Sunday, February 21, 2010

Screw Disneyland, kids. How about some slots?

“Look. Is it beautiful?” Uncle asked me.

I looked up at Naga—Phnom Penh’s casino catering to the Western likes of myself. Red and green lights ran across the front side of the building. A water show was placed before it, shooting spurts to the beats of that 1, 2, 3, 4 song that was overplayed months ago in the States. The building was otherwise a rectangular glass-paneled box.

I curled my lips upward, creating what I thought resembled a smile and looked at Uncle. He stood with his hands on his hips, and looked up at the building, his lower lip jutting out in approval.

“Look,”—my mother said excitedly—“It’s just like Bellagio.” She was referring to the one in Vegas, not the one on Lake Como.

I sighed. Not Vegas again, I thought.

“I shouldn’t come in here. Only neak civilie come here, like you,” Auntie said. Neak civilie are people who are distinctly un-Khmer, who are not modest, who dare to wear shirts that bear their bosoms and pants that shadow their bottoms. I straightened my V-neck dress covering anything that might be showing. Auntie meant this as a compliment, but I suddenly became aware of my un-modestness.

“Come on, Older Sister Kanitha,” piped up Sang, Uncle’s youngest daughter. She grabbed my hand excitedly, pulling me towards Naga’s doors. Uncle’s three other children trailed behind us, each in awe of the world of bright lights and lured by the ching ching ching of slot machines.

A slew of languages echoed through the lobby—mostly Japanese and Chinese. Stepping past an enormous fake flower display into one of the game rooms, I looked up to a dome sky with puffy clouds giving the allusion of day.

“Just like Caesar’s Palace,” mother said.

I rolled my eyes and stifled a groan. She shot me that Don’t you judge me look.

Uncle walked up to a table to observe a white haired fellow with a cig dangling from his lips playing some card game. His face looked distinctly Cambodian. I had heard that Naga didn’t allow Cambodians into the casino, that it was for foreigners. This man wore a gold watch and leather shoes. Maybe he was one of the wealthy Cambodians. Uncle observed the man lose five straight hands before he walked away.

“See. If you’ve got money, it doesn’t matter if you lose. It’s just a way to relax, have fun,” Uncle said.

We came to a slot machine. The kids ran their fingers over the buttons. “Find a chair,” Uncle instructed them. Mei, the twelve-year-old sat in the first chair. Sang to the right of her, and Pich at the end. Uncle pulled out his wallet, feeding each machine five bucks.

I looked over at the dealers in the little black vests. They stood watching us with their hands clasped behind their backs. This isn’t Disneyland. Uncle’s really going to get it, I thought.

“What do we press?” asked Mei.

Uncle motioned for a dealer to come over. “Tell them what to press,” he demanded.

“Wait until the numbers stop rolling, then hit this button,” the dealer said.

The kids pressed the buttons as instructed.

“Aren’t they smart?” Auntie said. “They learn so fast. I don’t even know how to play.”

Sang lost her five bucks in a matter of minutes. Next was Pich who then climbed into Mei’s chair. “No fair. Let me play, too.”

Mei was doing quite well. Fifteen minutes later, her five had turned to twenty-five. “Quit or press it again, Pa?” Everyone crowded around Mei, excited by the prospect of gold coins falling.


Moments later she was down to twenty. “Ok, ok, you can quit,” Uncle said. He motioned for the dealer to mark up Mei’s earnings. “Good job, Mei.” He patted Mei on the head as if she just passed an exam. “Come on, let me show you the rest.”

We walked to an open space where some Khmer girls stood on a stage dressed in Christmas costumes—red velvet and all. Apparently, Christmas runs past December.

“Very nice,”—I said—“What else is there?” We kept moving, and I thought I heard the tune of “Santa Baby” in the background.

Tall Cambodian girls stood in front of every door. I don’t know where the Naga HR office went to find these chicks, but they’re tall-tall. Think 5’11”-ish. One of these women, a slender one with a gnarly face, smiled at us when we passed Lady Bar. “This is where people go to drink,” Uncle said. “And there are girls who dance,” he added with a boyish grin across his face. “Want to go in?”

Mother shook her head. “No, no. That won’t be necessary.”

“Pa, Pa! I want to go in!” Sang piped up. “Let’s go see girls dance. Like this,” she said twisting her body. “Sexy girl,” she whispered to me.

Uncle looked amused, and half-convinced to go in. Auntie looked equally amused.

Mother shook her head again. “It’s not necessary.”

Ooo-ahh they?” Auntie asked me as we exited Naga. I’ve never quite figured out where this phrase comes from, but I wonder if it is from what people say when they are amazed at something—like oooo and ahhh—because that’s what I think this phrase means.

Ooo-ahh,” I said, shuddering as I passed by one of the giant chicks with long flowy hair, an elf-like nose, and crooked teeth.


  1. Ha Ha, another interesting post. Tell you what, even I've been living in Phnom Penh all my entire life, I've never been inside Naga world. Maybe your Auntie was rite - 'only neak civillie come here.'

    PS: I like the part your Uncle gave you that boyish grin. It's funny. Lolz.

  2. Tall- tall? Hmph. I bet you know who's writing this.