6 October 2000

Where's b?

Where's b?


Cambodia's Flag

2 September 2000 - Arrive in Phenom Penh, the Capital of Cambodia

The cheapest flight to Cambodia from Bangkok was via Bangkok Airways for about $140 roundtrip. That money bought a seat on a small prop plane. It took us to Phenom Penh in one and a half hours or so. The man next to me was an American from California. He was born in Cambodia and left the country in 1982. He went to college in America, married a Cambodian immigrant and now has two children and a good job. He said he would be visiting he and his wife's families. But after some questioning it turned out that the only relative they had in Cambodia was his sister and her family. His wife's family had all migrated to America and his family had been wiped out by the Khmer Rouge in their ethnic/ intellectual cleansing campaign in the late 1970's. Between one and two million people were killed in a country of 7 million. Perhaps two million more fled.

I figured he didn't want to dwell on this horror so I changed the subject to Cambodia's crowning glory, Angkor Wat. He had seen it, as he was fleeing the country. "It must be amazing," I offered, trying again to find a bright spot in the darkness. He spoke about the great technical feat it was at such a time in history without the aid of modern machines. Trying to be positive I said, "It was built by your ancestors. The Khmers" Strike three.

"Not really, my mother was Chinese, my father was Cham, I also have Khmer and French ancestors. That was the problem."

Without realizing it I played right into the racist logic of the Khmer Rouge's campaign of death. I tried to suggest that there was some greatness in the Khmer race that could produce Angkor. I suddenly put a few things together and realized that this was Pol Pot's argument and his logic behind racial purity, to free Cambodia (Land of the Khmers) of impurity and achieve greatness once again, this time under the banner of Communism (Rouge).

This working man kept telling himself he was on some kind of a normal family holiday. In fact it was much more than that. What was he traveling for? A question that should give pause to any traveler.

We had a smooth enough landing and the rainy season only brought us clouds. The land we passed over was flat and green and covered with what looked like large puddles. Perhaps resevoirs of some kind. (the Khmers are famous for their resevoirs.)

We were brisked through immigration and customs. A tourist visa cost US$20 and a recent photograph. I came prepared with both. It was the first US dollars I have spent in over a year and a half. I picked up US dollars in Bangkok exclusively for travel in Cambodia and Vietnam. The ironies need not be pointed out.

I shared a taxi to Cloud 9 with an Isreali couple fresh from Tel Aviv. Cloud 9 had been recommended to each of us. It's a guesthouse set on the edge of a large lake on the edge (or in the middle) of Phenom Pehn. Cloud 9 is now called Number 9, but it is still a nice cool retreat from the noisy, pollution and squalor of the city.

I walked into town with the Jewish couple. We passed a Buddhist temple. They didn't know what it was. I told them. I didn't tell them they should have spent more time in Thailand and they would have seen dozens of these. They asked if they could go in. I said sure. They asked me if it would be ok to take a picture. I said, sure. They asked if I was sure. I explained that Muslims didn't like pictures sometimes, but Buddhist were very cool about it. (This is actually not true at the Chapel of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, but normally photos are fine.) They stood for their picture and I suggested it would be better if they moved closer to the row of stupas. They didn't think they were allowed to enter this more inner space of the temple. I said, no problem and herded them in there and took their picture. I noticed a couple of odd statues. A man lying down and another one sick looking. I realized that this were reminders of the Buddha's formative experience of realizing the truth of suffering (Dukkha). I explained to them the story of the sheltered young prince who left the confines of his palace and fatefully encountered in succession an old man, a sick man and a dead man. These three figures were on display here on the approach to the temple, labled in Khmer and English. The style of the temple and of the figures was a kind of contemporary Thai style. So there's your picture, a "Roman Catholic" explaining the first noble truth of Buddhism to two Jews in Cambodia.

We eventually split up because they wanted to take a hire a motor bike taxi to get to the Vietnamese embassy and I wanted to hire a bicycle. I didn't find a bicycle for rent, but I discovered the refurbish and resale operation of trashed bicycles brought in by the shiploasd from Japan. These Cambodia's fixed them up and sold them as near new for up to $150. They paid about $40 for one. I'm sure Japan send them to the government for free and the government then sales them to their own people. Japan sends more aid to Indochina than anyone else. I'm not trying to congratulate them. I'm just hoping to show in a foreign context how self-serving so-called assistance is. Japan wants to improve its image with it's Asian neighbors, it wants them to be allies, it wants them to be stronger and a market for goods and labor. Japan, I suspect, still secretly harbors, a dream of Asia for Asians. A refrain that Malaysia's PM likes as much as the Japanese occupation forces did.

I'm going to cut this off without getting to the best part of the day, which was getting a ride on a motorbike and letting the driver take me to a scenic place on the banks of the Tonle Sap river. Many other locals drove up to spend a few minutes taking in the view. Resting their eyes on something that wasn't urban squalor. A kind of tonic, no doubt. A bumber car ring was in full swing nearby and a larger crowd had gathered to watch the action there. A carnival of some kind was happening around there. We drove by the King's Palace modeled after the Palace in Bangkok and then back to my guesthouse. I gave him 3,000 riels. Just under $1.

The end of my first day in Cambodia leaves me with a very strange feeling. Like walking on the coals of a human bonfire that are still just warm.

The Killing Fields and the S21 Museum

Phenom Penh's most popular tourist sites are former scenes of Khmer Rouge terror. The "Killing Fields" located outside Phenom Penh is a green field where enemies of the Khmer Rouge were exterminated. Surrounded by rice fields and grazing cattle it is now a small area of green where shallow pits indicate where mass graves were excavated. Hundreds of human skulls are arranged in a tall tower in the middle of the grounds. The tower is a kind of stupa or Buddhist monumnet (the dominant religion of present day Cambodia). The S21 Museum was formerly a high school, it was turned into an interment camp and torture chamber by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.

I visited both of these places with a motorbike and driver. The S21 museum was somehow more gruesome than the concentration camps I visited in Dachau (of Nazi Germany). I suppose Hitler's camp was orderly and almost scientific. This camp gave a felling of arbitrarily executed horror.


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