When Angie Met Sochi
A Cambodian taxi driver's devoted 'romance' with Miss Jolie
"One meets such interesting people when one travels," I said to the Fish, who generally never meets any people. His social circle consists of travellers encountered in the National Geographic, from where he also gets his deep insights into life, reality and our purpose on this planet.
"For instance," I began, "I was in Siem Reap just weeks ago--"
"Everyone is interesting to an inherently colourless fellow," he said. "Name one interesting person you've met.""Well, there was a bearded man in saffron robes on a plane to Zambia. Turned out, he was not a Hindu fanatic but a copper mining engineer. His name--"
"You might gaze in awe at a stranger," said the Fish astutely, "but does he even notice you? Or does he ask you for the menu?"
I ignored his barb. "When you hear about what happened in Siem Reap, where they shot the legendary Jungle Book--"
"It wasn't Jungle Book, it was Tarzan," he corrected me incorrectly. "And next you'll tell me you met Angelina Jolie," he said, returning to his article on the Hottentots of the Kalahari. "This is why I believe nothing you say." I still don't know how much to believe of the Cambodian taxi driver's story. His name was Prum, and he reminded me of Stan Laurel. Our airport pick-up had stood us up, so we were now in a rented taxi, en route to a boutique hotel.
The billboard with Angelina Jolie and some poignant words about the release of her Oscar-nominated movie First They Killed My Father, stood where we turned into the highway. Nothing if not free associators, we--the teenagers and I--began remembering the different ways in which Angelina Jolie had become Cambodia's icon.The connection started in the year 2000, when she went there to star as Lara Croft in the cult film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Two years later, her affair with Cambodia led to her adopting Rath Vibol, her first child, also her first Cambodian child, from an orphanage in Battambang. She bought land for the child, now renamed Maddox Chivan--a mere 7.5 hectares. Then, just for kicks, she bought up the rest of Battambang too--well, 60,000 hectares in the Samlut Protected area anyway, and turned it into a wildlife preserve, now known as the Maddox Jolie--Pitt Foundation. The King, grateful, gave Jolie honorary citizenship. Prum was speaking. "I was Angelina Jolie's driver," he said.
There was a moment's silence in the cab, before I erupted in unfettered laughter. "Bullshit!" I said pleasantly. "A crock of bullshit." Prum sportingly joined me in the laughter, busted in his scam, and I decided that he definitely reminded me of Laurel.
It's a long drive to Siem Reap, past an avenue lined almost entirely with hotels filled almost entirely with people come to see the world's largest religious monument, Angkor Wat, set over 162.6 hectares. You have to be a scholar on a paid sabbatical or a jobless fellow with time to see the entire complex, which can take over a week. Or you could do what I did--read. I bought a slick guide book from a tout for a few dollars at the temple entrance, cleverly bargaining him down from 50 to 12 dollars. Later, on the way out, I saw another chap selling the same book for 1 dollar.
"Look in the glove compartment," said Prum. "You'll find a certificate."It was a curled sheet of bilingual words, full of calligraphy and signatures. My daughter read it out-"Certificate of Achievement This document acknowledges the contribution in skill and expertise made by PRUM SOTHEARITH in the making of the motion picture First They Killed My Father shot in the Kingdom of Cambodia from 19th November 2015 to 13th February 2016."
The leftmost signature was unmistakably Angelina Jolie Pitt.
There was also a group photograph of Angie J. with her deckhands. Prum pointed himself out, in a corner in a T-shirt, painfully pink.
There was complete silence in the taxi now, two awed children and their gobsmacked father. "Please put everything back carefully," said Prum, without taking his eyes off the road.
"So you touched the dry ink on a certificate that had been allegedly touched by a pen held some years ago by Angelina Jolie," said the Fish. "This, you feel, is the same as meeting Ms Jolie herself. Do you also buy wine in cardboard cartons? How do you know that is her signature? Anything can be photoshopped these days, you know."
But I was too deep in conversation with the famous taxi driver. Having survived a gruelling security vetting process, Prum was (he claims) assigned to drive 'Angie' around. This meant picking her up in the morning and getting her to the shoot. This was done in nefarious ways, with a fleet of look-alike decoy cars going off in the wrong directions, while Prum took back alleys only he knew.
He'd wait during the shoot, in dark glasses, looking a little like Brad Pitt from certain angles, until evening came. Angie liked her downtime. So Prum's next trip would be straight to the so-called Pub Street, famous for--you guessed it--Angelina Jolie.
On our first evening, we were at the Red Piano, a favourite, legend has it, of Angelina Jolie herself. The rather nondescript cocktail she liked to have there--lime juice, Cointreau, tonic water, ice--is now promoted as the Tomb Raider cocktail. Every 10th one is free, and every 500th one sold entitles you a T-shirt and 100 dollars in cash. A siren goes off to alarm everyone when it is being served. The Red Piano actually has a blood red piano that you can play, and red statues and an odd bald-headed red gnome. On the street outside a vendor sells fried scorpions, frogs, tarantulas and silkworms. It feels like the set of a Lara Croft movie.
After he had driven her around day and night for all those months, the inevitable happened. Love blossomed, though it was a little unilateral. "I love Angie," Prum said to me. "I will never love anyone else." He looked away, lost in some thought. "She said my name was too difficult for her. So she renamed me." Angie christened her devotee as Sochi, after the Black Sea resort town in Russia where her film Unbroken was screened at the 2014 Winter Olympics. "I'm her Sochi," said Prum.
Angie's Sochi drove us around Siem Reap for three days. He said an interview was out of the question; he had promised Angie he would never make money or fame out of his relationship with her. More specifically, her chief of security had taken him aside and reminded him about the non-disclosure agreement. He also told me that a selfie was out of the question. This is why there is no picture of either Sochi alone or with the love of his life. However, no one told my daughter she couldn't quietly take a picture of the certificate signed by Angelina Jolie.
The Fish, the cynical armchair traveller with whom the author shares his travel stories, serves as a foil, puncturing the narrative from time to time with his own version of what must have really happened. The Fish first appeared in C. Y. Gopinath's book Travels with the Fish.