Cambodia, your reputation precedes you.
Cambodia was one of the first places I began reading about when I came to South-East Asia. As I sat in the ground floor café of a guest-house in Ho Chi Minh City, getting my bearings, among the sellers that would come in hawking goods would be the booksellers bearing a large stack of books, about 3 feet in height, tied in a package with string. Any eye contact with a spine would prompt them to deftly extract a volume and begin pitching it at twice the price they would actually accept. I was desperate for something good to read, call it an addiction, but balked at the Dan Brown titles and those by Obama and his ghostwriter. Later, I did succumb to some beach books that robbed my life of precious minutes and hours such as the dreadful Memoirs of a … and something about a witch that later became a musical, an equally dreadful and thoroughly sterilized account of what could be, dare I say, magical, but the first book I bought in Vietnam was First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung about a middle class family swept from their life by the total evacuation of Pnom Penh, the capital city, in a revolutionary attempt to return the entire country into a pre-industrial state, even pre-historical. The “organization” behind this putsch used a term for their target state-of-being in their dramatic social engineering gambit, the term was the “Year Zero.” Among the books currently available to the English reader cast into South-East Asia there are quite a lot of books written about the infamous genocide of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, the events that first thrust Cambodia into my life as a household word when I was less than 10 years old. It wasn’t surprising to me that I chose a book with this topic, a book, as it turns out, that is quite a good read. There is a lot of bravery in facing one’s worst memories, and in facing human nature in its starkest terms. This first person account forges a connection between the liberal humanity cherished in places such as an America, where the teller of the story eventually fled to, and the unbelievably appalling and perhaps inexplicable saga of a country insane, occupied by its own leaders and impelled to kill perhaps one out of three of its own people, often with the blow of a hammer to the skull. Although I cannot argue or explain the causes of this catastrophe I recommend not overlooking the effect of Nixon and Kissinger’s decision in 1969 to secretly order 3,500 bombing sorties over Cambodia, because of its use by the North Vietnamese army as a supply trail, resulting in 600,000 civilian deaths among Khmer villagers. Nixon and Kissinger’s carpet bombing campaign of 14 months is now seen by historians as a furious episode in a series of secretive bombing raids that lasted over 11 years that began with the Johnson administration. It is often argued that the outrage of a peasantry who were not even at war with the country whose flag was painted on the B-52 bombers that granted such gifts drove them into the ranks of an otherwise marginal group (the KR) who alone promised opposition to the arrangements as they were. This was in fact the initial explanation given by the KR cadres as they emptied their capital in 1975, that they had intelligence that the Americans would begin bombing it any minute now.
Cambodia is also known the world over for its dramatic ancient monumental cult cities, akin to places like Chichen-Itza in Mexico, the Forbidden City in China, and the Great Pyramids of Egypt. Egypt is the oldest of these examples, and China is the most recent, but there is no reason not to include the classic ages of Greece and Rome in this panoply, and surely there are many other standing monuments to compare and contemplate (e.g. Stonehenge). Archaeologists and anthropologists get easily annoyed however if you compare too closely, for several reasons, of which I will name just a few.
For example, there is an obnoxious legacy of disbelief among Western “discoverers” of such sites outside of Greece and Rome that local people, or their ancestors rather, could have ever been capable of such remarkable and incomprehensible feats of complexity. The structure is then credited to a “lost tribe of Israel” in order to subtly claim ownership. Nine times out of ten however one needs only to look at the pictures carved into the sides to know who built them…though this is hardly foolproof (e.g. the sinoid and negroid features perceived by observers of remnants of ancient Mexican societies such as the Toltec and Olmec). I think speculation on cultural contacts heretofore unverified or unknown is not actually a great crime to science, and can be an aid if done carefully. But only speculate or make claims carefully if you care about science, otherwise, go wild, you are free. This leads to the twin view of course, wedded to this by the sheer awe such places inspire is the notion that the builders were people superior to the Western tradition. Awe tends to silence the chatter of the mind, and bring peaceful stirrings, therefore the creators of such places must have been peaceful New-Age geniuses, no? Again, as those who devote their lives to studying such places have discovered, the tale told by the images and writing etched into these stones is typically of war and bloodshed.
Yet they remain beautiful and awe-inspiring. So should we speculate a golden age of arts and state-supported public works, perhaps even levitated into place? Or one of cruel slavery and forced labor? Such is the dilemma of the pyramidiot, too lazy to read the dusty words of the scholars who have gathered the (credible?) facts. For what it’s worth, here is my nuanced view. The romantics in the debate as a rule want too much, are too invested in redeeming themselves, and want to see what they want to see. The scientists are possibly all secretly romantic (to their own tune perhaps), but are invested of course also in their own success to a very human degree (and thus must focus rather narrowly, as any succesful person must). To me, they (whoever actually works to preserve and understand this heritage) are the heroes if there is in fact some culture war between the two, even though their commitment to evidence can be a drag. Said in jest of course, because the real obstacle to a pure, unfiltered knowledge of what these temples in Cambodia and the others around the world are really all about (that is, knowing beyond our limitations and errors) is (obviously swinging back to the romantic side) our own capability to perceive. That is, although we might wish it, we are not New-Age qualified enough to know the intent of these structures. Any structure or object is at its core, intent. I learned more about this as a builder myself, listening to old timers talk about how a table or a wall “wants” to do this or that. This kind of builder, by seeing the intent of materials and structures, can direct them into the useful devises that they can become. The other kind of builder builds crooked buildings. As an apprentice I was intrigued, how does a table want anything? So try it yourself. Make a three-legged table, or a table with 4 legs of different lengths, and see what the table “wants” to do. Much has been made of our pre-packaged society and the assumptions that go along with it, that we are the one’s with wants, and the stuff on the assembly lines has no agency to challenge us (up in our baby chair). And a chair doesn’t “want” anything! But only the king baby really thinks that, anyone that actually tends to the stuff knows that the meat, at the very least, wants to rot after death, that the liquid wants to fill a cup or spill from the bottle, that the toy car wants to break or get stuck somewhere, like under a foot or in baby’s mouth. It’s only by taking such “wants” under firm consideration that we can design a good life for ourselves or is this just a way of talking? In any case the monumental structures remain a puzzle because they so clearly speak to life beyond the average day to day. I don’t think anyone disputes that. But what does this non-average life “want”?
Let’s take a case in point, the temple of Bayon at Angkor Thom, Cambodia, the towers of which each have two, or three, but mostly four serene faces clustered and jutting out every which way. There is no official count of towers and faces as the number has changed over time tough currently it is about 37 towers and 200 faces. Observers note a striking likeness between the faces and that of the ruler who ordered they be built (Jayavarman VII). Because they also represent figures in the Buddhist pantheon, further reasoning sees the ruler’s intention of representing himself as an incarnation of Buddha as a facet of his rule. But the deeper intention of the work is to last as long as it did (or be knocked over in places by the force of a growing tree, as it were), and to be as impressive as it is, and to impress in a specific way. Whatever the actual deeds of this Buddhist emperor (a notion puzzling in itself to the Western mind) the sublime inner nature as depicted here, and in the remarkable statue held in the National Museum of Phnom Penh represents a being in possession of a powerful force apart from, but not opposed to, rationality. Tyrant or not, its better than anything the people in my age we call tyrants have done.
Whatever power he possessed in life was tossed off in death, and subsequent rulers and events conspired to convert his temple to Hindu worship, and then later again to a different branch of Buddhism.
The Hindu aspect of this story underlines a cultural fact about Cambodia that separates it from its cousin to the East- Vietnam, though both share Buddhism, historically practiced more thoroughly in Asia outside its legendary home in India. That fact is that Cambodia takes more culturally, in the deepest sense from India, than it does from China, the mother culture of Vietnam and much of Asia. Though Vietnam and China are frequent and bitter antagonists throughout history, they resemble each other too much. But there is nothing Chinese about Cambodian pop music, its unmistakable psychedelic sensibilities indebted forever to the Hindu pantheon. Because of this cultural debt, English seems to come so much easier to those who need to or wish to speak English, such as in the hospitality trade, from receptionists to porters, and even street hustlers. Linguists classify English as Indo-European and here the DNA seems to match, or perhaps it is just the mere fact that the Khmer language is not tonal, like Vietnamese, which makes English and Viet so mutually alien to each other.
But Cambodia and Vietnam are also very much alike, and very close not the least because of their geography. And in fact as it is so often the case in such matters the maps are subject to change throughout history. For example, Saigon has an older, Cambodian incarnation, as Prey Nokor, and all of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta had been inhabited as Kampuchea Krom, or Lower Cambodia until the Vietnamese population surged past that of the fishing villages of the Khmer. An old map I saw also showed an inflated, but northern Vietnamese empire, which seemingly swallowed Laos. The food is nearly the same, the array of fruit at the market the same, the weather the same. Because of the weather and the food, both cultures share a love of sour soup, the Khmer version I found to be even more delicious than the Vietnamese version, its qualities bringing a chemical balance to my body. There is a tree in Cambodia dear to its culture that we call the sugar palm, its fruit being very similar to coconut. My wife asked me for the English word for this fruit. We don’t have the fruit, I told her, so we don’t have a word for it. “Speaking as an American…” I corrected after a little thought, guessing that the British, because of their old habits in overseas adventures let’s say, would have developed more of a reference for this sort of thing. I found later that they sometimes call the fruit “ice-apple”. Because of a saying that wherever that tree grows, there is Cambodia, and because of the history of the border issues between the two countries, the tree is not allowed to grow in Vietnam, for fear a Cambodian claimant for the land will arrive. If a Vietnamese person sees the tree anywhere they will cut it down. At least according to my father-in-law (lets call him Ba), who I was traveling with. My wife told me that he knew the Cambodian language, Khmer. Yes, she said, he can talk to people; listen to the radio, read the newspaper. As a lifelong soldier in the Vietnamese Army, he participated in the invasion of Cambodia to drive Pol Pot from power and was stationed there for 8 years. Returning to Cambodia was like visiting an old friend for him. He freely talked and chuckled with the cab driver on the way from the airport to our hotel in Siem Riep. True to his profession, the cab driver tried to sell us on his services, offering to be a guide today, tomorrow… My wife had already booked a tour for her parents but we were slightly deviating from it, we did have some free time and had already bought a sim card for our phone at the airport, why don’t you just give us your phone number we offered. No, he didn’t have a phone he said. Was it possible? Of course there was a disparity of resources between a tourist on holiday and a working person in an undeveloped country emerging from decades of civil war, but it had long been a gag with me to spot monks on motorcycles with gadgets in their hands, mountain villagers in traditional clothes gathered around a glass cell-phone counter in the market, and so forth.
It seemed that the world had already passed the cell-phone gap for the most part, but still, not everybody wanted or had one. He continued to gently press us to go to this tourist village he knew, the tickets were $12 and he would take us there and back for $11. Sometimes while traveling you just have to let yourself be hustled if it can roll off your back and you’ll see something new, but this was mild highway robbery with dubious bait. I didn’t even bother to get angry, the key I am learning to becoming a good bargainer, but just blandly turned him down. We had a few hours to kill so a quick nap was what we wanted anyway, to have the power to enjoy whatever came after. As he dropped us at the hotel it was the cab-driver who began to get angry; that we were declining to allow him to set our itinerary. “You can’t even arrange one afternoon,” he challenged to me. Sorry, I said, sorry you don’t have a phone. I have a phone he retorted, but I don’t want to give out my number, people have just taken my number before and they don’t call me, they just chuck it in the bin. Yeah so what? -I shrugged. I think this was his third explanation so far so I don’t think he actually had his own phone, maybe relatives or girlfriends or associates he could sponge off perhaps, but it was also possible I was encountering some kind of pre-capitalist sentiment of thin skin and hurt feelings at the lack of personal relationships between partners, where the money went his way, simply because we had more of it. The battle of don’t call us, we’ll call you was to go his way in his thinking, he would take our number, and we could sit around and wait- take that barang. I don’t know, sometimes I can be sympathetic, but his way of doing business wasn’t winning me over. Several times later that day I would have called him in fact had I been able but it was actually for the best. Ba had no trouble negotiating with the drivers of the more common way of getting around, the tuk-tuk, or motorcycle driven carriage, which was in fact much more pleasant for me than the closed space of the automobile. Did Ba learn Khmer from the Army or just on the street? – I asked my wife. He just learned, she said. Listened to people, wrote down first what it sounded like in Vietnamese writing, than asked people and more and more begin learning the local script. It wasn’t surprising when I began to consider his bilingual daughter, my wife. He carried himself in an investigative way, seeming to poke anything new, with his finger or a twitch of his eyebrow.
Because of the various tides of the civil war, there are quite a noticeable array of land-mine victims (and land-mines waiting to go off) in Cambodia, men riding bicycles with one leg, riding motorcycles with one or no legs, walking around with the aid of rugged home-made crutches. Here and there you might notice other limbs missing. At Ankgor Thom we saw a group of landmine victims musicians playing along a path to one of the major temples. They had a tip-jar with a polite sign in several languages as well as cds and dvds for sale. Traditional Music Bands Victim of Land Mines/ We play benefit and find out the generous ladies and gentleman to support for daily family’s life and for the future of our children at school. We expectancy your great helps and supportes to us. We all wish you to gets everything what you desirous.
At Angkor Wat later that day I overheard a guide mentioning the barbarities of the Khmer Rouge past to his European client as they walked along. I have a habit of never hiring guides at Museums and places like that. I like to stock up on the facts off-site, and just follow my whims when I’m there. I suspect I’m missing something and consider changing my ways, so from time to time I’ll lurk in the background or tag along on a conversation and then split long before they can begin rightfully charging me. Like with so many other negotiations part of it isn’t the actual price, it’s the laugh in your face sucker deal that I am afraid of, no matter how much the actual money means to me. Living in Asia has taught me that I have to move beyond that but I also find that guides anywhere sometimes charge real money, so it matters whether you are getting a con man or a scholar, or something in between. In any case the foreigner had a solemn serious face but a stern absent stare, tolerating the comments but wanting to move on. The guide was calm and articulated his point, the ‘them’ of the KR, and the ‘us’ the country that had suffered, and then prevailed. This perhaps is a key part of the identity of that project. Who was it that did ‘this/ that’? Was it ‘them’, the KR, brutal murderers, or was it murderous peasants, or murderous communists, or murderous Khmer people, or the murderous developed world, the US, the French, and the entire industrial world that worked together and dropped bombs on a people who were not even claimed to be involved in the supposed conflict at hand, that is, the entire murderous human race. And yet, the comments I heard that provoke these contemplations were just a story that I overheard being told while we were all walking in a peaceful garden, a story that could be swatted away like a mosquito that emerged from a shadow, a story that maybe wasn’t even real, told by a nervous suspect in the docket pardoning his relatives in front of a sleeping judge. But the story was real, and as I am writing this and as he was telling it (by my impression actually a sweet intelligent looking young man) a tribunal was sitting in Phnom Penh and attempting to adjudicate the fate of the surviving high-ranking participants in the Khmer Rouge hierarchy, where convicted prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch was providing testimony against his superiors. There are four defendants in the case, known as Case 002 in the court of the ECCC, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea (Extraordinary Chambers or ECCC), and under trial are: Nuon Chea, aged 84, former Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, commonly known as Brother Number Two; Ieng Sary, aged 85, former Deputy Prime Minister for Foreign Affairs; Khieu Samphan, aged 79, former Head of State; and Ieng Thirith, aged 78, former Minister of Social Affairs. These are, it is said, the sole surviving “Big Fish” and it goes without saying that the legitimacy of these proceedings threaten the tenuous balance between glassy amnesia, and these events “really” being dealt with (with many suggesting a ‘truth and reconciliation’ process as a more productive alternative).
On the bus from Siem Riep to Phnom Penh, while going through what seemed to be the first town outside Siem Riep, Ba told us to look out for a statue of an elephant stepping on a tiger. Minutes later we passed by such a statue and he was gleaming with pride at remembering his way around. You lived near here? I asked him in Vietnamese (Ba da song gan o day?) He gave me an affirmative shake of his head and after we passed through the town he pointed at an orchard on the side of the highway. My wife translated his account for me, that the Vietnamese Army camped here along the road, and the KR cadres camped on the other side of the orchard and would come out at night, to fight (in her idiosyncratic usage of English, she referred to them as “the Pol Pot team”).
Also along the way we saw huts on poles, baroque temples, an insect market (with spicy fried tarantulas for sale), and a riverside dock with hammocks for the comfort of bus travellers at their rest stop. In the province closer to the Angkor temples, there didn’t seem to be any waterworks for dry season agriculture. Such sites sorely test the romance of the 1st world onlooker: the despair of the idle, blankly staring out of the window or door of a shack, when so much trash and ripe fruit is lying about. We want the people to be busy, striding in traditional clothes, strong and smiling. Isn’t that what they want also? Would that the targeted aid for this type of thing create a durable infrastructure for agriculture rather than gilding the cell phones, VIP cars and toilets of the final recipients of these buckets of cash. These types of characters roar down these highways in their Lexus SUVs, driving small engine motorbikes and bicycles off the road and playing chicken with buses transporting foreign tourists.
Back at Angkor Wat my wife retold a story to me that Pol Pot had used Angkor Wat as offices, maybe even filled the magnificent pools in the interior courtyard with bodies. Although seemingly ghoulishly plausible, this story I believed to be merely a contrivance to put the two prominent themes of Cambodian life together for out-siders.
Such rumours can be trifles, but they can also have immense power, and no less so in South Asia. Such a rumour caused a riot in January 2003 in Phnom Penh, when a newspaper printed a claim that a Thai soap opera actress said something along the lines that (quoting from Wikipedia) “ Cambodia had stolen Angkor, and that she would not appear in Cambodia until it was returned to Thailand”. No less than the prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, repeated and denounced the accusations, insulting the actress by saying she was “not worth a few blades of grass near the temple”. Radio and print media echoed the charges, stoking centuries of simmering between these neighbors who have warred before (perhaps the meaning of the elephant/tiger statue?). The Cambodian government banned all Thai television from being broadcast; finally a mob approached the Thai embassy and destroyed it along with many major and minor Thai-owned businesses. There was never any evidence that she had actually said this and in fact she strongly denied it, in the end the Cambodian government had to pay to rebuild the embassy. It is unclear however whether they ever ponied up more than half of the promised 6 million dollars.
Due to this reputation of violence I perhaps over-reacted (just in terms of fascination and adrenaline, with no clear outward response) to something I saw when walking along a street in central Phnom Penh, someone pointing a hand-gun into the face of a young kid and clicking it off as a gag- sure, I could tell it was a plastic toy by the sounds it made as I walked along my path, but for a few seconds I was riveted in this vision of the lawlessness of Phnom Penh from the ‘90’s that I have read about. I have also read that it’s different now, but how should I know?
As I maybe mentioned already, there is a large body of work written about South-East and South Asia (and maybe anywhere) by English-speaking expats who have been there for whatever reason and just had to record their experiences for posterity, as moved as they were and are. I concur, it’s a crazy place (to me) and maybe one day I will kill a tree in offering to this heap. I don’t have the depth of knowledge to catalogue all these types, but among the sub-genres (and surely there are more) are the foreign correspondent types (like the brilliant Dispatches,by Michael Herr, with the most full account of lost photographer and pin-up Sean Flynn and others such as Dana Stone and Tim Page, as just a bonus in the mix of an unforgettable vision, perhaps crystallizing the understanding of the war more famously portrayed in Apocalypse Now), the home-seekers (such as Andrew Pham with his Catfish and Mandala) , the decadence seekers (or sex-pats) who I think should more be represented by someone like Somaly Mam, rather than the pathetic sleazes who typify this sub-genre, with her first person account of being sold into sex-slavery as a very young orphan girl (the road of lost innocence), and her struggle to form a rescue operation as she came of age, and the violent border-line criminals most gloriously portrayed in Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, which in fact for the most part is a fantastic read, until he transforms himself into a macho full-fledged Mafioso member, among his many different manifestations in the book, and begins to follow the lunk-headed logic that typifies so many of the authors of the lesser of these books, where you might start to fathom, “ah, this is how you go to prison”.
As alluded to above, ex-pats in Phnom Penh sometimes can have a seedy image, at least judging by the literature that they themselves generate. One of these writers who has done his part as a flag-bearer of this line is Amit Gilboa, in his Off the Rails in Phnom Penh: Into the Dark Heart of Guns, Girls, and Ganja, which is seemingly uniformly denounced by old-timer types on forums such as Thorntree and Lonely Planet, for a variety of reasons, including that the author when writing the book was not really cognizant enough of the local scene to realize that one of the low-lifes that he was portraying was the English tutor of a high government official (which seemingly would have made his book even more brazen). I pawed my way through a dictionary in the 4th grade, looking for dirty words, so I’m not above leafing through a lurid tome, though as I said above, the account by Somaly Mam is crucial to really understanding the gears of this background. Whatever their true and aggregate habits, expats in PP seem to be at least a literate bunch, at least judging by the haul I made at a hole in the wall bookstore I happened by. The store boasted of more Haruki Murakami I have ever seen on one shelf, that’s comparing to both London and Philadelphia, matched only by the virtual super-sellers on-line. After plunking down a twenty for a stack I could reasonably put in my luggage, I had to spend my change on a collection of essays by Luc Sante on the table in front of me, an original no less, as so many books are indeed pirated photocopies.
Later that night, at the Foreign Correspondents Club with Ba, we had ice cream and beer on the balcony over-looking the Mekong river while he told us tales of an empty city. Did he participate in the initial seizure of Phnom Penh? No, he came there later from time to time. To him the war was fought to stop the Khmer Rouge from killing every last person . He emphasized how the KR army in the fields required no specific approval, no records, no command structure or bureaucracy whatsoever to kill. All executions were pre-approved. Ba described the aftermath occupation as being complicated by a king that spoke out of both sides of his mouth, while looking straight ahead. Finally the international involvement was such that the Vietnamese Army could do no more to help, and went home.
Walking back to the luxury hotel where the tour had put us up (getting a hefty discount no doubt as our wing was under construction, and had no direct elevator to our floor) which I thought of as “snake-world”, after the real name, Naga World (Naga can just mean snake in many sanskrit related languages but more famously are mythical King Cobras or snake creatures in both Hindu and Buddhist lore; in Cambodia apparently, according to wikipedia, the Naga are “a reptilian race of beings who possessed a large empire or kingdom in the Pacific Ocean region”, Ba pointed to what used to be a bridge a mere 30 metres from us. Just last year, about 350 people died there during a festival, stampeding after perhaps another rumour set off an already intensely dangerous situation during a water festival. After that, the government destroyed the bridge and built two new modern ones.
I can’t understand all this, the smiling, kind intelligent faces of the people I saw around me, yet how guarded I was against becoming angry, much more than in Vietnam, where people regularly cut in front of me in line rendering me indeed as an angry ghost. I’ve read a few books and articles about Cambodia, I have been a brief visitor. I have no choice but to let it be a puzzle, a puzzle of complexity.
My tale is a normal tale of Cambodia; these are all well-known facts. I have added little or nothing to the discussion, including these final thoughts. Cambodia has invaded my mind, my imagination, my dreams, and I will return. Cambodia, your reputation precedes you.