07. My Great Cambodian Depression

  1. 01. To The Rescue
  2. 02. Last Minute Minutia
  3. 03. Spiritual Me
  4. 04. A New Approach
  5. 05. Cruising Cambodia
  6. 06. Ox Cart Aerobics and Buddhist Blessing Yoga
  7. 07. My Great Cambodian Depression
  8. 08. A Day on the River Limbo
  9. 09. Lies, Damned Statistics, and Tourism
  10. 10. Saigon Reunification
  11. 11. The Way to Huế
  12. 12. A Hot Time in the Old Town
  13. 13. An Hanoi-ing Experience
  14. 14. Southeast Asian Rescue

I had been in Cambodia for five days. In addition to visiting the major tourist city, Siem Reap, I’ve taken a five-hour bus ride across the countryside, spent two nights on a river boat, and visited a school, factories, and villages. IMG_8620Most Cambodians live what can be euphemistically described as a simple life. Dirt poor is probably a better description.

In theory, I support tourism for the economic benefits it provides to such people.

Our tour guide, Samath, for example, appears to have a well-paid job, and one that comes with some prestige to boot. That would seem to be true for the ship’s crew, too, who appear happy in their work despite working awfully hard for interminable hours.

IMG_8698In practice, though, I find retreating to the cocoon of my five-star hotel or luxury cruise ship disconcerting. We sip our cocktails with ice from bottled water as we lounge by the pool, trying to gloss over the confronting realities we saw on the day. This luxury has been afforded us more as a result of happenstance of birth than earned by hard work. More troubling, there’s a pretty good argument to the effect that our luxury is the result of the oppressive circumstances we cringe to witness.

I can rationalise most anything, allowing me to take solace in reminding myself that whether or not I sip a cocktail on the Mekong River, the water will remain undrinkable and the people poor. At least this way I’ll have a bit more appreciation the next time I make a batch of rice, or discuss foreign aid with some idiot that doesn’t recognise the moral imperative.

Today I was going to get to experience Cambodia’s biggest city and capital, Phnom Penh. We had the afternoon at leisure. Many of the other passengers took an add-on excursion to the “Killing Fields” just out of town, but the idea of sauntering through a meadow covered with human skulls, each indented with the hole from a hammer’s blow, did not appeal.

IMG_8615We started by dropping a couple postcards in at the Post Office, a handsome French colonial building a block from the pier. A man in uniform with a hose sprayed passing motorcyclists with water. They seemed to appreciate it. He turned towards us and poised to shoot, but we held up our hands to stop him before he doused our digital cameras. Whew.

We were headed to the Central Market, but took a circuitous route past Phnom Wat, Phnom Penh’s original raison d’être. Phnom Wat sits atop a small hill with a garden clock at its base boasting a IMG_8623twenty-metre clock face. It has a second hand that actually yields a breeze as it flies by, its tip cruising along at about a meter per second. I imagine it has battered a few unsuspecting clock-watchers in its day.

Across the street was the American Embassy, fortress-like, a study in bollards.

The Central Market was worth the trip. The art deco structure takes up an entire city block, IMG_8638a massive yellow dome at its centre with wings jutting out diagonally to each of the block’s four corners. Inside it was bright and airy, well-ventilated enough to be bearable despite the afternoon heat. An architectural triumph.

I reminded myself that I was dealing with gentle Cambodians here, so not to be a dickhead. I found my Angkor Wat shirt again, this time IMG_8641dickering pleasantly with an old woman who started at eight dollars and settled for five. Fair enough. We bought a few other trinkets and gifts, as well. All in all, a successful undertaking.

Leaving the Market we decided to check out the department store across the street, Central Export, or “CX”. Inside it was air conditioned to a frigid temperature, perhaps because they were mostly selling North Face™ ski jackets. Ski Cambodia? Bizarre.

IMG_8650Back on the ship, dinner was followed by an hour’s entertainment in the form of traditional Cambodian music and dancing. IMG_8663Interesting, but I prefer my clavier well-tempered. Not my cup of tea.

Then the whole mob of us went out for a thirty minute whirlwind tour of Phnom Penh after dark by tuk-tuk. That was a blast. The professional ladies had just started their evening shifts, and were out in force.IMG_8672 I observed that the Dodge-Em Cars ride at the amusement park seemed a bit redundant in this town. A line of Rolls Royces were curiously parked across the street from the Anti-Corruption Authority. The city glimmered with fairy lights for the holiday celebration, the palaces and monuments impressively floodlit.

IMG_8679Sunday morning we prepared to tour several of those same palaces and monuments, as well as the National Museum. Before breakfast Frank wondered aloud “Do you think anything is going on in the world?” Good question. We news junkies hadn’t seen or heard a headline in four days. I headed for the ship lounge the only place on board where the entirely unreliable wi-fi sometimes work.

There was news, albeit not of the headline sort. My brother emailed that mom had died, somewhat unexpectedly. I say “somewhat” as she was not sick with anything particularly life-threatening, other than being 89-years-old. That is life-threatening enough, as it happens.

It didn’t sink in right away. I am bit ashamed to admit that one of my first thoughts was the accountant in me being relieved that her entire life’s savings wasn’t squandered on medical bills. It wasn’t until I posted about it on Facebook that a tear came to my eye. I prepared myself for several days, if not weeks or months, of emotional firestorms with heightened irrationality.

I advised Frank of the news, as well as Gaby, asking her if she knew of a Catholic Church in Phnom Penh where I might like a candle. Gaby gave me a big hug, which seemed appropriate in the circumstance, even though I am not a hugger. She said she’d see what she could find, church-wise.

Phnom Penh is not the easiest place to find a Catholic Church since Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge cleared those folks out. Well, hammered their heads in, to be precise. But Gaby did find a St Joseph’s Catholic Church, and gave us directions.

We headed out to the Royal Palace and National Museum. I was distracted, to say the least. The Silver Pagoda, so named for its silver tiled floors, was the most spectacular yet. Even so, it was just another in a long series of pagodas. Truth be told, I was leery regarding the effect of the blessing most recently bestowed upon me.

In the afternoon we attended S21, a school turned prison by the Khmer Rouge, used to torture and interrogate those who would then be sent out to the killing fields for skull hammering. As with the killing fields themselves, I was less than excited about this attraction.

Personally, I don’t feel the need to be reminded of the human race’s tendency to be horribly cruel to itself. It isn’t like I need help getting more cynical, having developed cynicism to a high art. On the other hand, I do understand the need for such museums to memorialise such horrors for the benefit of Pollyannas and deniers alike.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA It’s just that I am no Pollyanna or denier. Frank thought it important that we go, though, so go we did.

Samath first sat us down in the courtyard, explaining at length the bitter, twisted and confusing litany of events that led to the Khmer Rouge seizing power. It was painful for him to tell the story, and perhaps as painful for me to listen, as he gave the definite vibe that significant personal loss was at hand here.

It was more than I could take, profoundly depressing at the moment I could have stood a bit of uplift. Once Samath finished, I darted off ahead of the group, completing my museum run-through on my own.

Out of some thousands who were put through S21, only seven survived, and two of them are alive today. I found myself waiting at the exit next to one of them, selling his book. What does one say to such a person? Way to not die? Keep up the good work? I decided I’d best keep my distance.

Afterwards the group headed for Phnom Wat, which had seen on our own the day before. I explained this to Samath, as well as my desire to get to St Joseph’s. Samath negotiated a tuk-tuk to take us there and then back to the ship for ten bucks. His role as our Cambodian guide was coming to an end, so we said our good-byes.

The tuk-tuk took us to the address of St Joseph’s, from whence we followed a trail of discarded raffle tickets into the rectory. There I got some very puzzled looks when I asked whether Catholics lit candles for dead people in Phnom Penh. As it turns out, they do not. The young man I asked thought I wanted to cremate somebody.  I almost said “Hey, between us, you’re the Catholic, so don’t look at me like I’m the crazy one.” I managed to stop myself.

The four o’clock Sunday Mass was underway, though, so I shuffled in, genuflected, did the “spectacles, testicles, watch and wallet” thing, sitting down on a floor mat before realizing the Mass was being said in Khmer.

My praying is rusty, but I said a prayer, something along the lines of “Mom, thanks, and if you are up there — you are UP there, aren’t you? Shit, tell me you are up there! Hey Pete, get out of the way, she’s as good as you’re gonna get.  Pure white soul and all that. Um, church, thanks for helping her raise eight kids, as I can’t see how she might have pulled it off — or gotten herself into it, for that matter — without you.”

We would be headed to Vietnam in the morning. Maybe they have church candles there, I figured. I knew there was a Notre Dame cathedral in Saigon.

We returned to the ship in time to catch a lecture by one Jean-Michel Philippi, a professor at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. He was most informative as well as entertaining, providing a overview of events in the region from 1953 to 1993. Most helpful was his analysis of the events surrounding the rise of the Khmer Rouge, events that occurred at a time when Americans and Australians alike never wanted to think about Southeast Asia again.

In 1975, when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge finally marched into Phnom Penh (having already controlled the rest of Cambodia for some time), they wasted no time in completely evacuating the entire city. Everybody, and I mean everybody, out! The professor showed a rare, breathtaking video of the vast city a ghost town. It remained that way for three years while the regime tortured and murdered the educated, technicians, artists, the religious, the bald, the eyeglass-wearing and anybody else that might stand in the way of perfecting a classless agrarian society. I’m pretty sure this was not what Thomas Jefferson had in mind.

In one of those twists of history that would be deemed implausible if somebody used it in a movie, the Vietnamese eventually liberated Cambodia from those ruthless Cambodians. Cambodia remains bitterly grateful to this day. (You can check out the prof’s stuff at www.Kampotmuseum.wordpress.com.)

To round out one of the most depressing days of my life, we watched The Killing Fields, with a young Sam Waterson almost handsome, yet still eminently dislikeable. As the movie ended, another cruise ship docked immediately astride ours. We could reach out from our balcony and touch it. In fact, I did, tapping the windows of the cabin blocking our sweeping view of the Mekong River, asking “Excuse me, could you move your ship, please? You are blocking our view.” A rather surprised older couple briefly opened their curtain, wondering why we were blocking their view of Phnom Penh.

IMG_8682Time to leave Cambodia.