Cambodia’s curious contradictions
BY JOHN SKINNER
Book Boy is somewhere between 10 and 15 years old — it’s hard to be exact because Cambodians often look younger than they are because they’re smaller than we are, due mostly to poor nutrition. He makes his living selling on the street. He may or may not go to school. He may or may not keep a decent percentage of the money he makes. His clothes and shoes are well-used, but he seems reasonably healthy.
Book Boy comes beetling into the bar where happy-hour 50-cent beers are flowing, and sits down at our table with his bag of books.
“You want to buy a book.” This is not a question. Book Boy is street savvy, charming in an urchinly way, and speaks about six languages well enough to do his job, like his counterparts in Vietnam, Thailand, Morocco, Nepal, Mexico and lots of other places.
“Look,” he says. “This book, 10 dollars. These two books, 10 dollars. Good books.”
“These two” books are 10 dollars because stacked together they are roughly the same thickness as “This book, 10 dollars.” Literature by the centimetre.
Book Boy is all business, except when he isn’t. He picks up my sunglasses from the table, puts them on and starts making goofy faces. Just a kid, except when he isn’t. Prone to fits of age-appropriate behavior when convenient. Sorry, kid, no sale. Book Boy heads off in search of customers. His world is not your kids’ world.
In many ways, Book Boy mirrors his nation: In Cambodia, things are not always what they seem. Odd contradictions abound:
◊ CAMBODIA HAS a Communist government. Its ATMs dispense American dollars — brand new ones — which are eagerly accepted in most retail places of business.
◊ BUDDHISM, THE OFFICIAL RELIGION, embraces pacifism, meditation, compassion, good deeds and acceptance of the woes of life. The ancient walls of the Buddhist Angkor Wat temple are festooned with friezes of war, brutality, monsters, torture and a multitude of bullet holes from the Khmer Rouge period of the 1970s. Horrific serenity.
◊ THE CONCRETE COMPLEX, S-21 (Security Prison 21) started life as Tuol Svay Prey High School. In 1975 it was commandeered by the insane Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge. Between 1975 and 1978, 17,000 people were tortured at S-21, then taken to the Killing Fields 15 kilometres away, brutally executed and dumped into one of 121 mass graves. In 1980, exhumation of 78 of those graves yielded the remains of 8,985 people. Bone fragments and teeth can still be found by the paths through the Killing Fields.
S-21 is now the Tuol Sleng Museum, a
beyond-grim reminder of the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. Its walls are covered with hundreds of photos of torture victims; in its rooms, instruments of torture are on display.
Posted by the entrance to the torture chambers are signs that show a grinning face with a red circle around it and a red X through it. No laughing. No smiling.
Is such a warning necessary?
Well, yes. Laughter is one of the ways Cambodians react to the incomprehensibly brutal reality of their nation’s recent history of torture, death and hate. Nervous laughter writ large. Forbidden at S-21.
◊ THE KHMER ROUGE PERIOD was the darkest in Cambodia’s 16-or-so-century history (when it came together as a distinct culture is placed somewhere between the first and fifth centuries AD). Between 1975 and 1979, two million to three million Cambodians were killed by the insane and violent zealots of the Pol Pot regime.
Almost all of those soldiers were poor, uneducated young males, susceptible to just about any kind of political indoctrination the promised them some power and a better life. They aimed to change Cambodia into an agrarian collective in which the peasant was celebrated.
This goal was rife with irony. Born (and therefore technically) a rural peasant, Pol Pot grew up in the Cambodian royal court, where his sister was a royal consort. He spent a year as a monk, attended elite high schools and attended university in France. He never worked in a rice field.
That didn’t stand in the way of his dream of an agrarian collective workers paradise. He expelled entire populations from cities and towns and sent them to the countryside to work as slaves. Dissenters were immediately executed. City dwellers became a reviled class. Only the rural peasant was vested with sufficient revolutionary purity to be acceptable to the Khmer Rouge. Teachers, doctors, even those who simply wore glasses were suspect.
When the Khmer Rouge reign began, the official calendar was turned back to Year Zero. Currency was abolished. All former senior government and military officials were executed, along with Buddhist leaders and ethnic minorities. (For a detailed look at the Khmer Rouge years, read The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79, by Ben Kiernan, available from Amazon.com.)
It’s against that backdrop that Cambodia must be seen: an entire nation suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, which manifests itself in a massive thicket of cultural contradictions that seldom rise to the surface but are breathtaking when they do. Cambodians are a gentle, friendly, polite and – driving habits notwithstanding – orderly people. Unfailingly helpful, seldom emotional and smiling, always smiling.
Yet there are hints of things bubbling below the surface. When the U.S. began carpet-bombing Cambodia in April 1970, destroying dozens of villages and killing thousands of peasants, an advisor to Norodom Sihanouk, the former king who had been deposed a month earlier by a U.S.-backed General Lon Nol and had set up a government-in-exile in China, made this observation: “Peasants are taking refuge in forest encampments and are maintaining their smiles and their humour, but one might add that it is difficult to imagine the intensity of their hatred toward those who are destroying their villages and their property. Perhaps we should remember that the Cambodians have the deserved reputation for being the most spiteful and vindictive people in southeast Asia . . . .”
So what brings out those smiles on the nation’s faces? Fear, discomfort, anguish: the S-21 phenomenon.
◊ IN MY EARLY TEENS I developed a strategy for dealing with theme park rides, which I was peer-pressured into riding. Most of them scared the bejesus out of me, something to do with the visual and spatial disorientation of travelling at high speed upside down or sideways, or both at once. The solution was simple: I closed my eyes, and all that was left in my sensory world was the breeze going by.
It works with with traffic in Phnom Penh as well. Imagine four large herds, each comprising every wild animal you can think of — elephants, bison, German shepherds, meerkats, grizzly bears, hippos, mice, cats, koalas and more. Imagine them all coming together, at speed, at a crossroads. Does one herd stop to let another cruise through the intersection? Of course not. It’s a free-for-all, red light, green light, whatever. Mixing and mingling. Finding a hole and scooting through it like a football running back (Asian traffic abhors a vacuum). Near misses by the score, much tooting of horns (in the developing world, horns are used to convey information — “I’m coming up on your left”; in the West, horns express anger — “Asshole!”)
So here we are, my partner and I, in a tuktuk, which is a motorcycle with a sort of cart attached, and a fearless driver. We’re moving at a leisurely pace, top speed for a tuktuk, through the streets of Phnom Penh, and all around us are those damn wild animals, except these animals are big trucks, small trucks, small motorcycles, big SUVs, bicycles, sedans and dozens of vehicles that defy description. Once in a while, an elephant. Occasionally a car with “Driving school” painted on the sides, despite overwhelming evidence that you can’t teach this stuff any more than you can teach survival.
And they are coming at us, around us, from the left, from the right and from behind. And somehow, there are no collisions.
“Just don’t look,” says my partner, an Asia veteran. And it dawns on me: the theme park strategy. It’s chaotic and it’s calm.
◊ FOR A BREAK we decide on a drink at the Elephant Bar at Raffles hotel, one of nine in a high-end chain that began lfe in Singapore in 1887. Oddly, two of the nine are in Cambodia; the rest are in wealthier countries. In Phnom Penh, you’ll pay up to $405 US per night — 10 times the price of a decent three-star Cambodian hotel, but cheap for Raffles; rooms at Raffles Paris go for up to $1,500 a night.
So one expects a pretty good bar, and one isn’t disappointed. It’s like stepping back into the First World: three white businessmen with loosened ties suit sipping beer at the bar. A Tilley-clad couple lounge at a table with martinis, a Lonely Planet guidebook and an iPad, not talking to each other.
The service is impeccable, the décor reminiscent of the Raj. We finish our drinks and step back out into the night, walk the long walk down the tree-lined approach to Raffles to the street to find a tuktuk (they’re not allowed on the Raffles grounds) and ride slowly back into the waiting maelstrom.
◊ Cambodian police work hard, but the country is so poor that they have to pay for their uniforms, weapons and ammunition. It’s a classic developing-country story: those who enforce the law are so poorly paid that they’re open to bribes. They can’t support a family on what they earn. Those who run the country have endless opportunities to make big money. So top government, police and military officials own the brothels and gambling dens. They pay off the judges and police and are never charged. The laws exist; a reasonable level of enforcement — by Western standards at any rate — doesn’t. Lots of law, not much order.
◊ ONCE I HAD UNLOADED THE HOCKEY STICKS with Reaksa, the burden was lightened, all the better in a tropical country where humidity and temperature produce the perfect sweat storm, even when all you’re carrying is your camera.
The sticks were destined for the community centre and library that Reaksa built and where he’s teaching the boys to play street hockey. A little Canada in Cambodia.
Soreaksa Himm was 13 in 1977 when his mother, father, seven brothers, two sisters, a nephew and a sister-in law were clubbed and hacked to death by the Khmer Rouge. Viciously beaten with shovels and hoes and dumped into a mass grave in the jungle. Rieksa was among them, barely alive and hidden under the bodies of his family.
When the assailants left to find more victims to throw into the grave, Reaksa managed to struggle out and escape to a nearby village where he was taken in by a family. His journey took him to Thailand and he eventually ended up in Winnipeg where he went to school, started a business, converted to Christianity (his experience in the jungle led him to conclude that Buddhism wasn’t working for him, and the Christian NGO World Vision sponsored his move to Canada) and became a hockey fan. The Lord called him back to Cambodia
to preach and help his people. He brought hockey with him.
“Thank you for the sticks,” he says humbly over lunch. “We were running short.”
Rieksa later tracked down two of the men who murdered his family — and forgave them. Forgave them! Embraced them and presented each with a Bible. Among the “most spiteful and vindictive people in southeast Asia” he stands in contradiction.
He tells the breathtaking story of his experiences in two books, The Tears of My Soul and After the Heavy Rain, both available from Amazon.
◊ HAPPY HERB’S PIZZA, a minor Cambodian institution, is not run by a guy named Herb. The name refers to a mood-enhancing topping. As Lonely Planet puts it: “Ask for extra happy and they won’t be able to wipe the smile off your face for a week. Nonhappy pizzas are also good.”
◊ AT SOME POINT YOU WILL SEE racks of whisky, gin and large soft drink bottles by the roadside, with the remnants of Johnnie Walker Black or Seagram’s labels still affixed. The liquid inside is a pale gold. You can be forgiven for thinking it’s cheap homemade booze for sale. It goes in the gas tank, and chances are it’s leaded gas, smuggled in from Thailand. Unleaded fuel is easily available in Cambodia, but it’s pricier. So they save a little now and pay for the engine rebuild later.
◊ WHEN MY PARTNER AND I were in Siem Reap on the first of our two visits, a decade ago, we stayed in a decent, and cheap, hotel that provided the usual amenities, including small container labelled “Toothbrush”. Inside was, well, a toothbrush, and a small tube labelled Tooth Paste with the additional inscription “White Men inside.” Tiny white men, no doubt. Baffled, we put it down to some weird Cambodian dental custom until some time later the little light bulb went on and “White Men” became “White Mint.” We never confirmed it, though.
Toothpaste with humans in it, cops who must break the law, children who are part-time adults, thoughts of brutal terror that raise smiles, religious temples that celebrate violence and death, ATMs that dispense the currency of the enemy, scotch whisky that isn’t . . . Cambodia is not always what it seems. Its contradictions run deep; its sights, sounds and people are endlessly engaging; its heart beats strongly.
But see it soon: Dairy Queen, KFC and other fast food faves are moving in. Tourist hordes are growing (in particular the, er, exuberant Chinese and Koreans, who the locals call The Yelling People). Prices are rising.
Cambodia has much to offer — low prices, friendly people, good food, wonderful experiences — and the world is beginning to discover it. That can only mean another Cancun or Phuket in the making. Place it high on your bucket list.