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Cambodia 1991:
Part 4: In An Unhealed Land

Psar Thom Thmei market, Phnom Penh, Cambodia On Monday, April 8, I spend some time walking around the area close to the hotel. A few things strike me immediately. The traffic is heavy, but it is virtually all bicycles and motorcycles. There are relatively few cars. People do not drive as fast as they do in Bangkok, but it's still rather chaotic. There are almost no traffic lights or stop signs. From the balcony of my hotel room, I can look down on the intersection of two very busy streets. On rare occasions, there is a police officer in the center, directing traffic, but otherwise traffic from both streets simultaneously pours into the intersection, honking and weaving through each other's midst without the slightest semblance of order. It's an inexplicable ballet; streams of motorcyles, bicycles, and cyclos flow into the intersection, and miraculously appear on the opposite side, unscathed.

A friend in Chicago, Narath Tan, had asked me to deliver a letter and some videotape to his family. I meet his sister Thary at her workplace, the Compaigne de Diffusion de Livres. Later in the day, I accompany Huot, Chanbo, and one of Chanbo's in-laws, riding around Phnom Penh by cyclo. Westerners are very rare in Cambodia, and my presence provokes stares everywhere. We're not looking for anything in particular, but Chanbo does try to find a house where she once lived, near the Olympic Stadium. She can't find it. Are we on the right street? She isn't sure. The Khmer Rouge destroyed some memories. Time has destroyed others.

Traffic, Phnom Penh A pack of small children gathers around us wherever we stop. At one point, the cyclo Huot is riding in is broadsided by a motorcycle. It's frightening to see, but no one gets hurt. A police officer nearby stops to investigate; he leans his AK-47 against a nearby tree, unguarded, as he talks with the motorcyclist and the cyclo driver.

We also go with Chanbo to the local television station, where she purchases an "ad" on the TV and radio stations, describing her family and broadcasting a plea to help locate missing relatives. There is a program on evening TV devoted exclusively to such searches, the stubborn legacy of the Khmer Rouge genocide.

My only other experience in a country at war is Guatemala. My first impression is that the war in Cambodia is less visible in some ways, but more visible in others. One does not see as many soldiers in public. But one sees far, far more casualties: amputees, especially, are everywhere.

Children crowd around, Phnom Penh, Cambodia Below my window, all day long, tanker trucks stop in front of the hotel and fill up with water. I have no idea where they are going. I realize that this is, in a way, symbolic of everything that I see. Despite all that I know or think I know about Cambodia, I am in a very, very foreign land.

Thary Tan On Tuesday, Thary meets me at the hotel and drives me around Phnom Penh on her Honda scooter. Weaving through the throngs of traffic still makes me a little uneasy, but it's nothing compared to the harrowing motorcycle ride in Bangkok. That night, after a dinner of prawn fried rice, I become very, very sick, and I throw up a couple times. I spend most of the next day laying on the floor of the hotel, exhausted.

True to her promise, Yan - the woman I met in Laos - comes to visit me in the White Hotel. There is a woman named Srey with her. I know friends of her family in Chicago; she herself had recently applied to join them in the US.

For a moment, I have to depart from what was written in my journal. I could not know it then, but I was meeting my wife for the first time. Two and a half years later, a little more than a year after she emigrated to the US, Srey and I married. Srey always says that she saw me before Yan introduced us. She was visting someone else at the White Hotel, and as she was walking up the stairs, she saw me walking down. She thought to herself, "I wonder if that is the American Yan told me about?" But to me, my first memory of the woman who would become my wife dates back to the moment when, sick as a dog, I lay on the floor of the White Hotel.

Stupa at Choeung Ek On Thursday, Thary's brother Tom and a friend come to the hotel. We decide to visit Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng. The three of us climb onto the tiny scooter. It feels as if we are welded together by the heat. Choeung Ek, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, is one of the most notorious of the killing fields. It is the site of numerous mass graves where the Khmer Rouge executed their victims. A tall pagoda commemorates the dead; inside, the skulls of the vicitms are piled neatly. There is a ragged heap of torn clothing beneath the pile. Behind the pagoda, there are several open pits where the bodies had been piled. Scraps of clothing remain in the soil here and there, partially exposed by the excavation of the bodies. A few bleached bones are scattered here and there. Several of the pits are marked with signs in Khmer, French, and English: "Mass grave of 100 bodies." "Mass grave of 166 bodies without heads."

Exterior of Tuol Sleng At Tuol Sleng, my companions tell the woman in the office that I am a Russian who has just enrolled at the University of Phnom Penh to study Khmer. I'm not sure why it was necessary to lie, and in my opinion it wasn't a particularly convincing story, but she does let us in. One building appears to have been devoted exclusively to interrogation rooms, or, more accurately, torture chambers. Metal bed frames with chains and leg irons attached are the sole furnishing. On the wall in each room, a large black-and-white photo shows the room as it was when the Vietnamese invaded Phnom Penh, chasing out the Khmer Rouge: the corpses of the final victims are chained to the bed, pools of thick blood staining the floor. In another building, the walls are covered with thousands of small black-and-white photos - taken before and after death - of the prison's inmates. Of an estimated 20,000 people incarcerated at Tuol Sleng, there are only six known survivors. A few sample "confessions" are displayed, including those of a handful of Westerners who had fallen into Khmer Rouge hands just off the Cambodian coast. Another room has a few stone busts of Pol Pot; they are piled on the floor in front of a huge heap of chains and leg irons. In still other rooms, there are displays of the torture devices used by the Khmer Rouge, and paintings detailing their use. A glass display case in one room is filled with the torn, bloodstained clothing of victims. Still another room contains a huge map of Cambodia, made entirely from human skulls and bones. Another building is subdivided into small cells, perhaps four feet by seven feet. Haphazardly-built brick walls isolated each cell; leg irons are bolted to the floor in each cell, and an open bucket served as the toilet. In the courtyard outside, there is a crude gallows, and large concrete caskets containing the remains of the prison's last victims. One walks away from Tuol Sleng numb; there is nothing that can be said about the horror that is not a hollow understatement.

Map of skulls, Tuol Sleng On Friday, I'm sick again. It's worse than before; I have diarreah and fever. In the afternoon, I travel with Huot and one of her friends to the Foreign Ministry, to try to get my visa extended. My current visa is supposedly good for only ten days; no one seems quite certain, since the Foreign Ministry says that they have not received a copy of the visa. I'm forced to leave my passport at the Ministry. It does not exactly thrill me to be without my passport in country which has no diplomatic relations with the US, and which has a reputation for corruption and bureaucratic incompetence.

Chany has left to go to Battambang, so on Saturday, we move out of Room 305 ($23.50 per day) and into the smaller Room 303 ($18 per day). With Chanbo, Huot and I sharing the room, our deluxe accomodations are costing us each only six dollars a day.

Resting at the hotel, I have a chance to review the rules posted in my room: "It's forbidden to dry up clothes or towers at the balcony." "It's forbidden to decorate the wall with any picture and materials which concern with the electricity consumption without permission." "It's forbidden to bring the weapons, explosives and burners into the hotel without permission." (Remember... when travelling, always ask about your AK-47.) I might add that, according to the posted rules, which are set by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Diplomatic Corps Office, one must obtain permission from the Foreign Ministry before having visitors in the room.

Saturday afternoon, Chanbo's nephew offers to take me around Phnom Penh a bit more. On his scooter, we cross the Bassac River to Chbar Umpuu (Garden of Sugar Cane). We draw stares from everyone, especially children. Upon seeing me, the children begin laughing, and I hear them say "Soviet." Awt thay, we say: no, not Soviet. American. They laugh and their mouths fall open with disbelief. Those Soviets. Always with the jokes.

At night, several of Chanbo's relatives sleep in our hotel room. They lay down on the bare tile floor and fall fast asleep, as if there were nothing at all unusual about it. (Later, a few days before we leave Cambodia, I try the same thing. A delicate American, I've been pampered for too long. I lay on the hard tile, aching, barely sleeping at all.)

To try to calm my stomach, I swear off restaurant food for a few days. In the market, I buy packets of Ramen noodles from Thailand, and I cook them in mineral water. I also try some sardines packed in Thailand. The ingredients are listed as "Fish, 60%; Tomato Sauce, 32%; Others, 8%." Probably better not to know exactly what that last eight percent is.

Next: Into the Countryside

This article contains nine parts:
Part One: Half the Fun, My Ass
Part Two: And Then, Things Stopped Going So Smoothly
Part Three: To Laos and Beyond
·  Part Four: In An Unhealed Land ·
Part Five: Into the Countryside
Part Six: Around Phnom Penh
Part Seven: To Svay Rieng
Part Eight: Relaxing Days, Very Quiet Nights
Part Nine: A Tale Ten Years in the Telling

Related Articles:
Beauty and Darkness: Travel Section
The More That Things Change: Cambodia 2000
Cambodia, April - May 2000
Holiday in Cambodia
Phnom Penh, June 1996

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