Opportunities to find bar work in Sihanoukville are abundant, pretty much because every bar in town wants to hire Westerners. While the accommodation and food situation varies from place to place, there’s always one guarantee no one will work without: free alcohol. It is the fuel that keeps the town vibrant and what bartenders need to get through the long nights. True, this kind of offer can get messy but if you can’t handle yourself, I’m fairly certain you wouldn’t last very long in one place.
That doesn’t mean you’re not granted some leeway and allowed to go on a binder every now and again. Even if it’s your first night working, you can get so black out drunk you full on disappear halfway through your shift, only to be found sprawled out on your bed, passed out with the lights on and hopefully your clothes on. This may or may not describe my first night working. (Well, it could have been a lot worse you know.)
While I had the option of working at a couple of different places, I didn’t really search around too much as Jam’s seemed like the kind of place I would enjoy. The staff was friendly, the vibe was chill, and it was literally right on the beach. But the real selling point was that Jam’s closed a bit earlier than other bars, which meant I could have a social life after work. As if it were really work.
Let’s be honest folks: anywhere that not only provides the means but encourages you to be drunk while “working”, is not work. Bars back home do not condone such behavior; but in Cambodia they sure do.
You’re probably wondering what I got in exchange for working, because it certainly wasn’t money. Free unlimited booze, naturally, a room to call my own, and some food. Sounded pretty sweet at first, but soon I realized nothing is quite what it seems. My private room isn’t anything to complain about for a week or so, but the roof leaked which created a God awful moldy smell, plus the fan was jenky which meant with the intense heat the room was unbearable during the day. Sure I had a private bathroom, but there was no door, a shit cold shower, and another God awful untraceable smell.
And the food? Well, if it did show up it was awful and full of meat. Did the manager know I was vegetarian? Yes, but his response everyday was to “pick it out”. Never mind the fact he bought six pizzas one day, six, but not one without meat. I swear he was testing me. And this is even if there was food provided. After a few days I stopped looking for food. Instead, I was the only bartender who took advantage of the fully stocked kitchen and cooked myself brunch everyday. Every day the Cambodian staff watched with curiosity as I created new Asian Western fusion kitchen sink dishes. Ultimately, it was a decent trade but not possible for more than week or so. Had I any real intention of sticking around town I’d quickly seek out a new bar. But for the time being it would due.
While working at Jam’s did not turn out how I expected, in the end I quite enjoyed it. The first couple of days were a bit rough as the shift started at 7 pm but no one really shows up until at least 9. And since I was new and not encouraged to be behind the bar at first, that meant I was sitting alone out front handing out flyers and trying to get people in. It wouldn’t have been so awful if there actual people to hand flyers to.
To briefly describe the location, our bar wasn’t on any main walking drag which doesn’t allow for a lot of foot traffic. Also consider it was dinner time and most people want to relax on the beach and enjoy a quiet beer. No one starts looking for a bar until much later (I told you this is a party till dawn town); thus I spent several hours contemplating my life’s mistakes and staring at the water. That, and smoking my early shift spliff, just to get through it, you know.
By far the most interesting characters at the bar were the owners, Mr. and Mrs. So. I’m still not entirely sure why this Korean couple well in their seventies/eighties decided to move to S.ville and run a Western bar. They don’t speak English or Cambodian and if it weren’t for the temporary help of the Korean-American manager, there would be zero communication between the owners and staff. Besides the practicality of it all, they made great characters.
Mr. So, my favorite, is super tiny, super bald, and super smiley. He walks around in white linens observing everyone constantly like the all knowing Buddha I think he is. Kung-fu Buddha that is, as he really does practice martial arts and can break nearly any piece of wood in half. Bad ass. As for Mrs. So, the bipolar afro haired lady, well, she can be fun or frightening, depending on the day. While she loved me because of my appreciation for Korean culture, she is constantly suspicious of her staff and demanding massages from our on staff Cambodian masseuse/dancer/screamer, Charlie.
As the Western staff is constantly filing through new people, there needs to be some constant and that need is filled out by a few locals who can speak decent English. My favorite is Charlie and before I even started working there, I knew we’d get along famously. Charlie is rarely working, instead dancing his ass off behind the bar, and I was in need of a fabulous new gay boyfriend. Of course within days Charlie was near raping me and groping my boobs whenever he could. Not sure why I encouraged such behavior, but it made bartending during lulls vastly more entertaining.
Another entertaining part of the job was getting hit on constantly. It was entertaining in the fact that I was never interested but loved watching these silly old men make awful advances. From buying me drinks (even though I got free ones) to facebook friend requests (ummm, no????), it was an endless parade of uninteresting offers. Perhaps I neglected to mention this was a bar filled with DOMs (dirty old men) and prostitutes. I consider this good people watching.
The best/worst DOM, hands down, goes to the Russian. A slimy, rail thin old man who didn’t speak a word of English came in night after night making it blatantly obvious he was interested in me. I was nice at first, then evasive, then downright rude. From refusing tips to showing him my “boyfriend”, he never really got the hint. I partly blame my co-worker who gave him information about me in exchange for tips, even though he knew this man was creepy as fuck. (Thanks Sam.)
But the culmination of this near week long episode was when through an unnecessary to explain series of events, he had to remove his blood soaked shirt. He then put his arms around me from behind and breathed into my ear, “Stephanie….you….sex…..me?”
It’s at this point I threw up a little in my mouth and made it a point to pretend he no longer existed. I also realized I had to be more defensive with men at this bar as I was the only female staff member and whiskey buckets were $1.
Luckily at the end of each shift I had enough booze and friends to head next door to JJ’s, the paint ridden, heavy drinking, dance all night party I couldn’t resist. Trouble can be found in all corners of this bar; I’ve had spliffs, made out, and even been vomited on (thankfully none of these are connected). Basically this is to say that as a nightly routine I was destroying my body. This is how I knew I couldn’t stay in S.ville forever.
During the beginning of my time here I did feel a tinge of loneliness. I was experiencing withdrawal symptoms from being surrounded by my alcoholic bullshitting friends from Laos/Thailand and was not liking having to make “new” friends. On a low day I went to lay on the beach alone and basically wished, hoped, and prayed someone from Laos would randomly show up. And as always, I got more than I bargained for.
From Rob the ballsack sharing legend from Manchester and his saint of a girlfriend Helen, to Hoover the shirtless American with his love of motos and randomness; it was an endless parade of friends from past adventures. Every single night a new familiar face randomly popped up and I couldn’t have been more grateful. The only ones I expected were four of my favorite boys from Mama Rasta’s/Vang Vieng/Pai. They were coming to celebrate Jack’s birthday, although they showed up earlier than I anticipated. It seemed the Universe had overloaded on my wish.
By the time Jack’s birthday rolled around, we were armed and dangerous for an entire day of inebriation. The day before the big 2-0, we ventured out without Jack to pick up the supplies. A full day of beach bar hopping was the only scheduled event and we planned on making total fools of ourselves. An absurd outfit for Jack was selected consisting of skin tight female booty shorts and cami, arm floaties, a gun, goggles, and a huge bucket to be filled with various types of alcohol throughout the day. (Did I mention the Viagra we drugged him with?) The remaining four of us got airplane floating tubes (meant for children) and decided to wear them the entire day. To say the very least we looked ridiculous, and I couldn’t have been more excited for someone else’s birthday.
It started normally enough, playing some pool and drinking beers. Then some girls showed up and tequila shots were promptly ordered. (Did I mention I skipped breakfast?) The rest of the day was a blur of laughter, buckets, various bars, spliffs, and Cambodian children swarming us for our airplane tubes. We probably shouldn’t have taught them beer bucket pong but they loved being around us so we couldn’t help it.
Day shifted to night at some point, tubes popped or lost, memory blurred, and only pictures can tell the tale of what happened, even though that’s questionable as well. In the end, it was the best birthday ever, even if it wasn’t mine.
It was so good that while I was supposed to leave the next day and said all my good-byes, I was too hungover to function and missed all the buses. So I agreed to one last bar shift so I wouldn’t have to change to a hostel and then had to live down the shame of all the questions, “I thought you were leaving today?”. Not the first (or probably last) bus I’ll miss due to hangover. In fact, it’s the third one I can blame on these specific boys. Luckily it’s usually worth it.
In the end, I believe everything is meant to be. If I had caught that bus I wouldn’t have run into my favorite couple Ban and Death for one last good laugh and to have a proper girly catch up. The people I’ve met and experiences I’ve had in all of Southeast Asia are entirely based on buses I’ve caught and missed.
The following day, I caught the bus to Phnom Penh and spent a half day being a semi-tourist and went to bed early to catch my flight to Indonesia. I was in dire need of a real detox at this point. A luxurious vacation with an abundance of sleep and good food was exactly what I needed. And once again, I got more than I bargained for.