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Cambodia 1991:
Part 9: A Tale Ten Years in the Telling

Rooftops in Phnom Penh, taken from atop my hotel on my last day in Cambodia, May 1991 We like to think that our minds are clear, and that we can rely on the treasured recollections of events long past. But memories become dim and garbled, overlaid and overwritten by other more recent events. The time I was talking to the guy on the plane about Peru... was that when I was on the way to Bangkok, or was it coming back from Houston? The little girl at the airport selling bracelets... I know that was in Guatemala City, but was it 1990 or 1992? The nine parts of this article were drawn from my original handwritten journal. Knowing that my memory cannot always be trusted, I've tried very hard to resist the temptation to edit and elaborate. Still, looking at the final entries, I know that I see them now with a perspective that I didn't have ten years ago.

It is now 10:49 AM, Monday, May 6. I am sitting in the transit lounge of Changi Airport in Singapore, waiting for the 5 PM flight to San Francisco.

To resume the tale: On Friday morning, May 2, I awoke early and finished packing. Srey came to the hotel, and we went across the street to the Apsara Restaurant for ice coffee. Afterwards, she left to meet Yan at the Sokhalay; she planned to go to the airport with Yan. I took a few photos downstairs, then a few from the balcony, then a few from the roof of the hotel.

Lao Aviation boarding pass At ten o'clock, we were supposed to meet Mr. Map, from the Foreign Ministry, who would take us to the airport. We'd been told beforehand to have $20 US and 3000 riels to, shall we say, expedite our departure. We went downstairs at the appointed hour, but, needless to say, Mr. Map was did not arrive until just after 11. By that time, we were all beginning to worry that we'd miss our plane. However, we reached the airport with time to spare, and in the ensuing confusion I never did pay anyone the money I'd been told to have ready. (One note: when we arrived, the exchange rate was 690 riels to the dollar; when we left, it was 740 riels to the dollar.) Thary and Devi came to the airport to say goodbye, then left after a few minutes. Yan, it turned out, was booked on the same flight that we were on, and Srey was with her.

We bypassed the inspection of our baggage, and our carry-on bags were not X-rayed. They did, however, weigh our checked baggage, and anything over 20 kilos was fined at a rate of $6 for every 10 kilos.

When we were ushered into the departure lounge, I was disappointed to see that Srey was gone. In the confusion, I hadn't even said goodbye to her. I was peering through the glass, trying to see her in the main lobby, when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around to see her standing right beside me: she had strolled into the departure lounge without being stopped by the guards.

As we were waiting, I saw an odd sight: a small US Air Force jet, a turboprop, was sitting on the runway. A diplomatic mission of some sort? I had no idea. It left while we were still waiting for our plane.

Lao Aviation Antonov Turboprop, ready to depart Phnom Penh When they finally announced that it was time for us to board the plane, we left the building and walked out onto the tarmac. It was hard to look at Srey, still standing in the door. I knew how badly she wanted to come to America.

We walked across the tarmac and boarded the plane. Yan was fighting back tears. Everyone else just seemed happy to be leaving. Yan was happy to be leaving, too, but she hated to leave her mother, and feared that she would never see her again. She's trying to arrange for her mother to emigrate to the US, but that isn't easy. I asked Yan if she would ever return to Cambodia. "Not a chance," she said. (Nevertheless, she did in fact return years later.)

We boarded the plane and sat on the runway for a long time. It was boiling hot inside the plane, and sweat was pouring off of my body. In all my life, I don't think I have ever felt more hot than I did on that plane.

And then, finally, we took off. No thrills, no drama, no waves of emotion: just an aging Soviet turboprop, noisily lifting into the air, while we grasped at the memories we were leaving behind.

Later, as we headed north, perhaps over Cambodia, perhaps over Laos, I turned to Yan. "You know, I still can't imagine actually being home. And when I get home, I won't be able to imagine that I was ever actually here."

We stopped at Pakse, Laos, to refuel, then continued on to Vientiane. There was one fairly amusing incident when we arrived. The Santiphab Hotel, where we had stayed before, was owned by Mr. Proeung. When we arrived at Vientiane, he and a friend met us at the airport and took us, in two cars, back to the Santiphab. Huot, Kimeng, Kong and I were in the car driven by Mr. Proeung's friend. He pulled up at the Santiphab and told us to wait in the car. He went inside, then came back out and told us that the hotel was full, and he would take us to another hotel. We went to the other hotel, and ten minutes later Mr. Proeung's son arrived. The Santiphab was in fact not full: we were already booked in Room 311. It turned out that Mr. Proeung's friend owned the hotel where he had taken us. Needless to say, Mr. Proeung's son took us back to the Santiphab.

That Luang monument, Laos Yan's group left Laos the next morning, a Saturday; our group was scheduled to leave the following day. On Saturday we went to the market, and to Phra That Luang, a gilded monument built in the 1500s. On the way we passed a "Guest House and Snake Bar." Was that supposed be "Snack Bar?"

As we sat outside the monument, Huot showed me a pod of seeds that had fallen from a nearby tree. She recalled eating the pods during the Khmer Rouge period. "When I find this, I am happy," she said, laughing. Inside the pod was a sweet, caramel-like substance.

On Sunday morning, we went to eat noodles, then packed and waited in the lobby of the hotel. A television was tuned to a Thai station. They had an anti-smoking commercial like the old "Like father, like son" spots that had aired in the US decades ago.

We left Laos in the early afternoon, about an hour behind schedule, on board a Thai Airways jet. When we got to Bangkok, naturally, things were screwed up again. I was the first of our group to check in, and it was only after I had checked in that they told us that the flight to Singapore was overbooked. The rest of the group had to wait for the next flight (about an hour and a half later), while I had to go on our original flight. I had to rush like mad to get to the gate, and once I got on the plane I discovered that there were eight empty seats in the area around me. So much for overbooking. However, an hour and half later, in Singapore, we all met up again.

We had a long, long wait in Singapore: we arrived on Sunday evening, and our flight didn't leave until 5PM Monday. We could have left the airport, but no one, myself included, wanted to waste the money for a hotel. The following morning, we awoke to a gray, dreary, rainy day, and not one of us felt like going anywhere: we were all exhausted and just wanted to get home.

The guards in the airport at Singapore had the cleanest, shiniest M-16 rifles I had ever seen.

We stopped briefly in Hong Kong on the return trip, then continued on to San Francisco. We got there in the early evening. I went through customs without even having a single bag opened. Some of the Cambodians had minor difficulties, including Huot and Channy: the customs agents questioned then about the gold jewelry they were wearing, and they were also a little baffled by some of the "medicines" that they had brought back, including a bundle of what looked more or less like small tree branches. In the end, however, everyone made it through with all their possessions intact.

At 11PM, we left for Chicago. Flying out of San Francisco at night was indescribably beautiful: the lights, the mountains, the bridge in the distance, thick patches of clouds, glowing from the lights of the city below. But coming into Chicago at 5AM the next morning was beautiful, too: Sweet Home, Chicago.

At the airport, Chanbo's son-in-law Soty met us at the airport, and gave us a ride home. And here I am, looking back.

Children in front of T3 prison, Phnom Penh On the morning of May 8, back home since the previous morning, my fatigue was apparent from the nature of the previous night's dream. I dreamed that I wanted to make a movie about a planet just like Earth, except that the Beatles were composed of John, Paul, George, Ringo, and Bill. A guy from Earth arrived on the planet and was trying to convince John, Paul, George, and Ringo that "Hey... you guys don't need Bill."

It was two more full weeks before I finished the final handwritten entries in my journal, on May 22, 1991. It would be more than ten years before I would type those same words into a computer, to publish them to a medium that did not even exist a decade earlier. The last entries in my journal were fairly random:

On Saturday, April 27, I had taken some pictures of T3, a prison which, according to Amnesty International, holds several political prisoners. I was doing my best to be discreet, but at one point two young boys who had been watching me posed for a picture. I lifted the camera, boys in the foreground, prison in the background, and a guard came up to the fence and angrily waved me off.

I would add a thousand other things if my memory had absorbed them. I would add a thousand more if I knew how to describe them. Maybe that affliction affects everyone who goes to Cambodia: there is something very important there, and we want to understand it, and we want to explain it to others, but our words fail us. The strangeness of the place and the horror of its history is overwhelming. The final handwritten line from my journal is as true now as when I wrote it so many years ago:

Cambodia is mesmerizing. It is tragic. It is infuriating. It is heartbreaking. I miss it very much.

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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