THE INVITATION HAD come, but did I really want to spend Christmas in Phnom Penh? An introvert's introvert, my idea of travel is a swim at an empty beach, a short walk and back in my own comfortable bed before midnight. The poverty, heat and madding crowds of the Third World held no siren song for me. And Cambodia – what was Cambodia anyway, but the tired remnants of a shattered country pulling itself out of genocide by its bootstraps? Paul Theroux had gone in 2007, and he found:
'...ghostliness was present even in the sunniest parts of town, a suggestion of the hideous past, of blood and unburied bodies, of torture, trickery, lies, punishment – like the darkness I had felt rising from the earth when I walked through Dachau, the stink of evil.'
When Theroux told Cambodians that he'd like to come back they were incredulous. 'Why you want to do this?' a local man quizzed him. Fair enough question, I thought. I had seen enough of the poor world – much of the Pacific; the Indonesian archipelago; my own Aboriginal Australia – to have some idea of what to expect. A smelly capital crowded with anxious workers two small steps from the gutter or the brothel. Beggars on street corners with astounding deformities and piteous sores. Dusty villages with scatterings of brown kids and ribby dogs, and, worst of all, the unspeakable blight of western tourists waving their dollars as they waltz through the squalor on the prowl for prostituted children.
But my teenage son and ex-husband live in Cambodia, and parental obligation saw me shuffle aboard Singapore Airlines SQ256, destination Phnom Penh. In late December Brisbane airport was awash not just with hordes of irritable travellers, but with flocks of Angry Birds. In a post 9/11 world even plush toys must be as aggressively outraged as possible, and every second child on the plane clutched one of these enormous glaring-eyed bipeds. Those who were birdless were glued to their consoles, blasting away with their tiny thumbs at the birds' digital enemies. At midnight, shortly after we landed in Changi, a Chinese family rushed past me heading for the inter-terminal train; their plump five year old squealed with pleasure at the advertising inside a carriage. 'Let's take this one! It's got Angry Birds!'
Waiting at the gate for the connecting flight to Phnom Penh the mood and the demographic shifted. There were few non-Cambodian passengers, and the subtle air of privilege that had oozed from the Singaporeans had gone. The faces were darker and squarer; the eyes less complacent. The baggage around my feet was torn, or old, or tied with twine. I was still in Changi, but already on the cusp of the poor world.
Like many Australians of my vintage, I grew up in blissful ignorance of the continent to our immediate north. My sole concept then of Kampuchea, as Cambodia was called in the early 1980s, was a Dead Kennedys T-shirt emblazoned with 'Holiday in Cambodia' for sale at a local shopping mall. Fifteen and attracted by the shirt's punk bravado, I noticed a swastika in the artwork and – well-schooled in Europe's horrors – reared away in disgust. I eventually learned that there had been a Cambodian civil war and a dictator called Pol Pot, but scarcely gave the place another thought until 2010, when my son moved there.
Cambodia and its Asian neighbours had long been the Australian flyover zone, of course. Two short decades before I rejected the disturbing swastika, Clive James, Germaine Greer and their contemporaries were still boarding ships out of Sydney Harbour with one-way tickets, fleeing Australian provincialism to the life of intellectuals in Europe. Tony and Maureen Wheeler might have been pioneering a hippie trail through India, but well into my early twenties the only person I knew who had been to South-East Asia was my much older brother David. He'd lived there for years, wearing khaki and carrying a rifle, and had returned with demons that are yet to go away.
AS TOLSTOY FAILED to note, all rich countries smell good in different ways, but the poor world smells much the same wherever you wander. Phnom Penh offers the usual Proustian perfume of the Third World: two parts open drains, one part smoking rubbish, one part vehicle emissions, with a soupçon of bougainvillea and frangipani blossom sprinkled on top. There are about two million people in the Cambodian capital. One in five owns a small motorbike that transports its owner and the other four family members, often simultaneously. More than any other Asian metropolis, the place teems with motorbikes. The breathy rattle of Hondas and Suzukis is the constant backdrop to life here. For one American dollar you can throw your leg across a moto, grab onto its driver for all you're worth and be whisked, helmetless, anywhere within a ten-kilometre radius. Dangerous, yes, but worth it for the thrill and for the exhilarating knowledge that – as you pass bikes with toddlers standing sandwiched between their parents, tiny brown hands on their father's shoulders; four teens crammed on a Yamaha shrieking as they head to the river; and cops with one hand on the throttle and the other texting as they weave in and out of the six-lane free-for-all – that you are on Planet Cambodia, and few of the old rules apply.
This lack of enforceable rules startles – and in Cambodia, by its absence, I glimpsed for the first time what conservatives mean when they bang on about the nanny state. The idea of town planning has had severely limited uptake. Some areas of the city are clearly more residential than others, but two streets back from the waterfront tourist strip, a brick-making factory was stacking its day's production on the footpath, blocking pedestrians, a line of wet washing flapping gaily above the brick-mountain. Stepping around it I saw a stationery store; a noodle stand ('wanton soup'); and a bevy of aunties on the footpath selling freshly slaughtered chickens – innards heaped on top of the carcasses. Live fish writhed their last in flat dishes alongside them. At the waterfront, the chaos gave way to travel agents selling tickets to the tourist destinations of Siem Reap and Sihanoukville; good restaurants; second-hand bookstores; and a permanent troupe of child beggars dashing hopefully from westerner to westerner. Yet even here, in the heart of the restaurant strip overlooking the Tonlé Sap River, happily ensconced between the Bile Phone Shop and a narrow nook offering Fresh Internet stood a funeral parlour, proudly displaying to the passing tourists a dozen carved coffins decorated in brilliant blues, reds, gold and greens.
As you do.
THIS CAMBODIAN UNPREDICTABILITY – the manic energy of the place – was tantalising; at once wacky and captivating, it was reason enough to go to Phnom Penh. It also seemed to be a more benign residue of the terrible anarchy that gripped Cambodia in recent history.
Part of the former French colony of Indochina, Cambodia has spent the past three decades wresting itself out of civil war, and rules – good rules, that is, of the sort leading to peace and social stability – have been in very short supply. It was explained to me by several Cambodians that the generation gap in their country has a particularly horrible and precise meaning: those who are now over fifty lived through the Pol Pot years, and remember it well, indeed, are haunted by it. Their lives are immeasurably different to those who came later. But what do the survivors remember?
When the French colonists left Indochina in 1953, Cambodia reverted to its historical norm: a monarchy, headed in this incarnation by the Sihanouk family. The Sihanouk regime was neutral regarding the Vietnam War. The regime fell in an internal coup in 1970 and a more pro-US government led by Lon Nol was quickly established. As the Vietnam War continued to be fought across, and also just inside, Cambodia's eastern border, the revolutionary communist Khmer Rouge was gaining strength from its base in the north of the country.
Led by Pol Pot, the communist KR youths – many barely into their teens – successfully fought their way south against the US-backed army of Lon Nol. The Khmer Rouge reached the capital on 17 April 1975, and was greeted by naively joyful crowds. Those cheering Cambodians who waved their white cloths from the windows of French colonial villas didn't know that their liberators from American domination and mass US bombings of their country (undertaken in the interests of furthering the US agenda in Vietnam; millions of Cambodians died) were about to plunge them into years of anarchy, mass murder and unspeakable terror.
The capital soon emptied. The power went off and silence fell in the streets as the urban population was force-marched to the countryside. Inspired by Maoist ideology and known to Cambodians as 'Angka' (the 'organisation'), the Khmer Rouge distinguished between rural, illiterate, 'good' Cambodians and the urban, educated middle-classes, who overnight became the despised official enemy. Thousands died in the first few days; wearing spectacles was enough to brand you a hated intellectual and have you killed. Doctors pretended to be labourers; teachers said they were factory workers. Those who survived became internal refugees in what Pol Pot called Year Zero. Year Zero meant forgetting everything that came before. Nostalgia for the pre-1975 era was labelled 'memory sickness'. Those indulging in it risked their lives.
Renamed the 'New People', the educated Cambodians were imprisoned in KR slave labour camps. Utterly despised, a common taunt they heard was 'To keep you is no benefit; to destroy you is no loss.' Life in the camps was a gruelling round of backbreaking labour, planting rice paddies and attempting to grow any food possible. The sick and starved worked until they couldn't, and then they died. The routine of slavery and semi-starvation was interspersed with executions for supposed infringements of party policy. Throughout the country, numerous specialist torture camps were set up to extract 'confessions' from the unlucky targets of KR paranoia, often including their own members . It was an insane regime, fuelled by ideology, class hatred, poverty and also, one can only assume, the impact of having a foreign superpower drop more tonnage of bombs on your country than Japan received in World War II. Almost nobody under the rule of Pol Pot was safe. For four years, from 1975 to 1979, the Cambodian world went mad.
Of the approximately seven million Cambodians alive in 1975, around five million remained when Vietnamese troops arrived in 1979 and drove the defeated KR back into the far northern fringes of the country. The figure is disputed, but according to the Yale Genocide Studies Program, about 1.7 million people had been murdered or had died of starvation, sickness, torture or overwork – a quarter of the population. It is as though five million Australians were to be wiped out between now and 2016, and at the hand of other Australians. This is what the survivors remember today.
Seeking to understand more, I went to S-21, the main torture camp in Phnom Penh, which is now a museum. It was in this converted high school compound that the camp commander, Duch, ordered the torture of thousands of imagined traitors to the revolution. I walked the haunted corridors, preserved much as they were in 1979, with black and white photos documenting the scenes that the incoming Vietnamese had discovered. I bought a biography from a survivor who sits daily in the sun watching the world reel past his history, in the place where he heard the screaming of the shackled and where he screamed in shackles himself. I read more histories; I watched more films. I was told ghastly stories, both in Phnom Penh and also back in Australia, stories that I shivered at but nevertheless pounced on, and had intended to use as graphic illustration of the horror.
Then, slowly, I began to change my mind. As a child I heard stories of Tasmanian Aboriginal infants being buried in the sand up to their necks. British colonists kicked their heads from their tiny bodies and called it sport. The Cambodian stories I heard are of this nature, and (unbelievably) perhaps even worse, since the horrors I was told of were inflicted by close family members – often children – forced to save their own lives by murdering their brothers, their sisters, their parents. For four years, after colonial humiliation, poverty and the US bombings drove Cambodia into the murderous arms of the Khmer Rouge, the world was shut out. The detailed stories of what happened then don't bear repeating except by Cambodians themselves. They belong to those who suffered.
THE DAY AFTER going to S-21 I met Mr Heng, a tuk-tuk driver. A reserved man, he started talking only after I showed interest in the blue 'I Support Justice' stickers plastered over his flimsy vehicle. Mr Heng – not his real name – displays the stickers to show that he has a very personal stake in the outcome of the International Criminal Tribunal that is now groping its way through Cambodian realpolitik in search of an elusive justice. Mr Heng was six months old when the Khmer Rouge arrived in 1975. His father was a soldier– 'marine' was the word Mr Heng offered me over a plate of noodles – serving in the army of Lon Nol. Heng Senior lasted less than twenty-four hours under the new regime.
The family of the newly orphaned Mr Heng fled to a rural central province, and survived Year Zero there. Later, as is common in Cambodia, Mr Heng's mother sent him to the city to become a Buddhist monk; the religious institution fed and schooled him as a teenager. For the seven years that Mr Heng lived at the wat he learned Pali, Sanskrit, English and Thai, rose with everybody else in the temple at 4 am to meditate and to pray, and also attended outside classes during the day. When he decided to leave the monastic life in his mid-twenties, Mr Heng got a job at the airport, loading luggage. It suited him, he told me with quiet self-assurance.
'It was a good job. Health insurance included.'
Mr Heng married a girl who sewed garments in a clothing factory, and together they had a son. Then in 2008the global financial crisis hit and, along with scores of others, Mr Heng was laid off. His family currently lives in a small rented room that costs US$40 a month and a secure place to park his tuk-tuk at night demandsanother US$10. The Heng family still owns a hectare of land in the countryside, which his brother-in-law farms. Mr Heng receives a third of the harvest, and this provides all the rice his small family in the city requires. Childcare would cost his wife half her wage, and so she stays at home with the boy.
We spoke for an afternoon about Cambodian life, the endemic corruption which is a blight upon the population, and the years Mr Heng spent in the monastery. When I asked him about his dream for his life, he answered me immediately. 'I would like to get a 1994 or 1995 Camry,' Mr Heng told me, which would cost him four thousand dollars. Then he could drive western tourists to far-off Siem Reap, and be their tour guide, and thus make a decent living.
'Can you go to a bank and get a loan?'
Mr Heng smiled rather pityingly at my foolish question. 'Too poor.' No Cambodian bank is about to lend money to a tuk-tuk driver making perhaps US$5 a day. His other, even less probable, dream was to return to live in the country – 'not so expensive living' – and open a shop, as many Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants have done in Cambodia. Unlike some others I spoke to, Mr Heng evinced no hatred or xenophobia towards these other, historically enemy, ethnic groups; he was, however, clearly aware of their economic power compared to most Khmer.
'What is your dream for your son?' I asked.
Mr Heng told me he would like his son to go to law school, to claw his way out of the labouring classes through education. But the cost of law school in Phnom Penh is twenty thousand US dollars a year – a fantastic sum. I mentioned AusAID scholarships, but from his reaction it seemed unlikely to me that Mr Heng's son will ever walk through the rather grimy gates of the Faculty of Law School that I had passed in my wanderings around his city.
'Do Cambodians hope for democracy?' I asked, before packing my notebook to go. Mr Heng paused, and gave me an unreadable look. When he spoke, he carefully amended the verb.
'That is what they pray for.'
I found myself thinking about Mr Heng's situation over the following days, wincing at the reality of poverty in Cambodia, where a smart, hard-working man with four languages earns five dollars on a good day. I wondered about microfinance in the Third World; I briefly thought about excavating my own meagre savings to finance the elusive Camry.
His father, the 'marine', had wanted Mr Heng to follow in his footsteps and be a soldier like him, not a monk or a tuk-tuk driver. But Heng Senior had, inexplicably and unwisely, kept his identity card identifying him as a soldier of Lon Nol. The Khmer Rouge found it in his shirt pocket upon their arrival, and shot him dead on the spot. Once the terror of the Pol Pot years ended, his widow sold vegetables in the local market to support her children. 'If your father had lived,' Mr Heng's mother told him often as a child, 'Your life would have been much easier.' It seemed to me that Mr Heng – a contemplative and dryly humorous man – had probably gone fairly hungry for most of his life.
SOMEWHAT OVERWHELMED, AND also in search of diversion for my son, we headed north-east. After six painful hours in a minibus on what is laughably referred to as a highway, we arrived in Mondulkiri province. Here, in the Cambodian boondocks where the KR originated, the genocide had been slightly less drastic than in the south. This is a region of dry, windswept plateaus, large numbers of Indigenous people still living in remote villages, and a thriving pachyderm-based economy. I went in search of elephant marriages; instead I found Charlie Sheen. Not the hilariously narcissistic actor himself – he was presumably busy with cocaine and 'angels' in LA – but his recent history as outlined in a Vanity Fair article from June 2011. According to the magazine, which I found with a cry of pleasure on a shelf at our otherwise primitive eco-resort, Sheen had been sacked after years of turning up to work on the set of Two and a Half Mendrunk, high or both. His enraged rantings about the show's producer Chuck Lorre were the final straw. Sheen's response to being fired was to immediately declare to the world that he was 'a winner' blessed with 'tiger blood'. T-shirts were printed and rushed out, bearing Sheen's new philosophy of life: Duh! Winning!These were sold at live performances to a fan base riveted as much by sheer disbelief as by entertainment.
It seemed to me, reading under a bare light bulb in my rough hut on a wind-scoured Cambodian hillside, that his exultant phrase summed up not just the fantasy world of Carlos Irwin Estevez, but also the delusions of the KR as they had ravaged Cambodia a generation ago. The brutalised and enslaved population was collapsing of starvation and overwork in front of them, but Angka soldiers didn't see their suffering brethren, far less an attempt at genocide which in this decade is the subject of an international tribunal. No. With each fresh murder the KR saw their looming righteous victory over the capitalist oppressors. They were winners. War is Peace, they could as well have been congratulating each other as they beat their countrymen to death with hoes; Slavery is Freedom; Ignorance is Strength.
The roads over the dusty Mondulkiri hills were bordered with clusters of unidentifiable white chunks the size of golf balls. These turned out to be lumps of cassava put out by farmers to dry in the sun before being bagged and either consumed locally, or sold into the city markets. Nutritionally suspect but fast-growing, cassava has overtaken coffee as the cash crop of choice for the indigenous Bunong. With their economic and political position threatened by incoming Khmer (the Cambodian ethnic majority) the Bunong's only other real source of income in their remote homeland is eco-tourism. Elephant-based enterprises are underpinned by various NGOs, and with the aid of Lonely Planet, European and Australian travellers are prepared to risk their spines and sanity on the calamitous roads to the northeast, and once they get there, to pay big dollars for the experience of riding elephants through the Cambodian forest.
Still bruised from the bus, I had little interest in riding elephants, but was intrigued by the prospect of seeing a wedding between two of the great grey beasts. In Bunong tradition, the reproduction of the semi-sacred elephant is as heavily regulated as any Victorian maiden's virginity. Only after an elaborate and expensive ceremony are Mum and Dad Babar allowed to make babies. In practise, we learned, the ceremonies almost never happen, and new elephants are instead captured from the wild, where their numbers are in decline.
Disappointed not to be able to witness this odd event, we went anyway to glimpse some elephants returning from a day's trekking. We were staying in a Bunong-owned enterprise, and now sought only elephants, not wishing to inflict ourselves further on the indigenes. It turned out that the two are inextricable in remote Cambodia, though, and I found myself explaining the fundamentals of Aboriginal life to our Khmer guide as we stood awaiting the return of the trek. Though the Bunong doubtless would have seen this Khmer man as part of their colonial problem, our guide was sympathetic toward the villagers, as indeed he was to Aboriginal Australia.
Every Bunong village, he told us, still has a witch and a healer. A minority of Bunong continue to live in round thatched huts that are very dark inside and which have only one low door to help prevent tiger attacks. Traditionally, Bunong women would live much of their lives inside these dark, smoky huts.
The people continue to feel very strongly about their elephants, our guide continued, and although the non-indigenous Khmer would happily pay huge sums for the ivory, it is always buried in secret graves in the forest along with the rest of the carcass when the elephants die of old age. Sometimes, though, the Khmer discover the graves, and desecrate them for the tusks, and then there is nothing the Bunong can do about it.
He quizzed me about the parallels between Bunong and Aborigines, before relating that he had seen the Australian president, Kevin somebody, apologising on television to the Aboriginal people, and that he thought this was a good thing. Yes, I agreed, he is a decent man, but many problems remain. We spoke about the Mabo decision, Australian racism, poverty, a history of child removal and assimilation, and traditional Aboriginal religion. The Bunong remain basically animist, the puzzled guide then told me, headshaking, despite several decades of contact with the outside world.
'They still worship stones, and we don't know how to fix them,' he confided. A cry familiar to policymakers from Darwin to Deniliquin, I thought ruefully, and said nothing, since I didn't know how to 'fix' him, either.
BACK IN PHNOM Penh the following week we watched a documentary by Cambodian director Rithy Panh, about the laying of fibre-optic cable across the nation. His film followed itinerant workers who were engaged in digging the trenches for the cable, and opened with a company man explaining to a worker what benefits an ordinary Khmer like him would reap once the job was done: faster communications, an opening up of the globalising world, civilisation at the push of a button. The company man left, and the worker immediately stopped nodding. He looked at the camera, sardonic but far from amused.
'I have no electricity,' the subtitle read.
The worker was displaying a rare talent for understatement. For a pittance he and his heavily pregnant wife risked their lives daily – the ground they dug had been dotted with landmines in the Pol Pot era. Workers now regularly struck these devices as they laboured barefoot in the mud. Some who hit the mines died. Others were severely maimed, left to survive as best they could in a country with little work and zero social welfare. With four or five children to feed already, the pregnant woman went to nearby houses after her day's labour and begged for extra rice to survive; her children gathered ants out of trees to flavour it. And as the mother and father dug their few metres of trench each day, their work team would sometimes uncover more evidence of Year Zero. When their shovels and mattocks hit something hard, everybody leapt back and shuddered in fear. It might be rock. It might be an unexploded mine. Or it could be the skull of someone who hadn't made it.
Riding home on a moto afterwards, I realised that I had seen this documentary before. Australian director Ivan Sen is best known for his two feature films, Beneath Clouds (2002) and Toomelah (2011). But early in his career Sen, who is Koori, wrote and directed a brilliant little-known short, Dust (1999), about Aboriginal cotton chippers in outback Australia. Like the Cambodian ditch diggers, the people in Sen's film are doing arduous labour for lousy pay, and like the Cambodians, they know they are poor, and that they have few alternatives. There are no landmines in Australia, of course, and the Aborigines in the film are not quite subsisting on ants and a handful of rice. But in one particular the two groups are almost exactly alike. Sen's film gets its power, and its stunning climax, from the revelation that as the red dust blows up from the cotton fields and across the stark outback landscape, the Aboriginal workers have been chipping weeds among the bones of their massacred relatives.
EVERYWHERE I WENT in Cambodia I met warm and generous people scratching together a living on a couple of dollars a day. There is nearly always exquisite ancient architecture to be seen, and not inconsiderable native forests, especially around Mondulkiri where elephants and tigers can still be found in the wild. But with few exceptions – and eerily, the disturbing compound of S-21 was one of them – the birds we Australians take for granted were missing from the skies, the trees, the soundscape. Overdevelopment? But even in the world's most populous cities there are birds to be found, and a variety of birds at that. In Cambodia it was so dire, and the sky so barren, that I began to pay close attention when I saw an ordinary brown sparrow. Just before leaving I discovered where the wild birds had gone. Under the Khmer Rouge, the main tools of torture were overwork and hunger. Anything edible during Year Zero was as valuable as gold; hoarding food, even a few grains of rice, was an offence against the Angka, often fatal. In this environment, the country's bird population was hunted to the brink of extinction.
Virtually every Cambodian I spoke with had a striking dignity and a desire that their country be understood in its entirety, as a place with a future as well as a past. Most hold their historic agonies close to their hearts, and many of those over fifty try – as some Aboriginal elders do – to protect the younger generations from the memories, by refusing to talk about the full horror of what happened to them. Going to the S-21 museum, and listening to the stories of those Cambodians who did agree to talk, was harrowing, but I found another poignant aspect of the country to be the silence that has fallen over the country's skies. There are plenty of Angry Birds for sale in the markets of Phnom Penh, but there are almost no real wild birds. In my month there, I heard only one solitary songbird. It sounded like a funeral dirge.
Reluctant to head home, we called on Mr Heng to say a brief goodbye. I handed him a modest sum of money, and joked that if he had his longed-for Camry he could have driven us to meet the plane and made a decent day's pay. Maybe next year you'll drive me, I said, knowing this wasn't going to happen, and that Mr Heng's Camry was no more tangible than the Lotto win which I regularly anticipate at home.
'The airport rang me up,' he said, 'More tourists coming. They offered me my old job back!' But he wasn't going back to being a baggage handler, Mr Heng said, health benefits or not, and what he told me next astonished me.
'I looked at the deal at the airport and the deal as a driver. I'm better off as a tuk-tuk driver,' he said, before matter-of-factly adding, 'Plus I have freedom.'
I blinked and smiled, unsure if I had heard him correctly. I was talking with the son of a murdered father and a mother who had somehow kept a suckling infant ('To keep you is no benefit; to destroy you is no loss.') alive through the hell of Year Zero. A man probably chronically hungry; whom no bank would loan money to; a lowly tuk-tuk driver in one of the world's most viciously corrupt countries, and he had just offered me this extraordinary summation of his life: that he was free.
That night I rode in a taxi through the streets of Phnom Penh, filled with admiration for Mr Heng and his fellow Cambodians, determined to return to this most beautiful of countries. Above all else, above the poverty, the rampant corruption, the all-too-visible sex trade, or the mania of the capital, it was this that stayed with me from my time in Cambodia: the dignity, courtesy, and astonishing resilience of its people. Duh, I am compelled to think when I remember Mr Heng and those tens of thousands like him who have stared into a mirror darkly, and kept on going regardless: Duh. Winning.
Theroux, P. Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On The Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2008
Kiernen, B. 'The Demography of Genocide in South-East Asia' in Critical Asian Studies, 35:4, Routledge 2003
Panh, Rithy (writer/director) 'The Land of the Wandering Souls', documentary, Institute National de l'audiovisuel, Bry-sur-Marne, France, first released 2000
Corruption statistic from www.transparency.org/policy_research accessed March 28 2012