We arrived in Phnom Penh dazed and overwhelmed from Saigon. Ultimately, much as we had enjoyed many aspects of that surging, dynamic, and incendiary city, there were times – caught in the heavy pollution of a humid, overcast afternoon, motorbikes roaring constantly as people blared into mobile phones; the sheer frenzy and libido of the place – that we felt we could hardly take any more. There are quieter areas, and beauty in a variety of ways, but when we left The Cinnamon Hotel we were ready.
D and I are quite weird travellers in a number of ways. I don’t know about you, or how you choose your own destinations, but I imagine that the majority of people go somewhere they have long wanted to visit, or else a place that has been talked about recently, and then they busily go about planning and organizing their itineraries in all the minutiae of hotels, things to do; checking each thing on tripadvisor, and then arriving with the holiday all set in place.
Perhaps rashly, because we want everything to be fresh and new; as stimulating as possible on all levels, we choose where to go almost randomly, anti-intuitively ( I had never wanted to go to Cambodia especially), and then just book our hotels. Seeing everything in advance in photos ruins the pleasure of a place unveiled, unfurling before your eyes, so we just arrive and then take it from there.
Phnom Penh is a place name you cannot disassociate from the genocide of two million Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge (perhaps the reason why I had never really wanted to go there: we ‘did’ Nagasaki many moons ago and were very shaken, as you should be, by the Atomic Bomb museum; I feel no need, important and ‘interesting’ as it was, to now go to Hiroshima as well – I just felt too many ghosts there – the air was leaden and heavy and oppressive, a feeling that lifted the second we crossed the water to Kumamoto but I digress): growing up in England, the image of Cambodia in the seventies and eighties was nothing but misery.
Upon arriving, everything felt wider, mellower, if still infested with motorbikes, even if not quite as densely; the architecture (decaying French colonial, Buddhist) appealing, the roads still noisy, which, as we were finally dropped off at our hotel, The Hotel Anise, I realized was probably going to be a problem – inheriting the neurosis directly from my mother, who gets very agitated in hotels if there is even the slightest noise – my father usually having to use his wily ways to convince the staff to move them, often several times- the hotel was overbooked and we were led to the annex, a separate building across the street with five flights of stairs (not ideal for my imperfect pins); a simple room, but with our own private balcony, that looked out over a thronging party at a famous Khmer restaurant across the street; karaoke floating up from unseen places; construction work going on…….I will admit that I was tense as hell at first, to the D’s understandable irritation. We had paid for the room though and couldn’t afford to go anywhere else, and I had earplugs with me, and after a delicious meal at the hotel restaurant with Angkor beers, I started to melt more into my surroundings.
We were not very adventurous for the first day, just too tired from the blowouts in Ho Chi Minh, and didn’t venture much further than our hotel. Just down the street was a golden temple, so serene, with cats and mango trees and people fanning themselves in shady nooks, so slow. Catching a tuk-tuk to one of the lesser known markets, where the local people go rather than tourists, we realized we definitely were tourists because it was just too cramped, suffocating and claustrophobic inside, with stall owners sprawled among heaps of clothing and other goods in their own spaces that had no respite from the heat: D couldn’t take it, and was feeling a bit hot and bothered, so we randomly went to a roadside restaurant and ordered sour fish soup; very anisic, herbal, fresh, unlike anything I have ever had before, but that was it for the day. We felt instead like just resting and reading in our city garret, whose atmosphere I was starting to appreciate: somehow, the ambient noise was just that – ambient; I felt like a character in Rear Window able to observe the goings on of tenement dwellers and the people in the street, there was a life to it, but also a sleepiness. We could tell that the city was one we were going to rather like.
‘Be careful with cruel dogs’.
The next morning we decided to do a tour of the city by tuk-tuk to get our bearings. I don’t really being guided or explained to: I prefer to just be taken to the key destinations and see what I might come back to later; having been conned by a couple of taxi-drivers in Ho Chi Minh we decided to get a more reputable one from the omnipresent Tripadvisor, which turned out to be a good move: Wuthi was fun but unobtrusive, and he took us to one of the key temples in Phnom Penh, where we lost track of time until he came looking for us; Wat Promh, another Buddhist tower in the centre of the city near trees loaded with hanging bats (fascinating), and down the river near the Royal Palace. Asking us if we wanted to go The Killing Fields, we instinctively said no.
Returning to the hotel after a day in the hot sun warming to our environment, he asked us out of the blue if we would like to go to kickboxing. We had never considered doing this before – we had been planning to go to a bar called Heart Of Darkness – but thought why not: I actually really like kung fu films and let’s be honest, the idea of the boxers themselves wasn’t exactly unattractive either. We said yes. I will pick you up in three hours then, from the hotel.
I love new and unexpected experiences, and it was exciting heading out to a stadium just outside the city centre on a Friday night in the full, heated hubbub of Pnom Penh. It was a bumpy ride, but I was in going out mode: Unum Opus 1144 for the first time, and it felt correct, if absurd; extravagant amber richness for a sporting event, but I was in the right mood for it.
We arrived, and had seats ringside, behind where the boxers sat prior to and after their bouts (matches? rounds? episodes? I know nothing about it): it was a sensory delight; musicians in sombreros would play traditional Khmer music on drums and some kind of oboe – which sounded like the sinuous music that a snake charmer would use to coax a cobra (the national animal, incidentally – there are stone, onyx or gold cobras wherever you go) from its box. The lithe boxers would initially step dance along with the music, having performed some form of Buddhist prayer in the ring, draped in flowers, and would then gradually begin to fight and kick their way through each round; punctured by loud, exhilarating Khmer hip hop pounding through an excellent sound system that got the atmosphere and the crowd really heated up. Initially, I was mesmerized by the aesthetics of the event. The music, the beauty of the boxers and their smell- the scent of sweat commingled with the jasmine garlands they wore, often left on the seat right in front of me; mixed with my own perfume and the changing smells in the air around me I was intoxicated, if uninvolved with the events on the ‘stage’, as I couldnt’ really understand it. You had an idea of who was winning – most of the matches were between a Cambodian and a Thai, but I couldn’t quite focus my eyes on the details of what the kickboxers were actually doing. After a while, the rousing pull of the vanquisher raising his gloved fists aloft to the increasingly raucous reactions of the crowd became indomitable and I was genuinely swept up in the sport itself, becoming more attuned to technique and impressed by the athleticism and strength.
By the end, the sheer percussive din of it all left us pummelled as soft-shelled crabs, and there was no way we were going to be going to any bar. The only possibility was bed.
The next day, there was no escaping the fact that we would have to go to the Genocide Museum. A disaster that killed up to a quarter of the population, the Khmer Rouge’s take over of the country in order to build an ‘agrarian utopia’ that resulted in the pointless annihilation of city people, Buddhists (temples smashed, monks executed), all ethic minorities, intellectuals, government officials, anyone who seemed to stand in the way of the agricultural slavery the regime thought was the answer to the country’s problems. I hadn’t realized, either, that this fundamentally terrorist organization also essentially came into being as a reaction against U.S interference in the country and the bombing from Vietnam that spread to Laos and Cambodia – actions that caused many deaths and huge wells of resentment but which have basically been hushed up (at least for those, like me, quite ignorant in world history: I was never good at it at school nor particularly interested which is precisely why I need to go to such places). The parallels with organizations like ISIS, though, cannot be ignored. And the cruelty, barbarity, and horrifying violence enacted in the name of ideology, are also very similar.
Instinctively, neither of us took any photos at S121, a former school turned torture centre where 16,000 people were ‘processed’, although many more nonchalant and casual daytrippers were, some sauntering through the rooms where people were decimated just snapping away……To me it seemed disrespectful and insensitive to the dead, but this was the thing: how do you react in such a place? To cry, as you listen to your audio guide and realize what happened and that you are in the place where it happened, feels very self-indulgent (this is not all about you!), but then again, how can you not?
The ‘tour’, which felt interminable, began in a courtyard filled with frangipani trees, in full bloom, beautifully fragrant, and my first thought was stupidly that I wondered whether these flowers had given any solace to the prisoners at all. But I quickly realized that all would have been too desensitized and numb and in acute pain and suffering to notice anything. The guide – a Cambodian man who took you through everything in a dignified, unsensationalistic manner, gentle (as the people seem to be in Cambodia ) asked you to sit down on a bench near the fourteen white gravestones that contained the remains of the unidentifiable last victims of the Khmer Rouge at that site before the liberation by the Vietnamese army and Cambodian insurgents. He talked of the symbolism of frangipani trees, sacred in Buddhist culture because they represent immortality as they will flower, even if uprooted, and as I found myself immediately in tears I saw that flowers from the trees, pink and yellow, were slowly falling down around me onto the grass. The pathos of this was poetic but unbearable, particularly when we were asked to go into Building A, which for me was by far the worst and most difficult of the four buildings that constituted the old school that had been turned into a place of unimaginable horror.
In each room was a bed, exactly as the soldiers found it, with iron shackles that kept each poor victim chained up, tortured in inconceivable ways, with the very stains that were there still on the floors, and a sepia photograph of each person on the wall, so that you were actually in the place where they died and could see what they looked like. Sometimes, the faces were covered with a paper strip, probably because it would have just been too horrific to absorb, but as it was, I found it profoundly upsetting and my heart ached that these people, imprisoned for no reason, should have had to go through so much unbearable suffering. Each room seemed to be worse than the last, until finally we were out in the courtyard, not looking at each other, but staring downwards, trying not to burst into tears (other people walked about also with their headphones, dealing with it all in their own way, even if some were too glib and carefree for my own liking: I found it incomprehensible.) Most, though, were lost in their own thoughts and processing the information and reality of what happened – this was just one of many such places across the country; I also didn’t quite know how to proceed. Through room after room and story after story of sickening cruelty; all the photographs, not only of the victims, staring out into the camera, but also the perpetrators, often young vulnerable children who were coerced into joining the organization but who you could tell had been completely dehumanized by the experience; the relating of individual stories of torture…….after a while it all became so overwhelming that I didn’t think I could take any more. The final exhibit, with skulls stacked up as evidence (like the Holocaust, naturally there are deniers, probably why the museum did not forbid photography – this needs to be documented and disseminated the world over so it is not forgotten) was almost intolerable to me, especially with the insensitive snapping them as part of their holiday albums……………..escaping outside to the grass I listened to a smot, or Cambodian song for the dead, and turning my head to avoid anyone seeing, just let the tears flow uncontrollably.
Leaving, we knew the only thing we could do was go back to the hotel. ‘You want to go to the Killing Fields?’ says the driver, but there was no way: this was enough. I am sure that the experience just reinforces the horror even further, but unless it was silent, there were no people, and I were with a Cambodian person who could lead me through it from personal experience (everyone is affected here: Wuthi had both sets of grandparents murdered) it would make no sense, and even then it would just be too ghastly and ghoulish for me to ‘enjoy’ (some tourist websites talk of the fact that when it rains, ‘you can see skulls and other bone matter rising up from the grass!’ as though this were something I would want to see but no way: everything I needed to know I saw at S121 and unfortunately now it is in my head and I can’t ever rid myself of it.) Those rooms are still coming back to me at night, particularly as we are both reading the books by Loung Ung, First They Killed My Father and Lucky Child – last night I turned off the lights and felt like I was having a minor panic attack, so I am not sure if this is the right time to read them. Immersing ourselves in the reality of this history is important (the hotel also had copies of documentaries and films – rather than the real thing, we watched the 1984 film The Killing Fields instead) but for the porous among us it can be too affecting. A duty though. I can’t imagine what the Khmer Rouge Victims went through.
What to do in the evening after a daytime trip to the genocide museum?
After a few hours resting we decided to go out to the Blue Chilli, a famed drag show night – Phnom Penh is relaxed about such things, it feels subtly permissive, as any country would be after being oppressed so horrendously in the past – plus there is a certain live and let live quality about Buddhist countries, I have found; you make your own karma, the tenets on one temple wall we saw saying do no evil, cultivate good, and purify your mind, a ‘doctrine’ that I think the world could do with adhering a lot more to be honest, but anyway, I am talking about a gay bar, which was fun – the queens were pretty and hilarious, there was a very mixed crowd, and the atmosphere was friendly and upbeat.
D was dancing around with strangers, where I felt subdued: even with the music and the alcohol I couldn’t shake off the day’s horrors, and there was one man, a Cambodian, among the throng, who stood out from the crowd in his thinness and particular features, and who I had seen, I am sure, among the faces, the hundreds and thousands of faces on display at the killing centre.
He looked very similar; the bone structure and eyes, a direct link, even in the midst of the festiveness all around me, that was a direct reminder that all the modern culture is a palimpsest over the traumas of the past. It has only been 25 years since democracy was restored; the people have had to move on and build a new society (a very appealing one, I must say – we both felt strangely at home there for some reason), but which most definitely is still haunted, on a daily basis, by the sheer evil of the detestable Khmer Rouge and their repugnantly misguided, sadistic, regime.
I have never been particularly history-minded, as I said earlier. The ins and outs of the civil war and the longstanding mutual animosity between Cambodia and Vietnam are not something I can plunge into with too much detail: in truth, I was more interested in how the people now are moving on and overcoming their collective post-traumatic stress; what methods they have for reasserting calmness and sanity in their lives, and I came across a very interesting article by a woman from Denmark who wrote a thesis on that very subject, spending years, with an interpreter, interviewing victims of the Khmer Rouge on their coping strategies, all of which are very culturally specific ( a need to maintain social contact with the dead, for one, to appease the spirits on a regular basis (S121 has been regularly purified with ritual, to try to give the souls of the dead peace there); discussions with monks and nuns along with meditation, which seems to be the most effective way of quietening the mind, for most people; groups that meet and discuss their lost ones, and so on). This did very much put into focus the importance of Buddhism in the daily lives of Cambodians now (95% are apparently Buddhist); showing that despite the atrocities and the attempts to destroy spirituality, it has naturally sprung up as a way for people to cope.
Of course, the main attraction in Cambodia is Angkor Wat, one of the Seven Wonders Of The World, and one of the world’s most visited tourist sites (as the biggest religious complex anywhere). It might seem obvious that we should have gone there – I know anyone who has been to that apparently awe-inspiring place will think we are mad not to have made the trip, but after a while we decided that we couldn’t face the day there and day back it would have taken, nor the hordes of people in shorts and t-shirts waiting for the ultimate camera angle; our nerves jangled at the mere thought of it. Also, we were enjoying Phnom Penh so much – it is always great, I think, to just sink into a city to the point of boredom, almost, as then it feels more like reality than mere spectating. Sitting on our balcony reading or drinking beer, or else just going for a wander in a cafe (on the main avenue where the statue of the king and the monument to independence is, I had the most beautiful herb tea, made with fresh mint, cinnamon, and anise, which after steeping became the most perfect melange of the three notes; the taste was mesmerizing).
Instead of the trip to Angkor, which we have deferred to another time as I think we will want to go back there, we asked Wuthi to take us to a miniature temple site out of town (on the way to which D ate the dreaded fried frog), where there were no people except the people living within the temple grounds; as ancient as Angkor, even if on a far less impressive scale. Still, it was peaceful and very atmospheric. Even more, I liked the temple nearby which had no one except us and some families and chickens who lived within its precincts. The sun was blazing, and scented, tropical flowers were everywhere, ones I didn’t know the name of but whose perfume and appearance I adored. After a while, I decided to go off by myself.
D was overheating, but I felt fantastically alive and undisturbed, just wandering around in the intense sunlight taking pictures, walking down by the river with the strange statues; seeing white buffalo sleeping in the meadow beyond. I realized that – and I know this might sound ridiculous – but sometimes, you can access your younger self, the essential core of your nature. I felt twenty again, as I did when I used to live in Rome and go off for the day exploring ruins, walking down the Appian Way, alone but content. Sometimes, in just dousing yourself in another place, absorbing its atmospheres and realities, you forget about yourself for a while; it almost becomes like shedding skin, like a snake, until you access the untouched being within.