George Orwell said pepper was good at getting rid of bed bugs, pointing out that it was worth putting up with the sneezing just to rid himself of the terrible, itching bites. But it didn’t work for me, despite living near the Kampot region in Cambodia, with wheelbarrows of the best pepper in the world at $9 a kilo.
I’d moved into a very cheap room, even by Cambodian standards, so you could say I’d asked for it. But Buddha did I pay. I suppose the moment I put my head down, I was aware from the smell of the mattress and pillow, and general state of the room, that I probably wasn’t sleeping alone.
There were tell-tale piles, as I know now having researched the subject at length on the internet, of pepper-like dust (not just from the grindings I’d put down) that are said to be the blood-sucking bugs’ droppings. The sheets were scattered with them. But there were two much larger, darker piles under the bed frame.
At first I thought something had burrowed upwards through the tiles. They looked like the sort of mounds ants make, and the guesthouse was filled with ants. You only had to leave a piece of fruit out, or a half-drunk can of Pepsi, to find thousands of aggressive fire ants marching across the walls.
But after sweeping up the mounds, there were no holes in the tiles, no cavern entrances to what would become a hellish ordeal of mandibles and eternal, fiery itching. I checked the bed frame and a chunk of rotten wood came away in my hand, leaving a few maggot-like creatures squirming on the floor.
They didn’t look like the pictures I’d found on the many bed bug forums devoted to these tiny barbaric vampires, which I quickly learnt can produce 10,000 babies in three months, and drink three times their own body weight of blood in a single troughing.
But I couldn’t help wondering what else was in there, hidden away in the wooden tunnels, waiting for the long hours before dawn when they’re said to strike. But whatever they were – and you can only wonder at the horribleness of the creatures that had left such huge, itching, red welts across my arms and back – they almost ate me alive.
Bed bugs strike in threes, apparently. Three bites in a line – breakfast, lunch and dinner, according to the feverish accounts on the bed bug sites. But they’d clearly run out of space, and had just bitten wherever was in reach. There were bites upon bites, and always a horrible yellow, itching crust. My forearms took the worst of it. Even now as I write this, it feels like I’ve been hog-tied with poison ivy. The burning only gets worse if you finally cave in and scratch – and then there is the risk of infection, especially in a country as hot as this.
But then I still wasn’t sure whether it was bed bugs, or whatever had been eating the bed frame, or whether the mattress was just a big red herring. After a friend found a small cobra wriggling across his lounge carpet, I was beginning to think anything was possible in Cambodia, even armies of tiny, but extremely vicious, hawk-headed death scorpions.
I’d been finding a few striped, territorial, and much larger than normal, mosquitoes in the room of late and wondered whether it was them. But the bites were much more savage and had developed into a welter of full-blown hives. Always with a red hole in the middle – much wider than a mosquito straw. It was more the sort of bite from something that could gnaw through heavily-varnished teak.
I had a disturbing thought as I switched off the lights, and waited for the interminable itching and soft scurry, or would it be squirm, and gentle parting of hair, then bite, that they might have tunnelled inside me, and found a new lair. But I put the thought out of my mind as best I could, remembering how psychological trauma was listed as a common affliction on the BB forums.
The next morning, I complained to the French owner, a strange, stocky man with uncertain eyes, who’d recently bought the guesthouse and over weeks of early morning hammering, drilling and tile cutting had slowly been turning it into a restaurant. He didn’t seem too bothered when I told him.
The guestrooms were the last place that would get attention – he was far too busy painting the concrete floor outside the restaurant. Perhaps bed bugs were more common in France? But eventually he agreed to swap my bed for the one in the empty room next door, exposing a large, grey rectangle of dust, hair, condom wrappers and lofty peaks of drilled wood.
There were far more of them than I’d feared. Some of the holes in the wood were the width of a small pencil. I stood there itching at the sight. But the bed was soon gone, and the floor half-heartedly mopped. The new bed looked in far better shape. There were a few holes here and there, but the frame looked far less crumbly. And although the mattress still had a grimy look, it certainly smelt a lot fresher.
I got the woman down the road to wash all the bed sheets and pillow cases to get rid of any lasting traces of the burrowing beasts, and settled down for a good night’s sleep. But there were more belters in the morning. It couldn’t have been the mosquitoes because whatever it was had broken through my liberally-sprayed shield of “F-Off!” insect repellent.
There was so much deet and toxic chemicals, it burned your eyes if you’d forgotten to turn off the fan. I’d long given up chasing mosquitoes around the room, and instead just napalmed the general area I’d last seen them in, and they’d quickly be writhing on the floor waiting to give up their last squirts of my blood as I splattered them.
But deet clearly didn’t trouble these hardened parasites. Curse them! It tied in with the apocalyptic warnings on the forums about how they were forever evolving into more monstrous creations as they developed unique resistance to insecticides like deltamethrin and beta-cyfluthrin, until pesticides and other powerful chemicals normally used outdoors no longer had any effect on them – and beware therefore! They’d soon be a pestilence on every hotel around the world. Aum. Ha.
“I am telling you these bugs don’t care what your income, race or habits are,” said a woman from Connecticut who’d burned all her furniture and was now sleeping in the shed on a trampoline. “They want blood and carbon dioxide. I have made my home hostile to them until I can afford fumigation.”
For a while, the accepted wisdom was to douse an infested mattress with turps – something that would obviously greatly increase the dangers of smoking in bed – or coat the bed legs with lethal radioactive waste to stop the evil little creatures climbing upwards.
But evolution and fiendish arthropodic intelligence struck once again, and they somehow communicated with each other that it would be a good idea if they emerged from their cracks and crannies at a synchronised time as normal, but this time, rather than taking the usual short cut up the bed legs, they could scurry in lines across the tiles, up the wall, and then back on themselves over the ceiling, and then drop somewhere near the sleeping prey.
There was also a lot of talk about how bed bugs were good hitchhikers, most efficiently it seems in hotel luggage, and once they were inside, would quickly emigrate like conquering tribes into different territories of the property, so I had no way of knowing whether the bites were from creatures connected with the old bed or the new one.
I talked to an old Parisian called Maurice in the bar that evening, and he just shrugged and told me to lay the mattress in the sun, and turn it over from time to time. He said he got the guard to do his every six months.
“You have to,” he said. “This…is Cambodia.”
The affected pause, shrugging, and way he strangled the vowels in Cambodia made it sound like it was a philosophical point about asceticism, an experience that should be embraced as much as any other. I felt better, and chided myself for worrying too much and being a product of a system that had distanced itself so much from nature, but still the burning itches continued.
It hadn’t helped that I was reading Into The Wild, a book about incredible human endurance and suffering, and being eaten alive by mosquitoes in Alaska. What were a few bed bugs, if that’s what they were – and I’d still failed to get conclusive proof – next to starvation and a lonely, painful death?
We clinked pastis glasses and I itched my arms again. I climbed off my bar stool and suddenly felt faint. It wasn’t just the drink, the flu I’d had for the past two weeks seemed to be getting stronger, and was turning again into another sore throat. I had no idea at the time that it might have been something to do with those bites. All I knew was the last person I’d chatted to, who’d had similar symptoms, had been diagnosed with dengue fever.
The next day, after more bites, I told the owner about Maurice’s mattress trick. I could see he was losing patience, but continued to wear his stretched smile. It was the same cartoon grin he’d used when I rang the bell repeatedly at 3am, thinking it wasn’t working.
The mattress lay there all day in the blazing sun, flipped over whenever the guard remembered to rouse himself from the hammock. When I got back, the owner had obviously had a change of heart. Had he been itching too?
He’d painted over the holes in the bed frame with white paint, and pointed at the label. It had a picture of a badly-drawn, furry, green worm with a red cross through it. He’d even bought a couple of new pillows. But he said he couldn’t buy a new mattress because he’d only had the guesthouse for two months. I also noticed he hadn’t bothered to paint the underside of the bed.
I slept tight and tried not to let the bed bugs bite, but woke at first light with more lesions. A couple of evil-looking black creatures were writhing about on the floor. They’d either just flipped on their backs or had more likely been winkled out of their holes by the paint. There were bites this time on my legs, and my fever seemed to be getting worse. I told the owner I could stand no more, and was moving out, even if I had paid for the next month upfront.
“No-one else is complaining about the small animals,” he sniffed.
I moved in to the new hotel up the street – it was a hundred times cleaner, and ten times more expensive. But I needed to get some proper sleep in a clean bed without the thought of marauding insects. I filled the sink with water and washed the black vest and shorts I was wearing – the last things that hadn’t been through the laundry.
I let the vest sink back into the water, and then my stomach turned and I felt that crawling itch as three red bugs scurried towards the side of the sink. I had proof at last. They were definitely the bed bugs I’d seen on the forums. They were so fast and confident, it was no wonder I hadn’t spotted them.
The nausea, cough and fever I’d been suffering fitted in with some of the more extreme symptoms other victims had complained about. I didn’t have dengue fever – it was some sort of allergic reaction to the bites. I staggered down to the Khmer restaurant, where I ate most mornings, and almost collapsed as I walked in. None of the pills the pharmacist had given me had worked, but then his English was as bad as my Khmer.
I was desperate and threw myself on the mercy of that happy, peaceful family. I told Sophie, the cook-owner who I’d been learning some traditional Cambodian dishes from, about my symptoms and bites, and she said she was pretty sure it wasn’t malaria because I wasn’t getting cold shivers.
She told me I should drink fresh coconut juice and get some sleep. I drank three that day, two the next, and the following day felt stronger. There was no sign I’d transported any more bugs from the room, and it was the first time in days I’d woken without fresh bites. But the fever was still there, as was the cough and itching.
I lurched back down the hill to the restaurant to thank Sophie. I was getting my appetite back and ordered her delicious ngam nguv soup, remembering how good chicken broth is for flu and restoring the spirits. We got chatting about food, and I offered to show her how to make beef stroganoff for the Russian barangs who stay at her guesthouse. She said she wanted to learn something called “key-kerr salad”.
Was it Russian? Maybe a Moldovian peasant dish traditionally eaten at the autumn equinox when the day is divided into exactly 12 hours of light and dark? Or maybe a Lithuanian speciality, no doubt comprising of potatoes? I cursed myself for not knowing. I’d never been much good on Slavic cuisine. Let alone Baltic. Or any wok-based curry dishes for that matter.
But as an old Singaporean cook had told me the other day as he served hokkien mee – thick noodles with pork, prawns, and squid in a thick, soy gravy made from pig hock that he began cooking in the morning – it was impossible to know everything about food; it was far too big a subject. She’d definitely said key-kerr.
“Oh, Caesar salad!” I said eventually.
She asked me to show her the next day, and I stumbled back up the unmade road, wondering how she was going to make any money on a Caesar salad given the price of anchovies, let alone parmesan, and the ridiculously low prices she was forced to charge in that stretch of identical Khmer restaurants. There was only one possible substitute you could use in Cambodia that would be that cheap.