Chasing Hemingway

Cambodia

In case you’re confused by the last post and this post, I am actually in India at the moment, but I felt the need to catch up, so that’s why you’re getting all these posts now, when I have time to write things out. Here’s Cambodia for you:

The best way to describe Cambodia would be as crowded, dirty, hot, and very poor. My initial impression was somewhat overwhelming, as I wrote on Michal’s blog our first day there:

After a relaxing day and a half in bangkok during which we did practically nothing cultural except eat excellent food, we headed off to meet Debbi in Cambodia on the 4 week anniversary of my arrival in asia. Getting out of bangkok proved to be much simpler than arriving; per Ta’s advice we just took a cab to the airport which took an hour and required nothing more than for us to sit and chat. This was infinitely less painful than the wandering from the train station that happened on both arrivals. We got to the airport with time to spare which meant that we could enjoy a lovely sushi and sandwich lunch at a gourmet counter. The flight itself was short and uneventful except for the talkative German man sitting between us who offered unsolicited advice on navigating Cambodia (and he spat-adds Mikey). All his warnings in addition to the horror stories that we’d heard over the last several weeks made us feel incredibly grateful that Debbi was picking us up from the airport with her uncle’s driver (posh, much?). Getting through visa and immigration was incredibly slow and disorganized (except for the part when they take your money), and my immigration guy even forgot I was there for a while as he took a call on his cell phone. Isn’t that illegal? I took it as a good introduction to Cambodian society (or at least their attitude towards rules). This impression proved to be reinforced on our car trip through the city during which I discovered there are fewer traffic rules than in Indonesia which I thought was as bad it could get. Indeed, cars (rather, motor bikes)- now Mikey’s thumbs-here don’t even get a chance to go until their light turns red. That is, if they can navigate all the people walking through the middle of the street.

Despite all the stories I had heard and warnings I had been given, I still wasn’t prepared for the reality of Phnom Penh. Admittedly, we saw it all from the safety of the car’s tinted windows but the sheer numbers of people, the dirtiness and the poverty were overwhelming. Coming from Bangkok and even KL which are major international business cities, Phnom Penh is like an industrial Midwestern town.

***

Of course, a week later, I learned that Cambodia was an excellent precursor to India, but let’s go chronologically here.

Phnom Penh isn’t much to write home about. It’s insanely dirty – I’ve never seen a major city that dirty, and I’ve been in India for two weeks and all over SE Asia now – and the traffic is horrific. It’s horrific because the roads aren’t great, there are way too many motorbikes (like in Bali, it’s the preferred form of transport for everyone), and, most of all, no one follows the traffic rules (what rules?). See my above comments. I got used to it very quickly, but that doesn’t mean the driving didn’t continue to scare me. Vuthi, Debbi’s uncle’s driver and our sometime guide, was an excellent driver, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t fear for my life every time we got on the road. Going to and from Siem Reap (and, therefore, Angkor Wat) was an exercise in not panicking every time a car, motorbike, pedestrian, cow, or dog didn’t seem to be moving out of the bus’ way even after several honks, or when our driver decided to pass someone in oncoming traffic, honking as if that would solve things.

Yes, like in Indonesia, and much of SE Asia, honking has replaced responsible driving. (And it’s even worse in India than in Cambodia, if you can believe it. Here, the honking is constant, so you just sort of stop hearing it; in Cambodia, the honking is just most of the time.) On the bus ride back from Siem Reap, I did an informal study, based on my week of experience, and came to the following conclusions:

Two short honks mean: “I’m here.”
Repeated, they mean: “I don’t like your position,” or, “Move out of the way, you slow idiot.”
Two or three longer, louder, and angrier honks mean: “I’m passing whether you like it or not, so MOVE!”
Any longer or angrier combination of honks means: “What the f*** are you doing, you f***ing idiot?? There’s a car/bus/truck coming and I want to pass you!”

As I said, crazy. And really, really irritating. But enough about driving, entertaining as that experience may be.

Our first full day in Phnom Penh, we went to see the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, the museum they’ve made out of the school that was used by Pol Pot’s people as a prison and torture spot for their “enemies,” and then, for a change of pace, the Royal Palace complex. Needless to say, it was an exhausting and emotionally-draining day, but it did give me invaluable insight into Cambodia, its culture, and recent history.

I confess, I knew little about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge; really, I only knew he was one of the totalitarian dictators about whom I could have written in my tenth grade “Individual & Society” class. He posed no particular interest to my fifteen year old self, so I wrote about Ceaucescu in Romania; at least I know my dictators, and Mr. Mitchell would be pleased to know that Debbi and I both spent much of the day talking about how well the Khmer Rouge (which is actually a misnomer, by the way) fit the totalitarian mold. But I digress. One of the most impressive things, for me, about that day was discovering not only how recent this whole experience is, but how much a part of the national memory it still is. I’ve never been to Germany, but I wonder if the Nazi experience is as present these days as the Khmer Rouge experience is in Cambodia. Of course, in Cambodia, many of the perpetrators are still alive, even many of the senior people who worked closely with Pol Pot, and they’re not that old. Trials have not been finished, and many of them have yet to be arrested. The question seems to be whether or not these trials are important. In such a poor country, with so many other problems, is it important enough to “fix” the past by trying and imprisoning people for genocidal crimes of three decades ago? Or is it better to learn from the past and focus on the problems of the present and the future?

I don’t propose any answers, but I find it an interesting conundrum. Even more interesting than this, though, do I find its impact on Khmer society and culture. When I was in Singapore, a British woman told me that, based on her experiences in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge experience seems to have driven any sense of trust out of the Khmer people. She explained that this meant they have no problem cheating you, it’s sort of a “every man for himself” mentality, etc. I don’t know if I agree with this – I’m not sure I spent long enough there, nor did enough of the right types of activities to be able to judge, really – but I do know that something about Cambodian society doesn’t feel quite right. There is something slightly off. Perhaps that is just because they are still so shaken from the experience and are so definitively not allowed to forget any of it, but I do think that is good to a certain extent. We’re not even talking here of one group of people being persecuted; we’re talking about every other person being picked out to be killed or tortured for essentially no reason. Originally, it was the educated people, but then it became people with glasses (you looked educated), people who lived in cities, people who had family in cities, people who knew educated people, even their own soldiers and members. A good portion of the Khmer population was killed for no reason other than one man’s quest for power, and probably most of the people alive now have family members who were killed and/or tortured. That’s not something that’s impact on a society can be lessened in thirty years.

I also think the poverty is a huge part of something feeling off. You know those sweatshops we talk about in the Western world? The ones where people work for essentially nothing in factories? The ones about which human rights activists get up in arms? Many of those are in Cambodia. One day, we saw a bunch of factory workers in Phnom Penh going to lunch, and Vuthi explained to us that factory jobs are good jobs. Good jobs? Working in a sweatshop? Apparently, those workers make $50 a month. To compare, police officers in Cambodia make $15 a month. Teachers make something comparable. Fifty dollars is a lot in Cambodia. Apparently the Khmer Rouge did a good job making education less valuable if a factory worker makes more than a teacher. As do drivers for rich people. Just something to think about.

On to happier things…

Siem Reap turned out to be a cute little town, except that it’s overrun by large hotels and I actually got sick our first evening there. Yeah, I know, it was inevitable, and I’m frankly surprised I held out that long before getting sick. It took four weeks for Southeast Asia to get me. Of course, after that, I was sick on and off for nearly two weeks, because everyone gets sick when they come to India. Doing much better now, though I am also more careful about what I eat. Off shrimp for life, unfortunately.

The thing about Siem Reap is that there are two areas: the area slightly out of town but closer to Angkor Wat that’s got tons of hotels, and the “downtown” cutesy area with lots of restaurants and shops where people hassle you a lot more. I can’t recommend where to stay when you go, simply because it depends what you want. Staying in the former area was nice because it was quieter, and it was easy to get out to the temples, which was our primary objective. It also wasn’t a bad walk to and from the “downtown” area, but it’s not one I would have made alone at night. I’m also all about the cute, fun areas, because I like cities, as you know, so I imagine the “downtown” area would be more fun to stay in if you’re there for a little longer than a few days.

The temples at Angkor Wat are most definitely worth seeing. I say the temples because, in case you didn’t know (I didn’t), it used to be a city. You’d never know that now – not only is everything really spread out and in ruins, but it was all built in sandstone, so it didn’t stand much of a chance against time and the harsh Southeast Asian elements anyway. (Seriously, you should see the buildings there; they all look infinitely older than they are, simply because a few years of rains and winds and searing heat and humidity can age a building immeasurable.) We just stuck to about five or six of the “most beautiful” temples – we couldn’t handle the heat and dust much longer, and, anyway, after a while, they start to look the same – but there are apparently tons more all throughout the area, some of which are virtually unexplored. For the more adventurous and less ill traveler (who also goes at a time when it‘s not so freaking hot), it could be really fun to find your way out to some of those, take a picnic, and just wander for a while.

We started with Angkor Wat, which is definitely the most impressive, but also the most well-funded (it’s a World Heritage Site) and, consequently, the most well-preserved. They were slightly more strict there about where you could go (not the top, anymore), and there were signs explaining various rooms and murals. After that, though, each temple’s preservation was sponsored by a different country’s government, and most of them had no rules about where you could or couldn’t climb. We climbed up to the top of several that required some serious dexterity and strength (we’re convinced that ancient Khmers were really tall and had tiny feet, based on the height and width of the stairs), and we were warned against stepping on certain stones because the answer to Debbi’s joking question of, “Why, did someone fall?” was a serious, “yes.” Oops…

We wrapped up the day by watching the sunset from the top of one of the temples with a thousand of our closest fellow tourists, but I confess that, despite my grumbling, it was pretty impressive.

Just one note before I continue… As I mentioned, a different country sponsors each temple, and UNESCO gives Angkor Wat itself money, but here’s something fun: Cambodians get to go into the temples for free, but foreigners have to pay a hefty $40, if I recall correctly. It could have been $30, I don’t remember exactly, but it’s the principle of the thing. Nothing in Cambodia is that expensive, except for tourists! We went to the museum in Siem Reap and it’s $12 for foreigners, free for Khmer. Seriously?? We’ve found the same to be true in India, as well – thank you, Taj Mahal – and it irritates me no less. People in both countries have explained that corruption is rife when it comes to these things, so you know that most of the money isn’t going to preservation in any case, about which I’d feel slightly better, if no less indignant. These are world heritage sites we’re talking about, both officially and unofficially, why should everyone else have to pay infinitely more just so officials can line their pockets? Even one of our guides in Agra last week complained about it, but he was particularly nice.

The rest of our time in Siem Reap we spent by going to a reservoir (which I later figured out was important because it was the only relatively clean body of water we saw in Cambodia), a very bizarre cultural center (Debbi says the miniatures and reproductions of villages are an Asian thing…), and a village on a lake (the boat ride out there cost $15 for foreigners, free for Khmer…). The floating village was really quite cool and I got some amazing photos, but the water was absolutely disgusting. The lake is absolutely huge – it takes up a good portion of Cambodia – but the water is so opaquely brown that you can’t even see in an inch. We saw a man standing in it, fishing in a shallow area, and just his head was popping out, and it seriously looked like he was just a floating head. And this is the water in which these people do everything. Everything. It’s likely they drink it too, even if they officially have purified water containers. And you wonder at the high illness and mortality rates; we figure if you make it to adulthood in Cambodia, you’ve got an iron immune system.

After a few days in Siem Reap and environs, we headed back to Phnom Penh for a day, where we explored the minimal river area, which is slightly nicer than the rest of the city, and then we headed off to India for the wedding!! I’ll write all about that next time.

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This entry was published on March 6, 2009 at 2:57 am. It’s filed under Cambodia, cars, driving, etc, getting sick, roads, travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

4 thoughts on “Cambodia

  1. Mary on said:

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!

    That is all.

  2. Alison on said:

    You’re in India, and I demand an _India_ update! I want to know what you think of it! India India India! Also there’s a fantastic pasta place in Delhi I can tell you about, if you ever feel like getting some good old ravioli. Not that there’s anything wrong with eating Indian food 24/7.

  3. Your points about how society is still affected by the past were really interesting to me because it’s very similar to Chile. Of course the histories are totally different, and Cambodia’s was much worse, but the general parallels of torturers living among their victims, incomplete trials and break down of trust hold true. Pinochet has been dead for 2.5 years, but his influence in this country is still very much alive.

  4. Alison on said:

    Kate, I have started reading Michal’s blog regularly because you never update and I want to know what you’re up to! Sounds like you’re having lots of adventures. Meanwhile, I am stuck in the library during spring break writing my senior essay. I = jealous of you.

    Okay, I don’t know where this is going. Hope you’re having fun wherever you are today!

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