Phnom Penh, Angkor Wat, and a little History Revision

We now know that US armed forces dropped more bombs on Cambodia between 1964 and 1975 than were dropped by all the Allied Powers in all countries during the Second World War.

So I'm plagued with cognitive dissonance by US currency being the preferred currency in Cambodia, over the native Cambodian rials. Almost any transaction of any significance takes place in both currencies, with US bills covering the majority of the value, and rials the spare change left over, usually the amounts less than five dollars.

Me, I'd tend to remember all those bombs, and it'd be some time before I'd be ready to turn my economy over to the US dollar.

Of course, this is Cambodia, and there's lots more history here than a few zillion bombs.

I flew from Bangkok to Phnom Penh on April 9th, and checked into the River Star Hotel, right on Sysowath Boulevard, with the riverfront just across the street. My room overlooked Tonle Sap River, and the Mekong River was also visible.

At the point I first gazed on the Mekong from my Phnom Penh hotel room, I'd now seen that river, one of the most important in the world, from four different countries. Cool, I thought.

But the Tonle Sap River is no trifle either. The Tonle Sap, a lake that covers a lot of territory in central Cambodia, is one of the most incredible natural phenomena in the world. During the rainy season, water from the Mekong, instead of proceeding down through Viet Nam to the sea, backs up through the Tonle Sap River into the Tonle Sap itself, increasing the size of the lake as much as four or five times. During the dry season, the process is reversed, with water from the Tonle Sap going back down the river to the Mekong and to the sea, reducing the size of the lake. So the area of the Tonle Sap varies dramatically from wet to dry season.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the people who live in and around the Tonle Sap have developed an economy, mostly based on fishing, that takes advantage of the rising/falling of the Tonle Sap. Again, not surprisingly, their houses are built on stilts, and their front yards are earth one season, and lake the other.

It's said that more than 60 million people in Southeast Asia make their livings directly from the ebb and flow of the Mekong and the Tonle Sap. So it's distressing to know that their livelihoods, and perhaps cultures, are threatened.

Both China and Laos are on the fast track to dam the Mekong, mostly for generating electricity, with the Thai private sector up to their chins in it as well. Many are worried that the dash to create an industrial economy out of the power of the Mekong will drastically affect those downstream. Reductions in the ebb and flow of the Tonle Sap, for example, may well have dramatically negative effects on the people who depend on it. One population of Mekong River porpoises is already threatened with extinction. Too familiar...

But never mind that. While I was thinking of such weighty matters, I nonetheless set out to have a nice walk along the riverfront, and find the "California 2," a place I'd found on the internet that theoretically catered to motorcycle enthusiasts. I'd been considering hiring a motorcycle and driving it down Highway 4 to Sihanoukville, but I'd read some pretty negative commentary on the advisability of doing so (apparently pretty unsafe). So I wanted to talk to some folks that had done it.

As has too often been so during my Asia sojourn, I went to the place where something was supposed to be, and it wasn't there. I didn't find California 2, and still haven't. But that decided it. No advice, no motorcycle, no riding to Sihanoukville. The next day I got on the bus and spent a week on the beach. (See "A beach week in Cambodia.")

My return to Phnom Penh on the 17th of April was made a little more dramatic when a young backpacker from Denmark got horribly ill on the bus. She vomited into the aisle, causing a few young Khmers that had till then been pleasantly engaged in taking cell-phone photos of themselves and "sharing" them, and looking at other photos of themselves taken at other times and "shared" previously, to flee for other areas of the bus, holding their noses and chattering amongst themselves in disgust at their bad luck. Partly through my efforts (I couldn't do it myself—I was now hemmed in by other passengers, and couldn't reach the sick woman), the Khmers seemed to get over at least some of that disgust, gave the poor Dane some water, and, strangely in my view, which might well mean I don't know enough, rubbed Tiger Balm into the area below her nostrils. She seemed to appreciate it, so I suppose it did have a positive effect.

When the bus stopped at around the halfway point for everyone's toilet and food needs, I attempted to get the bus driver to do something about the vomit that was left in the aisle and on the seat, as it was distressing to the passengers around me. (This was, you might know, entirely selfless on my part—since I have no sense of smell, the vomit wasn't bothering me in the least.) The bus driver couldn't have been less concerned. I then tried to talk a couple of my young Khmer seatmates into helping me get the restaurant owners to get us a bucket of water and some cloths, and they weren't interested in that. (Barang boyfriend said it was just because they didn't speak English.) Every faucet I managed to find was entirely barren, so the fact that I'd succeeded in finding a cloth of sorts in a pile of garbage went unrewarded.

So when we finally got to Phnom Penh, and our Danish friend was still in a pretty bad way, I offered to accompany her in whatever vehicle she took to the hostel she'd booked, just to make sure she got there safely. She seemed appreciative, but threw up into a plastic bag as soon as we got underway. Too late, I thought, maybe a tuk-tuk wasn't such a great idea. Anyway, we got her where she was going, unplanned puke bag accompanying her, and we/she said good-bye. (Later, I checked back with the hostel owner to make sure she'd recovered; indeed she had, and had since gone on to further travels.)

Once back in Phnom Penh, a significant amount of my time was taken up with my camera troubles. Readers of my Sihanoukville episode will recall that my Nikon D5000 took an unplanned dip in the ocean. I'd had such a good experience with Nikon HQ in Bangkok when I needed a repair that I looked for a similar place in Cambodia, but there was none. An extensive search of internet blah-blah turned up a place on Monivong Road that was recommended as reliable, if slow. So off I went, found it, surprisingly, relatively easily, and put my camera in their hands. Several days and many phone calls later (made more complicated by the fact I was in Siem Reap for part of it) I still hadn't heard the final word on the camera—whether it even could be repaired. The lens that had been on it was fine; all that had to be done was drying and cleaning (USD$70—ouch!), but that was because there are no electronics inside it.

The end result, once I got back to Phnom Penh and visited in person, was that the camera itself was ruined, irreparable. But then they segued into an attempt to sell me a new one, and offered me a discount of $50 for the old camera, which they thought they might use for parts. Though the price for a new Nikon D5100 was a fairly good one—USD$595—I decided to stick to a policy of never buying something from the folks who've made the judgements regarding repairs, and take my chances in Sai Gon when I got there. (Also, they kept changing the amount of the "discount," down to zero in the end.)

One afternoon I decided to go to a gym. I found one on the internet, memorized name/location, and set out.

The gym was too far to walk, so I needed a motorcycle taxi. Only one problem: I only had a $100 bill—and some seriously small stuff.

This dilemma happens a lot in Cambodia. It's brought about by:


  • the fact that ATMs usually dispense US currency in large bills—$50 and $100s, and

  • Nobody, especially motorcycle taxi and tuk-tuk drivers, carries anything like the change they need to do common transactions.

I can't tell you the number of times I've tried to pay for something—a hotel bill, for example—and the staff have to go through their own wallets because the establishment doesn't carry enough of a "float."

Easy enough, I thought, I'll just walk to a bank and get some change. After all, I'd been to the camera shop in the morning, and had seen any number of banks.

A couple of kilometers later, I was amazed that I'd seemed to find the one route in Phnom Penh with no banks on it. Fortunately, in due course I managed finally to find one, and got the change I needed.

Next, I found a motorcycle taxi, told him "VIP Gym, 277 Norodom Boulevard." Simple. The word "Norodom" is understood by most Cambodians no matter how badly it's mispronounced by inflexible Western tongues (it's the name of twice-king Norodom Sihanouk), and it's a major street. Oops, too simple. At some point, the driver got confused, thought he'd gone too far, headed over to a corner where around five or six other motorcycle taxi guys were hanging, and proceeded to get into an interminable conversation as to, I presume, the whereabouts of 277 Norodom. It went on and on, and of course I was no help since I really wasn't even sure what the problem was.

At one point I got frustrated with the whole experience, decided to give up, retrieved my hotel's business card from my pocket, and asked my driver to take me there, offering more money, reasoning that I could find another driver there, or give up on the gym for that day. Despite that the business card had a map of the location of the hotel, another long conversation broke out amongst the motorcycle drivers. Impossible to say what it was about, but at one point I let my driver know it was time to get on the road, and I'd point the way.

Eventually, even though the driver ignored my signs about which way to go, we got back to the hotel, I paid him, and he took off. I wrote down the name of the gym and its address on a piece of paper, showed it to one of the tuk-tuk drivers that hang around outside the River Star, and he said, "Yes. I know that place. Two dollars." Given that I'd ended up paying the guy that didn't take me where I wanted to go around five, I thought it was a bargain, and off we went. And it was a very long way, and the gym itself was down a hard-to-find alleyway off Norodom Boulevard, but my new tuk-tuk guy knew exactly where it was, and took me there. I gave him three dollars, but, even so, I thought it a bargain.

It was great to get back to the gym, but it was a place where the "VIP" part of the name was more important than the "fitness" part. Most of the design and effort was directed at the things the guys arriving in the big, black cars were interested in—the pool, the sauna, and the drinks. The gym itself was in an outbuilding and was not air-conditioned. Not a bad workout, but it was a tad drenching.

Fortunately, you dry off pretty quickly in a tuk-tuk back to the hotel.

The camera project even had an effect on my trip to see Angkor Wat.

I had originally planned it for the 20th, to be back in Phnom Penh on the 23rd, with a bus in the offing for the 24th for Ho Chi Minh City. But at some point I realized I was going to have to have a bigger chunk of time at the end of my stay in Phnom Penh to make sure what could be done was done, so I would have it back in hand in time for the trip to HCMC. So I got onto the bus to Siem Reap on the 19th, a day earlier than planned.

And what a bus! It was air-conditioned, but still very hot—even the Khmers were sweating. (NB. Asians tend not to sweat as much as we do in their weather.) The driver played an endless series of Khmer pop videos, unbearably loudly. There was a fairly long section of dirt road, due to construction. Much of the luggage compartment (passengers above, storage below) was taken up with motorcycles. In Kompong Thom—about the halfway point—we took on riders for the aisle. Later we took on four teenagers who rode on the stairs to the storage area. I wondered if I was even supposed to be on that bus—I was the only "barang" (foreigner) there. This was no sugar-coated tourist bus, it was the real deal. I was travelling with Cambodians, like they do. It was six hours of my life I wouldn't have missed for anything. No livestock, unfortunately, but I thought it had everything else.

In Siem Reap, thanks to my booking at "Shadow of Angkor" Guesthouse, I was met by Mr. Thou, who turned out to be my tuk-tuk driver for the rest of my Siem Reap sojourn. When I got to the guesthouse, I was shown to my room—$15 a night—which turned out to be a bit on the small and derelict side. I asked if there were anything bigger, and it turned out there was a "Shadow of Angkor 2" across the river, which was nice but was $25 a night, they said with obvious distaste for how profligate that amount was, and I said, "Take me there." The room was very nice, and so was the cafe and pool.

Mr. Thou showed up at 5am the next morning to take me out to Angkor Wat. We had to start that early, he said, so we could be there in time for sunrise. Yawn. So away we went. Seemed to me we could have started out at least 45 minutes later, but I'll have to admit sunrise over an 800-year old Hindu/Buddhist temple is pretty spectacular.

Mr. Thou squired me around to an astonishing number of temples and ruins of temples, till I was clearly at what Lonely Planet calls "being NAFT" (not another freaking temple!)—they do start to run together in your memory when you've bloody well seen enough of them. He was, however, careful to be finished for the day around 9:30am (from a more civilized 6:30am on the second day), so as to avoid the madding crowds that show up at more tourist-friendly hours.

I took almost no photos of the temples, because:


  • I had no camera, only a Blackberry, and

  • Angkor Wat has been photographed thousands of times by photographers with far more talent than I. It'll be easy enough to check out one of the books from the library when I get home, and look at stunning photographs of what I saw there, and probably with better explanations than I got while I was there.


I'll admit to a bit of snobbish disdain for the tourists who crawl over these ruins taking photos of them with their 6mp cameras, holding them in front, squinting into the LED displays, and waiting for the shutter to snap seconds after they've pushed the button. Why do they insist? Wouldn't they rather look at good photos? There's also the ones who use their little cameras to take photos of themselves standing in front of old ruins, perhaps immediately sharing them over the internet ("Here I am, sticking my tongue out at an ancient holy place!"), but I'll never be one of those, and my opinions would probably be unprintable anyway.

So much of my time in Siem Reap was spent not looking at temples, but looking at Siem Reap. There's plenty of very large markets, there's a bank branch (called Canadia bank for some reason) where you can use an ATM without being nicked a couple of bucks for using it, there's absolutely more restaurants and pubs than you could ever go to, etc. etc. So I did my best, with the odd nap thrown in.

Back in Phnom Penh I retrieved my camera, didn't buy a new one, went to markets, visited the astonishing collection of Khmer sculpture at the National Museum, would have gone again to the gym if it hadn't been so damnably hot, and, of course, visited Tuol Sleng, the infamous Khmer Rouge prison.

It certainly is an eerie place, right in the middle of a residential neighbourhood just outside downtown. Before being a prison and torture chamber it had been a high school, and still looks a little like one. But it also looks very much like a prison. Many of the rooms have been left exactly as they were when the Khmer Rouge guards fled before the Vietnamese Army onslaught. As they ran away, though, they took the trouble to murder the last 14 prisoners left. Those 14 have been buried in the yard.

My guide was a woman who, at the age of 13, had been marched out of Phnom Penh, the only home she'd known, to Battambang over a period of three months to work in the fields. Her father and brother were taken away and never seen again, she said. So she was an able, knowledgeable, and experienced guide.

But I was troubled by her presentation, for two reasons:


  • The torture techniques she described as having been used at Tuol Sleng were terrible, of course, but not a surprise to anyone who's done any reading on the subject. In fact, she was describing how torture is done anywhere, not just at Tuol Sleng, and these practices are still widespread. When she talked about waterboarding, of course, we have to acknowledge we do that—what does that say about us? Sleep deprivation? Withholding food? Separating families? Beatings? Garrotting? Same same. The fundamental difference between Tuol Sleng and any other torture chamber is the incredible scale of the enterprise, and the inevitability that the death of the prisoner involved would be the outcome—20,000 prisoners over three years, almost all killed. Would the Khmer Rouge have been nicer guys if there'd been a few fewer deaths? How many fewer?

  • Much is made of the fact that when they took power the Khmer Rouge declared 1975 to be "Year Zero," the first year of the building of a new, agrarian, socialist society. Well, our guide and we do the same. Nothing before that day in April, 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took over, is relevant to the discussion.


I've always said, When someone's really, really bad, you shouldn't have to make shit up about them. But we do, all the time.

In our story about the Khmer Rouge, every death in Cambodia after April, 1975, is directly attributable to Khmer Rouge rule. Largely true, no doubt. But we also attribute every death by starvation to Khmer Rouge rule, because of their "attempts at agricultural reform" that "led to famine." (Wikipedia)

But as William Shawcross noted in his book Sideshow, in 1975 the US Agency for International Development forecast widespread starvation in Cambodia, saying (again from Wikipedia) "the country faced famine in 1975, with 75% of its draft animals destroyed, and that rice planting for the next harvest would have to be done 'by the hard labour of seriously malnourished people.'" The report predicted that:

Without large-scale external food and equipment assistance there will be widespread starvation between now and next February ... Slave labour and starvation rations for half the nation's people (probably heaviest among those who supported the republic) will be a cruel necessity for this year, and general deprivation and suffering will stretch over the next two or three years before Cambodia can get back to rice self-sufficiency".

The draft animals weren't all killed by the Khmer Rouge, they were killed by US and Cambodian air force bombs. Another factor to be considered is that by 1975 the population of Phnom Penh had swelled, from 2 million to 5 million, largely driven by rural Cambodians fleeing the constant bombing. Much of the countryside—where the food is grown—had been abandoned as unliveable.

As we all know, there was no "large-scale external food and equipment assistance" to Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge period, at least not from us. Shouldn't we hold accountable for all that starvation the people that refused to help?

But never mind, 1975 is Year Zero, and we escape the blame for the desperate position the Cambodians found themselves in after their country had been largely destroyed by carpet-bombing.

In fact, there is no way of knowing how many Cambodians would have died if the Khmer Rouge hadn't taken desperate and brutal measures to "get back to rice self-sufficiency." We only know it would have been many hundreds of thousands.

And we can't blame them all on the Khmer Rouge. It wasn't the KR that ruined Cambodia's rice paddies, it was Nixon's (and Lon Nol's) bombs.

I know I'll get in trouble for this, as some will say I'm saying nice things about the Khmer Rouge, but I'm certainly not. I'm saying they didn't act alone in ruining Cambodia, and we ought to accept some of the blame. Why don't we? You know the answer as well as I do.

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