But their weekly gambling competition attracts everyone from meth-heads to expat teachers.
I'm in one of the most disgusting freelancer bars in Cambodia. "It's like low tide," my Eton-educated companion snidely observes. Gazing out at the flotsam and jetsam of Phnom Penh's expat scene, I'm forced to agree. In one corner, a white guy in a string vest and short shorts crammed hard into his crotch works his jaw as if he's gearing up for the Cumbrian gurning championship. As we wait for our drinks, an ancient man in a wheelchair – clearly invigorated by Cambodia’s easy access to Cialis – is wheeled into the bar by a rough, 40-something working girl in red denim hot-pants.
Smack in the middle of Phnom Penh's busy nightclub area, Walkabout is a bar and hotel that really doesn't have much going for it. Other than the fact it's open 24 hours and is the preferred hangout for dozens of the city's methamphetamine-ravaged prostitutes – or, as Cambodians euphemistically call them, taxi girls – and the sex pests who love them. Every year a few tourists are found dead in rooms upstairs at the Walkabout; usually guys with needle marks in their arms or pensioners who’ve saved up and come to Cambodia for one last Viagra-fuelled fuck-frenzy with a couple of apathetic prostitutes, climaxing in a fatal heart attack. They can't afford to do autopsies in Cambodia, so that's all technically conjecture, but I'm sure it's pretty accurate.
Despite my propensity for slumming, I'd probably never go to Walkabout if it weren't for one thing: the Joker Draw. The Joker Draw is a weekly competition that occasionally offers a chance at big money, sometimes going as high as £12,000 – about the same as 20 years’ salary for a Cambodian garment factory worker, or more than a year of work for an expat English teacher. The game begins with a shuffled deck of cards being pinned face down to the wall inside a locked glass cabinet. Punters buy tickets for 60 pence (4,000 Cambodian riel), with half the proceeds going to the bar and the other half added to the jackpot. One ticket is drawn each week, and whoever holds the lucky ticket gets the chance to turn over one of the cards in the glass case. If they turn over the joker, they win the jackpot.
But, of course, that doesn't happen too often. The losing card is then re-pinned face up, the glass case is locked and play continues the next week. As the weeks go on, the pot gets bigger and bigger and, with ever fewer cards left to play, so does the chance of winning. Sometimes the draw only lasts a couple of weeks; in these cases the only people who bother to play are the meth-heads, sexpats and taxi girls who would be hanging out at Walkabout anyway. But when the Joker Draw lasts for months and the jackpot grows with it, people other than the Walkabout regulars start to get interested.
It’s at these rare times that Walkabout gets even more bizarre than usual. The jackpot pulls in various subsets of Cambodian expat society who normally stay well clear of each other. The bar dispenses the prize in the same denominations it gets for selling the tickets, usually all one-dollar bills and thousand-riel notes. So when the pot gets big enough, everyone pushes the prostitutes out of the way and scrambles to the bar for a chance to win. There’s something kind of heartening in the fact that there's one thing that can make the taxi girls, the motodops and the Venn diagram of wildly divergent expat groups overlap in the middle of a hooker bar: a garbage bag filled with money.
There are the geriatric sex tourists in white socks and sandals whose rheumy eyes go laser sharp when they hone in on the desperate, teenage hookers whose only other option is working in a sweatshop for £1.50 a day. There are the depressed and underpaid English teachers and the grizzled long-term expats who originally came with UNTAC in the 90s, speak fluent Khmer and will never assimilate back into their home countries. There are the privileged embassy employees, away from their posh accommodation for the evening and eager to supplement their generous hardship pay, and the packs of chattering backpackers wearing Beerlao singlets and trying to find themselves by arguing with tuk tuk drivers over the price to get to the killing fields.
Chinese gamblers take a night off from the casino to lurk around the edges of the bar. Perhaps oddest of all are the NGO types – Western women, mostly – who are here to save Cambodia and wouldn't usually be caught dead in a place like Walkabout. But a big Joker Draw jackpot gets them in the door, too.
I'll admit that it doesn't take a huge pot to get me into Walkabout. I stop by once a month or so, happy to be reminded of how well I'm doing in life by comparing myself to the cesspool of regulars. On a recent trip, accompanied by four expat guys who were pretending to not enjoy being around ageing prostitutes, I purchased three tickets was shocked when my number was drawn. Within seconds it was like I was Charlie Bucket finding the golden ticket, arm held aloft by the crowd (except this was a crowd of meth-addled taxi girls, not strangers in a corner shop). I was rushed to the front to choose my card. As I waited for the case to be unlocked, the women pawed at me, eager to make my acquaintance in case I won. I suddenly realised what it must be like to be a white man in Cambodia. Terrified, I chose a card. It's...the queen of diamonds.
The crowd erupts in cheers. Unbeknownst to me, queens get a consolation prize – a £30 bar tab. However, it has to be used within three hours, no easy feat when drinks average around £1, but we're helpfully told that we can also use the tab to purchase a room upstairs. A couple of the women look hopefully at me and one starts to massage my shoulders as I knock back a celebratory vodka soda. Eventually I have to pay her five bucks to stop touching me. I buy rounds of drinks for the scrum of hookers and English teachers who circle our table, hoping to sleep with one or the other of us. By the time our three hours is up our livers have taken a beating, the oldest member of our party has mysteriously vanished with a young woman 40 years his junior and I’ve found out what it’s like to be a winner at the Walkabout.
Read more of Lina's writing on her website.
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