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As requested, for your web site. I went through and fixed -some- things (grammar and spelling mistakes, some unclear things cleared up, and some things I changed just because I thought it sounded better) but go ahead and fix whatever mistakes I missed.
And freely editorialize, so long as you make it clear it's you adding your two cents worth. Like I said, I feel a little arrogant putting this
forth as an "expert" view of Cambodia--I was there for three weeks
for god's sake.
OK OK I am more than a little sheepish about how long it took me to get
back to you all. I'm sure I'll languish in purgatory or something. Anyway
here's a bit more about the trip...
The Big City: Phnom Penh
Honest to god for the first two or three days I could not get over the traffic. It wasn't crowded - actually Chinatown in New York City is more claustrophobic and numbing. What was phenomenal to me was the chaos. Later on I did see the one intersection with a traffic cop. I think there were street lights there too although they were of course irrelevant.
After a while you see that there is a kind of system - I never figured it out, but apparently people don't die in traffic on a regular basis so it must exist. I got over being terrified fairly quickly, but then I don't drive in the states either - ignorance is bliss.
The way you cross the street in Phnom Penh is... ah well I never crossed the street. Not any of the big ones. But I -hear- that the way you cross the street in Phnom Penh is you creep along behind a Khmer person. There is this intricate art to it. Take some steps, gauge the speed of everything coming at you, creep a bit further on. The real trick (I was told) is to make eye contact with the driver of the oncoming vehicle -- "I have a human intelligence!! See!! Don't hit me!!" In this fashion you can cross even crazy Monivong - but it may take you a minute or so. You see people, little little kids, standing in the middle of traffic, walking evenly, motos swerving all around them - and this is perfectly normal.
Rich had a pretty thorough description of traffic in one of his e-mails (I recall) so I'll skip lots. What still sticks out in my mind though are these elementary-to-high-school-aged girls on bicycles, pedalling slowly and comfortably--or so it seemed--on the side of the road, dressed in blue skirts and white blouses. They actually look poised, almost sophisticated, and cool (cool as in not sweating in the 95 degree heat, not cool as in "yo girlfriend go on with your bad self" cool, although now that I think about it...)
Other incidental street/traffic memories: As we were driving to the airport we see on the back of a little moto (and a moto--for all of you who like myself have no particular knowledge or interest in all things motocyclic--ahem--is just a smaller version of a motorcycle) ANYWAY... tied up on the back of this moto is a huge, apparently dead pig, lying behind the driver across the seat. But it's leaking--this arc of liquid is flying out behind the moto. "Oh that's weird that pig is leaking somethi... eeewww". Yes the poor pig was still alive, peeing its last on the way to market. I saw chickens like this too, tied up in a bundle by their feet, hanging upside down, again on the back of a moto. (not peeing though - at least not that I could tell) It was SO disconcerting. They'd lift their little still attached heads and look around, but otherwise were very calm. It gave me the creeps (and yes I feel like the removed-from-nature-city girl that I am.)
Well that's it from me for now. But fear not there's more coming later!
It was surprisingly easy to be a Westerner in Phnom Penh (or so it seemed
to me, but I was only there for a little while). If you wanted to chicken
out and be with people just like you (western, English or French speaking,
wealthy in comparison to Khmers) there was a whole ready made western cocoon
in the big city. The legacy I guess of the huge UN presence a few years
back. Tons of UN personnel, nongovernmental organizations, journalists,
etc, have created this infrastructure for visitors.
Other UN legacies: Khmer kids 3-5 years old with orange hair, sometimes called UNTAC babies (UNTAC stands for United Nations something something something); and the not-unrelated-to-the-UNTAC-baby-phenomena of an increase in prostitution. What would democracy be without female exploitation after all? (In its first 49 years of existence women have been appointed to 4 of 140 UN executive positions. I'm sure there is NO connection here. Forgive me this non sequitur. It's that frivolous female mind of mine.)
Actually, sometimes kids have orange hair because they are malnourished and have a vitamin deficiency. I'm trying to think about how to describe the poverty there. People are poor, it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, it was still pretty bad. When I try to get specific--describing the beggars for example--I feel like a parasite. "Let me be colorful and shocking."
The most protective western cocoon in Phnom Penh is the Foreign Correspondents Club--the FCC. The FCC is like something out of a BBC historical drama set in some "exotic" colonized place. It has big high ceilings, and ceiling fans, and bats, and big old comfortable leather chairs. Complacent gecko lizards (pale green brownish, small, like salamanders) all over the walls. Once you get over thinking of them as roaches when you catch them in your peripheral vision, you think they are cute.
The FCC is on the second floor with the whole front of the building open wide to a view of the Mekong River. Actually there's a railing between you and the Mekong, and bar stools pulled up to it. So you can sit there with your gin and tonic, and not quite believe yourself sitting there with your gin and tonic looking out at the Mekong. This was my very guilty pleasure after a day of wandering around on my own while Rich was at work.
That was surprising--how exhausting and stressful the strangeness of everything could be. Knowing that you can't talk to anyone. I knew when I went out there that I'd feel really dependent on Rich, and I was glad he was going to have to work. That would force me to be independent, etc, etc. But even expecting all this, I found it hard not to feel panicky when I was on my own finally. Like, er, ah, I actually physically wanted to cement him to my side. ACK DON'T LEAVE ME ALONE I AM AN IGNORANT FOREIGNER. Of course what I said was "OK see you later. I'll be fine!"
And I roamed around. Saw a Monk's funeral. Crossed the little streets on my own (not the especially crazy ones). Went to the Seeing Hands massage parlor. Went to the museum, saw the exodus of the 1.3 or 3.1 million bats from the ceiling of the museum. That's an amazing site. They live there, and at dusk funnel out in a stream. It takes them a good hour because there are so many. Rich's friend Ian lives in an apartment with a deck right beneath their path.
I saw an elephant--you don't see many elephants roaming the streets in Phnom Penh. And weirder still, a transvestite. I got a picture of the elephant.
I ate so well. I had dumplings that were not of this world. Khmer, Indian, Chinese, Thai, Korean, and mediocre French food (later on I had great French food--well it wasn't "French" really, but I think the cook was French Vietnamese). American style breakfasts were really easy to come by.
The markets are packed full of everything and (to a person who doesn't like shopping which I definitely am) daunting: stereos, gorgeous silk and cotton cloth, (and you can bring your just purchased cloth to one of the seamstresses on sight and she'll make a shirt or whatever for you) all the touristy things: Jayavarman heads and statues, wood carvings, papier-mache masks, silver chop sticks, silver rings, T-shirts; bootleg videos, polyester clothing, underwear, watches, luggage, motorcycle parts, shoes--all the shoes are wrapped up in plastic, like shrink wrap. Dried fish, freshly killed food, things to eat there for lunch. Woven straw mats. These are so lovely, very colorful. (Khmers sleep on mats, but Rich is on this quest to buy enough mats to cover all of the hard tile floor in his house. He's got maybe nine in there now and needs three times that to finish up. It's a big cold tiled room, like a hotel lobby, full of echoes and big space. The mats help.)
Rich described the markets in his e-mail once, but the thing I didn't pick up on is that all of this is indoors. A huge city block full of stalls fits in a covered market building. And there is just enough room to walk between all the merchandise.
Sigh. I think I will have to accept that for everything I tell you there are 16 things I'll be leaving out.
Oh boy here we are again - yet another tour of Cambodia via what I remember!
Miscellaneous things about the city that I have not yet elaborated on...
Anyone (business, NGO, private citizen) who can afford it hires young guys to be night guards outside the house/office/building. It is very disconcerting to pull into a yard and see a person who looks to be all of 25, someone moonlighting from his regular job with the police or army, standing there with a big gun. It's even more disconcerting to get used to it.
Apparently the they are needed to protect you from burglars, but sometimes the guards themselves are in on burglaries. That all pervasive corruption! Or maybe it's that easy going, not-exactly-professional attitude. One of the guards at the paper "borrowed" Roy's (one of Rich's housemates and co-workers) moto one afternoon.
The 1.3 (or 3.1 ?) million bats in the museum have evolved into a unique species, which is why, even though there is a fine dusting of bat crap settling over great Cambodian artistic treasures, the powers that be have decided not to exterminate them. Maybe there's more to it than that. The bats also have huge ticks on them - if you get bit you feel it for a week. We were going to visit them in the roof but decided against it after we heard about the ticks.
Cupping and coining
(I think Rich wrote about them in a posting but just in case...).
Cupping is done in other parts of Asia as well. Actually I read about it years ago here, in a book on massage. Basically you place what looks like a shot glass on a person's face or back (as he or she is lying down) and then heat the air inside (or maybe you heat the glass first?). In any case it creates this suction effect. I think it pulls all the blood to the surface of your skin. Then the person treating you pulls the glass off, there's a cute little pop, and you're cured (of whatever ails you). And you get to wear a red circle for a while. It looks more painful than it is, I think. (No I didn't try this).
Coining is really wicked though. You scrape yourself back and forth with the side of a coin, hard enough to draw blood. Ouch! Tinker (another housemate) told me that someone told her that Khmer folk medicine associates illness with having air trapped in your body. Which is consistent with cupping and coining. Also people commonly take intravenous vitamins--more of that injection/ getting air out of the body stuff (a real AIDS/HIV prevention nightmare I would think). However, I would take the air-trapped-in-the-body explanation with a grain of salt. It might very well be true, but can't you just see some Khmer woman feeding a ton of bull to a gullible westerner? I think there is an anthropological term for this phenomenon. Probably Latin for "lets see what this stupid outsider will believe".
The cats and their broken tails: are almost more common than cats with smooth, unbroken tails. It's also clear that some are born with short stubby tails. Why this is so is a mysterious and there are a few theories: They get run over by traffic a lot. Except traffic, for all it's chaos, is simply not that heavy. They were bred especially to have short tails. But why? Rich or someone told me that there is a legend in which a cat or a cat god double crosses, or lies to, or otherwise insults some deity. The vengeful deity breaks the cat's tail. Maybe cats with long tails are considered bad luck. (Hey, why do we cut Dobermans' ears?)
Another theory I've heard is that the mother cats have a calcium deficiency, which is expressed in their fetal kittens by a malformed tail, being the least essential part of the cat. If you can shed any light on this, please fill me in.
Francois is the mechanic who swears that Rich's monstrosity of a bike is worth lots of money. His shop is down the street from where Rich lives. While I was visiting, Francois was also caretaker to a litter of kittens. This man has a whole philosophy of kitten behavior, an elaborate analysis of kitten intelligence. In fact he talked about these kittens with the same seriousness as he did the bikes. It's really adorable and funny. And loses something here in the telling, alas.
There were also lots o' mangy dogs, and one--in Kompong Chhnang-- which was so awful looking. This being "the dog Rich and I would have shot without compunction". I really could have done it. I've never seen something that looked to be suffering so. It's whole stomach was hanging out, sort of. It's hard to describe - and now that I think about it, you really don't want to know.
The Fast Boat to Kompong Chhnang...
First a little bit of geography.
Cambodia is roughly circle shaped (-very roughly-), and about the size of Ohio (I think I read it was Ohio. Could have been some other state). In the northwest part of the country is a huge lake, the Tonle Sap, which turns into the Tonle Sap river and runs southeasterly.
The other major body of water is the Mekong River. The Mekong is born somewhere in China, then runs south through Laos (which is directly north of Cambodia), then through Cambodia, then through the part of Vietnam which curves around below Cambodia, and then into the ocean (shame on me I can't remember if it runs into the Gulf of Thailand or into another big body of water called something else. Oops). The Tonle Sap and the Mekong meet in the southern central-ish part of the country- and Phnom Penh, the capital, is there where the rivers cross.
Some hundreds of years ago the capital used to be Angkor, way up the Tonle Sap river, on the other side of the very big Tonle Sap lake.
"Situated just north of the Tonle Sap (the Great lake), Angkor is the site of the greatest concentration of temples in the former Khmer empire - or in the world for that matter. Its approximately 232 square km (60 square miles) are scattered with temples, walls, moats, causeways and reservoirs built between the 9th and 13th centuries, when the empire was at its peak. For more than five hundred years the capital cities were built here, sometimes overlapping, new sites burying the old. Royal roads fanned out to link Angkor with the frontiers of the empire, which at it's furthest extent reached present day Vientiane, Laos in the north, the Three Pagodas Pass between Burma and Thailand in the west, south into the Malay Peninsula, and east as far as the central Vietnamese coast"
We were the only ones to get off when the boat stopped at Kompong Chhnang
(which set me immediately to worrying). The boat pulled up next to a police
or guard house set in the water. The only way to get to land from this structure
was to walk along a pier. But this "pier" consisted of a couple
of two by fours - maybe just one by twos really - that shook when you stepped
foot on them.
So we wobble across these things, feeling pretty much like inept foreigners. (Because of course we assume everyone in this town has balancing-on-little-sticks-over-the-water talents). But when we left the next day all the Khmer were wobbling too. So why don't they build a proper little bridge? A mystery.
We make it over the "bridge", climb the garbage-strewn concrete slope up to the main road, and get to the top. I take a good look around, and think "What the -hell- did we come here for?". OK so maybe I was a little cranky, sitting on the top of a boat with bags of onions for 3 hours in the sun, almost falling in the water, picking my way over garbage, all to find another dusty street which looked remarkably like the dusty streets in Phnom Penh.
We found a hotel. Well, we found the only hotel. Our second floor room had a great view of the main street and the river and one of those ice cream cone mountains, air conditioning for a few extra bucks (but I can't remember if we paid for it or not). A little terrace. Oh and some construction people banging away. That was great!
I think we took a nap when we first got in. And then we went for a walk. It was actually a very prosperous town. A big market, lots of people working on what looked like tasks related to boat building, weaving huge mat things to be used somehow for fishing. Pet monkeys. Fish laid out on a car hood to dry in the sun. Lots of shops.
And kids who thought we were the most amusing things (maybe the adults
did too but they had work to do.) We got followed all over half the town
by an entourage of five. Later on the same day we were in a different part
of town and in what looked like a semi-abandoned monastery complex. This
screaming mob of 30 kids (age 4 to 13 or so) ran around trying to show us things (the temple with ghosts or zombies - they
pantomimed scary things-, the tail of some dead reptile). They knew "hello"
"goodbye" "ok", and thought us both very funny when
we spoke any Khmer.
They took us through the neighborhood near the monastery: houses set high on stilts above the marshy wetland near the river. The houses were all connected by -again- little planks. We climbed up fairly far but chickened out when it came to crossing on one of those toothpicks. Actually we might have gone through with it but we thought about it too long. And looked down. It was something like 8 feet off the ground.
It was pretty cute though. A mob of kids hysterical at us for our fear, and they were running back and forth in the sky like any normal (for a Khmer child in this town) 6 year old.
So in spite of grumpy first impressions Kompong Chhnang was one of my favorite parts of the trip. People were so friendly. Maybe Americans (or just urbanites, or NYers) are particularly unfriendly and suspicious, or maybe I just expect everyone else in the world to resent westerners. But people were wonderful.
We ate dinner that night at a "restaurant" where it took us (well, took Rich) a long time to explain that we wanted to pay to eat. Another mystery! We also met this young guy who spoke pretty decent English. I think he said he used to work for the UN when it was in the city. But even with his help we had a hard time making ourselves understood. "FEED US PLEASE WE BEG YOU" Ah language.
The next day we got up to catch the boat to amazing Angkor, which is what I'll get to next time.
>From a Reuters news item, dated 3/29. (Thanks to my brother Michael for faxing this to me):
"While much of the world shuns British cows, a Cambodian newspaperYes the Cambodia Daily is the paper Rich works on. Guess we'll have to ask him about it! (It's explained in my notes.)
suggested today that the animals be shipped to Cambodia and allowed to roam free to detonate the millions of land mines littering the country.
" 'The English have 11 million mad cows and Cambodia has roughly the same number of equally mad land mines,' The Cambodian Daily said. 'Surely the solution to Cambodia's mine problem are here before our very eyes in black and white'."
And now back to our program - short this time because I don't have time
to write much, but some of you have been a-clamoring for more. When last
we left our intrepid explorers (that's me and Rich) they had gotten on the
fast boat again and were making their way to Siem Reap - the city right
We got on the boat early in the morning - again on the top with boxes and things. It was full again on the inside, and it was kind of fun (although noisy). This time, in addition to guys in uniform there were a couple of Australian tourists with us. One of them, a young guy about our age, had been born in Cambodia but left years ago. He was back to see what had changed, and seemed happy about recent events.
We bought some "fast food" before getting on the boat: a loaf of bread (they have good little baguettes there - a legacy of French colonization) and some kind of ginseng energy drink in a can. (I've since seen the brand in China town in Philadelphia).
We were on the water in the sun for about 2 1/2 hours. We pulled into a small town, a suburb maybe? of Siem Reap, and the minute the motor was cut off I realized I had a fantastic headache - biblical proportions. I was worried that it was sunstroke.
All of us touristy types (there were a bunch of us. The boat we caught at Kompong Chhnang came directly from Phnom Penh and was full of westerners) had to stop and show passports and explain what our purpose in life was to the local officials. And then walk out into a crowd of entrepreneurs vying for business: Guys with cars (with glorious glorious air conditioning) promising to drive you to the best guest houses. The really smart guys (all were men) come onto the boat to chat you up for biz. Captive audience.
So we get in the car and head for the best hotel in Siem Reap, the Grand. Apparently they were about to renovate the place and will soon be jacking up the prices - so this was a last chance to stay there cheaply. We dumped the little bit of luggage we had, I lay down on the bed and prayed for deliverance from the headache gods, and then we both went to customs (or whatever it was) to get clearance to visit the temples. Unfortunately we both had to be there in person. To get into Angkor is actually expensive. But Angkor is a huge potential revenue source - god knows they need the money.
However - if you're with the press you can get in for free. So that's what we went to do - wave Rich's pass around and try to pretend that I was with some obscure US paper and had inadvertently left my proof behind. In the end they let Rich in for free and I had to pay $30.
Of course it took a while for all this to happen. We sat in a hot room with some guy, who looked at our papers, and called in his boss, who looked at our papers. It's about 100 degrees and one of them is smoking. Rich and I are sitting on this vinyl sofa, the young guy is across from us on a second sofa, the real guy in charge comes in and out. I turn from my natural deathly pallor to a colorful jaundice (or so it felt). (In fact I have never seen a living person adopt the coloration that Patrice did that day. It was like wet Portland cement. --R) I would have gotten up to go out, but I thought movement would be a bad idea. Oh, I think they had offered us water or something to drink.
Finally we're set to go. And I say to Rich oh my god that took forever. "Yeah a whole hour".
And that's when I knew I was really sick, because I would have sworn in court that we were in there for AT LEAST four hours. Honest to god. Well, that and the fact that I barely made it back to the hotel before throwing up in the toilet in the nicest hotel in Siem Reap. And oh what a boon that we had that place with its beautiful efficient air conditioning and hot water and two beds and bathroom with a bathtub literally three steps from me.
I don't think I've ever been that sick in my life, not that I can remember. I fainted, was delirious, had chills, fever, vomiting, diarrhea. It was the most impressive sickness!
Rich went out and got some soup, and I couldn't lift my own damn head off the pillow to eat it. So he's spoon feeding me and he says, aww this is kind of romantic.
And I threw up on him.
Ok ok that's a blatant lie - but it would have been funny if I had. He also said, meaning to be sweet I'm sure, that I shouldn't be embarrassed about gross bathroom noises. But how can I explain this: I was so beyond caring. Nothing in the world could have been more irrelevant to me. I think I was trying to remember the formula for rehydration fluid (how much sugar and salt per pint of water, etc etc).
He got sick about 3 hours after I did. We both had this odd delusion about trying to answer the secret riddle of this sickness. If only we got the right answers it would be over - something vague, geometrical and feverish. We got a supply of antibiotics (he picked them up when he went for the soup. That poor soup. I threw or crapped every bit of it up. Plus all the crackers, the rice, the bananas, the ginger ale, the ginseng energy drink, the water. Finally I figured out that I couldn't eat, and I lay on the bed and did prime numbers in my head to distract my self from the nausea. I think if I had been a little bit less sick (and thus a little more clear headed) I'd have been scared.
And what was this mysterious malady? Who can say. All I know for sure is that it was great fun.
So here we are lying immobile (except when we are running to the bathroom which is actually pretty often) in a nice hotel room in Siem Reap, mere minutes away from some of most awesome ruins in the world. When Rich was feeling better (he was less sick I think then I was) he would read parts of the book on Angkor aloud. Let me tell you that was pretty damned depressing. "Gee it -sounds amazing."
In the end I spent two half days visiting parts of Angkor, Rich was there for a day and a half. One evening I spent lying in bed running through prime numbers, while he was watching the sunset from some beautiful site. Which (although I'm sounding grumbly about it now just to make this story amusing) was actually good. Who wants to be sick -and- feel guilty about ruining someone else's vacation?
The whole things was a drag! Except that I get to be one of those people who compares notes with others on her awful third world illness. Honestly I was pretty scared, and don't think I recovered fully until I was back in the States.
That's it for now - not much about Cambodia I'm afraid - but boy it was a big part of the trip. Next time I'll talk about Angkor and Kep, where we did not stay at King Sihanouk's house.
Angkor, More Phnom Penh, and a Wee Bit About Kep
I already described Angkor a little bit (or quoted a souvenir book that did). It -is- grand and impressive. You could easily spend weeks there exploring all the old temples and bayons and crumbling buildings with trees growing through and around everything.
It's very difficult to convey it all - even when I have the pictures right in front of me. One of the guide books says that western visitors are reminded of nothing so much as the Indiana Jones movies. Which I thought was -so- tacky, but I'm forced to admit that it's true.
Think of the jungle (all cut clear around the buildings - but at the edges of everything is jungle), and bug and bird noises, and the slight wet weight of the air, and the clear strong sunlight. Now imagine that you're very sick in the middle of all this - exhausted from donating one way or another all your bodily fluids into the toilet. I'd walk fifty feet and have to sit and rest. (This was the second morning after the evil illness struck. That afternoon I stayed in the hotel and Rich went back. The next day I was feeling -much- better).
So that's the state I was in when I first saw everything - pretty miserable. Yet Angkor is so awesome I appreciated beauty in spite of myself. Some of the sites are overgrown by trees springing somehow out of the tops of buildings. Birds drop seeds on roofs and the roots grow down and through stones into the dirt. The trees growing up partly rip the buildings apart, but partly support everything. The effect is fantastical - like huge candles have melted wax over everything.
Ah! Sorry guys, but painting accurate pictures of Angkor with words is beyond me! It's so daunting. I don't know where to start - amazing detailed bas reliefs of military, historical, and religious scenes, and creation myths; the huge serene faces of the god-kings. Oh and the apsaras - the dancing ladies, I liked to call them. Sort of like angels carved everywhere. They were so charming.
I was so sick though that for the most part I didn't retain anything intellectual about what it means. My memories are all sensory. Which maybe isn't a bad thing.
I would go back to Cambodia just for Angkor.
We didn't take the fast boat back to Phnom Penh - we caught the one hour flight "home". And it had air conditioning and they gave us little damp towels to clean up with and that was one of those blissful moments - the air conditioning, the hot towel, the ice cold water to drink.
We stayed in the city for a few days. That was when Rich went to work and I wandered around. I almost went to a conference on domestic violence in Cambodia (some of the papers given in English) but then I thought "Christ almighty I'm on vacation to NOT think about work! Do I -really- want to hear all about Khmer cultural variations on beating up family members?)
This was also when we went to visit the Tuol Sleng prison and the "Killing Fields" - or the killing field that has been designated a visitor destination, because there are dozens (hundreds?) of fields all over the country were you can dig up murdered/starved bodies.
The "Killing Fields" is a short drive out of the city. It's a beautiful small field with wild flowers here and there. Bees buzzing around. In the distance you can hear kids playing. And there are depressions in the earth where they've dug up the bodies. It's not orderly rows, just random big pits.
When you first walk in past the gate, there is a display with awkwardly translated English explaining this site and the Khmer Rouge atrocities. And there's a big tall structure - a modernized stupa I think. Stupas are these tall sort of conical grave markers that wealthy folks or kings had built. Sometimes they are as big as buildings (maybe people are buried -in- them? Like mausoleums?) You see them all over the place - ancient ones. Well this structure is roughly like a stupa. But it's got four sides and is made of clear glass panels and on the inside are shelves which have heaped on them the skulls of the people who were dug out of the pits. And cards neatly labeled: "Adult females" "Adult males" "Elderly females" "Children" "Westerners" and so on.
I felt really ambivalent about being there - almost like a trespasser, or some trivializing voyeur, or more plainly like I just didn't want to be there. And yet of course humans have to bear witness.
There's a book by a Dr. Judith Herman called Trauma and Recovery. She draws on research with war veterans, political prisoners, battered women, and writes: "The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma". She argues that witnesses are involved in the same struggle. Witnesses (and by that she means the larger community as well as literal bystanders) take sides whether or not they realize it. Silence, secrecy, "not talking about it" is complicity. Because if a victim can't talk (because people don't want to hear or can't quite believe horrible stories) then a victim can't heal.
So I suppose all that ambivalence on my part is normal - as "normal" as anything can be when it comes to pointless suffering and death; that witnessing is not parasitic but a good thing; and that by it's very nature witnessing is tense and awful.
After a few days in Phnom Penh again, Rich arranged for time off and we headed south for Kep, once a fancy shmancy coastal resort town. But it was pretty much leveled by the KR. There's an old Shell gas station there and its underground gas storage tank is filled with the bones of people. At least that's what I read about. Although we did see an old gas station in Kep I don't know if it was the same one.
Our initial plan was to drive down to Kep (on a safe road), then find a boat to take us (and the motorcycle) to another coastal resort town, Sihanoukville (because no one could vouch for safety of the roads between Kep and Sihanoukville.)
Any boy I'm all storied out for now. So wait with bated breath for the next installment!
First some corrections (oh my bad typing and sloppy spelling). Not only am I misspelling place names - but I'm doing so inconsistently!! (Phonm, Phenom, Phenm). Eeek! For the record (and this is no promise about the future; just that these spellings right here are correct) it's Angkor, Siem Reap, Tonle Sap; Mekong; Khmer; Phnom Penh; King Sihanouk, Kampot. (I don't have the correct spelling of Com Pong Chanong (Kompong Chnong?) as I never saw it written out.) (That's Kompong Chhnang. --R)
Kep, Where We Did Not Stay at King Sihanouk's House
So our plan is to drive down to Kep, spend a few days, catch a boat from Kampot (right near Kep) to Sihanoukville, and then drive from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh. We know it's safe to drive from PP to Kep, but we assume the roads from Kep to Sihanoukville can't be vouched for. And Rich has already once taken the road up from Sihanoukville, so we know that's safe.
"Safe" by the way means safe for westerners in broad daylight. It is a pretty stupid and arrogant thing to be on any road after dark, and in fact you want to start any trip well early in the day - leaving plenty of time for unforeseen delays. Even on the "100% safe" road from Sihanoukville to PP (which is -oh loveliness- paved like a real high tech road - first graveled over for a smooth even grading (or whatever it is), then layers of tar and such. Just another example of crap I took for granted: a well constructed highway road).
Even on this safe highway, a few years ago a couple of westerners who started traveling late in the day were ambushed and killed. (I forget all the details if they were held for ransom first, if it was the KR or bandits. They ran a restaurant in Sihanoukville).
And this road is mined and shelled quite a bit by either Khmer Rouge guerrillas (in order to hassle the powers that be) or by soldiers (in order to justify their protective presence - "See how active KR are? You need us!"). On our ride back along this mostly smooth and lovely and brand new highway we'd pass patch jobs, and crews in the midst of patch jobs, and holes (some gaping, some minor pothole size) that the crews hadn't gotten around to patching yet. It made me really sad, and I wonder if it doesn't frustrate the hell out of the crews. On the other hand maybe they're happy to have the work continue indefinitely (not that there isn't plenty of other road construction that could be done).
Now how many Khmer people are killed, kidnapped or shelled off the road? I haven't got a clue. Isn't that just like an arrogant visiting westerner with blinders on? I only just this minute thought of it. (Actually probably not that many are kidnapped - no profit in it at all).
There are lots of stats on mine injuries and deaths though - I don't know them off hand but the figures are staggering, and there are NGOs that exist just to help people maimed by mines. Not to mention all the farm land completely off limits to people. All along the main highway are little red signs with skulls on them. Not constantly, but in long patches. Especially around bridge construction - another guerrilla tactic - to restrict workers' movements. A real pain in the ass when you're trying to build something.
And on the lighter side of road construction - this road is being built as part of a US AID project, which has subcontracted with some Texas based construction company. The company provides technical assistance and training and generally overseas the site. So Rich told me to keep my eyes open for the tall pink flushed Texans and indeed I spotted a guy looking like I don't know what among slight brown Khmer men. Talk about incongruous. Wonder what Khmer sounds like with a twang (assuming he speaks any). And what this guy does for fun at night in the Cambodian country side? (odds are good he visits some 12 year old prostitute - oops I forgot this was supposed to be on the lighter side).
So - that was the road -back- and I haven't even gotten us to Kep yet. Yeesh.
We had been told by Robin - one of Rich's co-workers who had recently been in Kep (Rich had never been) that someone else told -her- that there's a French villa tucked in the mountain overlooking the once beautiful resort like shore area of Kep. You can't see it from the road but it's there, run by some French guy who rents out rooms.
The only other accommodation in Kep is where Robin stayed. A big ugly concrete bunker of a place with an amazing view, no sheets, no towels, and no curtains in the huge picture windows with the ocean views. She herself never found the villa. (Ha! Villa. Doesn't it seem pretty unlikely that you'd find an -excuse me- "villa" in Cambodia. On the other hand, this is exactly the kind of oddness you expect after a while. Bombed out city, French villa, why not?)
So we ride for hours, stopping several times along the dusty but not bad roads for something cold to drink. Or lukewarm. Because you know the cardinal rule of travel is NO unbottled water - including ice.
But come on! You're on this motorcycle for what feels like a million years, your butt's numb, it's really hot out, you've got this damn helmet on. The ice -looked- clean! What a dumb thing though (in retrospect). But maybe my system was thoroughly bugged up already because I didn't get sick (and bottled water didn't stave off agony in Siem Reap, that's for sure).
We stop for drinks (ah orange soda! I had that for breakfast) at these collections of open walled shacks. Walk up to the sort of all-purpose bar/restaurant/neighborhood hang out place (complete with promotional beer posters highlighting Australian bikinied models and tough cowboy type dudes, even more incongruous than the Texan) and sit down and drink the soda and get stared at by everyone who has time on their hands. Oh and the bike too. Most people who own vehicles have motos which are small. And if they have motorcycles they tend to be on the smallish side too. So Rich's bike qualifies as some monstrous aberration, a stupidly huge thing. (Probably what they think of a lot of foreign -people- too. Oh just kidding! Although we did indeed attract a similar kind of interest so who knows...)
Before Kep we get to the smallish city of Kampot and ask around about hiring a boat from this harbor city (which is very pretty, albeit run down) to Sihanoukville. But there are none. All the boats go straight on to Thailand without stopping (seems odd but that's what official types tell us). However they also tell us that the roads to Sihanoukville are perfectly safe - no Pol Pot-ites (Pol Pot is the head of the KR). So we figure we'll probably drive there after all.
We also speculate that these officials are KR sympathizers notifying their comrades up the road that stupid westerns are on the way. Ha. Ha.
Then we drive on to Kep - and finally spot through the green the ocean. God it's so gorgeous and exactly what you imagine - palm trees and blue blue water. The road runs with the slope of the big hill/little mountain on one side and the ocean on the other, and Rich says it reminds him of parts of Italy. Then the road widens out some and you come to a park like area. There's the mountain immediately to your left (and you can see what look like very nice homes up on the mountain not too high above you), then to your right along the shore a narrow strip of park, a short stone wall beyond which there is a short drop to a narrow strip of sand, and the ocean. There is also sticking into the ocean a stone and concrete pier with a really ugly statue. All I can remember is that it's a women standing and it's atrocious - but there was something else about her too.
Further on down this road, space opens up, and the little bit of sand that was disappears. It's just grassy, flat, and stony beach up to the water. And a big clearing with lots and lots of burnt down vacation bungalows. Then a big old rectangular cement block of a hotel. Kep, more than other places, was really eerie to me. It felt dead. There were people there. Lots of Khmers -vans with families, kids- vacationing on that little beach. It reminded me of Central Park or Jones Beach. But all those blackened houses were scary.
-Meanwhile- Rich and I are on our mission to find the FRENCH VILLA. We come across a rugged looking jeep or van (can't quite remember) pulled off the road pointed up to the mountain onto a non existent trail, and 4 or 5 western folks standing around. We stop, ask if they've heard of this mysterious French place. Nope never heard of it - even though they're French themselves. And -suspicious indeed!- they don't tell us where they're going or staying. SO we decide these snooty people KNOW where the villa is, are ON THEIR WAY to the French villa, and are plotting to keep us (ugly Americans) out of it.
We explore some roads, mostly driving in circles up and down the mountain. We come across this very big, fairly modern place, which overlooks the ocean. Some monkeys (and/or peacocks? Hmm that might be wrong) are roaming around. It's got a big open driveway area in the front, is shaded by trees. Quite a spread. There are Khmers filling a pickup truck with boxes (of beer I think I remember). And I think to myself - this is -NOT- the villa.
And older man comes up and asks us (I think I remember he was speaking English) if he can help us. We ask if this is a villa or guest house and he says, no this is King Sihanouk's place. The three of us get a good laugh out of this. No he doesn't know anything about a villa. Rich and I are silently wondering for a split second if he will go "oh what the hell why don't you stay here, Sihanouk never comes by and all the beer is wasted".
We try once more for the villa, climbing up stone steps carved into the mountain on the side of the road to check out another very nice structure. This time a young (and grumpy) guy comes and asks what we want. It was the land of mixed messages. He invited us to sit (god what a sweet place) and said a few times that we couldn't rent a room. And so we left slowly, giving him plenty of time to figure out an offer and a price. Rich thinks he was considering it but in the end the female-traveling-whorishly-with-a-guy thing decided him against it. (Nothing like travel to make you feel like a world class slut.)
So finally we go to the big concrete rectangle. And it isn't -so- bad. Nothing sheets on the bed and curtains wouldn't improve. While we are settling in, this guy shows up - either the manager or owner or some local important guy who makes this his home. He speaks English, Rich mentions the Daily, he remembers Robin (pulls out her photo - snapshots are used sort of like biz cards. You can pull them out and even if you don't speak the same language someone in the neighborhood can point you in the right direction) and he becomes even more friendly and helpful. He recommends a restaurant for that night, and the boat guy for the next day, and has us put in a second floor room with a better view.
He also tells us that the road from Kep to Sihanoukville is perfectly safe. (So does another guy, a soldier, we later meet at the restaurant. So by then we pretty much feel secure about driving on to Sihanoukville.) He has a gun slung around him like it's no big deal (not the soldier, the hotel guy). And when he first drives up on his motorcycle he has loaves of bread which he breaks into pieces and distributes to the two gangly puppy dogs and the two rough and tumble little toddler humans, pretty much equally.
The French are at the hotel also! So I guess they weren't -really- plotting to deprive us of the idyllic villa experience we had hoped for. Later on they show up at the restaurant too.
The wonderful restaurant. It's pretty much directly across from us right up on the ocean. When we walk in the guy pulls us out back and points to a woman scaling a fish and we nod yes yes we want fish. Then he brings us over to a pail of squid and we nod yes we want squid. Then he brings us into the kitchen and points to a chicken lying half plucked on a counter and we nod yes again. The he points to his watch indicating that we should come back in an hour.
In the interim we walk to the ugly lady statue, warily keeping away from harassing geese, and Rich tells me this pathetic story about a Jewish soccer camp in Italy he and his sister went to when they were kids (but this is supposed to be about Cambodia so you'll have to ask him for the rest of that story. Which -is- funny, although I did go awww poor thing and truly feel sorry for the imagined 10 year old Rich).
Back at the restaurant we have the most amazing meal. In a vacation full of amazing meals this was one of the best. However we are (for a while - the French did later show up) the only ones there. We're sitting at a little table in the middle of the room and there are a good fifteen men, women, and kids sitting against the wall chatting and watching us eat. I guess I got used to it. I mean it's funny and weird but after a while what the hell. Except this scrutiny makes it awfully hard to steal tissues to use as toilet paper (always in short supply). Boxes of (usually artificial-rose reeking) tissue are used in restaurants instead of napkins.
The French make a good distraction though, especially after they start dancing to the Thai remixes of mediocre pop-American hits. (They seemed like absolutely nice good friendly people, and any implication to the contrary is me being a smart ass - which Rich and I both were about them at the time too.)
Whew! Next time you get to hear all about the island where -errr, we sort of got stranded. And I'll tell you right now that getting stranded on an island is just not in any way as romantic as it sounds. Not even a bit.
A Short Walk Around Tiger Island
But first an answer to a question from Lia, one of my high school friends:
PATRICE SINCE CAMBODIA. WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?Actually, Lia also wants to know if I see the world around me differently since the trip. I have to think more before I can answer this. But in terms of me? I don't dismiss possibilities out of hand. I feel as if I can choose the extraordinary. When I got back the first thing I did was start writing again. Not this stuff. I mean the piece I've been working on periodically for the past several years. The two, writing and Cambodia, don't have anything to do with each other on the surface but I know they're related.
Kampot, Where We Did Not Get on a Boat.
After our exploration of Tiger Island, we pack up our things and head into Kampot to spend the night. We want to be that much farther along on the trip when we leave in the morning. And although this is a little vague in my mind (and I feel ridiculous telling you this after all that stuff about not traveling at night) the sun does set on us before we get into Kampot. But it's a short and well traveled road between Kampot and Kep. I remember having to stop in the middle of a bridge and pulling over to the side to let this big truck go by.
After crossing bridges and such, we get to Kampot and find a five star place. Sheets and a spread on the beds, lights in the bathroom, a bottle of water, hot running water, a wardrobe to hang all our now wet and disgusting clothes in and on, a fan. Fancy stuff. And, to impress on you just how classy a joint it is, the room keys have attached to them rectangles with 3-D girlie pictures. When you turn the plastic, their clothes disappear! Like I said, classy.
We drive around and eat at the Phnom Penh Restaurant that night. (Must be like eating at the Philly Cheesesteak Place in Nebraska). Get up bright and early to hit the road, (but I think we looked around for a while for people with good info about the roads. I remember stopping at a couple of places before we really set out, but not really why we did).
The road is mostly red and dusty countryside, not paved at all. So the going is pretty slow. I think it's a terrible road, but Rich later describes it as good, because there aren't any impassable bomb craters maybe?
It's slow but beautiful. There are mountains. The road runs parallel to a train track for a while, and I wonder - not without some concern - if this is the same train from which a trio of really foolish western guys was kidnapped about a year ago. They were later killed (Yes --R). Now and then you can see the ocean still in the distance. Towns occasionally. People working on the side of the road up to their waists in water - whether streams, or run off from something else, or rice fields I can't remember or never really figured out.
Every now and them we come across guys in uniform. We wave and smile, and everyone waves and smiles back. At some point, maybe we had stopped for a break, I ask Rich how we know for sure that the guys in uniform aren't KR and, well of course we don't know for sure. So I try to radiate good will and "don't hassle me no one will pay the ransom" vibes with my waving and smiling. Oh and this is when we devise our "what to do if we get stopped by the KR" strategy.
Finally we come to a paved road again! There's more traffic, shops and small buildings along the road. It feels downright urban - well relatively. There are also occasional kids pulling 2 ton water buffalo by the snout across the road to get to and from fields.
We stop for a soda, and Rich tells me this is the main highway between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville (which I already described), and that we're about an hour from Sihanoukville.
We drive -oh 10 minutes - and we start pulling off the road, and Rich is cursing, and he tells me we have a flat.
And I remind myself -again- that this is an adventure, and that this will be a good story.
Certainly the growing crowd around us is already entertained. I've moved under a tree, am sitting on the ground. Behind me is a field, a house, a pond with a huge water buffalo drinking water. Meanwhile some guy has, we think, explained that he's going off to get help. Some other guy, pretty young, speaks a little bit of English, and asks if we're married, asks how old we are. He's 17 - and I feel really decrepit (not to mention immoral - again!).
He offers to take Rich to get some water to bring back, so they go off on his moto, and I smile stupidly at a whole bunch of people, who sit and smile back. I keep wanting to speak Spanish. Most people drift away until just small kids and one old man are left.
Rich gets back with water - ah water. And then it seems to be clear that no one is showing up. And then it seems as if they want to take the motorcycle apart and take the wheel somewhere else to be fixed. Which is a scary thought. Well, Rich thinks this is a scary thought. I am in a determined-to-consider-all-things-a-great-adventure mode.
Communication is complicated and miraculous. Even though Rich's Khmer is not much better than anyone else's English (as far as I can tell), he manages to explain that we want to hire a truck to bring us and the motorcycle up to Sihanoukville.
Folks are only too glad to oblige us, as we are westerners with deep pockets (westerners by definition have deep pockets compared to everyone else). So these very helpful guys flag down a pickup truck which is already full of people and things - including a couple of motos. But their motos are working, and the westerner will be paying. So everyone happily unloads the motos, 8 guys or so lift the damn motorcycle into the truck, riel (the currency) quickly changes hands, Rich and I wedge ourselves in among the other people and packages still in the truck, and we're on our way.
Adventures in Sihanoukville, where we did not stay at the Hilton but met mammals that you wouldn't expect in SE Asia. (to be typed in --R)
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