March 24th 2017
I’m glad Phnom Penh has come at the end of my trip. I feel uneasy here and I’m not sure why. It is not a walking city even though the sidewalks are no more broken down than in Yangon, which was, and the traffic is no worse than in Hanoi, which could be, and I feel conspicuous even though no-one shows the slightest interest in me or my belongings. Indeed, my hotel guys have told me sternly that the curfew for walking back from dinner is 9pm. No, no danger they hasten to reassure me, it’s just (they look at each other helplessly) too quiet.
Fortunately, tuk tuks outnumber pedestrians by about 20:1 and one has already committed himself to preventing me from going anywhere on foot. Our first stop is PS21, the high school the Khmer Rouge appropriated as a torture facility. The audio guide narrator invites me to find a seat in the shade. “I am one of only 7 survivors of this prison” he tells me. Then I learn that after the US dropped more bombs on Cambodia than they did in the whole second world war, Phnom Penh was overwhelmed by refugees. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge threw everyone out and Phnom Penh became a ghost town. Many of the quarter of the population they murdered (chiefly ‘elites’ who were usually identified simply on the basis of bad eyesight) passed through PS21 en route to the more than 700 killing fields located throughout Cambodia.
“You are sitting under a banyan tree” my audio guide concludes. “It was planted here after PS21 was liberated. The Khmer people believe the shade of the banyan tree provides peace for restless souls”. Going back, I notice how many young banyan trees are in the neighborhood around my hotel.
In pre- K. R. French Colonial days, Kep the nearest beach to Phnom Penh, was replete with iconic art deco villas. My quest to photograph them is several years too late. Only the mango trees and bougainvillea remain to drape over the iconic art deco garden walls. ‘Why no rubble?’ I ask my new trusty tuk tuk driver. ‘People from Phnom Penh want sell land for building’ he tells me. I have learned this is a euphemism for the Khmer Rouge who now pull all the economic strings. ‘No-one buying?’ I inquire and he smiles sardonically. In truth, it’s no surprise that restoring Kep to its former glory as the ‘St Tropez of South East Asia’ is overwhelming,
Beyond the scattering of French-expat run guest houses (like the oddly named Raingsey Bungalows where I’m staying) the poverty is grinding. The cows, which are the bellwether of economic health, are mere sacks of skin and bone with barely any energy to stagger from one rubbish pile to the next; they are clearly not being fed in the dry season. Kep beach is in the South-East Asia ‘B’ league and there’s precisely 2 things to see (we are on the way to one of them: the Kampot pepper plantations).
But he is stopping unexpectedly to point up into the hills. “Khmer Rouge lived up there” he tells me. “And this is where they killed my father” he points to the other side of the road. “I was eight”. I struggle for an appropriate follow-up, and finally settle on asking who looked after him. “No-one. Sometimes neighbor gave food. Sometimes no food”. I ask him if he went to school and he looks at me like I’m insane. The lost generation.
When I rejoin the conversation he’s in the middle of explaining his grand plan to be a tuk tuk tour guide. “First thing, I need lap-top for website” he shoots me a glance “Other lady, English like you, she gave me money for lap top”. “Then why you still need one?” I inquire. “Couldn’t buy” he says sadly “Daughter got sick and had to take to Phnom Penh hospital”. I decide to channel the Swiss anthropologist I met at the last hotel who spent the evening venting about the shortcomings of the abundance of NGOs that endorse repeatedly giving a man a fish. “Actually” I say “Lap top is not the first thing, first thing you need a plan – what your tour will be, why it will be special” he has heard this before. I relent a bit “If you think about it, I can help you put it into a website”. He has heard this too. “Problem is” he confesses “I can speak English OK, read and write, not so OK”. “So if I sent you an email” I ask “Can you read?” “Probably not” he says resignedly.
Next morning it is the turn of the young man who serves breakfast (since there are only 4 guests there is little more for him to do). “We won’t be here next year when you come back” he announces (Its not clear why he refers to himself in the plural, but I let it go). “Why not?” I inquire blandly “Will get new job as general manager of diamond mine” he tells me. I try to arrange my features to downplay any skepticism. “Great!” I say “Better than hotel” (the high season lasts only from November through February and the rainy (low) season with no guests at all for six months). “We just need computer experience” he tells me “So first thing, lap top for practice. We can read and write English. Fluent”. The tuk tuk guy must have tipped him off. A lap top will cost him $300 in dollars, probably more than he earns a month in the off season and he’s already told me he owes money to the bank for something else. Meanwhile, at least two thirds of the cars in Cambodia are huge SUVs that have been imported with 300% tax. Needless to say they have Phnom Penh plates.
Well folks, time to sign off. It seems like 20 dispatches are a good round number and tomorrow I start the trek back to West Roxbury. Looking forward to seeing you all soon for a South East Asian food party.
March 30th 2017