Clean, Not So Well Lighted Places

Two rows of bars line a short strip of road on Victory Hill in Sihanoukville. Once upon a time, the Hill was the backpacker hangout. Then the girlie bars moved in and the backpackers moved to Serendipity Road. Walk down this short, unnamed road today and you’ll see more hostesses preening themselves than customers.

Victory Hill is almost deserted now, but it does have its share of local expats. I often eat at one of the two best restaurants sandwiched between the bars. I sit out front and watch the passing traffic. I feel like I’m watching reruns of an old movie.

The same faces walk by every night. One man shuffles along at a snail’s pace. I’ve never seen him smile. When someone asked him why he walks so slowly, he said, “I like to walk slowly. I’m not in a hurry.” His shuffling gait makes me think there’s more to it than that.

One man has his hair shaved on the sides, but the top is long and he keeps it in place with a ponytail. He has a beer belly and waves to all the other denizens of the Hill as he walks briskly down the road. He seems to have a favorite bar, but sometimes gets called into another bar to share a drink with a friend.

Then there’s the guy who wears a cap. His long white hair dangles below his ears and he has a matching beard. He seems to be one of the happiest men on the Hill. At least he smiles, which is more than many of them do. He looks a little bit like Papa Hemingway. Whether he’ll kill himself remains to be seen, but more than one resident of the Hill has killed himself over the years.

One married a bar girl and they had a child. He built apartments and it looked like he was set. Too bad his wife enjoyed having sex with other men and getting paid for it. The last time I saw him, he was walking along the road. I tried to say hello, but he was so stoned, he just walked on by, his head bowed, eyes fixed on the concrete road. A few weeks later he hung himself. I see his wife now and then. She doesn’t seem to miss him.

Another man I knew owned a bar on the Hill. Business was bad, so he smuggled drugs into Taiwan. He got caught and spent a couple of years in jail. When he came back, his wife had moved on. He’s dead, too. Some say her new boyfriend killed him. Others say he killed himself. All I know is that he was a nice guy and I’m sorry he met such an unfortunate end.

Some of the girls walk past in short dresses and high heels. Most of them wobble in their heels. They’re country girls and are unaccustomed to wearing short, tight dresses and heels. Others don’t even try. They look more comfortable than the girls who dress to kill.

From my perch outdoors, I watch one girl preen for at least as long as it takes for me to eat my meal. She’s pretty enough. I can only guess that all that preening is a ritual she goes through to attract a man. She doesn’t need to, but perhaps she’s bored. The Hill is almost dead.

I sometimes wonder if the Hill comes to life after I leave. I’ve asked a few people and they tell me it doesn’t. The men get drunk and sometimes fights break out, but that’s as exciting as it gets. Most of the girls go home without a partner, only to return the next night hoping they might meet a man who will fall in love with them and take care of them and their families. It happens sometimes, but not that often.

The Hill used to seem like a sad place, but I see it in a different light now. It may be the last stand for some, but the Hill is their home. Everyone needs a home and they’ve found theirs in the clean, not-so-well-lighted bars on the Hill.