The kick—everyone saw it coming except the man whose waist it clobbered. I shuddered at the thud, bracing my own core, and watched as he crumpled.
The crowd boiled with cheers. Around me, people stamped their feet and stabbed the muggy air with their fists and screamed and screamed and screamed, ear-splitting yells as if the cowering, topless man in the boxing ring were their nemesis.
When we’d first walked into this arena a moment ago, the ring and stands around it had appeared like a fever dream, kapow, even brighter and dizzier than the nightlife street we’d left behind. In the center, two tattooed men in shorts traded blows with shiny boxing gloves, and the audience bellowed and booed. I’d stopped at the door, rapt. Then Henry, a head taller than most of the attendees, grabbed my forearm and led us deep into a pen of rowdy spectators.
I let my other arm trail behind me, and Lucy clutched my fingers. We’d only been friends for a couple of hours, but already I felt at home in the roiling mob of tourists and locals with the two of them flanking me. Usually, I was the one befriending strangers, but earlier tonight, Henry had been the one to turn to me. I was standing there, grinning, on a teeming Cambodian block lined with bars: neon lights and low tables and plastic stools studding the sidewalk out front, a throng of backpackers jockeying for cheap beer at the counter. He’d asked what I was smiling about, and when I told him my best friend Emily had floored me by chatting up a hot South African dude and then sneaking off to hook up with him in our hotel room, he’d rolled his eyes.
“My ex is South African and he had the tiniest dick. Let’s hope she has better luck.” Henry was from London, he said—witty with twinkling blue eyes and a sunburned nose. He introduced me to Lucy, a Canadian he’d met on their hostel’s rooftop earlier in the week, and soon the three of us were a cheery trio.
I loved their ease with one another, their happy camaraderie on the carousel of travel friendships. If our past trips were any indication, teaming up with other voyagers was always a good idea. Emily called them “friend flings”: the fleeting but fun connections we’d forged with fellow travelers in Vietnam, which we’d visited two years earlier, and on last year’s epic journey through Uganda.
A boxer declared victory, gloves high, jaw set, and the masses screeched and cheered, their collective shouts shaking the floor like a subwoofer. We were packed mosh pit tight, arms buffeting my sides, feet stomping onto mine. Subtly, I slid the wad of Cambodian riel—local cash—from my wallet down my top and slipped my phone into my bag’s one zippered pocket. Onstage, a fresh duo climbed into the ring and Henry elbowed me enthusiastically. I raised my arms and hooted along with the crowd.
Coming here had been their idea—they’d discovered pradal serey, or “free fighting,” from a friendly tuk-tuk driver a few nights earlier. Lucy mentioned it toward the end of one of those travel tip extravaganza discussions—we’d all seen Phnom Penh’s highlights (the Royal Palace, the sobering Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, and that belly-dropping cliff beyond the city lights), and they spoke over each other with new recommendations for the final days of my trip: a cave that vomited thousands of bats at dusk; a speak-easy with its entrance disguised as a Coca-Cola machine. Plus this: a must-see they could accompany me to right now.
“You think Muay Thai is exciting, but...Christ,” Henry had announced. “The Cambodian kind is intense.”
They both had motorbikes, and my own travel companion was (ahem) occupied in our hotel room until midnight, our agreed-upon sexile curfew. (I still couldn’t believe she’d gone through with it—Miss Play It Safe laughing at this bearded fellow’s jokes, touching his arm, eventually suggesting they “get out of here.” Such game! Vacation Emily is truly the best Emily.) So I stuffed my head into Henry’s helmet and clutched his waist as we roared into the night. He left his skull exposed, and we jerked and careened and narrowly bypassed pedestrians as we sped out of the city center.
A black boxing glove connected with a fighter’s face and knocked an arc of sweat into the air. It hovered under the lights for a moment alongside all the dust and mustiness, the clots of cigar smoke, and stink of bodies. Although this was a sanctioned event—we were at a TV station, apparently—the space had an illicit timbre: out-of-control men betting and shouting, cosplaying as ne’er-do-wells. A boxer swiveled his taut torso and launched his leg in the air, and I gasped as his shin hit his contender’s skull. Knockout!
“I’m going to fight my way to the bar,” Henry yelled, ducking his head. “You two want anything?”
“Get me an Angkor,” Lucy bellowed back.
I shook my head. “You don’t have to buy me anything.”
Henry leaned closer, grinning. “It’s about 50 cents, innit? I think I can manage.”
I waved my hand. “No, thank you!”
“Suit yourself.” He pushed into the throng, which swallowed him whole.
Limbs pressed against me and someone splashed a cup of jaundiced beer onto my shoulder. I felt less anchored without Henry nearby—which annoyed me. Why should the presence of a friendly man bring me confidence, strength? People sloshed against us and pushed me off my center. It was like standing in a rushing river, with bodies churning and eddying all around.
I turned back to Lucy. “I’m going to get some air.”
She nodded and watched me elbow through the crowd, back through the unmarked door where a bored-eyed security guy had given us lackluster pat-downs when we arrived. Now it felt strangely peaceful outside, with night insects screeching and a clump of boxers smoking and speaking sleepily under orange lights. From out here, the studio looked like a small warehouse, its concrete bricks cloaking the chaos inside.
I noticed a Cambodian woman leaning against the wall. Her hair was in careful braids and her black robe shimmered in the anemic light.
A female pradal serey fighter—score.
“Susadei,” I greeted her. “Do you speak English?”She smiled. One of her canine teeth was missing. “A little.”
“What’s your name?”
“Tevy.” She pressed her palms together at her chin. I thought of yoga, of saluting the sun. That brief beat of reverence.
“I’m Kristen.” I returned the gesture. “It’s so cool that you fight. What’s it like to be a woman doing this?”
She dipped her head. “I fight to make money for my family,” she said. “But I like to be strong. If I do not defend myself...”
I nodded. “...no one will.”
She offered me her cigarette and I took a solemn, single puff. The nicotine steadied me enough to face the bedlam of the arena again, and I wished her luck before heading back inside.
Henry’s corn-silk hair poked out from the audience like a scarecrow above a field, and I headed toward it. A third pair of athletes, magnificent in their silk robes, entered the ring right as I reached Henry. One fighter landed a jab to the other’s kidney. The air churned with humidity and the sweat of slick arms slipped against me and—
Something was bothering me. It was like a bee that wouldn’t leave me alone, bumbling and bumping against me, begging to be noticed. Something from just before I went outside. I crossed my arms in front of me and let the fight scene before my eyes blur. I rewound through the past 20 minutes, watching it in reverse, the mass of humanity girdling the ring, a slosh of cheap beer levitating from my shoulder...
I jerked my head to the right, but Henry was gone.
It’s about 50 cents, innit? But Henry said he was from London. He’d think in pence. Fifty p.
A spectator lost his footing and tumbled onto me, grabbing at my limbs as he plummeted to the sticky floor. I looked around wildly. It was like a scrim had been yanked off the scene and suddenly it was too riled up, too loud, too close. Deep in my gut, nerves and instincts fluttered like a murder of crows: Get out of here.
“I need to go,” I yelled to Lucy, leaning close.
Her eyes darted behind me, and then she grabbed my forearms. “You’re not having fun?” she called back, too close to my ear.
“I need to—” I started, and then froze. Amidst all the chaos, the rumble, the light and sweat and noise, I felt it as clear as the clang of a bell:
Someone was reaching into my purse.
Tevy’s face flashed in my mind, the missing tooth and knowing eyes. If you don’t defend yourself... I didn’t think—I just acted. I jerked away from Lucy’s palms and swung my fist as I whirled around. It connected with something, flesh on flesh, squishing the skin and crashing against a jawbone with all the strength I could muster.
“Ow! What the hell is wrong with you?!” Henry was clutching his chin, his eyes wild.
My heart galloped in my chest. I pulled my purse against my stomach and watched his eyes meet Lucy’s behind me.
The circuit lit up. I’d been duped. I was an idiot. Henry didn’t have a British accent anymore. “Screw you both,” I hissed, and then I darted into the crowd. Tears pricked my eyes as a ground swell of emotions rose through me—shame that I’d trusted them, that I had let my guard down and could’ve lost my phone or wallet in the process.
My hands quivered. How dare they? What else did they lie about? Are they old friends from North America, getting off on robbing solo travelers and blaming local pickpockets?
Phnom Penh streaked past. We gunned through alleys and narrow passageways, weaving past fruit stands and ice-cream carts. There was something else marbling the horror. I was elated. Indignant and strong, full of gorgeous, righteous anger. Henry and Lucy or whatever their real names were—they’d messed with the wrong traveler. I couldn’t wait to tell Emily about it and hear how her night had gone—it had to have been better than mine.
With a final swerve and a clunking stop, the driver dropped me in front of our hotel. I checked my phone—it wasn’t quite midnight yet, but hopefully, Emily and the South African guy would be clothed by now. I unlocked the front door, made my way down the sallow, silent hallway, and paused in front of our room.
I didn’t yet know how, when I stepped inside, the musky tang of Emily’s fear would bristle the air and straighten my spine. I didn’t know I’d cry out in terror and, in an instant, regret every glib, gleeful thought I’d had about leaving Emily to her own devices. I had no idea that life was about to change forever, rupturing in tandem with skin as blood lapped against the tile floor.
I straightened my shoulders, preemptively smiling. I’d tell her about Tevy and how I’d clocked a scammer in the face.
I stuck my key in the lock, turned the handle, and pushed.