point when she forgot what was to happen after dinner but all too soon the meal was finished and he was ushering her to the car.

She had remembered to take the pill Sopheak had given her while Liu was at the toilet in the restaurant and by the time they arrived at his hotel, a nice four-star place just off Monivong Boulevard, she felt relaxed and almost sleepy.

But then anything that had been almost pleasant about the evening disappeared in the reality of the situation. Once they reached the room he became a different person, pawing and groping at her then commanding her to undress. He poured himself a whisky and sat on the edge of the bed, leering at her as she hesitantly removed her clothes. Once she was naked he ordered her to go and take a shower. As she took her time washing herself she wondered if she would ever feel clean again after tonight.

If the thought of what was to come had been frightening, the reality was far worse. His gentleness from the restaurant had now disappeared completely and she had to stifle a cry as he pushed her onto the bed and began pawing at her body again. Then came the pain as he forced himself inside her and this time she could not hold back a cry of pain, a cry he ignored as he continued to thrust on top of her. The only saving grace was that it seemed to be over before it had even started and he rolled off her, satiated and uncaring and asleep within minutes. Makara lay there for what seemed like hours, her shame a red stain on the bed between her legs, her innocence flowing away with the tears that streamed silently down her face.

Eventually she forced herself off the bed, leaving the now snoring Liu in the bed. She stood under the shower for nearly 40 minutes, trying to wash the memory of what had happened away from her. She dressed and crept back into bed, careful not to wake him in case he wanted more. Sleep took a long time to come, and when it did her dreams were filled with memories of home that took her away from the horrors of the night.

She woke in the first light of morning to Liu’s hands and mouth invading her. There was no point in resisting, he would only have forced himself on her, and so she remained passive and let him hurt her once again. When he had finished this time he immediately got out of bed and went to the bathroom and she heard the shower being switched on. She lay there unsure what to do or what he wanted her to do. After about ten minutes he emerged and started dressing. When he was finished he looked at her, threw a five dollar bill on the bed and said;

“I have to go to work. There’s some money for a tuk tuk.”

And then he was gone. She gathered her things together and phoned Sopheak who told her to come straight to her house. She was hardly in the door when the tears came, Sopheak enveloping her in her arms and holding her close till every last sob had escaped her body. Once the tears had subsided, Sopheak made her some food then handed her an envelope.

“There’s $1,250 in there. I know it seems horrible to put a price on something so precious, but think of the difference it will make to your family. One thing, don’t send it all at once or your mother will be suspicious.”

Once Makara had finished eating she thanked Sopheak – who told her not to come to work that night – then headed back to her room. As she lay in her lonely bed far from home and family, she swore that no man would hurt her like that again.

From that day almost a year had passed. Sopheak had stayed true to her word and kept Makara as a ‘special girl.’ She could choose her own customers when she wanted, and always charged $100 or more depending on how generous she thought the customer could be. She never went with Chinese men; the night with Liu had ensured that she could never allow herself to be touched by another one. Her preferred type was under 50 and slim, perhaps both factors also influenced by that night her innocence had been stolen. And although she was a girl very much grounded in reality, she had succumbed to the same hope and dream so common among the working girls of Phnom Penh; that one day someone special would walk through the door, someone who wouldn’t care about her past and who would marry her and free her from this life of slavery.

There had been several who had spoken sweet words to her, promising her happiness and escape while in the haze of cheap liquor, but in the cold morning light of sobriety their promises quickly became unmasked as the lies of sweet mouthed barangs (foreigners). The hope and the dream faded a little each time this happened and cynicism was slowly creeping in to take over.

So here she was, on another Friday night in the big sin city. December in Phnom Penh yet the city seemed quiet. Perhaps the spate of murdered tourists over the last nine months, seven bodies found eviscerated in various cheap guesthouses across the city, made people more hesitant to venture out to the bars and hostess joints. And reflecting just how cheap people thought the lives of working girls were, the fact that half a dozen bargirls had been strangled in just seven weeks had been relegated to inside pages of the newspapers while the dead barangs claimed the headlines and the outrage on social media. Such was the way of the world in South East Asia. The ones with money in their pockets had more value than those forced to sell their bodies in order to survive. Yet take away the dollar signs and which of them were the more noble creatures? Life was cheap here, it seemed like it had always been that way, and the skewed views of those who visited weren’t going to change that perception any time soon.

Makara was sitting at the bar, bored and listless, and talking to Saray the cashier about nothing in particular. The bar had seen less than ten customers all night and it didn’t look as if that was going to change much. Nights like this had been too common recently and the girls all hoped that January would see a big increase in custom. If it didn’t then a few girls would likely have to be let go, returning to their villages or to work in one of the sweatshop factories that surrounded Phnom Penh like a Berlin Wall of exploitation.

The door swung open, greeted with the familiar deafening chorus of ‘Hello!’ from all the girls as they all flocked round the newcomers in the hope of being chosen. With the month so quiet the two men entering were deluged with girls eager to earn some dollars. Makara sighed, she didn’t like hanging out the front so always lost out to that initial rush, and neither of the men looked her type anyway. She picked up her phone, choosing to play on Facebook for a time while Sarey sorted drinks for the customers. As usual there were multiple friend requests from men she didn’t know, and as usual she deleted all of them. Some of the other girls accepted all these requests in the hope that one of them would be the man of their dreams, but the reality was usually a succession of sleazy messages and pictures of their dick sent by private message. Little did their suitors know that what they thought were impressive photos ended up being the source of much hilarity for all the girls at work that same night.

The door swung open again. This time it was a lone wolf. When a single man came into a bar, it was pretty much a certainty that he was looking to take a girl home or back to his hotel. When they were in pairs or groups they might choose to stay at that bar or merely use it as one in a succession of venues on a night out. Some of the girls still attached to the previous two men detached themselves from the group and went to greet the new customer. Like sexual limpets they clung to him and steered him to an empty booth near the pool table, hoping at the very least he would buy multiple drinks and that at best he would choose to bar fine one…or even two of them for the night. She sighed again. Shame. He was actually more her type than she had seen for a couple of weeks. Aged about 35 he wasn’t handsome in a movie star way but neither was he ugly. He had kind eyes and was well groomed and seemed a little shy at the attention he was getting. Makara returned her attention to her phone, occasionally glancing at the mirror behind the bar to observe the flirtatious machinations of her workmates.

On her third glance she noticed he was staring intently at her, the girls beside him oblivious to the fact he was showing no interest in them. She blushed a little, a natural reaction she often had that only added to her innocent charm that so many men liked. She tried to keep her attention on the phone but found her attention drawn back to the reflection in the mirror time and time again. And every time she looked the man was still staring. Should she go over? No, let him ask to speak to her. A certain degree of aloofness was another trait that had served her well over this last year. Forcing herself to stare at the phone screen she resisted every urge to look again. After about ten minutes one of the girls who had been sitting with him came over and sat beside Makara at the bar.

“The barang doesn’t like us.” She said quietly in Khmer. “He wants you to go and sit with him.”

Makara looked over her shoulder. The man was still staring straight at her and when she looked, he smiled, a warm smile that made her feel a little funny inside. She made her way over to him and he indicated she should sit beside him. The other two girls giggled, but Makara could see the annoyed look in their eyes.

“Soursdey.” He said in clumsy Khmer. “Sok Sabai?”

She smiled. “It’s ok, bong, I speak good English. I’m good thank you, how are you?”

“Good too,” he answered hesitantly. “Sorry, my Khmer is not very good.”

“At least you try.” She said.

He ordered drinks for them both, Jack Daniels and Coke for her – without the Jack Daniels – and a beer for him. They chatted easily. As they always did, he loved her name and its meaning, the trap set and sprung before the drinks had even arrived at the table. His name was Ryan, he was 32 and from Nottingham in England. He told her he was a freelance web designer and was considering relocating to Phnom Penh. As the vast majority of his work was carried out online there was little need to actually live in England and with the way the politics and prices were going, he didn’t really want to. Makara nodded and smiled at all the right times. He’d been in Cambodia for eight weeks now and had rented a small apartment. He had spent a week in Siem Reap but had been in the capital since as he needed to finish a major work project so had little time to travel, though he did plan on getting to Sihanoukville and Kampot soon. He asked about where she was from and her family back home and seemed genuinely interested. When she told him about working with the tours to see the Irawaddy Dolphins he asked if she would take him to see them. She looked at him sadly at this point and said that she couldn’t as it was her home town and too many people would talk if she was travelling with a barang.

“You’re a very special girl,” he said.

Makara knew he wasn’t drunk – yet – as she had become very experienced at judging how drunk a barang was. Was this just more sweet mouth lies? Nineteen seemed too young an age to be cynical and world weary but that’s what working in this trade did to you. He hadn’t tried to be sleazy, as many of the customers did, at any point. In fact, the only physical contact had been when he took her hand before telling her she was beautiful.

“You probably think I am just saying nice things, but there really is something special about you.” He said.

She liked the words. But she didn’t know if she believed them. Ryan didn’t seem to have that same desperate aura that so many male visitors to the bar had, but she had travelled this road of hope before only to find that the destination left a bitter taste. He ordered more drinks, but switching his own choice to water as he said he had an important Skype call with a client early in the morning and that he didn’t want to be too fuzzy headed. Once the drinks had arrived he went to hold her hand under the table and she let him, yet still wondering if the hand would want to go travelling elsewhere while out of sight. But it remained a tender gesture that let her stay on the road a while longer.

She had expected any new direction in conversation to involve a query around bar fines and availability, but instead he surprised her again.

“Bopha, I do mean it when I say you are special. I know it sounds stupid but I have never been in one of these bars before and I had no idea why I came in this one tonight. But when I saw you I realised that something had made me come in.”

Sweet mouth.

“I want to ask you something,” he said. “I need to go back and sleep soon. This Skype call is due at 3am. Is there any way we could meet for dinner tomorrow night and talk more? I know you need to pay fines in bars like this and am happy to pay the bar so you can have the night off. And I do mean only dinner and drinks. I’m not asking you to come back to my place; you really are too special to rush things.”

Sweet mouth. But sweet too.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ll have to go and ask my boss.”

Leaving him alone, she made her way up the narrow staircase to the small office where the mamasan held court.

“Do you like this boy?” she asked once Makara had explained the situation.

“Yes,” she said. “He seems honest, not like all the other customers.”

“Okay,” said the mamasan, “let me come down and talk to him.”

They came down together and sat down either side of Ryan.

“Quite a handsome boy,” said the mamasan in Khmer.

She then grilled the poor Englishman, asking what his plans were for the following night, where he would take Makara, and how much was he willing to pay for her to lose one of her best staff for the night. Thus began the haggling dance, though to be fair to Ryan he didn’t try to hard but realised it was almost a traditional part of the ritual. Finally they agreed on a price of $40 for Makara to have the next night off. Little more than the average cost of a good dinner in the West or a mid-range hotel here, but also the cost of owning a human life for one night in Asia.

Satisfied, and with the money in her hand, the mamasan retreated to her eyrie and left them alone again.

“Where will I meet you?” he asked.

“Easiest just to meet here. It’s close to everything. Is six o’clock okay?”

“Sounds good to me. I am really sorry I have to go.” He said. “But it’s clients like these that mean I will probably be able to live here.”

Makara called for his kit loy and paid it, leaving a dollar tip for the cashier and handing two dollars as a tip to Makara.

“I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then,” he said.

“I’m looking forward to it. See you six o’clock.”

Ryan leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek.

“You’re very special,” he said.

Sweet mouth.

“So are you,” she said, and meant it.

Once he had gone the gossip started, the girls giggling and asking her lots of questions. She fobbed them off with the minimum details she could till they finally grew bored and drifted back to the captivation of their phone screens, counting the minutes till another quiet night was over.


Makara had made an effort for that evening’s date. Though part of her, jaded by a year of lies and broken promises, thought that Ryan was just another tourist with a willing wallet, there was still enough of the innocent country girl left to hope that this could be true romance. He had been so polite and had seemed genuine. So she had her best dress on, not too sexy but not overly demure either. She’d visited the salon in late afternoon and her hair was now a cascade of exuberant curls and her makeup was, unlike so many Khmer girls after a visit to the salon, enhancing her beauty rather than transforming it into a pale mask of horror. She took a tuk tuk to the bar, conscious that her carefully prepared hair would suffer irreparably on the back of a moto. There was the usual early gathering of girls at the bar, cleaning up, doing makeup, and the inevitable Khmer habit of calorie-defying eating. The girls were almost as excited as Makara, teasing her about her new ‘boyfriend’ and asking when the wedding would be.

Ryan was on time, arriving outside the bar virtually bang on six in one of the weird bubble tuk tuks that dotted the Riverside catering for tourists. He looked good, crisp white linen shirt and freshly pressed chinos and Makara was relieved he hadn’t turned up in shorts and sandals. He got out of the tuk tuk in order to help her in, a sign of a true gentleman she thought, and greeted her with a chaste kiss on the cheek, much to the amusement of the watching audience of half made-up bar girls. They set off, heading up the street towards Riverside then taking a left.

“Where are we going?” asked Makara.

“Just wait and see.” Ryan had an enigmatic smile as he replied.

They drove up Sisowath Quay, Ryan lightly holding her hand as they looked out at the bustling activity of life by the river at dusk, Khmer matrons performing synchronised aerobics, young couples playing badminton, food vendors serving a variety of succulent wares, and tourists recording the moments for posterity and memories. They slowed just after passing the night market then stopped on the river side of the road by the large, mainly tourist-orientated, Khmer restaurant across from Mao’s Club where Makara had been with some friends the month before.

“I thought it seemed appropriate given your name.” he said.

Makara looked up at the sign. ‘Bopha Phnom Penh Titanic Restaurant.’ She wasn’t sure where the ‘Titanic’ part of the name came from, she only remembered it was the name of a ship that had sunk in the film, so she didn’t know if that was a bad omen.

They walked through the main entrance and were greeted by a woman in traditional Khmer dress. She gave the couple a Cambodian sampeah greeting, her eyes and smile warm for Ryan but her gaze at Makara saying that she knew this was a relationship based on a foundation of dollar signs. The waitress led them to the table Ryan had reserved, down on the riverside terrace with views onto the Tonle Sap. Ryan asked her what she wanted to drink and she asked for a mango shake while he ordered a Tiger beer. The waitress went to collect their drinks while they looked at the menu.

The restaurant was nice, but was obviously aimed at tourists. It was all a little too…well, Khmer. Like they had tried too hard to be authentic and had then passed their planned destination by a couple of dozen miles. A small stage in the main part of the restaurant hosted a couple of Apsara dancers and some traditional musicians, their show being lapped up by the surrounding diners by the look of the multiple camera flashes going off.

Makara looked over the menu. So expensive. She could make most of the dishes on here for a fraction of what they were charging.

“Do you see anything you like?” asked Ryan.

Makara wasn’t particularly hungry. Unlike her workmates she usually ate sparingly, trying to save every spare dollar and riel to send home to her family.

“I think I’ll have the Mango Salad,” she said. “What about you?”

“What I really like is sitting across the table from me,” he replied.

Sweet mouth. But sweet too.

“I know it makes me look like a total tourist – which I suppose I still am – but I’m going to have the Chicken Amok served in the coconut shell. And maybe some Chicken Satay for a starter, but we can share that.”

The waitress returned with the drinks and took the food order, leaving them alone again. There was a silence between them, but comfortable rather than awkward, and they gazed out at the Tonle Sap, still bustling in the early evening, content just to be in the other’s company. When conversation returned, it was as comfortable as the silence had been. Ryan told her about growing up in Nottingham, about his two brothers who were both in the army, of weekend camping trips with their dad in the Peak District, and of how he had shown aptitude with computers and programming from an early age. She felt she knew him better than the timeframe of 24 hours would suggest, and she dared to hope that maybe this time the road could lead to somewhere permanent.

The food arrived and Ryan ordered more drinks. They shared their plates, though Ryan was not overly fond of the Mango Salad, and Makara declared that her mother’s Amok was far better than what they served here. Their conversation continued to flow as easily as the river mere metres from their table and Makara relaxed more and more as the evening went on. Once the meal was finished Ryan paid the bill and they left the restaurant, ignoring the plaintive cries of tuk tuk drivers outside and instead choosing to walk along the riverside pathway.

Even with the occasional waft of sewage assaulting their noses, there was a feeling of romance in the air. Young couples sat entwined on the wall by the river, this their only location for unchaperoned courting. Children still ran and played around their parents, and the only negative was the occasional young solvent sniffer separated from the world and reality by the fumes they were inhaling. Ryan led her over to the wall and they sat, gazing at the reflection of the half moon on the water and not needing to say anything at all.

“Bopha…” said Ryan. “I really am being honest when I say you are special. Is there any way you would stop working in that bar if I was living here all the time? I can’t bear the thought of other men touching you or even looking at you. I want you to be all mine.”

Sweet mouth. But the oh so sweet she wanted to hear.

 “I will be honest with you too. I hate working there, but since my father died I am the main provider for my mother and siblings. I like you too but I need to think of my family before myself.”

“Can I ask? How much money do you send home to your family every month? I know it’s rude but it is important.”

“No, that’s ok,” she said. “Some months I manage to send $400 or more, others a little less, but always enough to keep the children in school and food on the table. And I try and save a little for myself too so I can one day open a business back in Kampi.”

“Look, my work is good and it pays well. What if I covered all the money your family needs so that you don’t have to work there and we can be together?”

She smiled. Had the path finally taken her to the place she wanted to be?

“If your words and heart are true, then yes, I would happily stop working. But I cannot live with you until you have met my mother, and even then we must make plans to marry if you really want to be with me.”

“I am true and I am happy to meet your mother. If she likes me and gives permission I would marry you too though I know nothing of how it is done here. I know it is crazy to talk like this after one day but I know what I want.”

“Do not worry about what to do, the women take care of everything.” Makara laughed. “You just change outfits when we tell you and smile for the family. I am sure my mother will like you very much.”

They embraced, and held each other like that for a long time.

“Do you want to come back to my apartment?” he asked. “You don’t have to, but I want nothing more than to wake up beside you.”

Sweet mouth, true mouth, happy heart.

“Yes darling, I want to be with you too. But I must tell you one thing if we are being true. My real name is Makara, not Bopha. Bopha is the name the owner of the bar thought suited me.”

He frowned.

“I like Bopha though. You will always be my Khmer flower.”

That sweet mouth again.

They walked over to the road and hailed an enthusiastic tuk tuk driver. Ryan told him to take them to Street 134, not far from Central Market. Makara was surprised as she had expected him to live in a condo block but she supposed he didn’t want to get a more expensive place till he had made a final decision about staying. Street 134 was a typical Phnom Penh Street, businesses on both sides varying from phone and computer shops to pharmacies and beauty salons, all with two or three levels of apartments above them. Ryan’s apartment was two levels above a phone shop, the entrance a rusted and solitary gate with little lighting.

“This is just temporary till I decide I’m here for good,” he said as if sensing her previous uncertainty. “Though I think now I know I will be staying.”

He led her up the poorly-lit stairs, holding her hand to reassure her and keep her from stumbling. He had a padlock on his door as well as the normal lock and it took him a few minutes to unlock the door but finally he opened it and ushered her in, switching on the lights as they entered. It was a typical small Khmer apartment but Ryan had made some effort to make it homely to his own tastes. A few tasteful pictures adorned the wall and there was a large flat screen TV across from some of the usual rattan furniture. A stereo unit sat in a small shelving unit and he lifted a remote control, pressing some buttons to play music that sounded much like what she heard in the bar all the time. He pressed the control again and the volume rose, worrying Makara that he could upset the neighbours. Taking her by the hand again, he led her through to the bedroom, and she placed her bag on the side of the bed before sitting down. She looked up at him and noticed dark shadows that were hiding his smiles of before.

“You’re just like all the rest,” he said. “Another lying whore.”

Where had sweet mouth gone?

“Ryan, what’s wrong? Why are you being like this? Maybe I should leave.”

“You’re not fucking going anywhere, bitch.”

Makara was in shock. What had caused such a change in so short a time? She made to get up from the bed but he stepped forward and struck her across the face, sending her sprawling backwards on the bed beside her bag. Tears began to rise in her eyes.

“You want to know what’s wrong. Then I’ll tell you. You left it to the very end to tell me your real name, proving you’re just another liar. You think this is the first time I’ve been in Cambodia? I first came in 2006 and met a girl who I fell in love with. I gave her money, bought her gifts, and she promised she would stop working in her sleazy bar and wait for me to come back from England. Said she was working in a hair salon instead, and while I was gone I would send her money every week to live. But when I came back eight weeks later, I arrived a week early to surprise her, went to the salon where she said she worked but they had never heard of her. So that night I went back to the bar where we had met and there she was with some fat German’s hand up her skirt. You can’t help yourself; as soon as you become a whore you learn to lie, and a soon as you learn to lie you start hurting people. Well just like the others, no-one is going to care about another dead whore.”

Others? Dead? Ryan opened a drawer and took out a short length of rope and moved towards Makara.

“There’s no point in screaming, my neighbour downstairs is stone deaf and the stereo will drown anything out for the others.”

He struck her again and pushed her back before straddling her and looping the rope around her neck.

“Another dead whore, another dead bitch. No great loss in a country of so many whores and liars.”

He began to tighten the rope, his eyes ablaze with the insanity only killers really know, and Makara could feel her breath gradually disappear. Ryan was so focussed on what he was doing that he didn’t notice her hand reach into the bag beside her. Nor did he see her slip the Citadel Kukri knife out of her bag that had cost her nearly a month’s wages to buy. But he did feel the 10.5cm blade as she pushed it into his stomach. And he also felt the cold pain of steel as she slit his stomach open and his intestines began to spill out on the bed. She pushed him off her and he fell back, hands uselessly clasping at his stomach in a vain bid to save his own life.

Now the tables were turned and she straddled him, the skills she had learned from her father in evidence as she expertly disembowelled him. As the last vestiges of light began to fade from his eyes, she stared down at him.

“Did you never stop to think what makes us whores and liars? Do you think we were born this way? Poverty turns us into whores and the empty promises of bastards like you makes us into liars. Every whore is a daughter, a sister, a mother, a woman. We do not choose this life, this life chooses us. You come here with full wallets and arrogant thoughts, you use us and throw us away and then you wonder why we lie?”

But Ryan was gone and could not answer. She looked at the bloody scene and sighed. Another bitter ending but this time it seemed she had gained revenge for her murdered sisters. Who would have guessed that his sweet mouth was masking such a sour heart? It was time to clean up and leave.

As she had done seven times before, she carefully cleaned up after herself, memorising the few spots where she may have left fingerprints and wiping them thoroughly before stripping off and placing all the bloody clothes in a refuse bag. She then showered slowly; making sure every spot of blood was washed from her body then dressing again in the spare outfit she always carried in her bag.

As she made to leave she looked back one last time at Ryan’s body lying on the blood-soaked bed. Such a shame. She had really hoped that this was the one. Maybe next time.


Copyright Steven W. Palmer 2020

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