Cambodia’s Darkness: Locking Into Phnom Penh

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In Kratie, my first town in Cambodia, the idyll sidles up against the downtrodden. The muddy Mekong the town follows along is both the last refuge to irrawaddy dolphins and growing dams of garbage. The central town has a number of mansions from the French colonial era; move a few blocks away, most of the other buildings are made from an assortment of scrap metal or recycled wood. In the poorest town I’ve yet been to, I’ve never met kinder people—children tag-chasing you in the street, cooks bringing out their whole families at the end of the night and sharing a beer with you.

And while we’re waiting for our first couple Chicken Amoks on the patio overlooking a brewing storm on the river’s farside, a man plops down in the chair next to us. His hair springs out in gray clumps, and behind those glasses there’s an electrical intellectual intensity in his eyes. He must be in his mid seventies, and as he pushes his right hand out of his jacket I realize two of his fingers are missing.

“Let me tell you my country’s story.”

Was how he introduced himself. And in near-perfect English, we learned about this former doctor, schooled in French, who at the beginning of the 1970’s ran a thriving medical clinic that employed five other doctors and ten nurses.

And then, with barely a waver in his voice, he says, “None of them are left anymore.”

He knocks his fist against the table and looks at the sky. Our food has come and we haven’t touched it. His eyes follow something in the deep distance we’d never be able to follow, that no amount of research or misery tours could ever be able to call up.

Turning to us again, “I told them, you can take my life, you’ve already taken everything else.”

The them hangs in the air and it won’t go away. I know next to nothing about the genocide he hints at, by this point. But he’s already told us everything we need to know, even when he never names what it was, what happened to him, or how he escaped. He manages to leave us with a smile almost empty of teeth, saying,

“It’s always good for foreigners to learn a little bit about why we are this way.”

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Coming into Cambodia from the Laos border, you’re struck by the extent to which the political boundaries of a country, and the nation they contain, profoundly impacts every characteristic of that place. Physical or emotional. Where crossing a fence manned by guns turns Laos’s lush jungles, snaking rivers, and vibrant wildlife becomes Cambodia’s desert: scorched red earth extending every way, broken only by hamlet clusters where the houses are made mostly of tin sidings.

It’s incredible; adding Vietnam, here are three countries in the same region sharing the same history of both French colonial rule and Communist revolutions. But they couldn’t be less alike today. Where the other countries are still rich in jungles and resources, Cambodia has the desert.

What separates Cambodia is its genocide. When North Vietnam won in 1975 and Americans evacuated the region, the most radical faction of Cambodian Communists, the Khmer Rouge, took control of the country. In the wake of escalating paranoia and disagreement with the Vietnamese, President Pol Pot instituted a reign of terror. Initially targeting the educated (it was imperative to pretend you didn’t speak French), the political seizures swept across the country, leaving no one safe. Homes were ransacked, mass evacuations to countryside labor camps enforced, where starvation and slavery ran rampant. And those were the lucky ones; the rest went to the torture prisons.

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Out of a population of eight million at the end of the Vietnam War, between 1.5 and 3 million were killed in the genocide. You can’t measure the impact of trauma on that kind of scale; you can’t ever understand it when you didn’t live through it. But I felt the weight of it, travelling through, all the same.

No more than in Phnom Penh, the city that lives in the ashes of a very different city. My first impression, lugging around my backpack in the searing heat, was of a Hanoi without the soul—it’s got the long narrow buildings, but most of its shining paint had been chipped away. Walking along torn roads and sandy ditches. There’s no real trash system, and so garbage bags form barricades or spill rotting contents across the pavement. When you walk, you’re constantly kicking up sand or dirt until your legs are coated. The smell, that sandy grit and the rotting stirred up by the heat, never looses its sharp sting.

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Dog packs roam the streets ripping trash bags open, carrying little cyclones of flies over their heads; never going after you, but never going away either. With the Cambodian riel almost devalued, the American dollar is used instead. While the main streets are for the market stalls and restaurants, most of the actual residences are found in the dense alleys nestled behind them, where you have to squeeze to get by and the ceiling is broken by plastic dividers, making it almost completely dark. I never did learn how many people live in just one of those blocks, though I did find myself in a man’s apartment that was squeezed under a stairwell.

This all wouldn’t be quite so glaring if it wasn’t for the condos, rising along the Mekong in as glittering fashion as Bangkok or Shanghai. On the central arteries, wide concrete streets open triumphantly on victory roundabouts and shining billboards, glass office towers and shopping malls. For everywhere else, there were the dusty spaces between the refurbished buildings not completely demolished by Pol Pot.

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I noticed this disparity most frequently while eating: either you’re paying on the high-end (~8-10$) for mostly-Western-oriented restaurants geared for the foreigners and elite, or you’re looking at some of the scariest street food in Asia—a near-universal combination of stale bread filled with plastic meat that made me sick twice. There was never, as with all other things here, an in-between.

It’s hard not to keep comparing this city to Hanoi, both with their histories of culture, war, and Communism. And Phnom Penh was, supposedly, the more prosperous, more glittering, more vibrant of the two. Known as the Pearl of Asia, it had some of the most vibrant culture in Asia (including having the best rock scene in the sixties). But Pol Pot came and declared city living to be synonymous with the bourgeois. Much of what was, was bulldozed; what was left became the sites of a bloodbath. It’s incredible how much an ideology can have such a dramatic upheaval that it’ll change the literal geography of a city; it’s overwhelming when you realize how quickly a short few years can change everything. Irrevocably. It happened in China and it happened here.

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The history of the country is rooted in this city, and though that’s not something you can really describe, it comes to the forefront when you go to Tuol Sleng. The place where things begin to make sense.

Of all the places of torture, imprisonment, and execution during the genocide, none were as horrific as Tuol Sleng. Three narrow white buildings that used to be a high school. It takes a special kind of monster to turn a place of education into the central tool of your genocide. Of the 8000 people arrested and brought here, 4 survived. Its magnitude was so great, its concealment so complete, that the compound, like Auschwitz, was seen as more of a ghost camp than a real place until the regime actually fell. As you walk through it, that silence maintains an oppressive hold on the place: step into the gates, and the noise of the city dampens.

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It’s necessary, then, to have the audio guide, since as much as you try and imagine what the scratches on the wall or the rusted bedframe in the corner mean, it’s a disservice to the victims not to listen. It sinks through, listening to these accounts of all the people going in and never out. The doctors and lawyers. Farmers somehow considered bourgeois. Children. Guards whose luck turned. Tortured, starved, hanged. Story after story, bleeding together but no wait, wait, I need to hear all of them—understand, feel them. It felt like the only thing I could do. In the most notorious story, advanced in segments as you go along, a village leader sacrifices himself so his wife and child will be safe. After she is also captured, neither realize that, while writing letters that go nowhere, they are both trapped in Tuol Sleng, only cells away from each other. They’re killed without ever reuniting.

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The second building has kept the thick barbed wire meshing that blocked off the light and air and means of escape. I pulled against it, listening to the last of their letters, feeling a weight that threatened to make my chest collapse. There’s a brunt force that exists in the world, and sometimes the worst people are the only ones that survive. The people who push to be better, rise above things, artists or statespeoeple or those who live for their family—they’re the first to go. So lovely Cambodia, glittering Phnom Penh, was hacksawed to the ground. And I don’t regret forcing myself through the whole thing, spending three hours until my head was screeching, but it still makes me wonder what was the point. Will dragging myself through Cambodia’s terror stop future genocides? Can I really believe that now, in 2017 when Trump courts the same mechanisms of fear Pol Pot did?

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So yeah, the overwhelming impression of Phnom Penh upon arrival is a pretty miserable one. But that’s not the only story. That night, I walked along the Mekong. Although high rises on the farside and yacht parties in the water stole the lights, on this side of the river there were the people. Street vendors, young couples, and children; the children zipping past you by the hundreds. At an age average of 22, Cambodia has the youngest population of any country I’ve ever been to. At first, what hits you about a statistic like that is: oh God that’s because everyone that was middle aged was killed. And while that’s true, you overlook the flipside of that: there’s a fuckton of people your age or younger.

Kids who never lived through the genocide and who refuse to let it define them. People who’ll hustle as hard as any in Asia. Moving entire homes on the backs of bicycles. On the streetcorners selling clothes from Vietnam phones from China and trinkets from Thailand. Driving insane tuk-tuk’s that break every law known to roads. Everywhere I went, the smiles were stretched from jaw to jaw, and nowhere’s taught me you can have a conversation without words like Cambodia.

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That doesn’t mean the city won’t get to you. I spent five days equally attracted and repulsed by everything I saw. But let’s say I come back in twenty years, I do wonder what kind of a Cambodia will greet me.

What I saw there continues to disturb me. How things can change over the course of the year, forever. I’ll never forget that man in Kratie, tapping his three-fingered hand on the table, the rhythm to his story. And why did it happen here, to him? Why did it ever have to happen at all?

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