Part 6: Around Phnom Penh
Resources are husbanded carefully here. The "napkins" at most restaurants are usually small strips of paper, about and 1 1/2 by 4 inches. When you buy bread, it is usually wrapped in a small sheet of used paper, slightly smaller than the bread itself. The bread I bought yesterday was wrapped in a small sheet of graph paper, on which someone had been doing algebra and geometry.
On Monday, April 22, I walked over to the ruined bridge in the northeast of the city. I had to slip past a barricade to walk out onto the remnants of the span. The bridge these days is used as toilet: there is, literally, shit all over it. While I was there, a trio of kids, maybe five or six old, slipped through the barricade. They defecated on the roadway, then stayed there for about ten minutes, playing. There is a school across the street. I imagine children raising their hands during class, asking, "May I go to the bridge?"
Tuesday the 23rd. I go with Srey to the Lao embassy to check on the status of the visa that I'll need on the way home. The guard at the gate will not let me in unless I leave some identification with him. I turn over my driver's license. On the way out, I have to give him 200 riels to get it back. That, it seems, is the way everything is done here.
I look into the possibility of going to Angkor Wat, but ultimately decide against it. It's more money than I can afford. Travel by road is not safe, and airfare to Siem Reap is $92. Then, I'm told, it will cost another $100 to rent a car to travel to the ruins (although of course you can share the car with other passengers). Getting inside the ruins is another $100. And I wouldn't really want to go alone; I'd like to take Srey or Tom or Thary with me, which would add another couple hundred dollars. It's more than I can afford. I console myself by imagining that all of my photos would be cluttered with overweight tourists in Bermuda shorts.
Later in the day, Srey takes me to a maternity hospital to see her friend, who has just given birth by Caesarean section. The hospital is an old, rundown building, with fading, chipping two-tone paint, flaking plaster, and windows with no glass. The woman is lying on the bed, holding a bag of ice over her abdomen. Her baby is wrapped in a blanket on the next bed. Another woman is in a third bed; she is hooked to an IV suspended from a wooden stand that looks like an old coat rack.
Elsewhere on the grounds, I walk past a young woman in an old T-shirt that said, in huge letters, "Stop Staring At My TITS." I have no doubt that she did not have the faintest idea what it meant.
The next day Srey and I pick up my visa at the Lao embassy. Afterward, she takes me to a movie. A ticket costs 100 riels. The movie, a Hong Kong martial arts picture, had been dubbed into Khmer, with Chinese and English subtitles that were often unreadable. The theatre itself was unadorned; it had a balcony, and probably about 500 seats, and there were no lights at all in the auditorium. I had been asked to check my cameras at the front desk as we had entered, and when I went to pick them up as were were leaving, I had to wait behind several police officers. They had been forced to check their weapons when they had come in. The man behind the desk slid open a drawer to reveal a cache of guns and ammunition. I suppose if someone had tried to rob the place, he could have shot them seventy or eighty times.
Thursday, the 25th: An uneventful day. A young man I'd met briefly about a week earlier stopped by the hotel; we talked (awkwardly) for a while. He was an orphan, and was studying medicine. He asked for my help in locating an uncle who was living in America; I told him I would try to locate him, but we both knew it would be impossible.
Later in the morning Srey and I went, on her faithful Honda scooter, to a friend's house. (He worked at the foreign ministry, and had helped me with my visa.) There, the familiar rumor of live American MIAs resurfaced, with one or two dead ones thrown in for good measure. According to the rumor, the bones of a dead pilot were being kept by a man in Kompong Cham, and the live prisoners were just across the border in Vietnam, in an underground prison. Right. And I'm John Paul Vann.
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