Part 5: Into the Countryside
On the morning of April 14, I travelled with Yan to Kantuot, a small village not far beyond Phnom Penh. She had friends there, an elderly couple whose son I knew in Chicago. On the way we stopped to take pictures of an abandoned bridge. The bridge stood far off the main road, in a flat expanse of dust and dirt. The road leading to it was gone, presumably destroyed by flooding. Both the road and the river had changed course, leaving a bridge across nothing in the middle of nowhere. As we stood beside the road, I saw a single spent shell casing on the ground. I picked it up, and at the very moment I did I heard an automatic rifle firing in the distance. It was, I think, just someone celebrating the new year. Still, it was an odd sound, at an odd moment.
It's common to see three people riding on to a single scooter. Leaving Phnom Penh, on several occasions I see four people riding together, and once I see a man and four small children jammed together on a single 125cc motorcycle.
Near Kantuot, there were many abandoned villages; one cluster was large enough that it could fairly be called a ghost town. Some appeared to have been destroyed by fire, many others by neglect. Still others were pockmarked by bullets. We passed a truckload of soldiers at one point; one of them held a small rocket launcher. We also passed the scene of an accident involving two motorcycles. I didn't see the riders, but the two machines lay in the center of the highway, scratched and dented, next to a few scattered loaves of bread. We also passed a bus that had become stuck in a ditch. The passengers stood next to the bus, surveying the scene. I had the impression that drivers were willing to do anything - except slow down - to avoid a collision.
That evening, I went with Thary, Tom, and a friend for a scooter ride around Phnom Penh. Two total strangers on another scooter began talking with us, and then all six of us went to a restaurant at Boeng Kak, an amusement park in Phnom Penh. Thary gave me a bracelet that her mother had bought for me; I felt terribly embarrassed.
At night Huot dreams that she is swimming, and that she is attacked by a giant snake. Perhaps it is an aftereffect of our stay in Laos. In the restaurant next to our hotel, the wall had been adorned by a huge python skin.
On Monday, I travel with Yan and Srey to Geun Svay, a park on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. We ride in a canoe on the lake, piloted by a boy who was surely not more than 12 years old. On the way back, we saw a young boy fall out of a wagon in from of us. He didn't seem to be hurt seriously; he stood up immediately, crying and holding his jaw. I didn't see what made him fall.
Gas stations here usually consist of someone sitting along the curb with six or eight old glass one-liter Fanta or Coke bottles, each filled with reddish-colored gasoline.
On Tuesday, I travel to Po Pai Phnom with Thary and some of her friends. Po Pai Phnom is the site of an old temple at the top of a hill. You reach it by crossing a rickety suspension bridge on foot. Po Pai Phnom was also the site of one of the killing fields, and a small shed houses the remains of many of the victims. In the center of the small shed, a pile of skulls - many of them cracked and broken - is surrounded by a number of other bones. A monk sat outside on the porch, and a small monkey was tied up there as well. As we stood inside the building, the monk came in. He straightened a few of the bones. The monkey managed to sneak in through the window, but his leash was too short for him to go more than a few feet beyond the window.
As we walked around the temple, I heard again and again whispered comments about the "Soviet." There are many beggars at the temple, a human display of the effects of the war the land mines: many of them are missing legs and arms.
Passing abandoned buildings, their walls scarred by bullets, one wonders: what happened here? Did one of Lon Nol's soldiers make a last, desperate stand here? Did Khmer Rouge spray it with gunfire when its occupants were too slow to leave? Did they execute "enemies" there? Or did someone just shoot up an abandoned building, just for the hell of it? The thought of it stays with me, unsettling me: so many stories with no one left alive to tell them.
On the trip back, we again pass a pair of wrecked scooters in the road.
I begin to reconsider my initial observation that there are fewer soldiers visible in Cambodia than in Guatemala. On two occasions, we pass large trucks filled with soldiers, with large-caliber machine guns mounted in back. And in the evening, walking in Phnom Penh, I come across two different streets blocked off by armed guards.
At the hotel, we're on a roll: the electricity has been on for most of the past two days, and the water has not been off at all.
Late in the day, Thary, Tom, and her mother come to the hotel to watch the tape that Narath had sent to them. Narath's mother watches intently: scenes of Chicago, scenes of her son and his wife, scenes of her grandson. The item that garnered the biggest reaction was a toy dog that Narath's son was playing with. It barked, walked, sat down, and then suddenly sprang into the air and flipped over.
Wednesday, April 17: it is sixteen years to the day since the Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia upside down. Huot and I go with Thary and some friends to the Imperial Palace. The highlight of the royal palace is the Silver Pagoda, where the floor is laid with silver tiles. It houses numerous gold and emerald Buddhas and royal artifacts. A curator tells us that about two-thirds of the artifacts disappeared between 1975 and 1979. An urn containing the ashes of Sihanouk's five-year-old daughter was among the objects taken. The pagoda is surrounded by a sheltered wall decorated with frescos detailing Indian and Khmer tales. Here and there it appears that the wall is undergoing desperately-needed repair.
It's nice to see Huot getting out. I feel very sorry for her. Her brother came to visit her, but he's gone now, and she doesn't do much except sit around the hotel. The trip to the temple is, as far as I know, only the third or fourth time she has gone out.
One Khmer custom is driving me mad. It's very common for friends of the same sex to hold hands. I'm not a "touchy" person to begin with, and I intensely dislike having strangers holding my hands and putting their arms around me. But I don't want to offend anyone, so I put up with it.
On Thursday, I travel with Yan to visit Prey Umbel, where her mother lives. Huot comes with us, as do Srey, Thary, and a few other miscellaneous additions to our entourage. We rent two cars for the occasion, a Subaru sedan and a Honda Accord sedan. Yan is sponsoring a "bon," a festival complete with tables filled with food, a band, and monks.
Prey Umbel is due south of Phnom Penh, and while it isn't far on the map (if it's even ON the map), it's an agonizing drive. It takes us two and half hours. The road is in horrendous condition. It was, at one time, theoretically paved, but most of the pavement has long since broken into baseball-size chunks. The remaining road is nothing but a constantly alternating pattern of deep potholes and massive bumps. The undercarriage of our car often scrapes the ground as the wheels drop into deep pits. This happened particularly at bridges, where there was inevitably a deep depression at both ends of the bridge. Most of the bridges were crude timber spans, and their boards rattled and bounced as the cars crept slowly across. One bridge in particular was on the verge of collapse. On the way there, we drove off the road and crossed through the gully on a path about 75 yards from the bridge, where the banks were not steep; since it was the dry season, there was no water in the gulley. On the way home, however, the drivers decided to take a different approach. The passengers left the cars, and the drivers guided each other across the remains of the bridge. The decking on the bridge was almost all gone. The drivers inched across with their wheels carefully aligned on the supporting beams that stretched lengthwise across the gully.
The road was unbelievably dusty. The dust was as fine as talcum powder, and it lifted up into dense clouds at the slightest disturbance.
I spend much of the trip talking with Yan. She and her husband divorced in the US (after all, everybody gets divorced in America, right?), and she later remarried. With her new husband, she owned a business repairing electric motors. As it happened, back in Chicago I had a broken table saw motor. We joked that it was odd that I had to travel halfway around the world to find someone to repair my motor. Yan is outgoing, generous, and talkative, and this is her first trip back to Cambodia.
When we reached the house, the celebration was just getting underway. The atmosphere was that of a festival, not of a memorial service. A large tent had been set up near the house. I was a tremendous oddity. Most of the children had never seen a foreigner before. Everyone was very friendly to me, with one exception. One middle-aged man kept trying to speak to me. I didn't know enough Khmer to understand him, and he spoke no English. I gathered that he was trying to tell me not to take photos. (I also gathered that he was drunk.) But whenever there was someone who could translate, he refused to talk. He'd just turn and walk away. At one point, as I was taking a picture of a child asleep in a hammock, he stormed up to me, waving his hand, shaking his head, yelling, "Hey! U.S.!" Then he directed someone to set up a chair - far away from everyone else - and he directed me to sit in it. I sat down, but soon Yan asked me to take some photos. I was walking with Huot when he discovered I'd fled my cell. He shooed a couple children out of a hammock and motioned for me to sit down. I gestured toward Huot. "I go with my friend, " I said. "No, no, no!" he said. He seemed angry, and I was starting to get a bit pissed myself. But again I sat down, and he stood there watching me. Eventually, he got bored watching me, and when he did, Huot and I slipped away and managed to elude him for the rest of the day.
Later, Yan told me that she had brought $20,000 with her, and it still wasn't enough. Twenty thousand dollars: to me, it's a staggering amount. It's not small to Yan, either. She works very hard, and she expressed her frustration with Cambodians who live in the US and receive welfare without ever learning English or trying to get a job.
On the trip to and from Prey Umbel we saw a few government soldiers. Most carried AK-47s; one was armed with an M-16, probably a relic from the Seventies.
On Friday, I rest at the hotel. It's agonizingly hot. There is no electricity. A woman comes to visit Chanbo, and she notices some postcards that I had bought at the Royal Palace. She picks a postcard of a dancer, turning it so that I can see the picture. Then she curves her other hand gracefully and smiles, mimicing the dancer's pose. Suddenly, with a shock of recognition, I notice what had escaped me earlier: the dancer on the postcard is her.
In the evening I go with Yan to visit a man about some property she is interested in buying. It's close to the old US Embassy, which is now the Fishery Departement. No one is there to meet us, and we wind up instead visiting the man who lives next door. His one home is little more than a lean-to, constructed against what had once been a masonry wall surrounding a temple. He works in the Education Ministry. They provide him with his house, and electricity. His salary: 3600 riels a month. That amounts to about six dollars. He had a wife, and five children.
On Saturday, April 20, Huot's brother comes to the hotel, and he brings Huot's friend, a woman, named Khoun, from Siem Reap city. Huot had lived with her for three years, during the Khmer Rouge time, and regarded her as family. Huot had also been hoping that one of her nephews would be able to come to Phnom Penh; she had paid someone $100 just to find him. He is 31 years old, and he is missing a leg from a mine planted by the Khmer Rouge. But he apparently won't be coming. He lives on a farm in Siem Reap province, and there are so many mines laid in the countryside around Siem Reap that no one is willing to try to travel to his home to tell him that Huot is in Phnom Penh.
It's Sunday, April 21. There is a Vietnamese woman on top of the building across the street. She's up there every single day, wearing the same pink shirt and conical hat, lifting buckets of water up to the roof.
In the afternoon, I visit Choeung Ek again with Chanbo, Huot, and some of Chanbo's relatives. Quoting a sign from the grounds: THE PEOPLE OF KAMPUCHEA ALWAYS INSCRIBE THEMSELVES WITH THIS SUFFERING AND WRATH AGAINST THE GENOCIDAL AND CRIMAL CLIQUE OF POL POT AND IENG SARY WE CANNOT FORGET IT. WE ARE ABSOLUTELY DETERMINED NO TO LET THIS GENOCIDAL REGIME TO REOCCUR IN KAMPUCHEA.
A little girl, walking around the pits of the mass graves, bends down to pick up a small object. Smiling, she throws it into the pit. I walk to the spot where she had stood, and I look down. There are human teeth embedded in the dirt.
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