Barbara's Reviews > Off the Rails in Phnom Penh: Into the Dark Heart of Guns, Girls, and Ganja

Off the Rails in Phnom Penh by Amit Gilboa
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did not like it
bookshelves: travel-experience, non-fiction

One of life’s eternal questions must be ‘Why do most people behave pretty much the way they should, most of the time?’ Excluding the odd bit of swearing at speed cameras and folk who ‘forget’ a few little things on their tax returns, society gets along because the majority behave in line with the law and the norms of social interaction. You can put it down to it ethics, a desire to conform with the ‘greater good’ or even at its most base, a fear of getting caught. Even though our prisons are apparently bursting at the seams, one way or another, most people behave themselves most of the time.

So what would happen if you took away the laws; if prostitution, drugs and guns were readily available and nobody was likely to give you a hard time for using them? Nobody would raise an eyebrow if you popped off to a brothel in your lunch break the way that many of us might pop into a Starbucks and it would cost about the same amount; nobody would notice, or apparently mind, if you showed up to work stoned and couldn’t make it through the afternoon without heroin; and if you got mad at someone you could get them bumped off for a few hundred dollars. All this and more is standard fare in Amit Gilboa’s horrible little book about Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, in the late 1990s.

Gilboa pitches his book as an account of the things he saw and heard when visiting Cambodia in the mid-1990s. From what I could work out – and to be fair I didn’t try too hard – he had a job in Viet Nam and needed to pop over the border to get his visa renewed every few months. Hanging out at a Phnom Penh hotel called the Majestic he decided to keep an account of the comings and goings of the ex-pats he met in the city. Most are not highly-paid professionals on well-funded business expatriations; his people are the drifters who are drawn to the city by cheap drugs, cheap sex and an apparent surfeit of testosterone matched only in its extreme by their lack of brain cells. Most, somewhat shockingly, had picked up jobs as English teachers – including some who barely spoke the language themselves. Hence the great quote from a Romanian -born English teacher – “I been teach English in Cambodia since four years”. Others had taken a strategic decision to go to Cambodia for financial reasons – indeed one guy we are introduced to is a heroin addict who worked out it was cheaper and safer to be an addict in Cambodia where he could afford it than to go home where he’d have to turn to crime to fund his habit. Other characters are quite happy to pay a few dollars to pre-teen prostitutes without appearing to consider it wrong or even particularly worthy of discussion or comment. These folks really are the type of people you don’t want to sit next to and you really don’t want to know too much about their lives. If you shook hands with them, you’d have to count your fingers afterwards.

The book starts with an attempt to put the political situation in Cambodia into perspective, introducing the Pol Pot years and the aftermath of the Killing Fields. I expected to find this interesting but it dragged on for so long and in such a poorly written drone that I found myself skipping through to get to the next chapters. There was also a lot of self-satisfied smug justification for why he’d written the book, pitching it as a sort of ‘Secret Squirrel mission’ to capture the dark underbelly of this group of international ‘flotsam’. He tries to set himself apart from the scum that surrounds him but I can’t help thinking the ‘detached observer’ role is used to its own advantage. Sensibly he avoids the whoring-around that’s common amongst his set but then decides that he must visit at least one brothel to do ‘research’ but he won’t go all the way. So that’s OK then, or is it? And he’ll cycle to the town where the brothel is and get a good work out – as if that somehow makes it better. Then he’ll go on a buying mission to get cannabis and it wouldn’t be REAL research if he didn’t snort a line or two or heroin as well.

In some ways, I might have respected the writer more if he’d not tried to justify his very tenuous moral high-ground. A book about drugs and prostitution written by a user will still be disturbing but we’re likely to stand a better chance of learning something useful about why they do it than we will in one written by an outsider.

I like a book that leaves me knowing more about a country and its society than I knew before but in the chapters titled ‘Drugs’, ‘Sex’, ‘Lawlessness’ etc. I realised that after the boring historical chapter it was still possible for the book to get worse. I know things about Cambodia that I didn’t know before – where to buy a kilo of cannabis for $2, that cigarette papers cost more than cannabis, that people snort heroin rather than injecting it because they think that’s less addictive and sadly, I know too much about what you can get a Vietnamese prostitute to do for a few dollars that a Cambodian one will refuse to do and what both will offer as an extra for a couple of dollars more. Ignorance in matters like this is undoubtedly bliss.

The widespread prostitution is for me the most shocking aspect of the book, especially the exploitation of girls as young as 12 years old. The expats really don’t seem to see anything wrong in what they do although one group do decide to instigate a ‘house rule’ that their perverted housemate can’t bring any prostitutes who are younger than 14 to their house. Isn’t it good to know that people have ‘standards’? I was left wondering what it took to get Gary Glitter expelled from Cambodia a few years ago when it appears that every Tom, Dick and Harry was happily molesting minors. Was he made an example of or was he really doing things that were worse than the people in this book – it really beggars belief that he could have been.

It’s been suggested that this book is a ‘Heart of Darkness’ or an ‘On the Road’ for the 1990s but that’s just not true – there’s no plot, there’s no character development and this is just a cheap little excuse for some pretty vile titillation dressed up as documentary prose. Gilboa is a poor writer and I really don’t know how he ever got this rubbish published. Even with the horrible subject matter, a half decent writer could have created a compelling tale that might have forced us to feel some kind of understanding for the perverts and paedophiles that inhabit this book. Instead Gilboa just strings together one nasty little anecdote after another. I’m not a prude and I’ve read plenty of books that are shocking, explicit or tackle violent situations but the least I ask for is a justification for the inclusion of the shocking material and sadly this book fails to deliver.

If you are looking for information to help you decide whether to visit Cambodia, you won’t get it in this book. If you are looking for titillation, there must be much better-written smut on the market that’s much more readily available. Would the world be worse if this book had never been written? I don’t think so – in fact for the first time I’ve actually started to understand the urge to burn books.

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Reading Progress

2010 – Started Reading
2010 – Finished Reading
May 12, 2019 – Shelved
May 12, 2019 – Shelved as: travel-experience
May 12, 2019 – Shelved as: non-fiction

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