A Little Fear and a Lot of Loathing in Bavet, Cambodia

IMGP0003

I’ve been having deodorant problems.

They’ve only been going on for a couple days or so. I’ve been sweating more than usual, and well, I’ve been smelling a little funky at times. It’s not that I’m not wearing deodorant, it’s just that it’s not working out with my deodorant. But like a relationship gone wrong in which neither person can break up with the other, I keep sticking that deodorant under my arms. And I keep stinking.

I’ve been meaning to go to COOP Mart and buy new deodorant (Black Rexona for Men, not Yellow Rexona for Men, the one I’m wearing now). But I haven’t gone. Every morning I wake up, look at my yellow container of deodorant, and think, “Damn, I forgot to buy deodorant again.” And then I stick that deodorant back under my arms. And I walk around town stinking like a pig.

As I sat in a bus driving through Tay Ninh Province, on the way to the Cambodian border, I wondered why I hadn’t bought new deodorant the day before. Why did I stick that yellow deodorant under my arms yet again, when I knew full well it was making me stink like Hell? I looked out the window at the endless rice paddies with buffalo and farmers walking through them. I took a whiff of my underarms. I closed my eyes and shook my head.

Sometimes I don’t know why I do the things I do.

—-

I should have known my trip was destined to failure the night before. After working till 4:45pm, I had three things to do: buy a bus ticket to Cambodia; pick up some U.S. cash (US cash is the unofficial currency in parts of Cambodia); and pick up a disposable camera.

I wanted the camera because I wanted to take pictures of all the silly looking Cambodian casinos that cluster at the border.  I wanted to include them with a story like this. And I didn’t want to deal with my point and shoot…especially since I lost my USB cord, and the new one I bought doesn’t work (the problem has since been fixed). Disposable cameras are easy enough to find for a savy Ho Chi Minh City-dweller like myself: just roll on down to Nguyen Hue, stop in at one of the main film shops (where you go to get passport photos), and buy one of the many disposables they have on sale.

But when I rolled up to 70B Nguyen Hue, there were none to be found. Plenty of rolls of film….just no disposables. I left the shop. It was raining. It had been raining all day. I was tired. I was wet. I had been working all day. My work bag was getting wet. I went to another shop. No disposables. My mind started to ask sarcastic questions to the unhearing shopkeepers: “Do people still even buy film?!?! Who??? Who buys film??? If people buy film, WHY WOULDN’T AN OCCASIONAL PERSON WANT A DISPOSABLE!?!?!”  I got angry and started acting irrational, confusing everyone. I started driving in circles. Did I mention it was raining, and I had been working all day, and my work bag was getting wet?

Finally, I came to shop where the guy said he could make a phone call and get a disposable. Twenty minutes later, a woman walked in with a plastic, camouflage film camera. It wasn’t what I asked for….but it was camouflage.  That almost swayed me. But I ended up leaving without a disposable.

The troubles had begun….

—-

IMGP0012

I made some friends on the bus. They were two girls from Germany who spoke English really well. They were traveling around Southeast Asia for 7 weeks…they had a week and a half left. They seemed excited for me. “Good luck!” they shouted as I walked away from the bus. (There were also some British brahs with tribal tats on the bus…but we didn’t talk much).

As I walked down the road, I couldn’t hide my excitement…I was smiling my way down the road. I was in the town of Bavet, a border town only two hours away from Ho Chi Minh City, a place known almost entirely for its casinos.

I’ve been to Foxwoods in Connecticut; I’ve been to Mohegan Sun in Connecticut; I’ve even been to the casino in Montreal. But I’ve never been to Vegas since turning 21 (I was there when I was 9 or 10…but that doesn’t count). When you go to Foxwoods, or Mohegan, or the one in Montreal, there’s one and only one. As you drive you see the giant building sparkling in the distance.  But then you get there, park in the parking garage, and head inside…and that’s it, you don’t leave until you’re done.

I’ve never been to a place where casinos are all concentrated together…like Vegas or Macau or Atlantic City. So as I stood at the end of the road in Bavet…that was all I saw.  I didn’t see anything else. I breathed in. I breathed out. I felt like a pilgrim who had finally made it to the end of the dusty road, looking out in the distance towards the glittering towers of Mecca. I felt like a cactus feeling its first drops of rain after years of staring at nothing but sun, clouds, and blue sky. I felt like Balboa when he spotted the Pacific through the trees, sparkling blue and green in the midday sun. I felt like I was making a discovery, experiencing something for the first time. I felt good. I took a picture of myself.

IMGP0010

There were casinos standing in front of me. And they were there for me. And that’s all I could see.

IMGP0005

—-

I took out my camera and started taking pictures. Good Luck Casino. Las Vegas Sun. Emperor Casino. Casino Royale. I remembered reading an old Bill Simmons column years ago, when he talked about how walking down the strip was a highlight of any Vegas trip. I thought of that, as I walked through the puddles, plastic bottles, condom wrappers and chom chom skins that littered the side of the road; I thought of that as buses, trucks, cars and motorbikes whizzed dangerously close to me; I thought of that as thunderclouds built in the distance, and the smell of dogshit stung my nostrils.

IMGP0018

“THINK OF YOUR SAFETY” a sign told me as I walked. A truck flew by too close to me.

Up ahead I saw the Winn. Steve Wynn owns one of the most luxurious casinos in Las Vegas. Man, I thought, Steve Wynn built a casino here? Then I realized it was spelled Winn, not Wynn. But everything else looked the same…they got the signature down perfectly.

IMGP0020

Asia….land of the bootlegs. They even have bootleg casinos.

I’d been walking for ten minutes. The thunderclouds were growing…it was only a matter of time before the rain would start falling on me. This is what happens during the rainy season in Southeast Asia. It rains a lot. The Winn was about 100 yards ahead. I started getting hit with raindrops. I started to run towards the Winn, my sanctuary.

But the Winn would not be my sanctuary on this day. When I got to the Winn, it was chained off. Closed.

IMGP0022

Maybe Steve Wynn had gotten wind of the Winn’s scheme and wrote them a cease and desist letter. Maybe they murdered someone over a debt and got caught (these are stories that the Vietnamese tell you about Bavet…that people are murdered there over debts and buried in the nearby swamps. Good reason to bring your own cash). Maybe the Winn just wasn’t a good casino.  Whatever the case, it was closed, decrepit, dark, fenced off. It looked like the kind of place that might be haunted. I wondered if the kids of Bavet dare each other to spend a night in the Winn, where the ghosts of lost savings and fortunes still haunt the hallways.  Or if maybe they just break into the Winn to do teenager things.  The raindrops started getting bigger. Arriving at the Winn right as it started raining was no longer perfect timing. I was going to get rained on.

IMGP0024

I turned around. On the nice brick sidewalk in front of the Winn a dog was taking a shit.

I crossed the road and walked back up from where I came, through the giant, muddy puddles in the rain on a dangerous embankment, towards The Titan. The Titan looked like the only actual legit casino in town, with the possible exception of Le Macau. Which is what I wanted. In America, I would maybe choose a low-key casino, where there wouldn’t be too much pressure on me. But here in Asia, I didn’t want low-key. I wanted something legit, because that would mean more games. Asians love to gamble, but it’s usually baccarat or sic bo, two very, very simple games that have decent odds, but just seem boring to me. Plus, I’ve never played either. I wanted to play blackjack or craps.

A big, legit casino is more likely to have Western games. That’s what I wanted. Western Games.

IMGP0016

It was pouring rain. I ran through the entrance. Bavet: the only place where you gamble in order to stay out of monsoons. I arrived at the glamorous front entrance soaking wet. Some people were walking around in suits. I walked inside.

The freezing cold air conditioning hit me like a wall; rainwater and AC don’t mix well. The first thing I noticed was that it was very dark inside. And quiet. Some people were mingling around. On one side of the lobby there was a Chinese Restaurant; on the other side, a Western Restaurant.

It’s not like when you walk into an American casino and you’re immediately blasted with light, colors and noise: electronic music coming from one-armed bandits, coins hitting metal, more electronic noise. There was none of that. I was definitely in a casino…but it was cold, dark and silent. It felt more dangerous than a Western casino…more ominous.

I started walking.  I didn’t know what I was looking for. I passed some electronic games. I passed a disco room (the doors were locked). I passed a VIP room. I passed some slot machines. I paused at one called ‘Monkey Express.’ No one was playing them. No one was even in the room. There were signs on the wall for a baccarat tournament that was two months finished.

I came into another room. There a few desks with girls behind them. Chinese lettering on the wall. And then, another door…

…and it opened into the table room. And my oh my, there were the tables. For the first time I felt like I was in a casino. The room was humming with the sounds of people playing table games. Suddenly I felt happy…it felt good to be in a casino. I hadn’t been in one for over five years.

I walked around, trying to take it all in. There were card games, but I didn’t seem to know any of them. A smiling female dealer tried calling me to a busy table. I kept walking. I saw Pai Gow Poker…a game I don’t know. And then I came to the baccarat tables: hundreds of tables, just for baccarat. It was crazy…tables were absolutely packed with people playing baccarat.

The room was smoky. A guy noticed me and approached me. “Hey Man!” He had a fannie pack on. Oh shit, I thought.  I don’t know who this guy is but I don’t want to talk to him. That’s an instinctive thought when you’ve lived in Asia for awhile…you don’t want to get ripped off by some stranger. Usually, the friendlier they seem, the more likely they are to try and rip you off.

I avoided him, doubled back around some tables, and kept walking fast. There was cigarette smoke everywhere. All I could see were baccarat tables, and all I wanted was a blackjack table. Suddenly I wished I had a friend with me. I wished I had someone to gauge the situation with me.

I found an employee walking around in a suit and tie.

“Blackjack?” I asked.

“Oh yes sir, right over here,” he replied. And sure enough, he brought me to a perfectly empty blackjack table. I think there were only two in the whole room, right next to each other. Both completely empty. Empty blackjack tables…an endangered species in America, but thriving in Southeast Asia.

They had to scramble to get the dealer. Apparently there’s only one blackjack dealer in the whole casino. I waited. A very friendly looking young man appeared, with a very friendly looking pit boss in a red sport jacket.

“Hello sir!” he said, all smiles. “How are you today?”

“Suseday,” I replied. “I’m fine, akun.”

He and the pit boss started laughing. “Oh! You speak Khmer!”

“Not really…Suseday, Akun, Ok Benya…that’s all I know.”  They nodded and smiled. “I speak a little Vietnamese. Anh noi Tieng Viet?” I asked. They shrugged their shoulders and smiled a little. Ok, I thought, stick to the three phrases you know how to say in Khmer. Or English.

“Ok…we play blackjack?” the dealer asked.

“Yeah, let’s do it,” I said. I put my cash on the table, but they kind of started to freak out. Apparently you don’t do that here. They called the cash boy, the same guy with the fanny pack I had seen earlier. I gave him the cash, and he gave me chips. In the States they keep the money inside the table…in Cambodia they keep the cash in fannie packs carried by 18 year olds. Whatever works.

As I collected my chips, the dealer began to shuffle the decks.

blackJack2

I’ve only played blackjack a few times at casinos: 2 times in Montreal, 3 times at Mohegan Sun, and one time while nearly blackout drunk at a bachelor’s party at Foxwoods ( I don’t count that time because I was almost blackout drunk, and it was 5am).

I’ve always done okay. When I was living in Vermont way back when, I taught myself the basic strategy: when to hit, when to stand, when to double down, when to split, and when to surrender if allowed.  Also never to take insurance.

I’d play with a deck of cards in my living room. I’m not good at math, but I am good at memorizing pointless things, and that’s basically blackjack: when we finally made the trip up to Montreal, I cleared $120 if my memory serves me right. We went back later and I won again, about $100.

I didn’t play again until about two years later, at the aforementioned bachelor’s party, when in a state of inebriation and exhaustion I managed to lose about $150 at 5am.  Like I said…..I don’t count that. Call me a cheater if you must.

Then I took another break and came back about a year later, this time to Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. This was far and away my best encounter: I won over $350 in one night. The great part was that it was at a $25 a bet table: it was Friday night, and on Friday night at Mohegan the blackjack seats are expensive property. It took me about 20 minutes to get a seat. When the bets are $25 a pop, that’s borderline not fun. But I started winning right off the bat, got close to $500, took some bad hits, and ended up walking away with about $350. Both of my buddies had lost. That’s a good feeling: when you’re the only winner. You feel special.  You can’t gloat, but it’s cool. The next time I went a won about $100, the last time I went I lost about $100…and that’s my blackjack experience in a nutshell.

—–

And now I was back. It was my first time in a casino since those times at Mohegan. I was feeling it. I’d been gone for so long…I’d been practicing playing, getting the moves right in my head…I was ready.

But it’s weird when it’s just you and the dealer at a blackjack table. I’m used to being around at least a couple degenerates. When it’s just you and the dealer…it feels weird.

It doesn’t feel right.

But at the same time, I was sitting a $5 blackjack table by myself. $5!  And there was no pressure…if I screwed up a move, I wouldn’t have some degenerate saying things like, “Jeeeeeeeuz Christ!”

So I stayed.

He dealt the cards. I got a pair of sixes. He was showing a three.

Bam. Right off the top, an interesting hand. A pair. And not just a pair, but a pair that should be split: sixes against a three.

I doubled my bet, pointed my index and middle finger in the peace sign to signify that I wanted to split. He split me. He dealt himself 21. And so it went.

“So sorry!” he said, smiling. And I felt it was sincere.

I shrugged. What can you do, I thought. Bad break.

But it didn’t stop. Every hand went his way. EVERY F**KING HAND. I’d get 20, he’d get 21. I’d get 21, he’d get 21. I’d stand on 16 against a 2, he’d get a 17. I’d double down on 11 and get dealt a three. I started with $40. Reasonable enough. That’s enough for 8 losing bets. For the next twenty minutes, I DID NOT WIN ONE HAND. Each time he dealt me decent hands, we’d push. It was either push or lose, never win. And all the way he kept smiling and saying, “So sorry.”

$40 later, I was dumbstruck. What the Hell just happened?!?! Blackjack is a game where you hang around, treading water, waiting for a big double down or split to go the right way or the wrong way. You win some, you lose some. The house wins more on average, because the house always wins (Remember that kiddies!), but you win some. It’s the nature of blackjack. Even when you lose, you win a couple.

I didn’t know what to do. I had the perfect situation…a $5 blackjack table all to myself, a seemingly friendly dealer, free waters provided by a pretty girl in a white dress. But I felt like I had just been smashed in the face with a big plastic mallet. Repeatedly.

I reached in my pocket and took out $30. I gave it to the cash boy. And we continued.

The scene became downright bloody. The mallet that was originally plastic was now metal. And it was still smashing my face. I won a couple hands here and there, and the dealer would applaud me. “Winner!” he would say. But I could barely see the chips on the table through the blood in my eyes. Even when I won, I was hit in the face with a mallet.

At one point I got 21. The dealer looked at the cards and said, “Oh, so sorry, 22.” The electrical circuits in my brain were flickering. My brain was asking me questions like, “Are you sure you’re making the right moves out there? Are you sure the basic blackjack strategy is the correct strategy?” In the bedlam I looked at the cards and said, “Yes, that’s right, a 22.”

But it wasn’t a 22. It was a 21.

He took my money. Then he paused. “Oh my, oh no, you have 21!” I looked again. 21. “Oh,” I said, feeling stupid.

Since he had already taken my chip, the pit boss had to check with the bosses upstairs to see if I could get my chip back. I sat staring at the table as they talked on the phone. The pit boss hung up and the dealer put the chip back on the table. We continued to play the hand. He had a 15.

He hit. He busted. I won money. But it was a demoralizing victory…I won because the dealer made a mistake and corrected himself, something I didn’t even realize.

At some point during all of this, cash boy came back, smiling and laughing, with a glass mug filled with iced tea. He started to say something to me, put his iced tea on the table, and caused great chaos when suddenly glass, ice and tea were all over the table.  Something happened which I had never seen in my lifetime: when cash boy put his mug on the table, it simply split in half. It looked like a samurai sword had sliced through the middle of it. Calling it a bizarre occurrence doesn’t even give it justice. There were only two pieces of broken glass, split perfectly. There were no little shards. Anyway, the game stopped for a little bit as the pit boss and a bunch of waitresses came over to clean the mess. Cash boy threw the broken glass into a flower pot. Hey, why not?

When the mess was cleaned, I took out more cash. Hey, why not? Shit, I’d hadn’t even been in Cambodia for an hour. The dealer looked slightly embarrassed. The cash boy was jolly.

As I continued to lose, cash boy started to laugh and call out things. “Tiger Beer! Tiger Beer!” I became furious. Maybe he was implying that I needed to get drunk to play better, or to deal with my losses, or just to party hardy. But it infuriated me. It’s one thing if some jerk at a casino is making fun of you at a casino when you’re losing…it’s a whole ‘nother thing when the casino employees start ragging on you. Even if it was only cash boy.

I was dealt an 18. “Surrender?” the dealer asked. I understood that it was only him screwing up the English; he meant to say ‘Stand.’ That was obvious. But perhaps I should have taken his advice when he asked me to surrender on 18. Perhaps I should have surrendered.

It was time to re-shuffle. I watched the dealer shuffle the cards. No funny business was going on. I was sitting at a normal blackjack table, as far as I could tell.

He finished shuffling. I immediately lost my chips. My head was on fire; I stood up and backed away from the table.

“I have to leave now…my head is on fire,” I told them.  I smelled smoke in my brain.

Cash boy, the dealer, and the pit boss watched me leave, smiling.

As I walked away I heard the dealer say “Sorry Sir!” I walked past all the people playing baccarat. Straight ahead was a sign on the wall that said “Texas Hold ‘Em.” Hold ‘Em, I thought. Now there’s a game I can play. I’ll just switch to Hold ‘Em. All the tables were empty.  Not a soul to be found playing Hold ‘Em.

Would they let me play Hold ‘Em against myself? I wondered. Would I win against myself?

—-

It was lunchtime. There’s no better way to work up an appetite then to get completely bludgeoned at a blackjack table in the span of forty minutes.

I decided to try the Chinese restaurant in the lobby. Upon entering the glass doors, I realized that it was a stale, depressing place that smelled like cigarettes. I picked up a plastic, brightly colored menu. Inside there were pictures of sushi. Isn’t this place Chinese?

“Hello Sir.” I turned. A waiter was standing by in a formal outfit. “That is our Japanese menu.  There is our Chinese menu.”

I put down the Japanese menu and took a look at the Chinese one. The first page I turned to offered pig’s ear soup. This was real Chinese food. No Kung Pao Chicken here.

“Ummm…I might come back,” I lied to the waiter. I left and crossed the darkened lobby to the Western restaurant. The Western restaurant was boarded up with a padlock and chain. Inside looked dark, dirty, and not open for business. Next to the door was a menu with pictures of a bunch of odd looking drinks that were definitely not Western.

Suddenly I felt like I was suffocating. I need air, my brain told me.

I left the darkened lobby to re-enter the humidity of Cambodia in the rainy season. It wasn’t raining, but there were rain clouds in the sky.

—-

Lunch options were limited. Upon leaving the premises of the Titan, I saw a place called Flowery Restaurant. It was sleepy looking inside; the lights were off. That place has promise, I thought. I’m being serious. It was a promising looking place.

But I headed off the down the road instead. You see, I’ve been to Bavet several times before; anyone making the bus trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh stops here for lunch after crossing the border. The people that run these “bus lunch places” serve a mix of Khmer and Vietnamese street food. The prices are fair, and the food is usually good. And they always have beer. And at this point in time, I wanted a beer. Badly.

But I didn’t realize how far down the road the restaurants were. I kept walking and walking. Gas stations, a gym, a bike mechanic, barber shops, crappy cafes, broken down little buildings, vacant fields filled with trash, rice paddies. I passed all of these things without seeing a single decent looking place to eat. I saw guesthouses, but no lunch places.

IMGP0014

I finally came to one of the bus restaurants. They have huge parking spots out front built specially for buses; I think they’re the only bus specific restaurants I’ve ever seen. By the time I got down there I was sweaty and discouraged. By all means, I should have gone in and eaten. But for some reason, I didn’t.

I stood in the middle of a bus parking spot, looking into the cavernous restaurant with giant ceilings and sparkling clean floors.  They had a side area that sold chips, fruit, and bathroom stuff. I could have bought deodorant.

But for some reason that I can’t explain, I suddenly felt revolted by the thought of eating at the bus restaurant. Maybe it was because it was empty. Not a soul was eating in there. There were no buses out front. Maybe I just couldn’t picture myself eating inside such a large building all by myself, after so recently sitting all alone at a blackjack table and squandering my money. So for no good reason at all, as more rain clouds built up above me, I turned around, tired, sweaty, and hungry, and began to trudge back up the road. I didn’t buy deodorant.

—-

It took me ten minutes or so to make it back to Flowery Restaurant. By this time, it was about 1:20pm. That’s a dangerous time to eat lunch in a restaurant in Asia. Asians eat lunch early; if you go to a local lunch place in Ho Chi Minh City, the good stuff is usually gone shortly after 1pm. I hoped that Flowery would provide me with something good.

I walked into the darkened, completely empty restaurant. It was kind of nice; it looked like the kind of place that would cater to tourists in Siam Reap. It looked out of place.

The menu was written on the wall in Khmer, Vietnamese and English. There were several dishes advertised. Chicken Curry, for $1.75, looked promising. No one came to help me. I left my table and walked up to the middle aged woman eating a bowl of food behind the counter.

“Chicken curry,” I said.

“No,” she said.

OK, Plan B, I thought.

I had no Plan B. I threw the idea of there being a menu out the window. “What do you have?” I asked in English.

She opened a metal pot. Inside was a green curry. It looked cold. “Chicken?” I asked, knowing the answer would be no. “No,” she said. She moved her spoon around the curry, displaying nothing but curry. No veggies, no meat, no fruit, no nothing, just sauce.  “Noodles,” she said. She pointed to a pile of cold white noodles sitting next to the pot. Cold green curry with no meat, no veggies, and cold noodles. The one and only dish on the menu of Flowery Restaurant on this fine, rainy day.

I left without saying bye.

IMGP0007

—–

I continued walking up the road, back towards the border with Vietnam. I passed the Titan, that terrible place with that terrible blackjack table and that terrible cash boy yelling his terrible things as I flushed my money down a toilet.

I saw a red and white sign ahead. It said ‘Pho Paris Restaurant and Hotel.’ Beneath that was a smaller sign that said ‘Angkor Beer,’ the official beer of Cambodia. Pho sounded nice. Anything to take my mind off the fact that I was in Bavet, Cambodia.

I entered and immediately realized that it wasn’t going to be very good. I don’t know how I knew this, I just knew. The Khmer waiter gave me a hot pot menu; it said ‘Lau’ on the front, the Vietnamese word for hot pot. He realized that I probably wasn’t about to eat an entire hot pot by myself, hungry as I might look, and he brought me a normal menu.

I ordered beef luc lac and an Angkor Beer. Luc lac is a pretty easy dish to make; it’s basically chunks of grilled beef with rice. It’s very popular in Cambodia, quick to make, cheap, and hard to screw up. It was an obvious choice. The waiter brought me my beer, a teapot filled with hot tea, and a glass mug half filled with hot water, into which a fork and spoon were put.

I was surrounded by Vietnamese men smoking, drinking, eating, and talking loudly. Turns out I didn’t need to bring US cash out here…there’s almost as much Vietnam Dong floating around as there is USD.

A couple tables away there was a group of Vietnamese guys at a table with a big steaming hot pot in the middle. They were yelling in Vietnamese at the waitresses and taking shots of whiskey. It was about 1:40pm.

Damn fellas. Take it easy.

I finished my beer and got the attention of the waiter. I felt a little bit loose from the beer, but now I needed sustenance: sugar and caffeine. Coke. Or as it’s usually known out here, ‘Coca.’ Of course, I don’t live in Cambodia, but I assumed he would understand what a Coca was. He certainly had experience waiting on Vietnamese people.

“Coca,” I said.

Blank stare.

“Coca,” I said.

Blank stare.

Jesus Christ. I tried a new approach.

“Coca, Coke, Coca-Cola! Coca, Coke, Coca-Cola!” Then I made a drinking motion.

The drinking motion made his eyes light up. “Aaaah, Angkor Beer,” he said.

JESUS CHRIST!

“NO, COCA, COCA, COCA-COLA, COKE, NO ANGKOR BEER, NO!” I ran over to pile of menus. I grabbed a hot pot menu by accident; no drinks in there. I grabbed the real menu; flipped to the drink page; found the word ‘Coke,’ written under ‘Soft Drinks’.

I pointed. “Coke,” I said. His eyes lit up again. “Aaaaaahh…..Coca,” he said.

I closed my eyes. It’s all I could think to do.

—–

As I ate my luc lac and drank my Coke, it started to rain outside. And I’m not talking about any little rainstorm. I’m talking about a mutherf**king monsoon.

Sometimes when it rains really hard in Southeast Asia during the rainy season, it comes down in sheets. You can see the sheets moving around through the rain. But when it’s really, really, REALLY raining, it doesn’t come down in sheets. It comes down in walls.

There were walls and walls and walls of rain falling from the sky. Just knocking into each other, blowing around, bouncing off the ground back up into the sky. Walls. Walls and walls of rain.

The walls of rain kept falling for about 30 minutes. That’s unusual in the city; maybe out here in the countryside it happens more often. I sat at my table watching the rain for about ten minutes after I finished eating, and then I ventured out the front door.

I chatted with a Cambodian tour bus worker for a few minutes. His job was crossing and re-crossing the border between Vietnam and Cambodia on tour buses.  He spoke English really well. We talked about Cambodia and Vietnam, Cambodian girls vs. Vietnamese girls, Cambodian food vs. Vietnamese food. I always played it safe. “Ohhhh….well you know, Cambodian girls are very beautiful, and Vietnamese girls are very beautiful!” “Ahahaha….YES YES YES!” he would yell in response.

Finally the walls stopped crashing around the parking lot in front of us. When it merely became a torrential downpour, I said goodbye and ran 100 yards through the rain to my next destination: Las Vegas Sun.

IMGP0011

—–

I needed a change of scenery. I had no desire to go back to the Titan, where I was hacked to pieces in a matter of minutes. But I wasn’t done gambling. I hadn’t even been in Cambodia for two hours. And so it was decided that I would enter the smaller Las Vegas Sun. Across the road was Le Macau. Being an American, I decided to stick to my roots.

I had to walk through a metal detector to get into the Sun. I liked it better immediately: instead of dark and quiet, it was light and vibrant. The lighting made a huge difference; when I walked into the table room, I didn’t feel like I was in a cave.

I made my way to the cashier’s desk. I realized I only had $20 USD left (I stupidly left 500,000 VND back at my apartment because I didn’t think they would take it. But Dong is almost a second currency in Bavet). With a combo of Dong and USD, I collected 18 dollars in chips. I began searching for a blackjack table.

It never occurred to me to try baccarat. I know how to play. It’s easy. The odds are better than blackjack. I could have blended in better. But I was being stubborn: I wanted blackjack.

I found the blackjack table. It was a $10 table. No biggie. Still cheap where I came from. The rules seemed about the same as I took a quick glance at the rule placard: splitting Aces was only allowed once, same as the Titan. Fair enough, though really not that fair.

The cards were shuffled. I put ten dollars down. The pit boss leaned over the dealer’s shoulder. “Sir, you have to play two hands,” he said.

What he said didn’t register in my brain. “Huh?”

“You must play two hands,” he said.

“But it’s a $10 table,” I said. I was starting to get angry. I don’t get angry easily.

He continued. “Yes, but this is a ten dollar table, so you must play two hands. We only have one other blackjack table, and that one is $20.”

Confusion, anger and disbelief mixed together to form some unknown emotion that I had never encountered until that point. So really, it’s a $20 table. F**king liars.

That’s what my brain said. All I said was, “Jesus Christ.” I’m pretty sure my eyes were flinging eff bombs at them. Either way, I walked back to the cashier’s desk, and asked for 2 more dollars in chips. I gave them some Dong.

It was at this point that I should have run like Hell. I should have fled to Le Macau. But some disgusting little voice in my head told me to go to the blackjack table and place two ten dollar bets. I was becoming pathetic. I was beginning to loathe who I was and what I was doing.

I walked back. The emotionless dealer and pit boss looked at me. I sat down. I put out two ten dollar bets. I was dealt a 13 and a 16. The dealer had dealt himself a 5. And then he didn’t even deal himself his other card for me to see, unturned on the table….he left it in the deck. WHICH I DID NOT LIKE AT ALL.

I should have called him out. But he was showing a 5.

F**k it, I thought. I didn’t say anything.

I don’t remember what he ended up dealing himself, but whatever it was caused me to get up from the table and walk away in utter disgust.

—-

IMGP0006

I was back in the rain. It wasn’t raining hard…but it was raining.

I was out of cash. I wanted an ATM.  I knew my limit…I was close. But I wasn’t there yet. I had three hours left to cross the border. It wasn’t last call yet. The lights were still off. People were still dancing.

So I crossed the road to Le Macau. I walked into the lobby. And I uttered a word that, much like Coca, never causes a problem when used in Vietnam.

“ATM?”

Blank stares.

Here we go.  “ATM.” I said it more firmly this time, more sure of myself. More blank stares.

“F**k it,” I said out loud. I walked into the game room. There were two girls seated at a desk. Computers were in front of them.  Promising.

“Do you have ATM?” I asked. More blank stares.

I whipped out my Vietcombank card. “Credit card? Money? ATM???”

They smiled. “No, no!”

Again, the answer didn’t register. I tried again. I waved my credit card around like a lunatic.

“I want money! I have credit card! Money??”

“No, no!” They were laughing, like, “Why the Hell is this guy trying to get more money at a casino???”

“Ok,” I said. “Then…ATM. WHERE?!?”

“Outside,” they said.

—-

Being self-destructive to yourself is always a little depressing. But it becomes more so when you try and try and try to self-destruct, and you can’t succeed. You fail at self-destruction. And everyone laughs at you. That’s a bad feeling.

I got back to the lobby. “ATM?” I asked the fellas out front again. I didn’t even wait for the blank stares…I started doing my whole “Guy walks into an ATM booth charades-routine,” complete with the actual ATM card in my hand. Finally, knowing nods.

“Yeah, yeah…Acleda.” And they pointed up the road. And it didn’t make any sense to me.

I walked back out to the road. It was raining hard. I considered just re-crossing the border, back to the sanity of Vietnam. But I had hardly any cash on me at all….questionably not enough to make it back home. I needed cash, not only for self-destruction, but for self-preservation. I NEEDED CASH.

There were some motorbike drivers and randoms hanging out by the road where the big Le Macau sign is. “Motorbike?” one of them asked.

“No,” I said. “ATM.”

“Yeah, yeah, I drive you.” They all started jockeying to drive me. Jesus, I thought, this town is tiny. Is the closest ATM not in walking distance?

Just then a guy driving some weird looking golf cart thing with the words Le Macau written on the side pulled up. Everyone started yelling for me to get in, and they were yelling at him “Acleda, Acleda!”  I got in. We pulled a u-turn and drove back up the road.

It would have taken me 15 minutes to walk to the ATM in rain. I didn’t even question why a town full of casinos would only have one ATM. By this point that seemed perfectly logical.

I got out, ran through the rain, and made it into the ATM machine with the word Acleda printed across the front. I took out my US card; it seems to work in any country without a problem. I asked for $60. I was informed that I’d be charged $4 for the withdrawal. Whatever. And then I got a blank receipt and no money. Was there an error? I hate it when you don’t know if the ATM machine has screwed you or not; did it keep my money?

I tried my Vietcombank card. No dice. This time I saw the reason: illegal transaction. Not allowed. Curse words flashed across my mind. Lots of them.

I took my US card back out. I tried it again. And again….This Transaction is Not Allowed. I lay my head on the ATM machine. I could hear the machinery laughing at me from beneath its plastic skin.

I walked back into the rain and got back into the golf cart. On the way back he asked, “Money?” I only had Dong on me. At the front door of Le Macau, I gave him 100,000 VND. He seemed pretty pissed. He gave me my change in Dong.

—-

I walked back across the road to Las Vegas Sun. Why, you ask? Well, because I knew I could get money there…before I lost my money to the shady blackjack table, I had chatted with the friendly ladies at the cashier’s desk, who informed me I could take out money with a credit card. It wasn’t preferred….but I needed money to get home. It would have to do.

I walked back to the cashier’s desk. I asked for $80. $20 of that was strictly for getting home, not for gambling.

“Okay, we charge three person.”

Again, my mind tried to comprehend what I was hearing and failed.

“Three person?” I asked.

“No, no….three person.”

“Three…person? Three people? One Two Three?” I was losing my ability to communicate in a sane manner. Bavet was slowly driving me insane. Were they going to charge me three times?

The guy next to me tried to help. “No, no” he said, “only three person.”

It was going to happen…I was going to faint. For the first time in my life. And then the woman wrote something on a piece of paper and handed it to me. It said, “3%.”

I started to laugh and shake at the same time. “Oh, yes, hahahhhaha, three percent, yes, yes, no problem….”

—–

I don’t know why I did it. I should have played baccarat. People were winning at baccarat. I know how to play baccarat. It’s probably the easiest goddamned game to play on the planet, which is why in Vegas it’s often stuck in high-stakes only rooms with ropes around the edge: good odds, easy to play.

But I was being grossly stubborn. I walked back to the infamous fake $10 blackjack table: the one where it’s actually $20, because you have to have two bets on the table at one time in order to play.

I sat down. The same dealer and pit boss were there. They dealt the cards. The dealer kept pulling that same BS, where he wouldn’t bring out his second card unturned, but leave it in the deck. But the thing is…I started winning a little. At one point I even won three straight bets. So I stuck around.

And then it happened: the dealer dealt himself a 5, and dealt me Ace/3. I know what to do on an Ace/3 against a 5…I double my bet. And so I did. And suddenly the pit boss was waving his hands with a sour look on his face.  “No no no no no no, not allowed,” he said.

I was dumbstruck. “No double downs?!” I almost shouted. I grabbed the little rule placard to look at the rules. He pointed at my ace.  “Ace on the table…no double down allowed on an ace.” I almost puked. “No double down on an ace?” I couldn’t hide my contempt. My astonishment. My absolute bewilderment. “No double down on an ace?” I repeated.  “Not allowed,” he said.

In disgust I took my chip away. I hit. One card. That’s all I needed. He busted. I won. But I was frothing mad, and I realized that there was no way I could win at this table. I wanted to jump up and down on the table and scream at them, “CHEATERS, CHEATERS, YOU’RE A BUNCH OF CHEATERS!” But instead of walking away like I should have, RIGHT THEN AND THERE, I proceeded to play. Out of spite. I wanted to win out of spite. That’s never a good thing. I lost all my chips within in ten minutes. Disgusted, I left without making eye contact with anyone.

—–

Back in the rain. 2:45pm. I looked over to the border. It was very close. All I wanted to do was walk back across the border and end this travesty. I had no desire to be in Bavet any longer. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had just been cheated. Forced to play two bets at a time, at a table where the dealer wouldn’t even take his second card out of the deck until after I made my moves…and where double downs weren’t allowed on any hand containing an ace. I felt cheated. I didn’t want to leave feeling that I had been cheated. If I was going to lose money, I wanted it to at least seem fair.

I looked back across the road at the Titan. It stood there, taunting me. We play fair, it seemed to say to me. It’s not our fault we absolutely murdered you this morning. It was just a bad break. At least we play fair.

I looked in my wallet. I had enough cash to get home, plus an extra $30. I closed my wallet. Put it in my pocket. And started walking back towards the Titan.

IMGP0015

—–

I felt like I was re-entering the scene of a crime. The dark, freezing cold lobby. The closed Western restaurant and the Chinese restaurant with Japanese menus. The signs on the wall for the baccarat tournament that happened two months ago. It felt terrible being there. It felt lonely.

I re-entered the game room, with it’s terrible, dark lighting. I walked to the cashier desk (screw cash boy). I got $30 in chips. I walked back to the blackjack table.

The pit boss seemed surprised to see me. “Blackjack?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. I sat down with my chips. The sign was still there: $5 minimum bet, $100 maximum bet. No splitting Aces more than once. Fair enough, fair enough.

It took about eight minutes for the dealer to show up. The lone blackjack dealer employed by the Titan. He came back to the table, his face showing a little surprise and what seemed to be genuine friendliness.

“Hello Sir!” he said.

“Hey, Suseday,” I said.

“Suseday,” he said. He began to shuffle the decks. Cash boy came back. He also seemed surprised to see me. I’m not sure, but there may have been pity in all of their eyes. Or maybe it was me feeling miserable about myself, and misinterpreting something else in their eyes that I couldn’t make out.

“Where you go?” the dealer asked as he shuffled. “Oh…all over,” I said.  I waved my arms. He smiled and said “Aaaaah.”

I watched him carefully. No funny business. Just slowly shuffling the cards.

Finally, we were ready to play. I put a $5 chip out on the table. He dealt me the cards. We played.

—–

As I walked back across the border, in the rain, I was serenaded by frogs. I was nowhere; literally, I was between Cambodia and Vietnam, walking, but the frogs didn’t seem to mind. They kept singing. They don’t realize that they live between two countries, I thought.

My $30 was back at the Titan. It didn’t last long. Maybe ten minutes. That’s all it took for me to give away the last of my money.  But this time around I didn’t feel the mallet hit my face. I didn’t feel stunned. I was numb. I was happy. At least they weren’t cheaters, like those terrible cretins at the Las Vegas Sun. At least they played fair.

—-

I walked into complete chaos in the Vietnamese immigration office. Some guy came up to me. “Passport,” he said. I gave him my passport. “Money,” he said. “Money for stamp.” For a second I reached for my wallet, and then I thought: I already have a visa. I just paid $100 for it three months ago.

“No, no, I have visa.” I showed it to him.

He stared at it. He looked at me. “Pay money,” he said. I grabbed my passport back.

—-

It wasn’t so much a line of people to get back into Vietnam; it was more of a blob. Oh, Asia, I thought. When will you learn how to form a line?

I joined the blob. It was stupid. I stood around for awhile.I was pushed by an old man. I stepped in gum (who spits gum out on the floor of the immigration office?!?!?!) Finally, I escaped the insanity.

I was back in Vietnam, back in the rain. Being the only foreigner around (fresh meat!), I was bombarded by guys yelling at me to get a taxi back to Ho Chi Minh City. “Taxi! Taxi! You go Ho Chi Minh City!? Taxi! Taxi!”

No, no, no, no thank you boys, I’ve wasted enough money today. I kept walking, hoping to find a local bus.

There were more guys with sketchy cabs ahead of me. A guy in a raincoat came up to me. “Hey you….you go Ho Chi Minh City?”  I waved him away without saying anything. And then, in a moment of insanity, I looked up into the rain, smiling. “Nah,” I said loudly to myself, “I’m just out here CHILLIN’!” Then I started laughing uncontrollably into the rain. Suddenly I heard someone else laughing too. I looked and saw his buddy leaning out of the window of a minivan. He was watching me and smiling. We exchanged smiles and I kept walking.

But the problem was, I didn’t really know where I was going. Now I was past all the taxis. Up ahead in the distance I saw a flashing green light at an intersection, but no town to speak of. I didn’t know where the town was. I didn’t know where the bus station was.

And then I saw it, directly in front of me by about 200 yards, blocking my path: a giant male water buffalo.

I stopped in my tracks. This I did not foresee. There were people driving around the buffalo on motorbikes…but being on a motorbike is different than being on foot. Much different. I don’t have experience with water buffaloes. Can I safely walk around a male water buffalo without getting murdered?

I stood there in the rain for a moment or two, staring down the road at the massive, horned beast who was blocking my way.

I crossed the road. It was all I could think to do. I was adventured out. I figured losing $200 was bad enough…I didn’t need to get gored by a buffalo to make it more interesting.

But it’s funny…that buffalo was there for a reason. Because as I crossed the median, I saw buses and people: a bus station. And indeed, I found a bus going to Ho Chi Minh City for only 40,000 VND (about $2). And on that bus I found a nice window seat. And that comfortable bus only dropped me two blocks from my house. And I was home in time to eat a nice, cheap Vietnamese meal of grilled pork and rice, and then play soccer later on that night and win a tight game, 7-6. And then I got a good night sleep.

Hey….sometimes you get lucky.

IMGP0023

Advertisements

One thought on “A Little Fear and a Lot of Loathing in Bavet, Cambodia

  1. Bob says:

    Don’t take this as schadenfreude, but your misery made for a great story!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s