Me, My Girl, and a Frost Free February #11: Cambodia – Cambodia

Cambodia: Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, Kratie, Sihanoukville

February 25, 2003

The week before our arrival in Cambodia there was a riot in Phnom Penh. A radio show host erroneously quoted a Thai actress as saying Angkor Wat belonged to Thailand. A few folks in PP seemed to take this more seriously than you might think necessary and proceeded to destroy the Thai embassy and Thai-owned businesses: hotels, a cell phone company, a gas station. Thailand was a little perturbed and shut down the border, cancelled flights, closed the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok and kicked a bunch of Cambodians out of the country.

Fortunately, no one wants to bug the tourists (at least not that way) and it was no problem for us to cross the border. We had to put up with a few minor hassles: the overpriced visa scam, the “tip” demanded by the customs agent, the numerous child pickpockets, and, of course, the Cambodian roads.

The road between Poipet and Siem Reap has apparently been fixed. You wouldn’t know it. For five hours we rode over red dirt roads that have been baked into washboards by the sun. Frequent monster potholes added a certain random element to the pain. The landmine warning signs that we spotted at regular intervals (often in people’s front yards) were an extra kick. Halfway along the 150km route we stopped at a cafe where waitress-cum-prostitutes shamelessly propositioned every man in sight: “I love you. You stay here. No go Angkor. I love you longtime.” I was hoping they’d proposition me, so I’d have an excuse to stay behind. Alas, it was not to be.

“This very good time,” the driver assured us when we finally arrived. “In rainy season, some time take 15, maybe 20 hours.”

The main reason people brave the road is, of course, the ruins of Angkor Wat. The site is vast and wonderful. Helene and I bought ourselves a three day pass and barely scratched the surface. I found myself humming the Indiana Jones theme song more than once as we cycled and motorbiked our way around, not at all surprised that the movie Tomb Raider was partially filmed here. The temples are stunning and the bas-reliefs that many of them sport are absolutely incredible. Rivers of fish and crocodiles, a woman giving birth, walls and walls of elephants, massive battles, a leper king, a cock-fight � just a few of the things that have been expertly carved in stone.

On our last night we climbed narrow steps up one of the lesser visited temples and sat in a stone doorway to watch the sun drop down over the jungle. The moon rose behind us. Bats took to the sky. Suddenly, an impressively dreaded Scandinavian appeared at the top of the stairs. Helene and I said hello and squished over for him to take a seat. We were all silent for a minute as the first stars began to appear. “A seat fit for a king,” he said, “or three of them.”

It’s only in the last ten years or so that outsiders have had easy access to Angkor Wat. The decades of war, genocide and occupation that kept tourists out took an enormous toll on Cambodia’s infrastructure. It’s not just the roads that are in dire condition. Half Cambodia’s budget comes from outside aid � it is the NGO capital of the world. In the whole country there are about 200 dentists, and the hospitals (those that even exist) are incredibly underfunded. Life expectancy is less than 54 years. The government has just promised to pay back over $50 million to rebuild the Thai embassy and other Thai businesses that were destroyed in the Phnom Penh riots � as if they can afford it. So I couldn’t figure out why Cambodians looked so happy. They were by far the most welcoming people we had met on this trip.

We left Siem Reap reluctantly, and, having learned our lesson, traveled to PP by boat. There we stayed with the sister of a friend and her husband. “What are you going see tomorrow?” asked Anthony dryly, “Genocide?”

The mass graves known as “the Killing Fields” and the torture chambers of Phnom Penh’s S-21 make disturbing tourist attractions. The Killing Fields is a mass grave where thousands of Cambodians killed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were buried. They make up only a fraction of the one to three million who died under this regime. When the Khmer Rouge came to power, anyone with an education was suspect. City dwellers were forced into the countryside by soldiers wearing the black pyjamas of the peasant class. Phnom Penh was emptied, and whole families murdered. No one has ever been prosecuted for the crimes.

In a pagoda erected at the Killing Fields, skulls are displayed sorted by age and gender. The murders took place between 1975 and 1979 so I was able to look for the small skulls that were “my” age; the kids who were killed while I was in kindergarten, learning to ride a bike, moving to the suburbs. For some reason the case where the skulls are stored is open. If you want to, you can reach in and touch what is left of these people. I shifted uncomfortably around the site, aware that all of the visitors were foreigners. When do the Cambodians come to remember?

“Most don’t,” said an expat we met in Kratie. “It isn’t taught in the schools. It’s like it never happened. The UN makes noises, but no one here wants to talk about it. You think all those Khmer Rouge went away after the genocide? No way. They’re still around. They’re in the government. Anyway, either your family got killed, or your family did the killing. It’s too complicated to remember.”

Others seemed to confirm his claim. I asked a Cambodian man about the dozens of landmine signs I’d seen. “Fake,” he said. “People just want the land.” I don’t know how he explains the dozens of legless beggars we saw. Other backpackers we met had chatted with kids who believed that all the landmines were left by the Vietnamese, during their occupation of Cambodia. No one ever mentioned the Khmer Rouge.

In Kratie, Helene and I watched another incredible sunset, this one over the Mekong River. We were enjoying local beer poured over ice at a tiny stall, and were quickly joined by two Cambodian girls. And then two more people, and then three more, until we were the centre of attention for a large, giggling group of girls, boys, men, women and one baby. We were questioned at length in broken English by people constantly apologizing (“I’m sorry. I only level three, beginner”). One woman in particular, Sophal, seemed fascinated by me. She was about forty years old and absolutely beautiful. She would direct the others to ask me questions, and pluck gently at the blond hairs on my arm. When Sophal learned that Helene and I planned to go and visit the freshwater Irawaddy dolphins the next day, she asked if she could come along. True cynics by this point, we figured it was likely we were about to be taken for a ride (her husband/brother/father/uncle was a tour guide etc), but said yes anyway.

She showed up with two scooters, her friend Sophy, Sophy’s baby, Sophy’s husband, and Sophy’s brother Theara, who was to be the translator. The seven of us hopped on the two bikes and followed a road that ran beside the river. When we arrived at our destination some negotiation on their part got us a boat. On the water we spotted a plethora of dolphins nosing out of the shallows, circling in the rapids of the Mekong. Back on dry land our hosts refused our offers of food and drink and insisted instead on taking us to a nearby hill, famous for the Buddhist temples atop it. Once there we were given a guided tour of the environs and treated to a great view over the countryside. Inside one of the temples, vivid painting covered the walls. Most of the scenes I could recognize as being from the life of Buddha, but one seemed familiar in a different way. In it, people clothed in black pyjamas were torturing and killing other people.

“What is this a picture of?” I asked Theara. Sophal looked on. She would have been in her mid- to late-teens at that time the Khmer Rouge came to power.

“This is a picture of hell,” Theara answered. His sister Sophy, who spoke a little English, nodded.

“Of hell? But what are they wearing?” I pressed.

“It is hell,” he repeated. I gave up. He looked at us and smiled. “Let’s go now.” We admired another temple, and then they took us back to their house, where we were offered tea or beer. Theara slipped off to buy us bottled water. No one would accept a cent for gas or anything else. Instead, Sophy kept smiling and repeating, “We are so lucky to have met you. Very happy.”

The following day we met Sophal at the market, where she works bagging, sifting and selling rice. She insisted we sit down and drink some coconut juice with her. As we pantomimed questions and answers back and forth I remembered one of the most striking monuments at Angkor Wat.

At the south side of the ancient city of Angkor Thom, a huge tower topped with four massive stone heads acts as the gate. To reach it you must cross a causeway over a moat. One side of the causeway is guarded by 54 Gods, the other by 54 demons. Helene had asked me, “How do you tell the Gods from the Demons?” Flipping through a guidebook to the site, I found the answer: the Gods have their eyes closed and they are smiling.

I loved the time I spent in Cambodia. If I believed in those Gods I’d pray for a less painful future for its people. If I were a romantic I could believe that the Cambodians, emulating the Gods – eyes closed, smiling – are working things out in their own way. I can’t believe it is that simple though. I really wish I could.