I rode through the Cambodian countryside for a day on the back of a motorbike driven by a man named Samay*, who spoke essentially no English. As we jostled over orange muddy roads and our plastic ponchos blew in the rainy season downpour, we crafted a game between us. Samay would teach me a new word in Khmer; I would try to repeat it, pronouncing it wrongly every time; and then he would spell the Khmer word for me, phonetically, in the English alphabet, to help me pronounce it correctly. I listened as a grown man—a grandfather—haltingly practiced his English alphabet. He listened as a lonely, bald, American girl haltingly learned Khmer; he patiently, endlessly repeated words as I insisted on getting them right.
Hours passed, and still we rode through driving rain—past expansive French construction sites, immense Chinese casino developments sweeping high into stormy skies, petite Cambodian dwellings propped up on stilts above swollen gutters. The monkeys were quiet in the rainy trees above us.
“Sva,” Samay said. “Monkey. Sva. S . . . V . . . A.”
“Sva,” I repeated. “Sva.”
Then suddenly: “Sva. S-V-A. S, V, A,” Samay said. Except this time, he pronounced the alphabet letters in the French alphabet pronunciation—not English.
“Tu parles Français? Est-ce que c’est plus facile pour toi de parler en francais? Il faut qu’on parle en francais tout le temp!!” I burst out in messy French. (You speak French? Is it easier for you to speak in French? We should have been speaking in French this whole time!)
“No no no no, no French, no French,” he clarified. “Only S-V-A. A, B, C, D, E . . .” and he began to recite the alphabet in French.
“Five, two,” Samay had said earlier, telling me his age.
It hit me. The man whose bike I’d been riding in the rain all day was old enough to have spent the formative years of his life under strong French colonial influence. He probably was taught French in school for just a moment before the Cambodian government shifted regimes in one of a series of tumultuous and deadly developments in the second half of the 20th century. Now all that was left was the alphabet, still bouncing around his memory from decades past.
The gist: “Cambodia” is a name coined by the French, and a country labeled and separated by France. The people of Cambodia refer to themselves as Khmer; they speak Khmer; they eat Khmer food.
During the Vietnam War, the US (and France) fronted a Cambodian president they thought would be sympathetic, and not allow Vietnamese soldiers access to Cambodian territory. The president did anyway. Then the Khmer people, who generally bristle at Vietnamese involvement in their country, had further reason (beyond being a puppet of the west) to despise this president. American intervention and an American bombing campaign from 1965 to 1973 accelerated resentment of the American-backed president, and simultaneously accelerated support for Pol Pot among Cambodian peasantry.
The infamous Pol Pot came to power and established an authoritarian communist regime.
During this time, the Cambodian government hunted and murdered “traitors” and minorities, with estimates ranging from 1.7 to 3 million murders (as per UNICEF)—this, among a total Cambodian population of 7 million. This was called the Khmer Rouge.
Twenty-thousand mass graves, or “killing fields“, littered the country (one remains today, an open-air museum and memorial). Bullets were too expensive, so machetes or sharpened bamboo were often used to kill citizens instead, before they fell into the holes they themselves had just dug. To cover the sound of screaming at the killing fields, the regime’s anthem was blasted on loudspeakers. (This is not to mention the hundreds of thousands of lives claimed by starvation and disease during and following this time.)
The United Nations still supported Pol Pot as the country’s leader, because he was of a Chinese brand of communism, rather than Soviet.
Teeth and clothing still surface the grounds after heavy rains, and a large tree still bears scarring from the bashing of children’s skulls.
Though Pol Pot’s name goes down in infamy, many of the other leaders who were in power during the Khmer Rouge are still in power today. These leaders are open about the Khmer Rouge, but not open about their own involvement. Many Cambodians themselves are not aware of this continuation of leadership, due to violent censorship.
The very day before Pol Pot died of “heart failure” in 1998, he spoke with a foreign journalist, announcing that he would finally tell the whole story of the Khmer Rouge and disclose all information about what happened between 1975 and 1979, potentially incriminating the remaining leaders of the genocide. The tell-all interview could never take place.
Today, the Cambodian government is one of the most corrupt in the world, ranking after even notoriously corrupt countries in the neighborhood: Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. The ruling party has been in power for more than 33 years, but other political parties exist despite aggressive discouragement.
In the 2013 general elections, another popular party was able to garner strong support, but could not secure ruling power. Allegations of voter fraud arose, and frustration with the current party’s corruption, human rights violations, and illegal logging exploded into large-scale protests from 2013 to 2014. Though the people persisted, government crackdowns muffled protestors, leaving five people killed by military police and more than 40 injured.
The current president has since threatened that, if his Cambodian People’s Party loses the next general election, there will be civil war. In so many words, he threatened a return of the Khmer Rouge to a population of people who want nothing but to be left in peace to live their lives, for once.
Perhaps, if the president agrees to the people’s demands, the United Nations will facilitate the next elections, and the people’s honest voice will be heard.
“The 2013 election was a wake-up call for the authorities who thought they had everything under control.”
–Sophal Ear, professor at Occidental College and expert on Cambodian politics.
If my blog got more traffic than the readership of friends and family, I would quite possibly be blacklisted from entering Cambodia ever again, as is any blogger, or conservationist, or human rights activist who speaks openly about the government.
So no identifiable pictures of local people this time. But I’m telling you, their smiles are beautiful.
I’m not writing to slam Cambodia. I’m writing to tell you about Samay’s kindness, and how he was so happy to hear me remember the difference between “ice water” and “hot water” (tekrecheeya versus tekraal). I’m writing to tell you about how we fought over who had to take a picture with the topless mermaid statue, and he said, “No, no, I have madame.” I’m writing to tell you about the instinct to nestle into his back, my new friend with whom I developed a connection that was exceptional (I didn’t, though). And I’m writing to tell you that Samay survived his country’s strife, his government’s wrath, the Western World’s bloody blundering, and is 52 years old. And despite the seeming hopelessness of a situation in which the average daily income of a Cambodian is $1.50 (despite more generous estimates by government mouthpiece publications), humans are more resilient than their cruelty.
Samay is more important to remember than what we hear on the news, and what we hear from the government. My guess is that he continues to wait on the corner of the main intersection in the Cambodian beach town, waiting for people to walk by and need a ride somewhere. He wears his poncho to work on rainy days, and goes home to his madame, his kids, and his grandkids. He lives in the same town in which he was born. He lives, despite the greatest forces in the world positioning him for death. Though we agreed on 8USD for a two hour trip, I handed him the rest of my US cash after our four or five hour excursion. He asked if I had a phone number, but I explained that I didn’t have a local number (“no Cambodia phone”). I knew better than to ask him if he had a Facebook. So we hugged, and I waved as he rode off.
I don’t have dreams of the vast deserted flooded fields we flew past in the rain. I only think of him when I’m awake.
“They accomplished all of this by promoting and encouraging the “old” people, who were . . . the most violent and ignorant people . . . These people took orders without question.
They ordered us to attend meetings every night where we took turns finding fault with each other, intimidating those around us. We survived by becoming like them. We stole, we cheated, we lied, we hated ourselves and each other, and we trusted no one . . .”
–Excerpt from “Worms from Our Skin”, a personal account of the Khmer Rouge.
That morning, the rest of the world’s worst tour company got on the big bus with wifi for the day’s outings, as planned.
That morning, I decided I had hit my limit of what I could stomach in terms of babysat group travel.
Just before the group left, as I brushed my teeth, I paused, squinting at my reflection. What if I had a mediocre, boring day? What if they all came back and the tour turned out to be awesome and amazing?
Praises be: by that point, I’d learned to trust my own trust of the unknown. I let the group go without me. I saved 26USD.
In the peace of an empty, Westerner-free motel, I sat at the small outdoor bar and asked Suon* for a cappuccino. The night before, the petite hotel employee had been playing music from her phone while the tour group sat with beers before heading out to dinner. I heard the Cambodian cover of Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” (which sounds almost the exact same as the Vietnamese, Thai, and, well, British versions of the same song). I asked Suon to teach me to dance how Cambodians dance, and she did. She, her friend Jessica*, her enemy Nimol*, and I made fun of . . . me.
So that morning, in the dull mist, Suon and I sat, just us, at the bar, chatting about her sister’s business making clothes. She pushed her breakfast of rice with pork and fish closer to me and climbed up onto the bar so we could share her food while looking at pictures of her sister’s designs. Every time I put down my spoon, she insisted I pick it back up. When I tried to pay, she wouldn’t accept it.
Jessica came by, and we did a miniature photo shoot of the girls. A few other staff members arrived from the grocery store and we all peeled pink-fleshed pomelo fruits and even if the day had stopped there, it would have already been worth it to take the risk of striking out on my own, no matter how brilliant a day the others ended up having. I had won. I had been given the gift of kindness and friendship by the people who picked up the pieces of the deteriorating motel while everyone else was away for the day.
Suon asked me what my plans were for the afternoon. She complained that her friend didn’t want to go to the beach with her, because it was cold and rainy. She invited me to join her after her shift. I said yes.
In the meantime, I set out to the hostel/bar I’d visited the night before to find the bar’s owner, Mark*, again. He was an American ex-pat from Utah, and I wanted to ask him, “What about this place made you move here, and what about this place made you stay?” Whatever his answer was, I would chase it that day with my unbound solo time. This was my plan to pack my day with value.
I never made it. At the corner of the street I met Samay, who asked me if I needed a ride. I asked him—hypothetically—how much he would charge to go to the national park a 40 minute ride away. Our conversation turned into a whole other agreement and outing. I sent him home to get his other helmet, to meet back at my hotel in 15 minutes. I ran back, grabbed a poncho, and explained to Suon my plan. When Samay arrived, he and Suon spoke about where to go, how long it would take.
See here’s the trick: leave no room for avoidable danger. Samay knew that Suon would be waiting for me, and knew Samay’s face. As Samay and I rode further and further into oblivion, a lone pair on a bike among a vast empty countryside, I had no need to fear.
So I hopped on the back of the bike, and set off for waterfalls and monkeys and ocean and potholes.
“Everybody loves life. But sometimes the sacrifice has meaning.”
–Bo K.S. Uce, Cambodian activist.
When I arrived back to the hotel, Suon and Jessica were ready to leave for the beach. I traded my soaked clothing for a swimsuit and a fresh T-shirt and shorts that promptly became soaked in the rain on the 15-minute walk to shore.
There were moments on my travels when I thought I arrived 20 years too late. My birth should have taken place sooner, because I was meant for untrodden paths, unpolluted jungles, unsullied and tourist-less lands. Traveling in a decade without omnipresent technology; traveling with a tactile map to places I could only ever know by arriving to them. Landing in Southeast Asia to be turned loose on these regions before tourism irrevocably slammed them.
But the reality is, as a Westerner, I can no longer escape to the past: some backward, rural, undisturbed pocket of a simple life for my temporary consumption. Why would I think that Cambodia is exempt from the same struggles that I’d like to escape in the United States?
The jungles and coastlines of the world are being westernized and developed, wealth disparity careening out of control all over the world. The ramifications of imperialism and colonialism have left so many of these countries in shambles, with infrastructures and political systems that serve a corrupt few while abandoning their own citizens.
For how long could the Western World play chess with less developed countries and expect them to remain chaste, pure oases for our own temporary escapes? How could we, during the Cold War, liken countries full of people with cultures and histories as “dominos”, toys that must be restrained by U.S.-fronted leaders? It seems that we are still waiting for that approach to pay off (“we” excludes Zara, H&M, Walmart and Gap, who benefit enormously from cheap, exploitative labor in Cambodia).
And for those who would seek the last vestiges of an older concept of the eastern world, a pocket of “local” in a country of “tourist”, I must ask: why do you insist on commodifying the lives of people who do not invite you to survey their lives and worlds, consume, and depart? And do you so humor yourself that what feels “exotic” and “authentic” to you is anything less than the patronizing of locals who understand what you want and deliberately create that product?
I count myself among this group, wrapped up in a comforter on a warm couch, back in the suburbs of Southern California, recounting my great adventures.
“I want to see people live with freedom, to have their culture, their traditions, to be able to pursue their own lifestyle.”
–Cambodian environmentalist Chut Wutty, who won the international Goldman Environmental Prize and then was murdered at home.
The world swells with trash, and it’s a privilege to live separate from it—and a rare one, at that.
We waded through streets flooded with trash and sewage, the runoff of entire hillsides deposited low by the shore. Our flip-flops created unnecessary drag, so we took them off. Cars and motorbikes rode past, sending waves across our path.
“The government is never happy with forest rangers, patrollers, natural-resource preservers and human rights activists. These people always experience death threats.”
–Award-winning human rights lawyer, Leng Ouch
I hurled my body into warm trash water of the Gulf of Thailand in the pouring rain with two girls whose small frames fought mediocre waves with gleeful effort, while I barreled through, accustomed to rugged California surf.
Our gray beach was enshrouded by driving rain and fog. No horizon on any side, but a dark grey mass extending into nothingness. We entered it.
And I thought that maybe I wasn’t born too late. Perhaps I wasn’t meant to experience the glory of the old days, but to witness its passing. To bid it farewell, once the dominos have already begun to fall, and maybe flag somebody down to help. As someone who can appreciate the past without losing compassion for the present and future.
If Suon really found something funny, you knew because she became unable to breathe, needing to sit down, cough and wheeze until the constriction passed. Fighting the waves sent her reeling to the sand to sit.
Sitting by her on the sand, I thought I had been swimming in jellyfish. My legs and arms stung all over, and it took time to realize that it was only the wind picking up as the afternoon faded, pelting our skin with sharp raindrops.
Suon got us food from the woman under the tarp. With my chopsticks I pulled out a rack of black spindly legs—crab—and blew my nose as the spices cleared my sinuses. Suon’s breathing steadied.
I left my Mucinex with her the next morning before getting on the bus to Vietnam. I hope she took it.
That night as we slept, an intruder crept from the roof of the building next door and cased over the hotel, entering every room locked but not dead bolted, without a key, while we slept; opened bags and took cash, sifted through possessions and took phones, exiting the room as the inhabitants still slept. Though I’d forgotten to take out my contacts that night, woozy on x glasses of wine, I had haphazardly pulled the deadbolt across. It was sticky, and didn’t fit, so I gave up after about two millimeters of progress. Those two millimeters saved my camera, my gear, my phone, and my computer which lay in the open, near the door, charging.
The people who had their phones stolen considered tracking where their phones had gone. I told them not to. If it worked, it could irreversibly destroy the thief’s life, though they only acted in a manner completely to be expected for an oppressed, impoverished individual faced with a hotel full of Brits with smartphones during offseason. A person’s life must be more important than a person’s phone.
Just as resisting censorship and an oppressive regime must be more important than my personal ability to visit Cambodia again, some day. Saying something, using my US citizenship to say things that residents can’t–this ought to take priority, no? I have a safe home that is outside of Cambodia. Others don’t.
*Names have been changed to protect friends’ privacy and safety.