We went overland from Bangkok, taking a bus to a border marked by tacky casinos. We paid our visa, were photographed by customs and walked from the second to the third world. Our taxi, a fifteen year old Toyota sedan, would take us to Battanbang, Cambodia’s second largest city.
The journey took seven hours and it gave us an opportunity to ease into the country in a way that jet travel can not. The main road south, connecting the two countries, was potholed dirt, almost as bad as our driveway in Santa Fe, NM. It was dry season, yet even so, the land appeared fertile with rice fields spotted with fish ponds. We passed several colorfully illustrated signs showing people giving up rifles for shovels that read: “We don’t need weapons anymore.”
Battanbang is slightly off the tourist map. It has a happening market and a lively local street scene along the Sang Sanker river. Helen, my wife, had grown up in Southeast Asia. Her first impression, which held for everywhere but Angkor Watt, was that Cambodia was like Thailand in the seventies. Tourists are not seen as walking ATM machines yet. You can still have a real conversation with people.
After settling at our hotel, a young man who introduced himself as Chris offered to show us the local sites. The next day, we were off on his motorbikes, traveling on dirt roads through small family farms. I wasn’t too concerned about where we were going. I just wanted him to show us what he thought was important.
The countryside was beautiful with kampongs surrounded by bananas, mangos, palms and avocado trees. Chickens, pigs, rats, dogs and cattle meandered about. After about forty-five minutes, occasionally eating “Cambodian snow” (road dust), we arrived at what looked like a mesa rising up from the plains of rice fields. This was one of the centers of operation for the Khmer Rouge.
After about a twenty minute climb up steps, we reached the top of a rounded hill with some flat areas. While we rested on the steps of a Buddhist stupa, Chris told in detail how uncles were killed while mother and father narrowly escaped, though they were separated for five years. The account was heart wrenching. Pol Pot was no longer just one of many distant, twentieth century figures who perpetrated genocide.
We were shown a big open hole leading down into a deep cave. People were tortured and then pushed into the blackness to die. But many didn’t die. So those who lived fed on those who died until they died.
Now, the bones were stacked in a wire cage. Next to it, a reclining Buddha, candles, the smell of incense.
“What about all the army who supported Pol Pot?” I asked. “Where are they?”
“They were young. No one could recognize who they are now.”
Even though there are plans for war criminal trails soon, and there have been elections, Chris was not very hopeful about the future. How could anyone be? Every Cambodian lost family members to Pol Pot and the perpetrators could be your neighbor. Some of the top people who helped to orchestrate the genocide still have political power in the current government
At the bottom of the site, we rested for lunch. A coconut with a straw. Noodles and mysterious flesh in broth. And we discuss the culinary merit of various meats.
Getting down to basics, I asked him, “But which do you like better? Dog, pig or rat?”
“Dog,” he replied with the assured confidence. “It’s rich, like beef.”
(PS: for those of you with an entrepreneurial bent, the US has an excess of dog meat, wastefully incinerated at our shelters.)
Having a second helping of noodles, Chris explained that even eating insects without permission during revolutionary work on collectives was a capital offence. All food had to be given over. Rice was exported to China. Chris had starved when he was a young child.
No wonder the market has baskets of beetles, frogs and grass hoppers sautéed in soy sauce. It is all childhood comfort food. Appropriately, our last stop was a distillery, where we indulged in fresh pineapple and rice whiskey.
Leaving Battanbang the next morning, a little hung over, we traveled to Angkor Watt by public water taxi. We sat on crowded, uncomfortable wooden benches with grandma and her chickens, sacks of rice and the elderly Dutch couple with their suitcases, squatted on the ground next to the deafening smoke coughing diesel engine.
After a few minutes, we jumped on top of the boat’s roof tin, using our luggage, two small day packs, as a back rest. From our perch (still keeping our ear plugs in) we saw river village life as it was and has been for hundreds of years: fisherman casting their nets, temples and houses built on stilts.
The next day, we visited Angkor Watt-- impressive, even to a jaded ruin visitor. It is not just one site, but several, and each is grand in its scale and detail. Here is Cambodia’s glorious past, when their great kings dominated most of Southeast Asia and built monuments of Mount Meru, the mythical Hindu and Buddhist center of the universe.
Cambodians take such pride in Angkor as a symbol of Khmer destiny that when a Thai actor recently said that the ruins were really part of Thailand, it caused rioting. Never mind that Angkor is managed by a Japanese company which gives hardly anything back for the preservation of the monuments. The site attracts thousands every day. To see it with any peace you have to get up early and beat the tour busses.
In the town of Siem Reap, where Angkor is located, beggars missing hands or legs squat in front of bars popular with westerners. A few hawk knockoffs of tour books. Some of the most fertile farmland and gemstone areas are still heavily mined.
I am a cut throat bargainer but here I give them nearly what they want every time. The difference between comfort and strife costs less than a latté at Starbucks. I don’t want postcards, but I buy a pair of sandals from a girl selling them who hounds me for half a mile.
Cambodia economically wasn’t much different in the early sixties than now prosperous Thailand, but how do you make up for thirty years of civil war? That border road from Thailand-- paving it would cost less than a resurfacing a secondary highway connecting any American town to a suburb.
On our last day back from touring ruins, we stopped at the children’s hospital funded by a Swiss philanthropist. A banner above the road read that you can save a child’s life by giving blood, which Cambodians are reluctant to do for cultural reasons. We wanted to give some money.
After the donation, Helen told the guard that she was giving blood but her husband, she said, pointing to me, was too scared. Well, it didn’t hurt much and it was harder than giving money; but I got a free tee shirt, butter cookies and some vitamins.
From Angkor, we traveled overland by bus to the capitol, Phnom Penn, suffering six hours of the hokiest romantic Cambodian karaoke videos. I watched a man pull large spiders out of a paper bag and eat them leg by leg, chewing the body just like a soft shell crab. He licked his lips with delight.
I chastised myself for not being more courageous and buying some at the bus station to sample, but Helen said I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. It is one of those things you need someone to walk you through the first time.
Phnom Penn is situated beautifully on the vast Mekong river. Its streets are graced by French colonial architecture. The city has relatively few cars and busses, so pollution is minimal and unlike Bangkok, traffic moves faster then 5 km an hour.
Sitting in one of the riverside cafes, it is hard to imagine that this city was totally evacuated by the Khmer Rouge thirty years ago. But it was, and the resulting bones have become big business. The first thing any tuk tuk driver asks is, “U wanta see killing fields?”
I had seen enough bones, but I went to see the notorious torture prison, S21. The dilapidated three story concrete u-shaped building surrounded by razor wire was once a school. It was the last stop for over 17,000 prisoners. Records of the detainees were meticulously preserved under the supervision of a former math teacher.
On the first floor, we passed large photos of mutilated bodies above cots. These were the last people killed right, photographed by the North Vietnamese army when they drove out the Khmer. Iron and wire torture implement were still in situ. The third floor had rooms of black and white mug shots, slightly larger than passport size, in row after row behind large glass frames.
Babies, children, teenagers, young adults, middle age, elderly, were neatly arranged according to age. The dark eyes peered out, sometimes blank, sometimes in fear and unimaginable terror.
Who were these people who died, bleeding upside down on wooden posts, or through electrocution while writing seven hundred page autobiographies for their captors-- listing their bourgeois family members who would also be gathered up to confess and die?
They were not special. They were the same as the people I’d seen since I’d entered the country. They were me. They were you, too. And who killed them? Same as the above, minus the babies. But the most effective recruits though were young children who could be easily brainwashed. People in their thirties and forties now. Perhaps, today, Chris’ neighbor.
The revolution gained momentum partly because of Kissinger’s private war. Evacuate Phnom Penn. The Americans are going to bomb us! But once they got all the teachers, civil servants, merchants, intellectuals, and artists out into the country and found out they made lousy farmers who couldn’t be reformed, they killed them. Not long after that, they killed the farmers who got disillusioned with killing and starving.
After two days in the capitol, we left a country where perhaps everyone has post traumatic stress. Yet at the airport, I noticed that there were no guards carrying Uzis. Every country I’ve been to has armed guards at airports. I then realized that during my stay in Cambodia, I didn’t see anyone carrying weapons. This was extraordinary. I had never been in a country without an armed military or police presence.
These thoughts seemed just like a dream flying home on a 747, 400 series. Nothing like being handed a hot wash cloth to remind me of my privileged status in the world’s economic pecking order.
What follows now is a bit of a postscript which crystallized the entire pilgrimage. We rested in LA, where we had prearranged to meet friends with two teenage daughters. Our penance to the girls for dragging them to the Getty Museum was a trip to Universal Studios.
In the internal chaos of jetlag, Cambodia was a lifetime away, until a walk through a fun house where piles of bones were stacked, looking exactly like the ones in the killing caves. Later, in a live “Fear Factor,” a TV show I hadn’t heard of before that day, two contestants vied with each other over who could endure a self generated electric shock and eat “gross” insects.
It was merely amusement. Yet given how fear has been used to manipulate people over the past few years, our American dream is not as far from the Cambodia’s experience as we might think. It doesn’t take any devils or demons to create killing fields. Ordinary people do just fine with the right political leadership.
About The Author
About the Author
Marc Choyt graduated from Brown University in 1984 with
a degree in English. In 1995, he received an MA degree in
Humanities from St. John's College. In 1996, he and his
wife, Helen Chantler, founded Reflective Images, a designer
jewelry company specializing in contemporary Celtic jewelry.
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