Part 2: Banishing Shadows
Were it not for Neang Tep, we would have arrived in Cambodia to discover that our luggage was still in Bangkok. Neang, who drove us to the airport, noticed as we were checking in that the ticket agent had tagged our bags for Bangkok instead of Phnom Penh. When you're hauling 500 pounds of old clothing, laptops, DVD players, medicines and cosmetics, you don't wanna lose track of your bags. And you sure as hell don't want to lose your shampoo.
The flight is uneventful. Korea's Incheon Airport is a marvel of cleanliness and efficiency; Bangkok's airport meanwhile, always has more than its share of interesting characters. In the transit lounge, we overhear a man speaking Khmer; he turns out to be an engineer working on demining and the removal of unexploded ordnance.
Arriving at Pochentong, I'm again shocked at how much the airport has changed. It seems to have doubled in size since 2000, and wonder of wonders, they even have jetways.
Outside the airport, the main road into Phnom Penh looks much as it did five years ago. Motorcycles and scooters still dominate, but there are more cars all the time. The highlight of the trip into the center of the city is the game, "Spot the most impossible load on a motorcycle." The winner this time around: a ten-foot tall potted tree.
Srey spends nearly all of the first day handing out the packages and parcels that friends in the United States have asked her to deliver. For overseas Khmer visiting Cambodia, this is a ritual. They will carry as much luggage as is allowed, but the majority will be gifts for families in Cambodia. It's essentially a quid pro quo arrangement. Any Khmer going back puts out the word, and in the final weeks before departure, acquaintances stop by with money or packages to deliver to their relatives.
For many families, having relatives abroad is the difference between abject poverty and financial security. I've often wondered how such impromptu "foreign aid" affects Third World economies. In 1988, a priest named Segundo Montes Mozo conducted surveys to determine the importance of money sent back to El Salvador from relatives in the United States. He came to the conclusion that it was critical to many families: for some, it was essential just to meet basic needs, and for others, it brought about a tangible improvement in the standard of living.
Dr. Montes, sadly, was murdered the following year: a Salvadoran army patrol entered the university where he taught, and massacred him along with five other priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter. Welcome to war in the Third World.
Roughly fourteen years ago, on my first visit to Cambodia, I was struck by the sense that the entire country was broken and wounded. The Khmer Rouge were still a viable army, a Sword of Damocles waiting in the jungle. No one felt entirely safe: they were still out there, tens of thousands of them, murderers and fanatics.
By the year 2000, the Khmer Rouge were gone, and the the change in Phnom Penh was stunning. Poverty remained, but at last there were signs of progress. The future didn't look perfect, but at least there would be a future.
Even today, however, beneath the surface, the effects of the Khmer Rouge genocide still linger. How long is the shadow cast by two million deaths?
My wife's father, Sophon Choun, disappeared in 1977. In 2000, we had organized a small ceremony, a bon katin in his memory. My wife had always wanted a more proper ceremony, with more of family friends and the few surviving distant relatives in attendance. This time, Srey, her sister Lung, and their aunt Lavet arrange a much more elaborate bon. A large tent is set up in front of the house, and four monks from a nearby temple will perform the rites. The ceremony will begin on Sunday afternoon.
That morning, we head to Wat Langka, to deliver an envelope from one of the monks in Chicago. Inside the monk's house, the walls are decorated with photos cut from magazines: there is one of Mount Rushmore, one of cactus on a hillside, one of the St. Louis arch, and other tourist spots from around the US.
On the way back, we stop at one of the city's new shopping centers, the oddly-named Pencil SuperCenter. There are four sparkling, gleaming, antiseptic-clean levels of shopping: groceries, books, clothes, toys, the works. It's just the place to find the things you aren't likely to find at the traditional Khmer markets, things like peanut butter, Slim Jims, Fruit Loops.
Once in a while we'll pass some sort of banner offering English lessons or cheap cell phones or some such thing. Other banners, however, are a bit more unsettling. One, attached to the fence outside a college, is written in Khmer. Srey translates: "Sam Rainsy is the person who is destroying politics." Rainsy, an opposition politician, has for years campaigned relentlessly against cronyism and corruption in the government. For his efforts, he was targeted for assassination in 1997, when a grenade attack on a peaceful demonstation killed at least 16 of his supporters, including one of his bodyguards. (Shortly after our trip, Rainsy was sentenced in absentia to 18 months in prison for remarks accusing Primer Minister Hun Sen of involvement in the attack, and for claiming that FUNCINPEC party leader Norodom Ranariddh had accepted bribes to form a coalition government with Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party. Similarly, on December 30, two other well-known activists, Kem Sokha, of the Cambodian Center of Human Rights, and Yeng Virak, of the Community Legal Education Center, were arrested on defamation charges for a banner displayed on International Human Rights Day on December 10. The banner had labeled Hun Sen a "communist" and a "traitor" who had sold Khmer land to Vietnam. Hun Sen, of course, is not a communist... he's just a former communist. Specifically, he is a former Khmer Rouge soldier.)
In the afternoon, the monks arrive for the bon, and they make their way to the second floor, where we will be staying for most of the next three weeks. We sit in front of the monks in the tiny room. They chant and sprinkle us with water, jasmine flowers, and lotus petals. I'm still jet-lagged, and as I sit before the monks, my sleep-addled mind focuses on the can of Sprite sitting in front of the nearest monk. It's hot, very hot, and as the monks chant in ancient Pali, tossing jasmine at us, I keep thinking: "Dude, throw the Sprite!"
The first part of the bon ends fairly early, then resumes at 7am the next morning. The tent in front of the house has been equipped with an amplifier and speakers, and music is playing loudly. Srey walks downstairs and finds a foreigner standing in front of the house, clearly irritated. "May I help you?" she asks. Yes, he replies. The music is too loud, and speaker is right outside his window. He's trying to get to sleep. Srey explains that it will only be this morning, and that it is part of the memorial for her father. He apologizes and retreats.
Later, the ceremony continues in Lung's house. At one point Srey's mother (whom we call Yeay) is given the microphone in order to say some sort of prayer. Naturally, like any polite Khmer, she wants to sompeah as she speaks. The problem is that she's clasping the microphone at the bottom, so as she raises her hands, she winds up with the top of the microphone at her forehead. One of Lung's friends reaches out and grabs the old woman's hands and pulls them lower, so that the microphone is at her lips. She lets go, and up goes the microphone again, back to Yeay's forehead. She reaches out again and pull's Yeah's hands back down; this time she won't let go, but Yeay won't give up without a struggle; she continues praying without missing a beat, but fights to keep the mic up at her forehead. The woman finally laughs and gives up, leaving Yeay to murmur incomprehensibly into the bottom of the mic.
This article contains nine parts:
Part One: Princess of Cambodia
Part Two: Banishing Shadows
Part Three: The Saint of the Deported
Part Four: Trips Taken and Not Taken
Part Five: Spare Days
Part Six: North to the Temples
Part Seven: Ghosts and Wrong Turns
Part Eight: Changed City
Part Nine: The Eight Hundred and Nine Stairs