Upon exiting the airport, the first thing that I noticed about Phnom Penh was the darkness. Well, that and the smell of burning garbage. As a fellow student and I sped along through the sweltering night in a tuk tuk, the only lights that greeted us were the ever-changing multicolored lights emanating from karaoke bars, casinos, and the occasional discotheque. We sat with our mouths agape, trying to take in as much as we could of this spectacle until we finally came upon the site of our accommodations and managed to get some beauty sleep. After nearly twenty hours in the air, I was incredibly thankful to be back on the earth's crust with my fellow terrestrial forms of life.
The coffee here is far too sweet, according to my own gustatory preferences. The local beer is similar in this regard. In fact, most things here are far more sweet in comparison to their counterparts in the western world. The general rule of thumb is that if there is any possibility of something being overly sweet, then you should assume that it will be just so. I was pleasantly surprised once when I ordered a coffee and it was obvious that there was no sugar added beforehand. However, this proved to be an isolated incident. There is a chance that sugar may ruin anything here. Anything, that is, except for the fruit, which is like milk coming directly from the generous teat of God almighty. I've never eaten better fruit in my entire life. Although two mango slices had me bedridden for a day (read on for an account of this) I can't bring myself to stop sampling the succulent delights of Asia. The only negative experience I've had so far was with durian, which tastes like a rotting onion mixed with half and half.
I've come to find that there are many expatriates in this city, and the reasons for which they come here are manifold. As the good book sez, “We are legion.” I'm still not used to the sensation of running into random white people when navigating these chaotic streets. It's very strange; You almost have to resist the urge to say hello to them before your common sense kicks in and you realize just how odd that would be in any big city. I've made eye contact with a couple of them and it feels extremely awkward, regardless of the fact that they are probably thinking along similar lines.
My first day in Phnom Penh proved to be an adventure of its own. It started bright and early, for which I have the symptoms of jet lag to thank. Most of us here are still grappling with the time difference after having been here for a full week, although it is admittedly getting easier every day. Progress is progress, Excelsior! Anyways, I took what I thought would be a nice morning stroll and I learned very quickly that when this city wakes up, it starts with a jolt. At around Six am I had motorcycles, tuk tuks, and determined pedestrians weaving their way around me, paying my flabbergasted countenance no heed. I found what I can only describe as a mart, or a gas station without gas, and was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that a gigantic bottle of water, a lighter, and a pack of smokes would cost me two dollars even. These are prices I could get used to, I thought to myself. After expressing my elation to the clerk and forking over the cash, I strolled back to my abode and got ready for whatever else the city had in store for me that day.
A fellow Languagecorps student and I decided that we had better learn a thing or two about Cambodia and the khmer people. Since we were so new, we decided that we had better start with something light and easy. What could serve us better in this regard than a visit to the killing fields? We hopped into a tuk tuk and began to cleave our own path through the sweltering city amid the din of other commutes in progress. The traffic here is unlike anything I have ever seen. I tried to determine whether the local custom was to drive on the left or the right side of the road and I gave up after a minute or two. There seems to be no such distinction in Phnom Penh. Before we reached the Killing field memorial at Choeung Ek, our tuk tuk driver asked us if we wanted to shoot off some guns. The two of us expressed our interest heartily, and went on our merry way through a swamp located not five minutes from the mass graves dug by the Khmer Rouge. We rode into an open air shack that featured automatic weapons of all sorts lining the sheet metal walls. The prices, however, were nothing short of highway robbery-even for the thrill of shooting off an AK or lobbing hand grenades left over from the Vietnam war. It cost $160 dollars to shoot 100 bullets out of an AK-47, and that was the cheapest option available. For $400, one could shoot a rocket launcher. For slightly extra, one could shoot a cow with said rocket launcher. For $200 more, one could shoot a healthy cow with said rocket launcher.
I guess this sort of tourism is popular with Australians and Europeans. Apparently our friends across the pond go absolutely bananas when provided an opportunity to lick shots, owing to the restrictive gun laws in their native countries. For two young American bucks however, this was nothing especially unique and it certainly wasn't worth the amount of money they were asking. We thanked the gentleman in charge of the operation for providing such a thrill for our brethren in Europe and Australia, but being good americans and in no need of his services, we signaled that we had seen enough of his wares and that we were late for our rendezvous with mass-scale barbarism at the killing fields.
If the temples at Angkor Wat represent the high point of Khmer culture, then the days when the Khmer Rouge came to power in this country must represent its inverse. I hesitate to use the word “culture” to describe the way these animals conducted their business in Cambodia because there is nothing cultural or humane about killing off almost a quarter of your national population. The killing fields are a testament to this brutal period, which I can only describe as pure nightmare.
I'm interested less in providing a history lesson than I am in documenting the sensations and impressions that I have been experiencing in Southeast Asia. However, it is impossible for me to articulate how I felt when I visited the killing fields without providing some necessary historical context. And unless one is completely without empathy for their fellow man, I imagine that a visit to Choeung Ek will induce a similar emotional response from any morally upright human being.
The inner circle of what would come to be known as the Khmer Rouge originated not in Cambodia, but in France. In the 1950's, a group of khmer students studying at various colleges in Paris tried to start their own communist movement; Pol Pot, who studied engineering and had a taste for the classics of french literature, was among them. Although they failed in their initial communist enterprise, the leaders of the student group eventually made their way back to Cambodia, which was in political turmoil at the time, and eventually took military control of the country. Under Pol Pot, the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea was established, the primary goal of which was to turn Cambodia into a self-sufficient, utopian society based on agriculture. In order to facilitate the requirements of such a change in civil structure, the cities were evacuated and the Khmer Rouge ordered that the production of rice in Cambodia be tripled. This was an impossible goal, and as is true in most authoritarian regimes, the people in whose name the revolution was waged were blamed for the shortfall.
Upon their seizure of power, the Khmer Rouge began a barbaric campaign of ethnic and cultural cleansing. As a result, Cambodia is still in the process of rebuilding itself. Khmer food is extremely basic, it mostly consists of rice and meat (although loclak is especially delicious). there is no public school system, and there is no official postal service. I've been informed that there are fire trucks but I recently met someone who has been here for nearly half a year and has never seen them until last week. The police force is an absolute joke in this country. Officers get dropped off on a corner in the morning and then they climb into a hammock and spend most of the day either sleeping, smoking cigarettes, or trying to shake down westerners for bribes.
Under the khmer Rouge, any and all foreigners in the country were killed. Professionals and intellectuals of all stripes were killed. Anyone wearing glasses appeared to be smart, smart people=not agricultural workers=lazy, and thus they were killed. Musicians were killed. Doctors were killed. Buddhist monks were killed. Minority populations were utterly destroyed. Anyone with a disability of any kind whatsoever was, you guessed it, killed
At the killing fields, people arrived in trucks and ended up beneath the ground, covered in a shroud of DDT. Bullets were expensive, so most people were hacked to death by pitchforks, rakes, hoes, and other types of manual farming equipment. Some were bludgeoned with large wooden sticks, and some people were even killed with the small metal rods that marksmen use to clean their guns. Children were taken from their mothers, thrown in the air, and used for target practice. I saw a tree against which so many babies were bashed that the bark has been made smooth and stained crimson with the blood of the newly born. Another tree-the same kind that Buddha reportedly sat beneath when he achieved enlightenment-was used to hang loud speakers from which the happy notes of “revolutionary songs” blared in order to muffle the screams of those being butchered alive. The evidence of these crimes against humanity can be found all throughout the site at Choeung Ek. During my visit, I witnessed a jawbone sticking out of the mud, chompers and all. I saw the teeth of children distributed over a mass grave like scattered popcorn, and no one who comes to this place can miss the stupa filled with 8,000 skulls that is located in the very center of the site.
I have never in my life seen anything like I have seen at the Killing Fields, and I hope to God that I never have to see anything like it ever again. There is another site, Tuol Sleng, that I have yet to visit and am unsure if I will. It is a high school in the middle of Phnom Penh that was used to document the victims of the Cambodian Genocide before they were sent off to the fields to be massacred. Like the Third Reich, the Khmer Rouge took meticulous records of those whom they disposed of. At Tuol Sleng, the only people who were kept alive were a group of artists, and the only reason they weren't killed was so that they could illustrate the tortuous operations of the Khmer Rouge regime. If you are interested, I suggest you look up these paintings for yourself. In my opinion, they are a sin against art. Taken together, they are a testament to a historical mockery of the very conditions from which art should be produced in the first place.
You would think that a visit to the Killing fields would be enough for one day in Phnom Penh. You would be wrong. After rolling back into the town via tuk tuk, our driver dropped the two of us off a couple of blocks away from the house that we are residing in for the next couple of weeks. He gave us simple directions and sped off, leaving us with sandwiches in our hands, sorrow in our hearts, and in my case, not a passport, nor a phone, money, or ID in my pocket. We managed to get ourselves lost in a completely unfamiliar city for a couple of hours with no way to escape the blistering heat, and no way to ask for directions from the locals. I could feel that a nervous breakdown wasn't far on the horizon before a tuk tuk pulled up alongside us and lo, a miracle! One of the staff members for LanguageCorps had recognized us somehow, amidst all of the traffic from hell, and offered us a ride back to our temporary residence. It took every bit of willpower for me not to throw my arms around her and declare her my one and only love for the rest of time to come.
You would think that a visit to the Killing fields and getting lost in an unfamiliar setting would be enough for one day in Phnom Penh. You would again be mistaken. As I was out on a brisk jaunt after sundown, I discovered to my delight that cans of beer only cost fifty cents. Elated, I bought ten of them and headed back to the site of my accommodations. I started sharing them with one of the staff here, and we began to grow quite fond of each other. He invited his cousin over for a drink, and we finished off the beer soon after his arrival. Not wanting to call it quits, they decided to lock the place up and head to a bar in order to show my dumb American ass a real slice of Cambodian nightlife. Things went wonderful! For a while at least, until I realized that I had forgotten, amidst my mirth at discovering cheap beer, to eat any sort of dinner whatsoever. The beer began to take effect and I grew drowsy, upon which I asked to be taken home. It began to rain, however, so were stuck at the bar until it became dry enough to make the commute across town. The waitress brought out a plate of spicy mangoes and my newly found Cambodian friends both said “Do not eat those mangoes, they are much too spicy for you.” Well, the white male inside of me couldn't just abandon a challenge like that, especially on an empty stomach. I wolfed down two slices and beamed at my new friends. I thought to myself: Good job, Dan! You really showed em! Haha, yeah! The rain finally began to ebb and after a harrowing ride on the back of a motorcycle, I found myself home at last and ready for some much deserved peace and quiet.
I woke up the next morning and began to vomit. I assumed that I was suffering from a simple hangover, until I continued to vomit. And vomit. And vomit. Realizing that this was the onset of food poisoning, I threw on the Godfather movies and tried to get myself as comfortable as possible. I spent the next thirteen hours trying to sip water, only to throw it up minutes later. I must have thrown up over twenty times that day. All of this, keep in mind, from two slices of Mango that my inflamed American ego wouldn't permit me to refrain from eating.
As I lay shivering in pain on the bathroom floor, I listened to the chaotic honks of the cities bustling commuters and couldn't help but think of how the world has come upon such strange times. The UK may crumble in the wake of Brexit. Prince is still dead. The middle east is a nightmare and has been for the better part of a century. Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States. That one is worth repeating: Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States. South Korea is on the brink of a political crisis. Russia seems like it is always mobilizing for something. Far right political parties are rapidly gaining support in Greece, France, Germany, and Italy. Things over on this side of the world aren't exactly looking up either. The king of Thailand has passed, and Cambodia will go through an extremely important election cycle within the next two years. Vietnam continues to be ruled by communists and for that, at least, we can breathe a sigh of relief.
This weekend, we are to embark on a road trip to Siem Reap in order to see the dazzling remains of Angkor Wat, the worlds largest religious complex and at one time, the most populous city on earth. I will pen another report after we have returned, and hopefully it won't be as long as this particular mess of words. My original goal was for these entries to be short and sweet, but any hope of that seems to have gone to the dogs.
Cheers, fellow apes.