Cambodia……. I am on my perch– a balcony on the fourth floor of the Mekong Palace Hotel watching what seems to be half the city at play on the newly and beautifully renovated river promenade below. Last year, it was a mess of mud and brickwork. The room itself is of dubious merit— stunning view of the river, but the noise from the promenade lasts well into the night– till 1:30 most nights which robs me of much sleep. Boats streaming with brightly colored festive lights cruise up and down the Tonle Sap with Cambodians and tourists alike to get a bit of the fresh, cooler air of the evening. The larger Mekong River beyond getting harder to see as the light fades. There is actually merry music playing and what seems like a group of 40 or so people taking part in line-dancing instruction! Kids play soccer and takraw, a game using a wicker ball. Lots of people enjoying rounds of badminton without benefit of a net. Adolescents stroll looking for friends or that hoped-for rendezvous. Even the weather takes it all in stride being neither too hot or cool. It is a happy scene indeed. Families enjoy an evening meal together– lots of young children running and laughing. In the land of the Killing Fields, this alone is such a sign of hope for Cambodia’s future. I can’t imagine a more festive site in all of Cambodia this night.
This is all in contrast to my arrival just a few hours before at the airport. I exited the plane to be greeted by 5 drably-dressed government immigration officials. My passport is tossed from one bored expression to the other until it receives its final chop and out I go to make my way to the city itself. It is outside the terminal that I am met by the ever-smiling Koy, a security guard/ tuk-tuk driver (sort of a covered carriage pulled by a motorcycle). I met Koy last year at the hotel where I stayed and he was the security guard. He impressed me as a kid with old fashioned “gumption.” The first thing I notice, however, is his leg—- an open sore from over a week ago from a burn sustained when his leg rubbed up against the hot exhaust pipe of his cycle was festering and looked infected. Our first stop is to check into the hotel and the next is the clinic where a less-than competent “nurse-practitioner” dresses the wound and gives him a load of medications. She is not happy that I want to read the boxes for side-effects and expiration dates! Tough. Not surprisingly she tells me that she does not have the boxes or paperwork that come with some of the medications. The miracle of the Internet later revealed that one of the drugs for pain is a strong opiate-based little pill that leaves you in a stupor! Nice. No mention of that to a guy who drives for a living. The next day we went for a follow up to a real doctor who redressed the wound and threw out all the medications she gave him. Talk about the need for a public health care program! I only mention this because right from the get-go I am drawn into the world that is real for most Cambodians. For just three visits costing less than $10.00 a pop, his leg is well on the mend. Without that care, and possibly 98% including him don’t have that access unless they are desperate, who knows what would have happened. It makes me keenly aware of what we take for granted. It is from this point that this all-too-short-return to the city that fascinated me so much last year, takes a radically different turn from the mystical trip to Ankor several years ago and even the one to this very city last year that revealed so much hidden poverty and sadness as I would roam the city streets on my evening walks.
The street urchins weave at will in and out of the restaurants and middle-class touristy coffee shops along the river selling their cheap books for three times what they are worth– mostly knock off copies of well-known travel books and endless stories about the Killing Fields and Pol Pot. The tourists are amused by them as they give their hard-sells. Some of these kids actually have homes, others not. It amazes me to think that the $5.00 you just spent for a meal and thought was such a good deal could easily feed one of these kids for a couple of days. Money, as the access and lives that revolve around it here, is such a relative commodity.
The next day, Koy comes by in his rented tuk-tuk and we head off to the market for a breakfast of chicken soup with vermicelli and a small baguette of French bread– a perfect blend of cultures! We started the day at Toul Sleng, the former prison that saw so much horror under Pol Pot’s regime.(I wrote more extensively on this place last year.) I felt compelled to again see the halls of photos taken of the prisoners just before they were hauled off to their deaths. It hasn’t lost any of its effect- still powerful and poignant. From there it was a quick trip through the Pasar (bazaar) and the “Russian Bazaar” as I had been to both places last year. We then headed back to town for the follow-up doctor’s visit mentioned before. We stopped by Koy’s place to drop off the medicine. You climb up a flight of stairs in the back of a building that looks like it is being held up by the shear will-power of its tenants. You then head down a dark hall cluttered with refuse and all sorts of objects scattered about. The people smile and nod and don’t seem at all surprised by the arrival of this foreigner intruding in their world. We reach a door with scrapped red paint sealed with a huge gray padlock. Koy pulls out his set of keys and opens the door. It takes your eyes a bit to adjust as there is no window. The room is dirty, yet not totally unkept. There is a bed covered with unwashed sheets and a blanket. A neat pile of dinnerware sits in the corner by the hot plate that serves as the kitchen. There is a broken fan and a heap of clothing in another of the dark corners of the one-room 10- ft x 10-ft flat. Koy opens a large glass jar half full of pickled river fish to show me, and nearly knocks me over with the smell. He laughs and says that it is actually quite good. I’ll leave that assessment up to him! Koy goes off down the hall to the shared bathroom to wash a bit. As I sit there, I notice something resembling a photo on the wall. At closer inspection it is a faded, almost ghostly, color photo of a woman that ends up to be his deceased mother. He had entered the monkhood for several years to earn merit for her upon her death and exited only a few years ago. Life is difficult and competitive in Cambodia. He worked as a farmer for his father, and his hands and feet give testimony to years of that. It was then several other odd jobs including security guard at the hotel where I stayed last year before the lack of tourists caused his lay-off. Then on to working as a motorcycle-taxi service. Koy has taken me down the rabbit hole, so to speak, and I want to know more about life here and how it is that people survive.
We pass the rest of the day with local visits, like the incredible national museum— love just sitting in the courtyard with the magnificent statue from Ankor of the Leper King before me.
After breakfast on Wednesday, we were off in the tuk-tuk for the hour and a half trip to Tonle Bati and Prasat Tapron. We passed all kinds of people engaged in their various tasks, from shop keepers to manual shop and street laborers to farmers in the fields still tilling the soil with an ox and plow. People, as in India, seem to be the main “beast of burden” here. I discover that tuk-tuks, although a bumpier ride, are better than most vehicles for photography as they are open to the world and are slower than most other means of transportation.
As we leave the city, we are stopped by a band of policemen who have set up a station along the side of the road. They say that Koy made an illegal turn although every vehicle before, after and during our stop made the same move. Here you don’t give tickets– no, that would leave a trail— the police tell you the fine and you “conveniently” pay it there after negotiating down depending on how much you have. You have little power here to challenge that. An unfortunate side of the bottom-feeder world these places can be; made all the more revolting when presented by the very people who should be upholding the law.
About an hour later we were at Prasat Tapron, a minor structure from the same era as Ankor Wat. The place is full of people performing “religious” services as done in the old days– who would know? –all for you to see for a small fee. Well, at least they weren’t begging, but they are just as relentless to get you to buy a flower to offer when you KNOW that flower will be snapped up with the arrival of the next tourist! Every religion has this scene– it could have been played out in the Vatican. We then quickly advanced on to the Tonle Bati (lake). Here was a little piece of peace that made the journey all worth it. There, over the lake, were little sala (cabanas) made of bamboo. For a very small fee you could lie there and take in a perfect day undisturbed. We spent over an hour and a half there resting and enjoying the terrific view. If time hadn’t been pressing on us, I’d be there still!
I wasn’t crazy about the idea, but Koy thought I might be interested in seeing a zoo not far up the road. As we are so close, we decide to check it out. Some of these out-of-the-way zoos can be pretty hard to take as the animals are generally not very well taken care of by Western standards, thus my reluctance. But it wasn’t the condition and care of the animals that horrified me, it was the people along the way. As we pulled off the main road and started our 3 kilometer approach to the zoo itself, I saw what I thought were statues along the road. As we got closer, they became more animated and would rush or saunter to the tuk-tuk depending on their condition, begging for money. There must have been thirty very elderly or handicapped people spaced about 20 meters apart. How could anyone treat elderly people like this? Out in the heat and dust of the day to beg in this way without even a bottle of water in sight?? One old woman bend over and covered in rags that had long lost all color, flowing behind her as she cackled and ran towards us. I suspect that “a syndicate” sets these people up to get money from the tourists. But regardless, the inhumanity of treating and using these people, several of whom are probably in dementia or not far from a welcomed death, in this way is gut-wrenching.
By the time we reach the zoo, I have no desire to see more living things placed in unnatural settings at the will and mercy of other more powerful creatures. But as it is Koy’s suggestion to go there, I do not want him to lose face by asking him to leave. We spent about 20 minutes walking around watching the tiger, leopard, bear, wild dogs, sloths and the ever-present elephants. The only thing separating them from us is an electrified fence. Given the reliability of electricity in such a remote area, I hope that they have generators!
As it was past three at this time, we stopped by along the way to have lunch. We ended up at a restaurant along the road whose main offering was a dish of prepared beef and vegetables that looked like it had been there for days. I opted to have two eggs fried over some rice. Mangy dogs, puppies, cats and kittens play at our feet as we eat. Oddly, I don’t mind. It is as it should be.
I don’t do much the next day as I have to leave to return to Bangkok. Koy comes by and we have lunch at a Thai-Khmer restaurant on the riverside. It is nice to just hang out and watch life go by. We sit on the bench on the promenade across from my hotel. People walk by. Some ask Koy a question or greet him. He is no stranger himself to the demi-monde that exists here.
Then it is time to leave and we take the 30-minute tuk-tuk ride to the airport. We shook hands firmly and just knew that next year would bring me back. I love Asia despite all its eccentricities— or maybe I love it too much because of them. I don’t know.
I’ve come to the conclusion that Cambodia is a “Disneyland.” But is it a place or suspended or very stark reality? At times, more “Apocalypse Now” than “The Killing Fields.” It is a land of paradox, like no other I’ve ever experienced: its gentility mixed with its cruelty; the sometimes masked smiles; its cool heart and fiery food; a sense of love sparked more from realism than romance; an acceptance of your present fate with hope as a counterbalance to the oppression of life; the heavy thunderous storms followed by the most awesome salmon skies at sunset; the decay found in the streets at the end of the day in a land filled with such beauty. But if I have learned anything from Asia it is that all these things exist in equal measure– possibly like everywhere else in the world. One can neither hide nor enhance the other. It is both a caution and a liberation, and, like the gently smiling Cambodians do, you take them both as they are—— but always look for opportunity.