Asia | South East Asia | Cambodia – wild wild east
The first hint of the Cambodian border was a 3ft. by 3ft. shack with white hand painted letters reading ‘Immigration.’ Behind the sign were several well pressed Royal Cambodian Army uniforms on several well-fed border guards. I soon discovered the source of comparative wealth. The border between Laos and Cambodia, where I was attempting to cross, is, apparently, only open to foreigners who make a ‘contribution’ to the welfare of the border police. They started the bargaining at $20 per passport for the required entry stamp. There were six of us in the group trying to enter a country where the average monthly income is $30. Clearly this was highway robbery, but as the guard gingerly reminded us, our only other option was to fly from his office to the legal crossing, some 600 miles west. The flight, he said, would cost us each $100. Sitting, as he was, in front of 10 submachine guns, his rationale became persuasive. We ended up joking about the girlie cutouts pasted in small groups on the walls, and that got the price down to $15.
So, I thought, this is Cambodia.
The first thing I noticed when we reached the northern provincial capital was the 24-hour electricity, a luxury I had been without in southern Laos. The other observation, which holds true for the entirety of Cambodia, is that the people are very well dressed. Their clothes are often spotless and pressed. The favored color is white. This is even more amazing because every road in the country, even the five or six paved ones, hurls up layer after layer of red clay dust upon anyone traversing it.
Unfortunately paved roads are scarce here, and some of the major highways in the country are so potholed and bomb scarred that a 4-wheel drive pickup truck can only go at a top speed of 30 miles per hour. I got first hand knowledge along one of the worst ones running from Strung Treng to Kratie. This road, I learned as we were sitting in the back of the pickup bouncing along it, is considered to be the most dangerous for bandit attacks. Because the vehicles must go so slowly the thieves can run alongside the trucks and point their AK47s at the passengers. As we drove through charred forests, burnt to clear the land and make the soil more nitrogen rich for farming, the scenery did not put one at ease. We tasted the red clay dust from the road. There were no animals or gardens to speak of, and only one settlement of more than four houses along this 4-hour stretch of road. How the inhabitants ate, apart from banditry, I have no idea. Some friends nicknamed this road the Pothole Bandit Highway. Luckily we traveled on a bandit holiday.
The poverty here is more heartbreaking than in Laos, (where it is every bit as severe) because here the people seem to know what they are missing. In Laos, people seemed to feel their rural way of life was in harmony with something natural (or it seemed that way to me). Here, poverty and wealth are the sole topics of conversation with foreigners. Each person feels entitled to, and robbed from, riches. They blame corruption, which is everywhere (border anyone?) and in so many words they blame the regime of the current Prime Minister. It is common knowledge that few government employees report to their jobs, as they are too busy taking bribes through the windows of Lexus’ or Landcruisers. In the last election, ‘won’ by the Prime Minister’s party, ballot boxes were spotted floating in the Gulf of Thailand along Cambodia’s southern port. I saw a sign at the HQ of the opposition party that said ‘Department for People Victimized by Political Corruption.’ It had an arrow pointing to the party office.
It is hard not to feel pity for a country where the Khmer Rouge killed 1/3 of the population. Anyone known to have an education, doctors, architects, engineers, were executed by the regime. The very people Cambodia most needs now were killed between 1975 and 1978. That’s 3 years, 8 months, and 20 days, my guide told me as we walked along one of the killing fields. The reality is that every major city or province capital has its own killing field. Sometimes the remnant skulls are in cages, sometimes they have been left where they fell. I’ve seen enough skulls for a thousand lifetimes travelling here.
If there is a dearth of old people here, everywhere there are children. Children waving. Children shouting ‘hellowhatisyourname?’ as though it were one word. Children running onto the street just to shake hands. On one the boat trips, several kids tumbled out of their small wooden boats because they were waving at us so vigorously. As I waved back I tried not to hit the machine gun that the soldier sitting next to me had casually laid between us.
This boat passed through a bird sanctuary at the mouth of the largest lake in Cambodia, the Tonle Sap. There were hundreds endangered birds soaring above us and others just watching, stately perched, from the shore. One species, the whiskered tern, has a white body and silvery wings. A group of 50 or so flew in perfect unison, the sunlight made it seem as though there was some great silver streaked fabric flapping in the sky. I imagined that fabric itself could bring forth a whole new species of winged creature.
Cambodia’s chief tourist destination is the complex of temples built between the 9th and 11th centuries collectively known as Angkor Wat. The temples, maybe 30 of them, are so different from one another. Some, like the most famous Angkor Wat, are fully renovated and one can see relief sculptures of India’s religious epics carved along the outer walls. Others, like Bayon temple, consist of multiple levels of stone towers. Each tower is crowned with four Buddha faces, facing in four directions. In total there are 52 smiling Buddhas. My favorite temple was Preah Khan. There, the temple has been partially left to lose its war with the encroaching jungle. Great white trees, 300 years old or more, wrap their roots around the temple walls. Their dark green leaves shade the crumbled dancing nymph sculptures or the heads of lions meant to guard the passageways. Here I could pretend I was an explorer, happening upon a thousand year old crumbling castle, during a lazy jungle walk. The rain is the arbiter here, deciding which elaborate carvings stay or go. In some places eight headed serpents are rendered smooth, while inches away it looks as though the sculptor is putting the finishing touches on the tree of life and has just stepped away for tea. On a side note, in the entrance to one of the temples two policemen were trying to sell their badges to tourists. One badge for $10.
Phnom Penh, like everything here (or everywhere?), is a study in contrasts. Only the central city arteries are paved or lit. Garbage is heaped into 20-foot hills on street corners. Moto drivers (taxi drivers on motorbikes, ubiquitous in Asia) advise us to stay in at night, the only people out after 11 are prostitutes and thieves. I don’t know for sure on either count. Everywhere, though, there are new homes on derelict streets, new Toyotas and 4×4 trucks honking to get around 20 year old motorbikes. Phnom Penh has the highest concentration of guns in Cambodia. One enterprising military outfit has set up a shooting range at their base to offset poor wages. Rocket launchers can be fired for $200. I fired an AK47. The soldiers were surprised. They had never seen a woman hit the x on the target.
I saw more weapons at the Land Mine Museum than at the shooting range. A former soldier, Mr. Aki Ra, started a museum of different ordnance that he has diffused to educate tourists about the land mine problem in Cambodia. The government is trying to close his museum because his collection is free to all comers. The police have already seized some of his goods in order to open up their own museum so that they can charge an entrance fee. Mr. Ra continues to clear landmines of his own volition without government support. He uses tourist funds to raise children who have lost limbs or parents to landmines. I see at least four amputees per day in rural areas and countless more in populous places. Sadly, you get used to it after a while. The landmines are another legacy of the Khmer Rouge. The Vietnamese drive them to the western border in 1978, but the 2 sides, and many splinter factions fought a guerilla war until 1998 – the landmines are left from that conflict.
I had a first hand experience with landmines near the Thai border in a town called Pailin. A guide book writer and I were walking in an area rich with gem mines in the jungle surrounding the town. She and I had had trouble finding a hotel that wasn’t a brother the night before. On our way back from seeing a waterfall we saw an unexploded mine lying by the side of the path. Our guide said that one of the locals had probably found the mine in the forest where he was planning to burn, and laid it by the trail so it wouldn’t explode when he lit the fire.
The stretches of countryside I’ve viewed mostly from the back of a motorbike. The landscape is a patchwork of dry rice fields, along the roads are grass thatched homes on stilts. The more expensive homes are made from wood or cement, also on stilts. Hammocks hang in the shade under the houses. Coconut trees are everywhere. In the areas around lakes and rivers, the rice fields are kelly green, the color of Irish hillside postcards. Birds are near the wetter areas too, neon green birds and black birds with royal blue underbellies. In the rainy season, when the country is kelly green and the exotic bushes spray pink and purple petals, the scenery must be incredible.
The last few days I spent in Sihanoukville, Cambodia’s beach resort on the southern coast. The town has six or seven beaches, and the area in between has war scars that are more obvious than in other places in the country. Ornate gates, with careful masonry, and matching stone fenceposts stand at 10-foot intervals. Iron grating winds into vine patterns to make the fencing, or else there is just plane barbed wire. These enclosures surround barren lands pocked with scrubbrush or an occasional concrete carcass blackened with mold.
Apart from the barbed wire, the beaches are gorgeous. White sand, rollicking seas. I stayed near a family that had just opened a beachside food and drink stand. The ‘restaurant’ is the brainchild of 14 year old Chiva, the oldest son in the family. His English is quite good, and he managed to borrow $80 off of a tourist to buy some umbrellas and chairs for the shop. His father built the tables. I spent four days with the family, and their business was brisk. Their fledgling enterprise, and others like it, are definitive programs on Cambodia’s recovery channel.
At least I hope so.