Wednesday, May 13, 2009

So long, farang...

I am sitting in the air-conditioned, cavernous sterility of Suvarnabhumi International Airport, far removed from the dense din of Bangkok. Compared to the rest of Southeast Asia, it is an oasis of order and semblance. I am waiting for an 11 p.m. flight that will take me to Seoul and Seattle before landing in Denver. I am going home.

It has been nearly impossible to digest in the moment all that I have encountered in my travels, in that I didn't really understand Thailand until I'd been to Laos; I wasn't able to fully appreciate Laos until I'd spent a month in Cambodia; and I will perhaps never understand the many complexities of Cambodia – even after returning to the (relative) sanity of the West.

Traveling does strange things to the traveler. It breaks him down, builds him back up, and then dashes him back against the unforgiving wall of cultural exposure. This process might best be described (if not slightly in the extreme) in the words of an older Cambodian who described to me his country thus: "War. Stop. War. Stop. War. Stop." Not war in the sense that I have been fighting or defending against externalities, but war in the sense that I have struggled against myself: my preconceived notions, my ignorance of the world at large, my expectations of Southeast Asia, and my ever-shifting evaluations of all that I have seen, heard, felt, smelled and tasted.

Bittersweet would be the most apt description of my current mood. I have experienced elation being surrounded by beauty and the warmth of the people I have met. But I have also felt the sting of contempt for my presence (in the general sense of being a foreigner) and the frustration of being alone in a strange land – a land overripe with history and culture that pales in comparison to the West's.

Asia, I have decided, is not something one prepares for: better just to dive in. One may emerge mentally ragged, choked and sputtering, as if from a near drowning, but stronger for the experience, perhaps even eager to test the waters again.

As a checklist, my trip would look something like this:

1. Shaved by Bangkok barber
2. 36 hours on three trains
3. 52 hours on eight buses
4. Six days on three motorcycles
5. Cuddled with tigers
6. Snuffled by elephants
7. Really sick for a day
8. Slow boat ride on the Mekong River
9. Tubing on the Nam Song River
10. Visited a Vientiane cabaret
11. Saw 10,136 Buddha statues in one hour
12. Hung for three hours off the back of a truck
13. Swam, bathed and did laundry in the Mekong River
14. Swallowed (inadvertently) about a half gallon of the Mekong
15. Played petanque with the locals in Laos
16. Ate snails, Mekong mussels, fried cockroaches, grilled dog and raw river clams
17. Drove to the top of Cambodia's Bokor Mountain on a motorcycle
18. Worked as a "senior sales executive" for a Web company
19. Went to a Cambodian wedding and danced with the bride
20. Walked the ruins of Angkor Wat
21. Watched the sunset on the Gulf of Thailand
22. Became a formidable street bargainer
23. Beat the "number one" snooker player in Kanchanaburi
24. Spent the night in a small village in Issan falling asleep to Thai soaps

The list could certainly go on – and it will, in one way or another. Select stories will dribble from my memory – or spill in a rush of revelation – moments I have tucked away for another day.

I feel as if I am not leaving Southeast Asia, but simply taking a bit of it with me – only crumbs of the whole cake, to be sure, but enough to feed me for a lifetime.

They have no power

When I arrived in Phnom Penh, the bus dropped us off in the parking lot of a neglected mosque on the edge of Boeung Kak Lake, a divey backpacker haven about a ten-minute motorbike ride north of the city proper. Boeung Kak has for years been a hangout for backpackers in Phnom Penh. The area, which is commonly called Lakeside and is located behind the relatively upscale Phnom Penh Hotel, is a collection of skinny alleyways lined by bars, guesthouses, travel agencies and Internet cafes.

But soon there will be no lake. The area was recently sold for $79 million and the lake is being filled in to make way for shops and high-end apartments for foreign workers. During my month-long stay in Phnom Penh I watched a sandbar grow from the south side Boeung Kak into the center of the lake. All day a pipeline pumped sand from the Tonle Sap River on the other side of town and sent water back out the other way. Bulldozers and tractors rumbled around on the new finger of land pushing sand from one spot to another.

Many of Lakeside's longtime residents will be displaced by the development; many will be made homeless. Those with land titles are supposed to be compensated $8,000 by the government – hardly a fraction of what their buildings and businesses are worth – but no money has been paid out yet. It would not surprise anyone if the government never paid; after all, there is precedent.

In early January approximately 400 families in a small neighborhood near Phnom Penh's Independence Monument were forced by government troops from their homes. An entire apartment complex was leveled, the rubble from which still remains – an ugly reminder of the lengths the government and its corporate partners is willing to go to perpetuate development. The families were only allowed to grab what they could carry and were never compensated for their homes or lost belongings. Most of them now reside at a camp outside of town where children are malnourished, clean drinking water is scarce, there is no sewer system and disease is rampant.

This fate will more than likely be shared by many of the squatters who now live on Boeung Kak. One longtime expatriate, who runs a guesthouse on Lakeside, estimated that 80 percent of the area's residents don't own their land and will probably become homeless when the bulldozers roll in.

On the deck of a guesthouse at the south end of the lake, I spoke with the owners about the project. It was nighttime and moonlight rippled on the lake's surface; a small palm tree stood like a tattered flag, growing from a clay pot in the corner of the deck. The owners, who declined to be named for fear of reprisal, are convinced it is a Chinese or a Korean company that is filling in the lake. Other rumors, of which Phnom Penh has many, say that the developers are actually Cambodian and use a foreign company as a front. Either way, the government is complicit.

Since the plans for the lake were made public a couple of years ago, residents have complained, protests have been held and NGOs have advocated on behalf of the soon to be evicted. But still the pipeline gushes sand and the finger of land continues to grow.

"The people knock," one of the guesthouse owners told me, rapping his hand on the table, "but they have no power."

Remember to forget

A torture room at S-21, the notorious Khmer Rouge prison. Prisoner's were electrocuted on the bare bed frames, kept chained to the floors and made to confess their "crimes" against Angkar. Before it was used for killing, the prison was a school and many of the torture instruments were fashioned out of old desks. Photo by Simon Whistler.

On April 17, 1975, columns of Khmer Rouge soldiers – overwhelmingly made up of children – rode into Phnom Penh in commandeered trucks under a banner of revolutionary rhetoric. For years Cambodia had been a victim of its stronger regional neighbors, a pawn under French colonialism in Indochina, and had recently sustained heavy American bombing in the U.S. effort to "win" the Vietnam War (During a several month period, the United States dropped more bombs on Cambodia that it dropped in all of WWII). And so when the KR arrived many people actually welcomed the change – under new leadership that was fiercely nationalistic and opposed to any foreign intervention perhaps the country could find a little peace and stability.

But the KR soon kicked everyone out of Phnom Penh and into the countryside. The people were now expected to work in the fields and would form – at least idealistically – the classless foundation of a new utopian agrarian society called Democratic Kampuchea. One of the central tenets of this new society – a tenet that proved to be its ultimate undoing – was a broad rejection of religion, technology, modern medicine, education and the arts. The KR declared intellectuals, artists, monks and other "elite" enemies of the state and sent them to secret prisons where they were tortured, made to confess their "crimes" and then killed. One of the KR's initial ploys was to convince people think that there were jobs for them – that they were needed for the revolution – and to come to Phnom Penh.

"When they say Angkar needs you to study they mean you go to die," my guide, Pon, at the Tuol Sleng prison museum told me.

All the destruction was done in the name of Angkar (from the Chinese word for "organization"), the vague hierarchy under which KR leaders operated. This hierarchy simultaneously implicated and absolved all who killed in its name. During four years of nightmarish horror, Pol Pot ("Brother Number One") and his lieutenants eradicated, whether through starvation, sickness, torture or execution, at least four million Cambodians, or roughly half the country's population. Babies were bashed against trees. Heads were cut off with rough palm bark.

"You die or not die according to Angkar," Pon explained. When people arrived at Tuol Sleng, a.k.a. S-21, which was the most notorious of the KR torture centers, they "understand already that everything is over," he said.

As tragic and needless as all this death was, the real destruction – and the darkest irony – of the KR years is that in "saving" Cambodia from the corrupt influence of foreign interests, the KR nearly destroyed Khmer culture. The country is a skeleton of its former self and it is questionable whether it will ever be fully fleshed again. As Cambodia struggles to rebuild its society, it does so in a cultural vacuum: traditional Khmer music is more readily found on CDs than in the countryside; a vast majority of monks have no knowledge of the old teachings; and what passes for education has left Phnom Penh not with a new intellectual pool to draw from but with thousands of recent graduates poorly trained in business management and marketing who vie for not nearly enough jobs.

The Cambodian birth rate at the moment is one of the highest in the world and the streets of Phnom Penh are filled with adolescents and twenty-some-things. They are generally happy and their only knowledge of the KR years is that someone, or often many people, from their family died. I asked a 25-year-old if he learned about the Khmer Rouge in school. He said no, but that he didn't want to learn about them. Like many Cambodians, he has no interest in that dark past. There is only the future.

Economy of fake

Phnom Penh's economy is built in large part on the manufacturing and sales of counterfeit items: reverse-engineered cellular phones, knockoff Rolexes, pirated movies and music, cheaply imitated designer clothes – even cash. When I went to pay my bill at a guesthouse one evening, the owner preferred that I give her two $10 bills instead of a $20, because she couldn't tell at night whether $20 bills were fake. She said she could wait until morning or – in the case of a counterfeit – until a few months later when the ink would begin to rub off.

Pirated movies were my favorite black market item. While the general selection at most corner bodegas consisted of straight-to-DVD releases and a ton of B-quality action flicks, there were also the occasional blockbusters and recent Oscar winners. Less than a month into my stay in Phnom Penh, the new "Wolverine" movie was readily available for $2 – packaged with cover art and all – two weeks before its cinematic release in the States.

But no matter what latest hit or timeless classic with which one whiled away an afternoon, it was always the English subtitles that stole the show. I don't know who is translating for these movie pirates, but it might as well be a parrot. Their meager efforts result in comedy for native English speakers. But for foreigners who depend on subtitles to follow along the experience can be frustrating. Take for example these translated lines from "Juno":

1. "My dad used to be in the Army" becomes "Daddy swing on me"
2. "Intercourse" becomes "into the cause"
3. "Particular" becomes "ridiculous"
4. "Penny saver" becomes "Pennsylvania"

These selections barely do the off-translations justice. Much of the phrasing was so divorced from what was happening on screen that it was often far more entertaining to just read the subtitles instead of following the movie.

Despite the prevalence of copied material, the country is starting to clean up its act and beginning to protect intellectual property rights. For example, a couple of years ago it banned the import of pirated movies from China. Realizing, apparently, that it was subsidizing another country's illegal manufacture of copyrighted material, Cambodia took a stand: now it pirates its own movies.

Such is the endearing blatancy of Cambodia's black market. Amid the piles of Levi's, stalls of Nokia's, cases of Citizen's and a myriad of other "brand name" products, one wonders – quite earnestly – if anything in the country is real.

Enter Cambodia

The Laos-Cambodia border crossing is stark: a long shimmering strip of asphalt sidled by desolate, leafless woodland that stretches back and disappears into brown horizons. To make the scene even more dire, I had to walk 200 meters in the heat of the high sun from the Laos border station to the Cambodian visa checkpoint. A Frenchman, Fred, who I was traveling with to Phnom Penh, didn't believe me when I told him we had to walk. He laughed and continued sitting in the sun while I shrugged and hefted my bag. Vans and buses continued to dispel passengers who ambled refugee-like across the mirage of no-man's-land.

The Cambodian checkpoint was little more than a ramshackle outpost of a half dozen clapboard buildings and a cluster of bleating goats. After an excruciatingly slow visa process, we boarded the next bus and set off for Phnom Penh, eight hours to the south. Along the way we passed lush palm-studded fields and sturdy red-dirt villages, while plumes of rubbish smoke in the distance acted as visual orientations across the otherwise flat terrain. In the northern provinces wood fuel is a big business – a business I later found out was illegal – and several roadside stands were populated by locals hacking logs into various sizes: some too big for fire pits, others as small as wood chips.

In what proved to be the highlight of the trip, a bat flew in the open door of the bus and flitted to the back where it caused fits among a group of Western girls who were chatting in the back seat. After a dinner break at a roadside noodle house, a large smiling Cambodian boarded the bus and squeezed into the seat next to me. He held a small covered cardboard box that turned out to contain two baby parrots that the man fed orange slices to and water from a small syringe.

Only in Cambodia.