Touchdown in Cambodia

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Your heart starts racing the moment the plane touches ground. You're in fucking Cambodia now - land mines, civil war, genocide, bandits roaming the countryside. When we first started planning this trip several years ago, Cambodia emerged as one of the most interesting, yet dangerous destinations in Southeast Asia. Home to Ankgor Wat, arguably one of the most impressive temple complexes in the world, Cambodia is slowly emerging from decades of civil war that have decimated the population. Today there are over eight million undetonated land mines scattered across the countryside: some planted 30 years ago when civil war erupted in the chaos created by US intervention in Vietnam and Laos, and others planted just yesterday. Stories of anarchy and violence against foreign tourists abound: brutal robberies and beatings on the streets of Phnom Penh, armed bandits extorting cash from passing cars, Cambodian army regulars shaking down visitors at random road blocks. But our friend John, who has been to Cambodia a dozen times since 1991 (and has only wound up face down in the mud with an automatic weapon pointed at his head once) claims that Cambodia is safe. The terror, he insists, is only in your mind. Or is it…

We disembarked from the plane at the international airport just outside of Phnom Penh. From the stories we had heard from other travellers, we were expecting absolute anarchy - guns visible everywhere, rampant shakedowns and bribery and a total absence of public order. We approached the desk where the immigration officials issue a 30 day visa for $20 and immediately observed a group of Hong Kong businessmen slipping five dollar bills, unsolicited, to the officials to "expedite" their entry. Fully expecting a similar surcharge, we took our usual approach of stepping back and observing the process so we could determine the lowest bribe we could offer. But we were surprised when the business men were ushered over to another desk, where an official pointed to a sign indicating that visas cost $20. The business men handed over $15 each and when asked for the additional $5, pointed to the official they had initially bribed, who shrugged his shoulders as if to say, "never seen them before in my life." Forced to cough up another $5, the businessmen got their visas and made their way through customs. Thoroughly confused we took the prudent step of not offering any bribes unless demanded and proceeded to purchase our visas for the official rate of $20. We couldn't help but wonder why the businessmen had offered the payoff in the first place. Were there restrictions against Hong Kong residents that we were not aware of, or had they heard the same stories that we had - that one must expect to throw cash at any Cambodian in uniform immediately upon arrival? We may never know, but on the surface it appears that the bribe accomplished absolutely nothing. The immigration process was remarkably smooth and free of corruption and the only people we observed paying a bribe were the overzealous businessmen, who were now visibly perturbed at their own stupidity.

It is an unwritten but nevertheless true rule that you will be ripped off and overcharged whenever you arrange your first transport upon entering a new country. There is a special breed of cab driver who will refuse to activate the meter (if there is one) and will demand extortionate rates to drive you a few kilometers into town. We were preparing ourselves for the inevitable battle that we've faced countless times, but we were surprised to find that the mandatory overcharging had been institutionalized. A taxi service had been organized and for the standard rate of $5 one could get transport to any destination in Phnom Penh. Although $5 is roughly double what the fare should be, still it was a relief not to have to fight tooth and nail with the driver for the privilige of being overcharged what usually amounts to 5 times the fair price.

Still, even with the standard charge there is plenty of opportunity for scamming a few extra dollars out of arriving tourists and we were not surprised when our driver told us that the guesthouse we wanted to go to was closed down. This is one of the most prevalent scams in the developing world - you'll ask to be taken to a specific guesthouse or hotel only to be told that it has closed down, but wonder of wonders, the driver knows of an even better guesthouse. Many people will trust the driver and will check into the other guesthouse, which is inevitably more expensive (to cover the driver's commission for bringing in rich tourists). Not to mention the guesthouse is inevitably owned by some friend or relative of the driver. We didn't flinch and insisted that the driver take us where we asked and miraculously he tells us that the guesthouse that was closed down five minutes ago, is now open, but under new management and isn’t very good. Surprisingly, this turns out to be true (first time for everything) and when we arrive at the guesthouse, we find it is under new management and really doesn't look very good. We consulted our map and decided to walk over to a nearby cluster of guesthouses situated on Boeng Kak lake. Because we arrive without a driver or guide, we are able to negotiate a room for $3 a night. Oftentimes we have been forced to pay more the first night in a new country and then move to cheaper accommodations the next day.

At this point we've been in Cambodia a full two hours and we haven't had a single loaded automatic weapon pointed at us. We're feeling cheated when we learn that a new law is being enforced to get guns off the streets. But that is not to say that Cambodia has lost its lawless charm. Indeed, quite the contrary.

For starters we quickly realize that our new guesthouse is also a brothel, run by drug dealers. Young Vietnamese and Cambodian women lounge around, shooting pool, adjusting their abundant makeup and flirting with their Western "dates". In fact, Janna's first conversation with a Cambodian local was with a prostitute who had miraculously survived the Khmer Rouge years, when she and her family were shipped out to the work camps in the countryside and were almost killed when the Khmer Rouge discovered that her father was once a member of the Cambodian military. It was the first, but not the last story we heard about someone who had narrowly escaped death during the Khmer Rouge terror.

Marijuana was beyond abundant! Once legal in Cambodia, under pressure from the U.S. ganja is now technically illegal, but only on paper. In reality one can purchase it everywhere - from any hooker, restaurant owner, taxi or motorbike driver. You can even buy it from the hotel manager, put it on your bill and pay for it with your credit card. Legal repercussions are not an issue. For no extra charge, the nearby "Happy Herb" pizza parlor will deliver a "happy" pizza generously garnished with that mood altering herb directly to your guesthouse. At $20 a kilo, weed is far cheaper than tobacco and we get roughly 10 offers a day. But that's not all. We met a local junkie who told us over dinner that pure 100% heroin is available for about $60 a gram - a fraction of the price in the west. His smile told us that we were in junk heaven and as he admired my gold wedding band, we listened to his all too common story about how he had "lost" his passport and was currently more than eight months over his visa. Naturally we were on guard as it has been our experience in life that junkies are not particularly trustworthy. Morphine is sold over the counter, without a prescription, at your local pharmacy.

We were to learn that in Cambodia, anything is possible if you have money. Just outside of town is the firing range where one can shoot AK-47's with live ammo, or just fire off a couple of hand grenades, a morter or two, or just a simple rocket launcher. Although I first considered it, at $15 a clip I decided that it was too expensive for what would amount to three seconds of fun (which includes a one second break). Not to mention I'm a peaceful guy: I am all about mellow. Still it is a popular tourist destination. So are the many bars and discos where prostitutes outnumber potential clients by a ratio of four to one. We estimate that a full 30% of the rooms in our guesthouse were occupied by single Western men visiting Cambodia to sleep with bargirls for $10 or less a shot. The rest were budget travellers like ourselves. Many days we met angry backpackers who had been kept awake all night by the drunken revelry of their neighbors and their "rented" girlfriends. But we decide to stay because the guesthouse has a spectacular porch overlooking the lake (and is therefore one of the coolest spots in town) and we get along with Bacchanites.

On my second day in Phnom Penh, I spoke to a very young girl who couldn't have been more than fourteen. She looked absolutely ridiculous in her makeup and high heels, chain smoking cigarettes - like the teenagers one sees at the mall trying to act older than they really are. Educated in Malaysia, she chatted with me in very good English, wanting to know where I was from, how long I'd been in Phnom Penh, and how long I'd been married. I noticed that the hookers were very observant and quickly surmised who was single and therefore available and who was off limits. She sighed audibly when I told her I'd been with Janna for over fifteen years, clearly enchanted with the romantic idea of a happy relationship, and then went on to tell me that she had an American husband who lived in Bangkok, thus confirming my worst fear that she was indeed a child prostitute and not a local girl just hanging around. (I've learned that prostitutes in this region often refer to steady customers as their "husband," perhaps a futile attempt at gaining legitimacy in the eyes of foreign guests). The next day I saw the same girl lying in hammock in the arms of a Westerner who looked like he was in his early 20's. This is not exactly the profile of a pedophile one usually has in mind - a balding, fat, ugly loser from the developed world. We were disturbed that this fellow appeared to be a fellow backpacker just like us.

In fact, Phnom Penh is the pedophilia capital of the world and trafficking in women and children is one of its largest industries. One afternoon, wandering around the back streets of Phnom Penh, I was approached by a taxi driver who offered me a young girl - "very young, nine years old, OK?" he said. It is the closest I have come to striking another human being in anger in my adult life and I probably would have decked him if it did not occur to me at the last moment that any harm I did to him, however justified, would inevitably be taken out on the poor child he was trying to sell. It was my saddest moment in Asia.

Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in Asia and the poverty is absolutely crushing. Naked children covered with open sores run around the marketplace. Everywhere you turn you see an outstretched hand. The evidence of land mines is overwhelming - in parts of the city the streets are packed with people who have lost one or more limbs. They crawl through the filthy streets picking through garbage for food and begging alms from the tourists. It is not unusual to see someone with both arms or both legs missing and one cannot help but wonder how he gets through life. As my friend John once told me, there's no shortage of one legged beggars in Phnom Penh.

The lucky ones live in overcrowded, decrepit and crumbling buildings. Those less fortunate survive on the streets. There are no social services in Cambodia, only foreign aid organizations which do not have the means to help all of the people in need. Looking at the maimed people, one realizes how insidious the land mines are. These are not weathered soldiers, they are regular men, women and children unfortunate enough to set off a land mine that was deliberately planted in a rice field, public footpath or field where children play. We heard stories of poverty stricken farmers sending the youngest children out to clear the mine fields so that the year's harvest could be planted. This is but an indication of how cheap life has become in a nation where beasts of burden are more valuable than children. The Cambodian farmers believe that they can always have more children, but if the farm animal dies in a rice field, the entire family might starve. I spoke to one Australian NGO (non-governmental organization) volunteer working to resettle war refugees who told me that at the current rate, it would take more than 30 years to clear all of the mines out of Cambodia.

The sense of lawlessness pervades all aspects of Cambodian society. For the past year, every time we visit a new country, we've had to adjust to driving on a different side of the street. In Cambodia, no problem - they drive on both sides of the street! Traffic lights rarely work and if there is a police officer trying to direct traffic, he is ignored. On our third evening in Phnom Penh, we heard the unmistaken sound of automatic weapon fire just across the lake. Down the road is a new cafe where Janna listened to the owner tell her story about how she had just moved out of a more popular part of town after thugs had destroyed her restaurant, breaking the windows, smashing all the furniture, etc. Either this woman was the victim of one of many random acts of violence, or she had pissed off the wrong person. But it didn't really matter for she had no legal recourse. She couldn't call the police (they wouldn't respond, and even if they did, it would only be to steal any remaining alcohol) and she obviously didn't have any organized crime or military contacts, who have their own methods of settling disputes, or preventing them from arising in the first place. In fact, when she re-opened her cafe near Boeng Kak lake, another cafe owner threatened to cut her throat because she was selling beer for fifteen cents less than everyone else in the neighborhood. She couldn't afford to reprint her menu. It is but one of thousands of similar stories that take place on a daily basis all over the country. And this, we are told by some long term residents, is the calmest and most peaceful that Cambodia has been for thirty years.

Nor is it surprising to find this state of affairs in modern Cambodia when one considers its recent history. Immediately following the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975, Pol Pot, the leader of the "Red Khmers" embarked upon one of the most bizarre social experiments in modern history, attempting to create one large "Maoist, peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative." Immediately following the fall of Phnom Penh, the streets were emptied and the entire population was driven at gunpoint to the countryside for a radical program of re-education and forced labor under the most brutal conditions. At the time, the people were told that they had to leave the capital because the Americans were going to bomb it. Since many of them were refugees from the countryside where they had narrowly escaped America's illegal carpet bombing years before, they needed little convincing.

Almost anyone was considered an enemy of the new social order, particularly if one had an education, spoke a foreign language, or even wore glasses! In farming centers reminiscent of Hitler's death camps, as many as 2 million innocent Cambodians succumbed to mass execution, torture, starvation and disease. Madness on an unprecedented level gripped the nation and eventually the bloodlust turned the Khmer Rouge against itself, resulting in a purge within the ranks of the party. One of the most ferocious revolutions ever, the entire society was transformed overnight: private property was abolished, along with money, religion, freedom of movement and expression and formal education. Cambodian history came to an end and Pol Pot, known to his comrades as "Brother Number One" declared it to be "Year Zero." The insanity continued until the Vietnamese invaded and put an end to it. But by then it was too late and in our one month visit to Cambodia we did not speak to a single individual who had not lost a relative in the genocide.

Today these terrible years are commemorated at the Tuol Sleng Museum, a former high school that was converted to an interrogation and torture center known as Security Prison 21. Established as a testament to the genocidal crimes of the Khmer Rouge, the prison turned museum has been left virtually intact from the day it was liberated by Vietnamese forces. Of the 20,000 men, women and children imprisoned there from 1975 - 1979, only seven survived. The others died from torture or were transported to the nearby killing fields at Choeng Ek, where they were executed.

A tour of Tuol Sleng is not for the feint of heart. As you enter the grounds you can feel the presence of the anguished spirits who lost their lives in this gruesome place. To the left are the interrogation rooms. A simple metal bedframe outfitted with arm and leg shackles stands in the middle of each room. Some of the beds still have scraps of clothing covered in blood lying untouched on them. Dried blood stains are visible on the walls and on the floors under and around the beds, where prisoners were chained and tortured. On the wall of each room is a photograph showing the room as it was found by the Vietnamese. In the photographs, bloody corpses are chained to the beds, some of them hacked beyond recognition. It is absolutely heart renderng to visit these rooms and imagine the pain and suffering that took place within these walls.

Next you proceed to a room where all of the prisoners were meticulously numbered and photographed. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge took pride in their careful documentation of the killing process. Looking like modern day mugshots, over 5,000 photographs adorn the walls. You can see the terror in the victims' faces as they sit for the photograph, undoubtedly able to hear the anguished cries of the people being tortured in the next room, knowing that they will be next. One is struck by the photographs - a thorough cross section of Khmer society - men, women and children of all ages and backgrounds. No one is smiling.

Beyond this room is the detainment center, a large room subdivided into small cells by temporary brick walls. Each cell has a metal stake driven into the floor. Prisoners were shackled to the stake while they awaited interrogation. The cells are surrounded by barbed wire, not so much to prevent escape, but to prevent suicide. Next to each pair of shackles is a small U.S. military artillery box, about the size of a shoebox, which we surmised was used as a toilet. There is no common dining hall or recreation center. Prisoners were only expected to remain in the prison long enough to be photographed, tortured to extract a confession (usually a bizarre confession that they were CIA operatives) and if they survived this ordeal, shipped off to the killing fields.

Next you find yourself in an exhibit of the many instruments of torture used by the Khmer Rouge: worse than anything you might encounter in a medieval torture chamber. One of the seven survivors of Tuol Sleng has done a series of very graphic paintings depicting the tortures. The paintings hang on the walls. Prisoners were suspended upside down in containers of water, almost to the point of drowning. Others were chained to a bed where they were dissected alive. Still others had an incision made in their bodies and fierce, biting insects inserted under the skin. In the corner is a painting depicting Khmer Rouge soldiers throwing babies into the air and impaling them on the end of their bayonets. These are the paintings I could bear to write about. The others were too horrible. Truly the Pol Pot regime exceeded in inhumanity.

As you leave this horrible display, you enter the final exhibit in the museum. When you enter the final room, you are confronted by an enormous map of Cambodia - MADE ENTIRELY FROM HUMAN SKULLS AND BONES - the actual skulls of victims exhumed from the mass graves of the killing fields. Each skull has a large hole in it. To save precious bullets, the Khmer Rouge bludgeoned its victims to death. Many of the skulls have an entire side caved in. The empty eye sockets stare at you and seem to call out, begging for justice. One is consumed by moral outrage and overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness and the suffering of the Cambodian people. As you leave the museum grounds, you are descended upon by ragged land mine victims begging for a little money. You give. To each one you give.

Yet despite the poverty, despite the suffering and violence, the Cambodian people still smile. Like a phoenix rising from its own ashes, Cambodia is emerging from decades of war and rebuilding itself. Buildings are sprouting up all around Phnom Penh and in the cities, modern day Cambodians find themselves settuping up internet cafes and restaurants, partying at discos, and going to school. Everybody, simply everybody in Phnom Penh is learning English, which the locals believe is the key to commercial success. Restaurant owners and shopkeepers smile when you walk by and chat pleasantly with their customers. As the political situation grows stable, more and more tourists come to Cambodia, most of them with one destination: Ankgor Wat.

Located just outside of the city of Siem Riep, the world-renowed temples of Ankgor, built between A.D. 802 and 1431, stand as a testament to the glory of the Khmer empire, which extended from Southern Vietnam to the Yunan Province in China and as far west as the Bay of Bengal. We took a four hour ride by speedboat up the Tonle Sap river to Siem Riep, where we had plans to meet our friend John (for the fourth time this trip), his family and a group of his friends from Japan, for an extended tour of Ankgor Wat. (Side note: there are many temples from the Ankgor period that are all grouped under the name "Ankgor Wat.") In total there were sixteen members in our party, including John's father, siblings, nephews, and friends. It was nothing less than one big party, largely facilitated by John's close friend, a Khmer man named Prouhn, the owner of the Mahogany Guest House, one of the most popular in Siem Riep. John had actually been the first guest at the Mahogany during his initial visit to Cambodia many years ago and he has remained friends with the owner to this day. Prouhn organized transport, accommodations, food and entertainment for the entire group. John and his crew stayed for about four days, but with considerably more leisure time at our disposal, we stayed at Ankgor Wat for a full ten days.

A van was rented for sightseeing trips to the temples and we were ferried about from one fantastic restaurant to the next. Prouhn was always on hand to make sure that everything ran smoothly and there were remarkably few hassles for a group that large. The temples themselves are unbelieveable - huge structures covered in the most amazing carvings (relief) one could imagine. Many of the reliefs depict the epic Hindu story of the Ramayana, while others show influences of Buddhism and animism. The detail is incredible - it must have taken thousands of craftsmen to build over many decades. We'd spend hours wandering around the various temples, especially around sunset, when the light and colors are the best. Two of the temples were completely overrun by the jungle, and we'd sit beneath enormous Banyon trees that were growing over the walls and temple structures, with their twisted, gnarled roots. These were our favorites and we'd alternate between temples for sunset, listening to the sounds of the jungle.

One afternoon as we were driving around, Prouhn casually mentioned that one of the temples was being rented out for a big new year’s eve party. John looked at him in disbelief and asked Prouhn whether it was really possible to rent out an entire temple for a private party. Afterall, these are national treasures. A hushed converstation followed and that evening after dinner, instead of taking us back to the hotel for the night, the van took us to the Bayon temple, one of the most magnificent of all the temples, which we discovered had been rented out for the evening.

This was truly unbelievable! We pulled up to the temple and found that the long stone stairway leading to the top level had been lit with candles. We climbed the staircase and discovered that the entire temple had been lit up by strategically placed candles. A bar had been set up and we all spent the next few hours drinking cherry brandy, beer and soft drinks under the starry skies. Bayon is an extraordinary temple distinguished by some 50 towers. Each tower has four enormous faces carved into it, one facing each direction. Candles had been placed under the chin of several faces and we spent hours wandering around under the eerie gaze of these giants. Ankgor Wat is considered to be one of the great wonders of the world and to this day I am amazed that we were able to rent it for a private party. But as I said earlier, in Cambodia anything is possible.

At one point in the evening, I wandered out of the main section of the temple into an unlit quarter. I turned a corner and suddenly came face to face with a young teenage kid pointing a machine gun directly at me. For a split second I thought he was a bandit and I started to raise my hands above my head when the kid smiled and lowered his weapon. When I suddenly realized that he had no intention of shooting me, I did a private survey of the area and discovered that there were five or six armed kids all along the temple perimeter. Were these hired guards to protect us from bandits? Were they themselves the local bandits paid off to leave us alone? Or were they the official temple guards bribed to turn a blind eye while we had our party. I never found out for certain, but later in the evening I pointed them out to Janna, who went over to chat with them and check out their guns. They proudly displayed their firearms, pointing out the Russian AK-47's and their Chinese counterparts. Finally, after almost two weeks in Cambodia, I had a loaded machine gun pointed at me. I'd be writing a thank you letter to the Minister of Tourism.

John and his family left for Thailand but we remained for several more days. We hired motorcycle drivers to take us around to the temples and we split our time between the five main temples in the complex, never tiring of the incredible carvings. Ankgor Wat is truly one of the most spectacular architectural achievements in the world. Our pass eventually expired and after about 10 days in Siem Riep we started to make plans to return to Phnom Penh. Prouhn was busy organizing a New Year’s party for another group of friends and we offered to help him draft some letters in English and make arrangements for the party. We decided to spend the day running errands with him and our first stop was the local Air Force base, where Prouhn had to bribe the local general to use the temple for New Year’s eve. Janna and I waited in the parking lot while Prouhn went in to sort things out with the general. As we sat there, chatting with a few locals, a huge army helicopter suddenly appeared. The chopper landed a few hundred meters from us and a few minutes later Prouhn rushed out and informed us that the helicopter was on its way to Phnom Penh after refueling and that he felt confident that he could get us a ride on it down to Phnom Penh. We looked at each other in disbelief. There’s only one correct answer when someone offers you a ride on a military helicopter in Cambodia – HELL YES!!!

As quickly as we could, we went back to Prouhn’s guesthouse, packed our bags, paid our bill, and got back to the airforce base. Prouhn had a word with the pilot, money was exchanged and before we knew it, we had two prime seats right adjacent to the open door! Prouhn had another word with the pilot, turned to us and informed us that the helicopter would fly directly over Ankgor Wat for our benefit! We thanked Prouhn for everything and strapped ourselves into our seats with the military seatbelts, which are actually nothing more than a single canvas strip. There was no door, just a thin metal bar where the door should have been. Glancing around we realized that we were in a Soviet made helicopter (everything was labelled in Russian). Drinks and peanuts were not forthcoming, but that also meant that there was nobody to stop us from dangling our feet out the door, feeling the air tug at our sandals as we flew back to Phnom Penh. For the next hour and a half we flew over the Cambodian countryside at an extremely low altitude watching the farmers, small villages, and boats on the Tonle Sap river. Visions of the Vietnam war raced through my mind and I swear I could hear the soundtrack to “Apocalypse Now” in my head as I kept a sharp eye peeled for Charlie.

Back in Phnom Penh we spent our remaining days in Cambodia relaxing in hammocks by the lake, chatting with other travellers and making plans to fly to Bangkok and from there, on to Bali, Indonesia. The heat was growing more oppressive by the minute and after almost a year of rigorous land-locked travel, we dreamed of the beach and island life. God I love this place.

Page created on May 25th 2002 and updated on February 1st. 2014.  articles  sign guestbook  You are visitor number  number of hits