This story was written shortly after the bombing or the World Trade towers on September 11. Just days afterward, I traveled through former Khmer Rogue strongholds in Cambodia and stayed at Muslim owned hotels. I look at terrorism, the cycle of violence, and impact on tourism. Ultimately, I ask what it means to be a US citizen in a world that is becoming resentful of American actions abroad.
What you need, my son
Is a holiday in Cambodia
Where people dress in black
A holiday in Cambodia
Where you’ll kiss ass or crack
- Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys)
On September 11th the United States was abruptly shocked by several well-coordinated terrorist attacks on its own soil in New York City. It was the most violent assault that the United States had ever experienced, having a far greater body count than Japanese military actions in Pearl Harbor (but much less fatalities than U.S. nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki). The surprise element was achieved not only because U.S. citizens never anticipated that an enemy could penetrate its well-protected borders, but also due to the fact that the antagonist was not a defined foreign militia. The assault came from small cells of terrorists linked to a Saudi-born national – Osama Bin Laden.
The weapons were not nuclear bombs or missiles used for warfare, but commonplace instruments and technology enjoyed everyday by tourists. The implements of destruction were four hijacked airplanes loaded with travelers. The terrorists were armed only with small, regulation-sized, box cutters that could be legitimately carried onto an airplane without difficulty.
The selected targets also stunned Americans. One airplane crashed into the highly protected Pentagon building used for collecting intelligence and designing military strategy, despite it being equipped with defensive radar. Two other commercial airliners were directed at perhaps the greatest financial symbol of globalization – the World Trade Center. A fourth commercial airplane, whose target might have been the U.S. political center, the White House, mysteriously crashed into a northeastern forest. Some believe it was shot down by the U.S. military as a preemptive strike while others feel that perhaps a heroic pilot might have jettisoned the vehicle into the ground as a sacrifice. Now over one month later Americans are still baffled and mesmerized at the sight of the two World Trade towers cascading to the ground in smoke, flame, and shattering glass.
I learned of this violence while in Thailand. I was on route to teach my Wednesday morning class about Hotel Management. Since I do not have access to a television set I was slow to learn about the event. A Muslim teacher who I had taught private English lessons to earlier quickly careened her car around a corner to offer an apology. She was the third person that offered condolences in my short ten-minute walk to school. When she tried to explain what had happened, I thought that she might have been mistranslating. I didn’t believe her and it finally took my own students to drag a television into my classroom to enlighten me. My students persisted in retaining the same analogy to describe the attack: it is just like a Godzilla or Hollywood movie but with Americans running away from falling buildings. I could not mentally teach class that day. I was immediately sucked into the television set like a junky, its extension cord morphing into an intravenous dripping tube.
The timing of the assault coincided with my scheduled holiday in Cambodia and Lao. I had purchased my nonrefundable ticket the day before in Bangkok. My passport rested on the desk of an U.S. embassy official waiting to have more pages added so that I could obtain visas for these countries. The U.S. embassy was now closed temporarily and I wondered if my passport would be returned in time for my departure near the end of September. For me the attacks were not a deterrent from travel. I worked hard to earn the airfare and I wasn’t about to let a religious fundamentalist frighten me from frolicking. However, I accepted that the mood of tourism would be greatly altered for perhaps years afterward.
Two weeks later, at the airport, I realized that it was oddly quiet. The lines were short and it was simple to obtain a seat on an earlier flight. There were many empty seats on the airplane, so I could really stretch out and make myself comfortable. In an odd way it was actually an ideal time to travel with ease. The one drawback is that every airport promptly added new service fees in order to extend insurance coverage to war and terrorism risks. The airline companies also hiked up the rates shortly after I purchased my tickets. In combination the added expenses would have made it impossible for me to afford to travel. Despite the added insurance charges, I was hard-pressed to find any differences at customs. As an experiment I carried a ballpoint pen with a pair of sharp scissors embedded inside it in my carry-on pack. The instrument could have easily been made into a weapon but it still passed customs in Thailand, and also later in Cambodia and Lao.
It wasn’t until the airplane for Siem Reap had departed from Bangkok that the scar on tourism had started to reveal itself. As the air hostesses poured drinks into my plastic cup and handed me food with packets of flimsy plastic utensils, I started to get visual images of what the unfortunate passengers on the ill-fated commercial airlines might have experienced. I imagined the sheer hatred and self-glorification that the terrorists must have possessed to brutally slit the throats of innocent stewardesses. I wondered how long the terrorists polished this distaste for human lives and how they eagerly trained for years to eliminate civilians by cold-hearted murder. I failed to place myself in their shoes. It was just too difficult to remove the humanity inside myself that the terrorist lacked. I could visualize the pilot opening the cockpit in sheer horror over screams and panic, and I thought about petrified tourists reaching for mobile phones to call the ones they loved.
I then focused on the morbid curiosity of what instruments could be used by terrorists to hijack a commercial airline. Could a plastic fork or pencil be split into a sharp weapon, could a shaving razor be converted into contraband, could a common pair of eyeglasses be used to stab a stewardess? It could be so easy… so easy… for a predator with a cold heart and a warped sense of self-righteousness to find a weapon to threaten and kill with. The passengers could be rendered helpless not just by the act of violence, but also the fear of what might take place.
These thoughts unsettled me, so I tried to guess who might be undercover security. Would it be more strategic of them to sit in the back or the front, window or aisle? Would it be a man traveling solo, maybe one not taking lunch to leave his hands free in order to reach for a hidden gun? Would anyone be allowed to sit next to this security personnel? Soon I tired of this game and tried to observe who the tourists were. Surprisingly, all the tourists were older Europeans traveling to Angkor Wat on a tourist package. There weren’t any young backpackers on the plane.
I casually inquired a few individuals about their travel. The general idea was that it was ludicrous to halt all travel just because of what happened in New York. Most of them had already purchased tickets in advance and few felt that SE Asia was really caught up in the conflict between the United States and Afghanistan. They felt security in being part of a package tour with like-minded tourists. After lunch and a beer I relaxed. I was never hesitant or afraid of air travel; I just empathized with the tourists in New York that never made it to their destinations. After this initial journey by air I never thought about it again. It took one flight and I was back to normal as a tourist. However, the tourism industries in SE Asia are now very worried that many tourists will not get back into that first airplane ride again for several more years (being incapacitated over the fear of what could happen).
My in-flight reading was a stack of travel warnings by the United States Department for tourist information (travel.state.gov) and a five-year-old guidebook. The travel warnings I downloaded as a precaution due to the conflict between United States and Afghanistan. The outdated guidebook I brought along for maps and out of curiosity over what difference five years can make in tourism. I also had located an abandoned copy of the Cambodian Daily newspaper. In the small, modest, newspaper I glanced an article about an unknown man, a suspected tourist, who was bludgeoned by seven men with a stick before being stuffed into his own gray suitcase at a Phnom Penh guesthouse. A truck dumped the corpse-containing suitcase along a Phnom Sruoch district road. In light of this article the travel warnings seemed more pleasant to read. The U.S. government has announced that:
“…there is a potential for strong anti-American sentiment and for retaliatory actions to be taken against U.S. citizens and interests throughout the world by terrorists and those who harbor grievances against the United States”.
The problem with this warning is that it is too broad and encompasses the majority of the developing world. For example, although Cambodia is not linked to the terrorists attacks in New York, many Khmer individuals could still “harbor grievances” since the United States secretly dumped hundreds of tons of bombs on eastern Cambodia in 1970 and continued with this military action via aircraft for several years. Some Khmer might also resent the American-backed coup in 1970 that installed Lon Nol, a former army Commander-in-Chief, into power – an action that led to the creation of an extremely corrupt, pro-American, government that brutally repressed Cambodians and rarely supported any democratic reforms. Apparently, the U.S. government heeded its own warning because they closed its embassy to the public in Phnom Penh while I was visiting and it wasn’t clear when they would reopen it.
The pre-September 11th travel warnings couldn’t exactly be used as an advertisement for Cambodia’s developing tourism industry either. Many rural parts remain subject to banditry, a number of Americans have been robbed at gunpoint while riding motorcycle taxis, illegal checkpoints demanding cash payments have been reported, and land mines were scattered throughout the rural areas that I planned to trek to. Grenade attacks and bombings have been used to settle political and personal disputes [a fact verified months after this travel when, during Cambodia’s first local election campaign, at least seven candidates had been assassinated].
The boat that I planned to take from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh once sank in 1997, and in 1999 a number of tourists were robbed on it at gunpoint. The Civil Aviation Organization has announced that Cambodia is unable to conduct effective safety oversights on its domestic airlines and robberies still exist on even heavily trafficked roads, which are accurately reported as being in extremely poor condition.
To Cambodia’s credit the recent travel warnings were an improvement when compared with my five-year-old guidebook. Let’s Go: Southeast Asia (1996) warns: 8-10 million anti-personnel mines litter the land (even blowing up a few tourists along the way), the Khmer Rouge are known to kill tourists who travel by land, and a nasty green snake called the Krait frequents the ruins of Angkor Wat (in fact, I almost stepped on one while exploring the ruins). This appraisal of Cambodian travel is still an improvement compared to one guidebook from 1994 that claimed that it was illegal for tourists to travel by land. Bus, boat, taxi, and train being considered too dangerous even for the most seasoned back packer. Cambodia is now starting to court tourists from other SE Asian destinations. Thailand has been playing a particularly large role in helping its neighbor establish itself as a popular tourist destination with its “two countries, one destination” advertising campaign. Thailand realizes from first hand experience that tourism can lead to better economic stability and cultivate the environment of peace with its neighbors. However, Cambodia’s reputation will continue to hinder the growth of tourism in the country.
My own agenda was to test some of these assumptions about Cambodia. I wanted to review the steps taken to first draw tourists into the country and to understand its level of safety. My original plan was somewhat thwarted by the recent U.S./Afghanistan conflict. My initial itinerary included excursions into Muslim villages, the eastern region previously bombed by U.S. warplanes, and remote areas that were former strongholds of the Khmer Rouge. I had no intention to seek danger or put myself at risk, but I did want to test a theory that humanity and goodness can exist even in those people that have witnessed horrible atrocities in their own lives.
After some forethought I decided to follow through with my original plan regardless of the recent terrorist attacks. However, I added one rule to my travel: I would not deny that I am a U.S. citizen. It did not matter if I was in a Muslim village or a town formerly assaulted by Americans. I would give my hosts honesty and face the wrath. I was willing to be accountable as an American in the global village.
On arrival I was embraced with the rush of stale air that can only be described as a herd of touts rushing toward you. I could tell by their desperate, competitive tones that tourism was down already. I selected my usual choice of least aggressive tout and headed to his taxi. While other taxi drivers applied pressure, the non-aggressive tout merely stated a fair price. I felt bad for a man that followed us pleading that he had spoken with me first, so I should change my decision. The begging tout showed me photographs of his family, which made me hesitate because he actually did seem like a kind man. But, I knew a fight could pursue if I changed my mind once again. The dice was already cast.
Once in the taxi it was the driver’s 15 minutes of fame. He could launch into his routine: selling a tour to Angkor Wat, promoting his “cousins” guesthouse, offering a discount on marijuana, finding me the best exchange rate, arranging for a boat ticket to Phnom Penh. This is a standard routine that I have grown accustomed to. The driver will offer a cheap ride into the city in hopes of coaxing the tourist into economic decisions that will benefit his friends or provide him with commission. Most guesthouses are like a small business that either directly employs workers such as drivers, tour guides, and travel agents or, at least, offer a kickback incentive for sending them business. At times this can be a shady group of friends or an extended family operation. They can function like a tiny tourism Mafioso full of predators, scams, intimidation, and trickery; or you can occasionally get lucky with an operation that is truly helpful and informative about history and current events. Either way it is a gamble for tourists, albeit an arrangement that can be easily altered simply by paying your bill and walking to another guesthouse down the street.
Usually I will have the driver drop me in the city center claiming that I am scheduled to meet a friend, only to find accommodations by my own volition. However, sometimes it is fun to hire a taxi driver for a day or two just to see what unfolds. This time I took a new strategy for business. I stated bluntly, “Look, you want to help your friends profit and to make commissions for yourself. I accept this. However, this is my limitations and budget, $______. Offer me a fair price for both of us and let’s not haggle. If you can find me what I want in this price range, I’ll hire you for tomorrow. After you show me two guesthouses, I’ll walk if I am not happy with them”. I was learning to be a better tourist. Not one that just gets a bargain rate, but one that keeps both parties happy with a deal. Sometimes it is worth paying extra to create a friendly environment that can surpass the typical business arrangement. We moderately negotiated as we drove past a Swiss-donated hospital, a Japanese road construction project, and French and Chinese offices for renovation projects in Angkor Wat. We sealed the deal and the next day the driver was hired to take me to Angkor Wat.
The skulls stacked on top of each other looking like dried coconut shells. Inside these skulls once contained thoughts and life. Before each execution maybe there was a thought of family, a plan for escape, a desire to not feel pain, a yearning for a better afterlife. Then there was nothing: a period in a mass grave, an unearthing, a cataloging of data, a placement into a shrine. But, the thoughts and lives are surely gone, only surviving in recounted stories of survivors. These skulls were mounded in the Ta Yet monument near Angkor Wat. The Khmer Rouge had a small schoolhouse in the area that they converted into a prison where they tortured and killed a significant amount of the local population. The area now serves as a small temple and the school where the atrocities took place is now the living quarters of a few monks.
The killing fields monument in Siem Reap is small compared with the one in Phnom Penh. In the social engineering program of Saloth Sar (Pol Pot) opposition was exterminated and Cambodians rounded up and forced into the countryside as slave laborers. People could get exterminated for reasons such as having an education, wearing glasses, or speaking a foreign language. At least 40-50 thousand people were taken to the Choeng Ek killing fields to be executed (sometimes by children). The bodies were sometimes sorted out into special mass graves: some for bodies without heads, others for naked women and children – the later often getting there heads economically crushed by swinging their small bodies at the hardness of a tree trunk. Many individuals, including foreigners, were instead incarcerated in the infamous S-21 prison (Tuol Sleng) where they were routinely tortured in the converted school. Children were often recruited as guards that cruelly participated in beating, whipping, or electrocuting the prisoners held. Although it is not certain how many perished in this camp, records show that 10,499 were murdered here by the Khmer Rogue regime (these statistics do not include all the children killed). Only seven people survived S-21 including its staff members.
Today a genocide museum marks the spot of this S-21 prison camp; and a towering monument with multiple layers of skulls, paper, and bones serves as a reminder of the killing fields in Phnom Penh. The place in which Saloth Sar finally died, unpunished for the atrocities, is now earmarked as a future site to be developed.
Despite these atrocities the western world did nothing to intervene. It was Vietnam who finally invaded in 1978 to put an end to the predators’ insanity. It is interesting to note that both the United States and the United Nations supported the Khmer Rogue instead of the new government that the Vietnamese helped to establish, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. Civil War continued throughout Cambodia. It is estimated that Cambodia lost 1.7 million lives, about 10-15% of its entire population, due to Civil War, famine, and the Khmer Rogue genocide. In 1989 Vietnam finally removed its forces from the country and was replaced by the United Nations peacekeeping force (UNTAC). In addition to overseeing an election in 1993, which formulated a new coalition government, the presence of UNTAC also contributed to the infrastructure for tourism. Guesthouses and eating establishments had to be constructed to accommodate the new peacekeepers. Locals were taught foreign languages and trained as tour guides during this time. Prostitution also became an important revenue source since many Cambodian women were in complete poverty while the peacekeepers were comparatively wealthy and could prey on them. The salary of the peacekeepers actually caused a type of inflation in Cambodia because of the drastically different scales between locals and visiting peacekeepers. To their credit, the peacekeepers successfully forged a type of peace that enabled Cambodia to rebuild itself once again. After years of conflict and horror Cambodia is finally stepping into the global village and opening its borders to tourism.
Being part of a new wave of tourism, like many others in Cambodia, I retrace the paths of a genocide that occurred during my lifetime, including the Ta Yet killing field monument near Siem Reap. One Buddhist monk clad in an orange robe silently watched as I photographed the monument. There is a controversy in the Cambodian newspaper because some monks have been functioning as tour guides. The accused monks have claimed that they are only trying to practice English and spread Buddhism, but local guides resent the competition claiming that monks should not be allowed to participate in the tourism industry. In result I never knew how to behave around monks while in Siem Reap or Angkor Wat. We just kind of watched each other passively until my driver interrupted, “Listen, I am really sorry to hear about what happened to the 5,000 victims [now downgraded to around 3,000] in New York”. The morning paper announced that the new war had already gone global, even Japan was being bullied to alter its pacifistic constitution so that it could send troops overseas. I gaze at the stack of heads before me in knowledge that due to the Khmer Rogue over 1.7 million individuals died during its reign, while the west turned away. “I am sorry about what happened here in Cambodia, too” I managed to return.
Angkor Wat is truly an amazing place. Its ruins still amaze me whenever I look at my photographs. I found myself growing fascinated with the recent history of the ruins. This prized tourist site was the center of many battles between the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese soldiers. Although I have read conflicting stories, it is evident that these two sides claimed different ruins as headquarters. A former child soldier who had fought on both sides, Aki Ra, explained that the Khmer Rogue occupied Ta Prahm, Preak Khan, and many jungle camps. The Vietnamese controlled Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, the Bakain Mountains, and the roadsides. The warfare between the two sides damaged these sites, but the greatest destruction was caused by soldiers who scavenged the ruins to fund their conflicts (often selling to wealthy western art collectors) and the senseless use of 800 year old artifacts for target practice. Both sides pillaged and destroyed the ruins that they occupied. The Vietnamese also cut down many trees and later sold the natural resource.
Today there still seems to be reluctance to own up to this damage. Two unshakable child guides who attached themselves to me claimed that Preak Khan was actually used by the Vietnamese as a hospital and mistakenly claimed that the destruction of this ruin was actually by Hindi groups who tried to counter the Buddhist imagery in the architecture. The blame continues to shift directions, ancient and modern. At another ruin I witnessed a bizarre act of torture as a bitter-faced woman pinched and dug her fingernails into a worker’s arm. The enormous red spots glowed with the rush of blood to the area. I never learned if this worker was getting punished or treated for illness by some traditional cure.
Whenever I returned to my taxi I could spot my driver participating in an ad hoc gambling match. This was not my issue, but the activity inspired him to take me to a cock-fighting event held at the public zoo. The betting event was held at night, so I convinced my driver to take me to a nearby landmine museum instead. The owner constructed the museum to showcase artifacts that he collected from the civil war and to educate tourists about the danger of mining (Princess Diana took up the cause to prevent land mine use by advocating a multinational treaty, but the United States refused to ratify it insisting on its right to use these weapons in foreign lands). The owner had been forced into fighting for the Khmer Rogue at the age of ten after they had killed both his parents. He remembers his childhood friend being executed for stealing pig scraps and a man getting disemboweled for plucking a banana from a tree while the family was forced to applaud and clap. After working hard as a tour guide for years he established a small museum in 1999 to demonstrate the horror of land mines. He claims that there have been 27,000 victims of land mines in the Siem Reap providence alone.
The Cambodian military, however, is trying to put him out of business. The army has started their own museum and has raided his tourist site to confiscate some of his mines and war artifacts. Later the material that the army took allegedly appeared in the military’s own museum. The owner continues his struggle to operate his museum while the army claims he is not qualified to handle the artifacts of war, despite the fact that he was trained by the United Nations to clear mines and has been doing so for the past ten years. The Cambodian army is trying to force him into closing down, so this important tourist site could vanish soon.
By the time I left the mine museum it was nightfall. We drove back in total darkness on red-colored dirt roads with enormous potholes in them. A brief paranoia set in. It would be so easy….a lone tourist at night…a dirt road in a small village…a corrupt driver who “harbors grievances” against Americans… maybe a missing tourist that disappears one evening and nobody knows his whereabouts… it could be so easy for me to be the target of a predator. I shook these thought from my mind as my driver, actually quite friendly, took me back to his “cousins” guesthouse for a night of sleep before catching the boat to Phnom Penh
The trees of Angkor Wat are swallowing the ruins. They first sprout from small cracks on the roofs, then in time send roots and branches on missions to claim new territories. They eat at the stone walls while crushing them with their roots. The trees pry into the stone carvings of the ruins, expediting their decay and erosion. Nature always conquers man; humans may cut down forests to build shrines for its deities and leaders, but floods and moss will dissolve them in the end. Men might try to temporarily tame a river with a damn, but water and wind will send cracks crawling like a cancer until the damn is weakened and crumbles. The faces of U.S. presidents on Mt. Rushmore are eroding and splitting into pieces and the great architecture of the Khmer Empire emptied of its people before being crushed in the jaws of giant trees. It may take centuries but nature slowly washes away the human past. Nature is still lurking in the corners when explorers and anthropologists turn up in the future.
Weeks later while riding on a motorcycle through coastal villages near Kep, I saw these building-devouring trees once again. The prey this time was a French colonial building. It was constructed in the classic style favored in the colonial era. It would have been a perfect location by the beachside. As I walked into the dilapidated kitchen I imagined a gourmet dinner being prepared after a nice swim. However, the house has now become a ghost of the past. The roof has crumbled and the spiral staircase has been ripped to smithereens. Some locals claimed that a U.S. bomb tore away at the roof. In desire to destroy communist Vietnam the U.S. air campaigns spread into the bordering nation of Cambodia (and Lao), destroying many of the remnants and artifacts left behind by other western nations. This French colonial house might have been another casualty of U.S. aggression. The trees have claimed its body and spread like a disease. The branches have stabbed through the building’s windowsills and its roots have pried into the doorways. The trees are slowly squeezing like a fist. The walls will eventually crumble destroying another part of Cambodia’s past. French tourists may seek out this relic for perhaps one more decade but nature will devour it all in the end.
Despite the travel warnings the boat ride from Siem Reap was rather safe. Western tourists felt comfortable enough to climb on top of it roof to bask in the sun and smoke joints. It is a belief of many Cambodians that women shouldn’t sit above men on a boat lest the boat sink due to the wrath of the river spirits. However, the only hint of trouble was when the boat snagged on something at the bottom of the river, spraying polluted water and sending heaps of noxious, black, fumes out of the engine. The foul stench sent the majority of westerners back into the hull of the boat until (after twenty minutes of a low-budget Asian film about an evil, weapon-clad, American businessman who cheats a heroic, unarmed, Asian martial arts expert who seeks revenge) the bored tourists wandered back to the boat’s roof to smoke the new marijuana spliffs that they had just rolled during the intermission. The riverboats, being manufactured by both Malaysian and Chinese companies, were quite enjoyable regardless of their reputation.
In Phnom Penh I set myself up in a Muslim-owned guesthouse located next to a mosque. The United States had just started the process of bombing Afghanistan. However, I did not experience any confrontations with Muslims in the area. In fact Muslims repeatedly offered condolences and inquired if my family was alright. The one exception was a shopkeeper who laughed when I told him that I was an American. Most Muslims refrained from making political comments, but apologetically focused instead on how the terrorist acts affected my family: were they in New York at the time or did any family members get hurt? The Malaysian family that operated the guesthouse was rather friendly and trusting. They were absorbed by the new warfare. They joined the western tourists for America’s CNN broadcasts throughout the day. The United States had just started its bombing campaign in Afghanistan.
Although everyone was on vacation, no one could tear themselves away from the television. The guesthouse had an enormous selection of bootlegged VCDs. Some of these movies hadn’t even been released in the U.S. yet, however, you practically had to fistfight someone to get them to change the channel or play a film. I sought refuse in Cambodia’s English-version newspapers. Unfortunately, these too were dominated by the wartime activities. The newspapers lifted all their news from American-operated wire services –the Associate Press (AP) and the United Press International (UPI) –allowing only one page for local politics. One newspaper also had a section listing local crimes for the month. There seemed to be a shooting every day or two, the killings being traced primarily to family arguments.
I couldn’t escape CNN broadcasts. Therefore, I decided to visit the Foreign Correspondence Club of Cambodia to get an update on local events. This eatery is widely popular among journalists and still is a center for foreign media representatives. The menu represents all corners of the global village: Cambodian, French, Italian, Greek, Chinese, Mexican, and so forth. As I wandered among the fleets of journalists I felt like an imposter. I am an English teacher, not a journalist. I was crashing the journalist club as a non-member (who forgot to buy a stolen or fake copy of a journalist pass on Khaosan Road in Bangkok), but luckily they accepted tourists so that I could get in. I tried to replicate that aura of a serious, bearded, self-important, intellect that is busy discussing a scoop; but I was fooling no one. Instead, I opted for the stereotype of the gin-swilling alternative columnist with a pastrami sandwich. The role I adopted was of no importance, since none of the journalists were discussing local events anyway. The eavesdropped conversations were exclusively about the terrorist acts and U.S. intervention into Afghanistan. All foreign news was fully eclipsed by CNN reports.
The United States was the center of the world once again. The world was like a common U.S. map that splits Asia in half and locates the United States in the dead center. Local news was stuck in a slowly dripping sieve. Finding an update to an event in Rwanda would have been like squeezing water from a cinder block in the Sahara Desert. The journalists at the FCC club were transformed into talking heads that analyzed statistics and predicted future like psychics. It was the day that the media went fishing. They hung up a “will return” sign while they basked in a television’s glow, drinking booze, and waiting for the next bite of a CNN update.
I went on quest for Cambodian music CDs at the Russian market in Phnom Penh. I was pleasingly surprised at the scale of bootlegged western music. Different Cambodian ethnic groups had their own stalls that competed among themselves. There was a Khmer music shop located next to a Vietnamese CD stand. In another aisle a Malaysian store competed with a Chinese stall to outsell a comprehensive array of CDs from various genres. American and European music was abundant for only $2-3. I could even locate Japanese pop music at a few stalls. There was a large choice of French music available, since there are many French tourists in their former colony and the price is less than 10% of the cost for a CD at home. The Chinese bootleggers were reputed to have the best quality by the expatriates. A rumor that I have personally verified after sampling sounds from all the competition involved. The Cambodian music I found was limited to sappy solos and duets that sounded akin to Indian movie soundtracks. By request the vendors would drag out a sample of Cambodian rock that replicated American classics from the 50s and 60s, but heavier on the reverb so that the vocals echoed to disguise the poor English sung.
My carnivorous excursion through the Russian market also led to several bootleg bookstores. In Asia there is a large market of books that follow the tourist circuit. Certain titles can be found in India, Thailand, Cambodia, and other countries. The selections are also available in the west but the market in Asia takes on a different role. Tourists pick up these books new, used, or pirated. The books migrate across Asia with the tourists who later sell them in a different city of country as they travel. The titles are focused on travel. Of course, this also includes many guidebooks that are traded once a tourist moves to their next destination (this is how I once purchased the outdated SE Asia guidebook that I was using now).
In the past few years there seems to be an explosion of non-guidebooks about travel. Popular titles include: Pico Iyer’s Video Night in Katamandu, Howard Mark’s Mr. Nice, William Sutcliffe’s Are You Experienced, Alex Garland’s The Beach, William Dalrymple’s Age of Kali, Christopher Robbin’s The Ravens, James Eckardt’s On the Bus, Tom Mangold’s The Tunnels of Cuchi, Peter Matthiesen’s Snow Leopard, Eric Newby’s A Short Walk Through the Hindu Kush, and Amit Gilboa’s Off the Rails in Phnom Penh: Girls, Guns, and Ganja, and a variety of anthologies relating to travel hardships and disasters. Although this isn’t even close to being an exhaustive list, the fact remains that, with globalization, travel literature is burgeoning. These books are all written by westerners who have all at one point explored Asia. More importantly, book sales have reached the point to which it has proved profitable for Asians to pirate these books to sell to other westerners who have also ventured into Asia — perhaps inspired from these very writings.
In a one-stop shopping center called the Russian market I purchased a healthy supply of bootlegged books and pirated CDs. As an expatriate living in Asia I crave access to this material which can be difficult to come by otherwise. These hunted investments are not without drawbacks. I have bought several CDs with major flaws in the recording and a few books that have had ink literally fall off the pages as I read them. Nevertheless, these risks are crucial for a true expatriate living off the wages of a English teacher in a foreign land. Ethical questions aside, the English texts are sometimes a highly coveted find that can be shared with other expatriates.
While wandering the Russian market and buying merchandise that evaded all forms of copyright laws, I stumbled onto an even more startling discovery. A great amount of U.S. dollars circulating at the market were bootlegged, too. I have never physically witnessed counterfeit dollars before, but in Cambodia it was fairly common. I first noticed this shortly after exchanging Thai baht for U.S. dollars. As I peeled away a twenty-dollar bill I noticed that it had no watermark or security strip, despite the fact that it was the new version with the off-centered portrait of an U.S. president. I later encountered phony five dollar bills in the same city. Needless to say I tried to pass them off elsewhere so that I wouldn’t get stuck with them. To my surprise it made no difference to the vendors. They freely accepted the fake currency. The idea that U.S. dollars had value was what mattered.
History plays a role in this phenomenon. The Khmer Rogue abolished the use of currency after it had taken power. Money no longer had any use under the Pol Pot regime. Reports document that Cambodian money lay cast away in the street at the time getting uselessly blown away by the wind like common litter. The Cambodian money today, the Riel, has little more value today. It is only used as spare change since the country is too poor to produce its own coins. The customs department didn’t even want me to pay my airport departure tax in their own currency. Monetary exchange was usually in U.S. dollars or Thai baht.
Nevertheless, my observation does not mean to imply that Cambodians do not understand capitalism. They are skilled at the art of bargaining. They also keep updated about current exchange rates. I once paid my guesthouse tab early one morning before the owner could make a trip to the bank. When we disagreed on the exchange rate that they gave me, the owner made a phone call on his mobile phone and downloaded a complete update on the dollar, baht, and riel. A calculator was then broke out before arriving at the appropriate sum. Ultimately, currency exchange was like a game. They pretended that the counterfeit dollars were authentic; I heeded the illusion that the old paper with the wrong color of green ink was the real thing. In the end it didn’t matter because everyone just passed the money along to the next party.
The Muslim operated guesthouse was nice for a few days. I met and swapped stories with other travelers while we swung on hammocks with our views of a lake. At one point a beautiful Australian woman lay next to me as we discussed life and travel for the next six hours. The sun set and we still hadn’t moved. We looked into each other’s eyes trying to deem the possibility of passion. There is something sexy about travel that brings strangers together in romantic interludes. Romance is an element that often lurks in the background. Singles spontaneously hook up and form short-term couples. The sensation of escaping from the working world back home often promotes a chemistry that would not be allowed in a different situation. To her credit this wonderful woman was assertive and up front. She clearly made remarks that “she was in the mood for a few days of romance,” then more aggressively that, “she would appreciate a nice shagging for a couple hours” or that “she would love to join someone for a trip to the south”.
In truth, I was in a situation that I fantasized about for years. This was a strikingly attractive woman with a wonderful personality. I wouldn’t have hesitated to match her display of affection. However, there had been a few plot shifts in my life a few weeks earlier. I had embarked on a new relationship after few years of hiatus. After all this time and energy, I finally found romance once I had stopped looking for it. The loss of my companionship to a Hungarian eventually led toward a tender beginning with a Japanese woman. I did not want to mess up this new relationship no matter how powerful the spirit of travel impacted me. The new beginning excited me and I didn’t wish to destroy something that was still in a fragile stage, so the next morning I avoided the temptation as we both went our separate ways.
She went south; I went to a blood bank. I decided that I would donate blood to the Muslim neighborhood hospital as a peaceful symbol that contrasted the U.S./Afghanistan conflict. There is a shortage of blood for transfusions and Cambodian children could really benefit from this act of charity. A few Muslims personally thanked me as I climbed on a motorcycle for the small hospital. Unfortunately, I arrived too early and the staff wasn’t ready to provide the service. I walked around the hospital in the meantime noticing stained walls and conditions that would not have been considered sanitary back home. The nurses on duty could not speak much English and I worried if they really understood what I wanted to do.
While waiting I made the mistake of pulling out some reading material. Tucked inside my book were travel warnings that Cambodian medical facilities were not up to international standards. Like in the United States, I had no medical insurance to cover the cost of an accident. The U.S. government’s consular information sheet for Cambodia stated that “there are no ATM machines in Cambodia”. I started to conjure up worst case scenarios. I imagined complications that I had no insurance for and feared having no access to money from my Thai bank account to cover emergency expenses. Furthermore, I could not communicate basic questions such as if a fresh needle would be used to extract blood. I sat waiting for one hour while focused on the equipment that would be used for the procedure. A dripping tube rested on the periphery in the corner. Whatever time it took for the actual nurse to arrive I’ll never know. I blazed out of the blood bank before it was fully open.
I made a major U-turn that I am not proud of in retrospect. Instead of the positive contribution I ended up at a Irish pub drinking pints of stout beer. The bar was rumored to be a front for IRA terrorists, but that is probably just another example of tourist folklore. Tourists are often inspired by Cambodia’s reputation for lawlessness. In result, entertainment establishments take on darker roles when tourists tell stories about them. For example, a French restaurant is actually operated by “Basque or Corsican separatists”, an Indian restaurant is owned by “Tamil Tigers”, and an Italian pizzeria that adds marijuana to its spaghetti sauce is, of course, reported to by fronted by the “Sicilian Mafia”. The tourist folklore could be either a falsehood or a reality. However, the idea that Cambodia remains a “Wild West” full of corruption and lawlessness does plenty to fill the imaginations of tourists. Conversation is passed among tourists that certain establishments are merely fronts for various terrorist groups. This very idea excites many tourists to seek them out.
It would be curious to learn if America’s war on terrorism will extend beyond Afghanistan. Will the United States eventually intervene in the business transactions of shady Cambodian establishments to look for concealed loans to terrorists? Will they pry into a restaurant’s bookkeeping that loosely consists of markings on a piece of paper that are promptly discarded after payment? Will they scour guesthouse visitor lists that are comprised of unchecked passports and some bogus tourist identities? Will they invade the Russian market to confiscate phony dollars? Will terrorist groups in Europe also be targeted and allied countries bombed for harboring terrorists? Could the United States also be considered terrorists for the bombs that it has dropped in Asia? The war on terrorism doesn’t have clearly outlined objectives and the term, in itself, is loaded with double standards. An act is not considered terrorism if it is done by oneself or by allies such as Israel. I was starting to get bewildered. Whatever organization was in charge of this Irish pub that I sat in, I was thankful for the stout beer at that moment. As I nursed my brew I decided to catch a mini-van to Kompot in the south.
The stories about Cambodia’s roads are all true. They are of the worst quality that I have ever experienced in my travels. The majority of them seem to be made of red soil with gigantic potholes in the center of them. Since I was in Cambodia during the rainy season the holes had filled with water so that children were actually swimming and bathing in them. The paved roads seemed to be cracked into a thousand pieces scientifically designed to make the maximum impact on ones neck and other whiplash prone areas. I recruited a Muslim motorcycle driver to take me to the Southern coastal areas near the Vietnamese border. We drove past areas that had been heavily bombed by Americans. Interestingly, my driver’s anger was directed at the Vietnamese. “See that island there,” he pointed out, “it is Khmer but the Vietnamese took it away”. The American-made bomb craters were not an issue for him even though he was Muslim. He eventually drove me to Kep and other small villages in the area (a region that my guidebook issued travel warnings for). After he had established trust we took a spontaneous detour through a small Muslim village.
A small paranoia crept into my mind…. it would be so easy….alone and unaccounted for…to be a victim….to disappear. After hopping his motorcycle down small off-road trails he took me on a tour of a Muslim town. “See…” he insisted, “we Muslims are not bad”. He pointed out the women who were clad in Muslim style. He pointed out grandparents playing with children. He pointed out a small schoolhouse. He stated simply that this was a clean village with no crime, drugs, or prostitution. It was a quiet and peaceful village located in semi-isolation surrounded by rice paddies. “Come now, I’ll take you to visit a friend for some fresh coconut juice”. We sat drinking out of the coconuts in silence. Outside of basic business terms my driver could not speak English. He had exhausted his entire supply of English. He must have thought about his statement for the past hour: “See, we Muslims are not bad”.
I rented a car for my next journey. Although I was promised the front seat to myself, the private taxi loaded a dozen locals into the vehicle and I was eventually demoted to the back seat. The passengers slowly dissipated between the trail from Kompot to Sihanoukville. We were followed by one of the most amazing sunsets that I have ever witnessed. Soon a monsoon rain joined in and a rainbow sprouted out of the ground. Half way through the journey it had become totally pitch black and only an old couple remained as passengers. Lampposts were virtually non-existent and the road softened into mud. The journey became painstakingly slow as we re-routed around the water-filled potholes. Children chased after the car splashing us as an amusing game. The windows did not roll up so mosquitoes had a play day inside the car. My guidebook warned of malaria and also issued a warning against traveling on this road since it was former Khmer Rogue territory. Armed bandits were supposed to be living here at one point.
A few times the car got stuck in a watery hole that proved deeper than it appeared. I seriously wondered if we would make it. The villages on this road started getting smaller and smaller. Few had any guesthouses in case if we did get stuck in the mud. I imagined having to walk on this dark road to the nearest town…. it would be so easy… a “rich” American defenseless at night….a bandit with poverty and bad intent…a driver who “harbors grievances”… it would be so easy to become a victim and disappear”.
We made it to Sihanoukville. The first sign we passed of urban civilization were truck stops and whorehouses. We then could see the lights of houses in the distance. I knew we had made it to Sihanoukville, although it took an extra 2-3 hours to arrive. As I remembered the villages that we had passed I reminded myself of elements other than the rain and poor road conditions. The corner markets of these villages were small. They seldom offered more than three dozen items on display: small cellophane bags of sugar, cooking oil, candy, cigarettes, whiskey, glass bottles of gasoline. Some of these markets doubled as community centers. Many had a television located at a house nearby. From the car I could see crowds of locals in front of the television set, but I could not distinguish the programs being watched. Maybe they were viewing CNN, or a pirated VCD, or a bad television series.
What I could verify is that television was a center of the nightlife. Entire families would crowd in a doorway to join in this activity. Another trend, one that exists all over Cambodia, is that various political parties operate some of these corner markets. You could see their banners advertising the community center. They were like corporate brand names. Instead of superstores such as Walmart, Safeway, and Albertsons; shoppers visited wooden shacks that advertised Funcinpec, Sam Rainsy, and Cambodia People’s Party. It was an odd twist to capitalism.
Cambodia has many secluded coastlines that tourists seldom venture to. I had covered a length of them in the past few days. The beaches in Sihanoukville seemed the nicest of them all. However, the city itself had a few problems. The city is a major port between Thailand and Cambodia. There are immigration points on both borders that can only be reached by boat. Thai tourists are not usually attracted to the beaches. In contrast to westerners who love to sunbathe, Thais avoid tanning because they prefer white skin and believe that brown skin is ugly to behold. Whitening cosmetics abound even though some are quite dangerous to the skin. Some Thai tourists come to Cambodia for cheaper shopping sprees, but others, perhaps more importantly, come to Cambodia for the casinos. In Thailand gambling is common although it is illegal, so Thai citizens seek out the legal casinos immediately across the border. Gambling is a major component of Cambodia’s new tourism industry. I visited several of the small casinos but I never participated in this activity because they insisted on checking my backpack for weapons. I didn’t feel like having to re-pack everything afterwards, so I continued with the beaches instead. On my way out I estimated that at least 90% of the clients were Thai nationals.
On one of the beaches I spotted something that will have to be cleaned up before tourists will be attracted. Walking on the beach I nearly stepped on some used syringes. I photographed them to document the material used to cook up a batch of heroin. I saw used needles, spoons, syringes, vials, butane lighters, and soiled condoms. What I could not establish was who had actually used the material: Thais, westerners, or locals? Recreational drugs are a tourist attraction for some visitors. Marijuana can be easily found legally for as cheap as $5 a kilogram. The locals prefer various forms of amphetamines and indeed more than one motorcycle driver in the city offered to sell me some. On several occasions in Cambodia I was asked to buy opium but I have no interest in imbibing in this drug. Whatever one’s attitude is about recreational drugs, the fact is that tourism at least contributes to the trafficking in Cambodia. Many tourists enjoy the high when they are on a vacation without the responsibility of reporting to work the next day, and the locals benefit from the revenue generated.
Sihanoukville is also a city with a large and significant amount of prostitutes living in it. It is not hidden at all. Motorcycle drivers commonly suggest taking you to a massage parlor for sex because they want their commission, but a tourist only has to walk in any direction for a few minutes before finding some place to go to. On one of my exploratory walks I stumbled onto a dirt road with an unusually high amount of signs advertising a massage. At the entrance of dead-end street was an armed guard that looked like a police officer. As I walked down the street women beckoned me from both sides to join them in their ramshackle, wooden, huts. Toward the end of the street I had to stop in my tracks. I am a hard person to shock these days, but what appeared in front of me was hard to believe.
I had stumbled onto a location where child prostitution was promoted quite openly. Several young women, who I estimate to be between the ages of 11 and 19 were in front of their work station trying to draw clients in. They played up to pedophiles by having the girls carry stuffed animals or wear standard primary school uniforms. This is a serious problem in SE Asia. Westerners come here to engage in the acts that would be considered illegal in their own countries. Many accused pedophiles, such as the American fugitive Eric Franklin Rosser, who had been on America’s most wanted list for years, and the British rock star, Gary Glitter, have preyed on girls in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, or Lao. Rosser was finally captured in Thailand recently, but Glitter still resides in Cambodia to date. Apparently, they both knew of places like this in Sihanoukville.
I counted twelve rooms at this establishment, of which, about seven appeared occupied. The clients that I could see were exclusively westerners. As I stood dumbfounded three girls surrounded me in competition for my business. The one holding a teddy bear couldn’t have been more than 12-years-old. The other two were probably 13 or 14. Eventually an older woman approached me who I assume took on the role of the madam. She dryly stated, “Pick one of the girls for $5”. It was the buy-in price, her cut, tips would later be demanded by the young girls. I tried to make an exit by suggesting that I was only looking for a beer. She gave me a look like she had seen this reaction before.
She started the negotiation process, “You take two girls for $10 and I can give you a beer for free”. The three girls pulled at my arms trying to encourage me. They promised yum-yum (blow jobs) and bang-bang (intercourse). That was the only English that they could speak. It was a moment that I froze up. I stood motionless which only made them fight much harder for my foreign cash. Ultimately, the feeling that arose next was utter disgust; not at the girls but at myself. I felt dirty just being in the environment. I hatred myself for even documenting the reality of child prostitution. There has to be some limit to my neo-journalism, and I feel that I had crossed it — albeit accidentally. Some tourist sites should never be photographed. I rushed away from the street as the older woman pleaded for me to come back. I nearly collided with the policeman as I fled from the street. Although I never would have considered doing anything, I felt complete shame. It felt sinful just to see the place, especially because I have a girlfriend and three nieces. I took a long shower, washing myself twice. I followed it up by a drinking binge that lasted for two days.
When I had come to my senses once again I decided I had to do one thing that was positive. I had to contribute something good to Cambodia. I wandered around until I found a guesthouse operated by British expatriates –there were several in Cambodia. However, something was unusual about the restaurant in this place. Service was virtually non-existent. When I later asked to pay my tab the owner told me just to give him whatever I thought was fair. As more clients arrived I figured out the situation. This guesthouse was filled with English teachers. They were given room and board in trade for teaching at various schools in the city. One of the teachers fetched me a cup of coffee while we talked about teaching for a while. I exchanged tips with other teachers and helped one to design a test.
On the table rested a Xerox copy of the Headway series. These English books are omnipresent in Cambodia. Almost all of them are copied because few Cambodians can afford the retail price. The Headway series can be found in every city and even the smallest of villages. From what I saw it was probably the most read book in the country. This is by no accident. Cambodians understand that English is a way to find employment. They know that English will help them attract tourists. It gives them a competitive edge against tour guides that can’t speak in the global tongue.
Throughout Cambodia, English schools are cropping up everywhere. Literally every village that I went by had at least one make shift English school. Some lacked materials such as a basic chalkboard, others are built right on top of a dirt floor. They advertise everything from business English, tourism English, computer English, engineering English, to basic English grammar at all levels. Few locals can afford to take courses, so what is happening is that they will visit a school when they have saved extra cash for a single lesson. One driver explained that when business is good he will attend three classes a week, but when the tourism season is down he might go months without a lesson. Cambodia is slowly piecing its way to English step-by-step.
The time spent with the English teachers lifted my spirits. They did not need me to teach that day, so I donated whatever resources I could. It wasn’t a good deed for Cambodia but I did make a contribution to the teachers that I spoke with. I gave thought to working in Cambodia for a while. However, a more pressing need was to get back to Thailand. I would first head back to Phnom Penh for a few days before leaving the country.
In my short time back in Phnom Penh I accomplished no meaningful acts of great generosity. I donated most of my clothing, toiletries, and medical supplies before I left, since it is my standard policy as a tourist. In all my travels Cambodia is the only place where I cracked. I got sucked into its dark underbelly. Cambodia is full of predators: Khmer Rogue executing political dissenters, Vietnamese pilfering Cambodia’s forests, western art dealers buying stolen merchandise, trees preying on a colonist’s building, pedophiles prowling for impoverished children, UN workers salivating over cheap prostitutes, motorcycle drivers tricking unaware tourists, tourists exploiting poor and desperate vendors, drug dealers profiting from the misery of an addict, a police officer seeking a bribe, a traveler on prowl for romance, journalists in search of a story, terrorists planning for the next target, and those with power and wealth aggressing against those who can’t defend themselves. The global village is full of predators who are locked in a game of consumption and self-fulfillment.
In result, I drank more alcohol than I normally would on an average holiday, sometimes blaming it on the contaminated water supply. The war in Afghanistan also made my tourism too much of a political act and I wasn’t pleased by it. No matter where I went war would follow –both from the past and the present. It was less of a relaxing vacation and more like a test for endurance. I did not like the type of tourist that I was becoming and I looked forward to my departure. I wanted to meet my Japanese girlfriend at the airport because I wanted beauty and the feeling of connecting with someone once again. Getting to know somebody on an intimate basis suddenly seemed like the ultimate form of tourism.
The most positive side of this trip turned out to be my brief encounters with Muslims. The Muslims were truly friendly. I could view humanity in their fair treatment of me. However, my last chilling twenty minutes in Cambodia hint that they might have a hard time ahead. I arranged for a ride to the airport from a motorcycle driver (tuk-tuks are nearly non-existent in the country). Mistaking him for a Muslim I complimented a mosque that I thought appeared to be beautiful. The driver turned back toward me declaring that he hated Muslims. He thought that all Muslims in Cambodia should be killed as a precaution. The driver, who was Buddhist, neglected to acknowledge the pacifist tenets of his own religion. He explained that the only reason that Muslims behaved in Cambodia was that they were a minority who could easily be exterminated if they misbehaved. He bragged that “we still have our AK-47s so we can keep things under control”. At the airport the driver bragged, “The Muslims know that we could do to them what we had done to others in the killing fields. They will give us no more problems”. As a coup-de-tat the driver reneged on our agreed fare and proceeded to scam me out of whatever Cambodian currency I had remaining. Welcome to Cambodia.
I pondered on the motorcycle driver’s acceptance of cruelty and self-justified violence. These were the same ingredients needed by the U.S. to rationalize dropping bombs on Cambodia in full knowledge that civilians could die in result. It was the same ingredient added by the terrorists who attacked the World Trade center using commercial aircraft loaded with tourists. The U.S. air force is now in Afghanistan releasing weapons down on whatever target lies below….and the endless cycle of cruelty and justified violence continues … getting more severe from one thread to the next … repeated over and over again with so many predators stalking around. It is getting difficult for me to identify the single ethic that makes violence acceptable in one case but an act of terrorism in another. At what point does retaliation actually begin in the unrelenting cycle of war, violence, and terrorism?
Cambodia is still a rough destination for tourists. This is the appeal for many backpackers who are willing to come here when wealthy “quality” tourists are reluctant to go anywhere outside of Angkor Wat. Cambodia is trying to appeal to quality tourists but it will take backpackers to prove that it is finally safe to travel to the more remote areas. Backpackers always make the first steps; the others follow once the infrastructure is set up and safety insured. Many tourists think of Cambodia as if they are still reading from a five-year-old guidebook. They heed outdated travel warnings or hear about past banditry and stay away. On the other hand, some backpackers feed off the image of Cambodia’s lawless and wild reputation making it even more difficult to change.
The five-year-old guidebook proved useless. It was only good for history. At least 50% of the hotels and guesthouses no longer existed. Some were torn down while others changed names or owners (to avoid the condemnation made by past guidebooks). Even the maps were of little value. Street names were often changed or had taken on schizophrenic duel identities. At least 60-70 percent of the restaurants listed were out of business by the time I found them. Cambodia is a different country, although lawlessness and corruption still prevail at times. If we want to see Cambodia we have to disregard our outdated guidebooks and begin to look at it with fresh light. Tourism in Cambodia will only change in this way. By limiting ourselves to old texts, we are clueless and blinded to a new and different side of Cambodia.