May 1, 2020 • 13M

Couchfish Week 5: Your arm, I need it!

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Stuart McDonald
The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.
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The “traveller fixer”. Many second–tier traveller towns in Cambodia used to have them. Mr Leng in Banlung and Mr T in Stung Treng were near legends on the traveller trail back in the day. Guys who could arrange anything—for a fee.

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Smooth operators, with excellent English and a penchant for knowing just what travellers wanted. So it was, in Takeo, a scratch of a town about 75 kilometres south of Phnom Penh, that I met Mr Souphal*.

Or rather, he met me.

Meet Takeo. Photo: Mark Ord.

Downtown Takeo isn’t exactly overrun with sights and attractions. It is a thrown-together-around-a-market kind of a joint, set on the rim of a vast floodplain. The province punches above its weight history–wise though. It hosted the Funan capital, and later was an outpost of the Khmer empire.

It was these relics of past grandeur I was pondering when Mr Souphal introduced himself.

“I’m Mr Souphal,” he said. “I would like to welcome you to Takeo. I have a tuk tuk and a boat. How long do you stay?”

He looks about 30, though he turns out to be in his late forties. Leather-creased skin thanks to a lifetime in the sun, his hands calloused, one finger missing. Carrying a bit of extra weight that I think came with bounty later in life. He has an honest smile and keeps wiping the sweat off his forehead as he orders a warm beer and sits down with me.

Takeo: Better supplied with beer than ice. Photo: Mark Ord.

We get through the typical pleasantries over warm beer and shard ice. My nationality, age, marital status and need for a Khmer girlfriend.

“So I think this afternoon we should go to Phnom Da and Angkor Borei. There is a lot of water now so it will be easy in the boat and I will show you things nobody else sees.”

Little did I realise how true that last bit was.

Angkor Borei and Phnom Da are about 30 kilometres due east of Takeo. The former was the capital of the Funan Empire from the fourth to the sixth century. At peak times it prevailed over a vast canal network that stretched as far east as Oc Eo in the Mekong Delta. Phnom Da, a twin hillock (“da” means breast in Khmer) nearby, has ancient temples.

Mr Souphal suggests we go to Angkor Borei first. The late afternoon light will be better appreciated at Phnom Da he says. We negotiate a price, buy a few more warm beers with a bag of shard ice to go and walk down to the water.

Pick your chariot. Photo: Mark Ord.

His boat is a fibreglass runabout with a clapped-out outboard. There’s no roof nor lifejackets (the floodplain is shallow, he says), and I wait while he dashes off to get petrol. The heat is bleeding from the ears hot, and the flood plain just goes and goes. I am going to get so sunburnt.

Gassed up, we get going. The water is smooth as silk and we skate across its surface. Two guys on a boat. Not a cloud in sight. Huge skies, sugar palms. His engine whines and the boat fishtails now and then as he dislodges weed.

I’m sitting near the prow, taking photos, when he slows, and gestures to me to move back to within earshot.

“So how long have you been in Cambodia?” he asks.

“About one year now,” I reply.

“So you already know about the magic in Cambodia? It is strong. Strong. I can help you.”

In season, Cambodia is not short of water (at least before the dams). Photo: Mark Ord.

At first I think I’ve misheard him, but I haven’t. I think about a trip to Kratie a few months earlier, when locals insisted a cow had given birth to two baby girls. At the time I’d called a friend at the AFP bureau in Phnom Penh and handed him my phone to get the bottom of it. When I got the phone back he told me it wasn’t worth following up.

I nod. “Yes, I have heard of it”.

“I can help you. When we get to Phnom Da.”

I go back to watching the water sheet past. It is so beautiful and smooth. Hypnotising. At least the breeze is taking the bite out of the heat. Mr Souphal points out the double breasted hill we’re nearing. “Phnom Da. But we go there later. I’ll help you then!”

I’m sure I haven’t asked for any other–worldly help, but the ice has melted. Maybe he’ll divine a beer–cooler.

Colonial period mansion, Angkor Borei. Photo: Mark Ord.

Fifteen minutes later we get to Angkor Borei. A small museum. Priceless Khmer period lintels and other artefacts lay around on the lawn. Inside it is a small and dusty, but amazing collection.

“All the good things they take to Phnom Penh,” Mr Souphal mumbles.

From here it is not long on the boat to Phnom Da. It is much more Tomb Raider. Overgrown trees and bulbous root fingers entangle and grasp the masonry as if trying to suck it back into the earth. The trees feeding on history one block at a time.

The first hillock has a brick tower. It is impressive, though has little in the way of decorative features remaining to my novice eye.

Mr Souphal gives me the canned history and we press on. Ashram Maharose is an older monument, dedicated to Vishnu, from the sixth century, during the reign of Bhavarvarman I. The small grey basalt tower is almost enveloped in the trees, a dark entrance beckons. Capital C creepy.

The brick tower. Photo: Mark Ord.

We stand before it. Mr Souphal is beside me, so close I can hear his breath. I try to edge away but there is nowhere to go except closer to the monument.

“This place has strong magic,” whispers Mr Souphal. “Strong.”

I’ve stopped thinking about the magical beer cooler and am starting to get creeped out. He picks up on my edginess and steps into the undergrowth. There he gathers dry leaves from the forest floor then steps towards the dark entrance.

“Come, come,” he gestures.

I follow, feet in molasses–soaked lead boots.

Where the magic happens… Ashram Maharose. Photo: Mark Ord.

He squats by the entrance, not inside mind you, and places the leaves in a small orderly pile. He then pulls from his pocket a small translucent eye–drops bottle containing a clear liquid. He sets it beside the leaves. Next is a half dozen incense sticks out of another pocket. He snaps them in half in a cloud of incense, laying the top halves atop the leaves, bottom half in his hand.

He mumbles a bit, then turns, looking up at me.

“Are you ready?”

At this stage it is fair to say I’m weirded out. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the Kratie cow giving birth to two girls walked out of the sanctuary doorway at this point. I nod.

He goes back to his mumbling then lights the short sticks and holds them between his palms in a praying gesture. He drops the burning sticks into the dry leaves, picks up the small bottle and squirts it into the leaves. There’s a flash of flame. He half burps and half groans right over the fire, breathing in deep as a waft of smoke rises and wraps around his head. I’m barely breathing. The smoke clears and he reaches down, cradling the smouldering lot in his palms, he bumps past me, and steps down the steps.

“Come, come!”

The smouldering pile has now been placed on the bottom step, he’s hunched over it, babbling. He looks up at me.

Faceless onlookers to the magic. Photo: Mark Ord.

“Come here. Now. Give me your arm!”

“What?!”

“Your arm, I need it!”

“What? All of it?” I blurt out. “No, you can’t have it.”

He looks at me like I’m the crazy one.

“No. Your hair. On your arm. I need it.”

Before I can say anything else stupider than I’ve already managed, he reaches out and grabs my wrist. It happens so fast I’m shocked. His grip is vice–like. It hurts.

I’m scared now.

He reaches over with his other arm and one, two, three, pulls three hairs off my forearm in a second. He has clearly done this before. It stings, but I don’t care, I am scared and just want the rest of my arm back.

He releases me and rocks back on his haunches. More mumbling and he carefully drops the hairs one at a time into the still smouldering pile. Another squirt of his juice, another flash of flame, another guttural burp groan. I think he is going to throw up.

Not creepy enough? Try here. Photo: Mark Ord.

Then he stands, brushes off his hands on his trousers, turns and looks me in the eye.

“Ok, piss on it.”

“What?”

“You have to piss on it. Now, before the fire goes out.”

“No.”

“You have to. I said I’d help you. No piss, no help.”

“I don’t want your help. I never asked for your help.”

“You said you wanted what nobody sees. I will give you that. This is good fortune for your life.” He is pleading. He hasn’t broken my gaze since standing.

We stand there, facing one another. I’m not petrified, but I’m not far off it. I keep thinking of a machete for some bizarre reason. Does he have one? What would he cut off? Your mind works funny in moments like this.

“Ok, move aside. Whatever.”

He makes room, but wants to watch. I step up. I’m in front of a jungle-wrapped sixth century temple on a hill in the middle of a floodplain in offbeat Cambodia. My only companion is someone who is clearly not just a guide.

Love me a sunset. Photo: Mark Ord.

I think, if you’re going to piss out a magic fire burning up your body hair for good fortune then this setting is as good as any.

I piss the fire out.

Mr Souphal slaps me on the shoulder with a beaming smile.

“Ok, lets go.”

We walk back down to the boat and I’m shaking all over. What just happened?

Five minutes later, we’re skating back across the floodplain. The sinking sun sears the surface in shades of tangerine and dragonfruit. It is beyond beautiful. No words. Cambodia is such a gobsmackingly beautiful country.

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I sit at the prow.

The engine dies and we float around for an hour, into dusk, while he fixes it.

So much for good fortune.

* Not his real name.