As you may have gathered, I have a strong interest in South-East Asia. I've spent many years travelling around and living there and one of the things I always do is to take a notebook with me and scribble down thoughts and some sketches. At the risk of turning this into a literary blog :roll:, I thought that I might put up a block quote from myself for a change. This was written when I was in Cambodia in 1998:
Phnom Penh certainly isn't what I expected it to be: a sleepy little town, lots of old colonial buildings, bullet holes. Well, sleepy this place ain't! There is as much noise and traffic here as anywhere else in Asia, plus some of the most insane driving that I have ever seen. In addition to that, my previous long-standing record in the category of "Most Number Of People And/Or Farmyard Animals Seen On A Motorbike At One Time" was easily broken here. I've seen motorbikes so overloaded with ducks and chickens that they look like some kind of giant feathered mutant, farting noxious black smoke and being jockeyed by a wild maniac in sunglasses and a cap. Mind you, the animals seem to take it all quite calmly, trussed up and dangling upside-down from the handlebars. They must have quite an interesting view every time they go into town.
Phnom Penh was once a beautiful place, I think, but it has taken something of a beating in recent times. The Khmer Rouge destroyed so much of the old town and a lot of the damage has yet to be repaired. The prettiest area is along the river where many of the old mansions still stand, earning their keep today as bars and restaurants. There are an amazing number of places around town, with pool tables, good food and even better beer (Victoria Bitter, no less). It's just a shame that it's not necessarily safe to go out after dark. The Royal Palace is also situated on the waterfront, although it is closed to the public now that Prince Sihanouk has returned. Major roads have been repaired and are teeming with traffic and some of the boulevards actually look quite magnificent in places although the state of most of the back roads still justify having a 4WD to get around town.
But my favourite thing about this place (apart from the disoriented chooks) is the motorbike taxi drivers, especially the ones that can speak a bit of English and hang around the guesthouses. Walk out the front door and I'm swamped by a dozen guys all wanting to be my best friend: "konichiwa- ohio- gozaimasu- g'day- mate- howzit- goin'- you- want- lady- fuck- i- take- you- no- problem- go- killing- fields- cheap- price- go- shoot- a- gun- go- etc- etc..." Local laws require drivers to wear seriously cool shades and a baseball cap for identification purposes and while most drivers will tell you their name ("Hi! My name's Ng and I'll be the cause of your death today..."), everyone will ask you to remember them by their cap: Nike, USMC, deformed eagle, Bananas In Pajamas, etc...
But while life seems normal enough (for Asia) on the surface, I think that there's a storm of lawlessness underneath. Somebody gets pissed at you and lobs a grenade through your front door, there's probably not a whole lot you could do about it (assuming you survive, of course). After dark, gangs of one-legged men and other misfortunates roam the streets, collecting donations for their retirement funds from generous shopkeepers and passerbys. One of the first things everyone is told after arriving here is to be careful about taking motorbike taxis after dark, since it's not unheard of for them to take you straight to your local bandits. The guy who explained all of this to me also mentioned that he himself had been robbed at gunpoint "only twice" in the last year. Hmmm...
Another disturbing thing is the flogging off of a horrific and not-so-distant past as a tourist attraction. Moto drivers will approach you with: "Killing Fields, Killing Fields! You go only $2 cheap price!" or "I take you Tuol Sleng [the infamous Khmer Rouge interrogation centre] show you around no problem!" A similar thing happens in Vietnam, but at least the war there was something that the "foreigners" were "responsible" for. The Pol Pot era is a horror that most countries would closet away as a national shame.
And then towards the end of my visit:
Cambodia is a wonderful place to be a modern-day cowboy, where NGO employees can cruise around in luxurious 4WD's and brush up on their AK-47 skills before taking that long weekend upcountry. You can have all the perks of living in a formerly colonised Asian country, and just a hint of danger without the risks associated with being in, say, Sarajevo (or New York). The American dollar is still mighty powerful here - better restaurants and bars invariably list prices in dollars - while at Angkor it is not uncommon to see overweight, middle-aged European tourists being followed by an entourage of five or six Cambodians carrying fans, water and parasols. A sad sight indeed.
It has been several years since the last UN soldier left but the situation remains volatile, even as the Khmer Rouge slowly withers away and people try to come to terms with democratic elections. Major players in the political arena race to empty the public coffers and bomb each other's offices, and in the lead-up to the elections there has been a constant stream of reports of intimidation and harassment at voter registration stations. But as is the case in much of Asia, most people seem to be more concerned about simply making a living without getting beaten up too much rather than which particular guy in a suit happens to be in office.
For most of us, all we know of Cambodia is political turmoil, land-mines and the Khmer Rouge. The only Cambodians I had seen previously were refugees living in Melbourne, marginalised and stuck in the ghettos so to come here and see the people in their own country has been a wonderful experience. Outside of Phnom Penh, towns are small and peaceful and isolated from the rest of the world. Time passes by slowly as people live their lives to a completely different rhythm. There have been plenty of UN soldiers and foreign-aid workers, but few tourists venture out this way and I received a warm welcome and lots of help wherever I went.
The country is still desperately poor and there are a frightening number of maimed people around. My young moto driver in Siam Reap told me that he was terrified every time he had to go into the bush. In a country like Cambodia, a land-mine will end your life even if it doesn't kill you outright. Yet the people are still cheerful and friendly and after so many years of violence, I think that they are long overdue for some good times.
My (ahem) "publisher" is nosing around for a book deal so maybe something might come out of all these scrawlings. Who knows...
/taka keels over from auto-asphyxiation