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Travel Post: Phnom Penh to Kampot

Lately I’ve been so focused on work that I have neglected my travels and my travel blogging. Instead, I have been indulging in my love of technology, science fiction, and future design.

But soon my digital nomad work travels will come to an end, soooo…

On to the Travel Blogging

IMG_20131227_074156Phnom Penh (PP) was great, as far as cities go.

It’s hardly the massive, gridlocked, bustling Bangkok. PP buzzing with motorbikes and tuk tuks hollering at you, food vendors pushing carts full of food down the streets, with odd loudspeaker announcements echoing in Khmer every so often, until around midnight, when some light switch is turned off and the city turns black and silent.

Yet somehow, perhaps due to the Cambodians laid-back attitude, PP retains a much more relaxed feel than any other capital I’ve been to. Though I’ve herd Vientiane is even more “quaint.”

During the day, you find cheap markets, smiley Khmer lounging around their shops, until the slammed rush hour floods past, and if you’re in the touristy areas, you have constant offers of tuk tuks, weed, and hookers…kind of like a less-busy Khao San.

Guest Housing it on St. 172

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View from 3rd floor of White River Hotel on St. 172, Phnom Penh

But that was, of course, because I mostly stuck to the touristy Street 172 and worked from my guest houses. At first investigating the possibility of renting an apartment, I abandoned the idea when I realized they wanted a full three months deposit up front, which deposit, according to a couple grizzled old expats, I would never see again. Why risk such an investment when I could get a guest house for the same price or less?

So I stayed in one guest house, White River I, which was hard to work in, because it had no desk in the room, was filled with partiers and lots of pressure to socialize, buy food, drinks, and weed.

I also volunteered for a day with a program that was looking for a short-term English teacher, and it was there and then that I realized I don’t mix with kids, no matter how smiley and friendly and cute they are.

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Sunrise from my room in Last Home on St 172, Phnom Penh

The next guest house, The Last Home, was much more suited to my working style, and there I sorted out a lot of my short- and long-term goals. A desk, a nice view, and a quiet environment go a long way towards getting work done.

It was in that guest house that I spent Christmas, turned 34, realized some other “trivial” stuff about the path of the digital nomad, my own life path, and I consequently decided to move on to Kampot, a town near the southern coast of Cambodia.

Kampot

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Fields outside Kampot town

I’ve worked here a couple days so far, walked, mingled, and ridden a bike around nearby dirt roads and agricultural fields.

Kampot’s an attractive little town. It has a riverfront, guesthouses a-plenty, nightlife, good food, geckos, really big geckos, exotic bugs, fields extending as far as your bike or motorbike will take you, and, of course, nice, smiley Cambodians.

If I decide to stay in Cambodia, Kampot is definitely a relaxing town to spend time in, meet some nice people, and get some work done.

The Killing Fields, Emergency Sex, & Bed Bugs

IMG_20130927_111330As you enter the Killing Fields you see a tall pagoda-like structure filled with skulls. The skulls of the victims that were exhumed from this site have been examined by forensic professionals from around the world, and some are in displayed the museum, off to the right of the entrance. Small signs behind the skull explain how each one died. Most often it was one of the agricultural tools used by the Khmer for centuries, like a hoe or a hatchet or another blunt instrument.

The site is not that large. Prisoners were brought in by the truckload, stored in a building, and taken a short distance to be executed. Now, there are grass-filled craters where the mass graves used to be. During heavy rains, fragments or teeth will occasionally surface from the mud.

None of the buildings at the site survived. Two large trees stand amidst the excavated graves. The Khmer Rouge would hang a speaker from one of the trees, hook up a loud diesel generator that sounded like a failing truck engine, and blast traditional Khmer music to mask the screams of the dying. When the excavators discovered babies’ corpses by the other tree, they realized that the soldiers had used the tree to smash the babies skulls, using the trunk as a quick and efficient murder weapon.

 

S-21 is the name of a high school that was converted into a prison, where prisoners would watch other prisoners get tortured to death, then become victims themselves. The Khmer Rouge extracted confessions of crimes and denunciations of family and friends before the prisoners died. Of the few who survived, most were artists, kept alive to render portraits. Fifteen or twenty thousand were killed at this prison.

Inside, you can find cells the size of closets, and the metal bed frames that were used as torture racks. On the wall above the bed frame is often a fuzzy black and white photo of a prisoner who was tortured to death, still chained to the bed frame or lying on the floor in their blood. There are other rooms with hundreds of photographs of the prisoners that were killed there, including children.

When I hurried out of S-21, a tuk tuk driver and a maimed beggar came at me at me simultaneously. I was casting about for my driver, and he came up to me and asked, Are you okay?

He gave me some kind of bean cake and took me back to the hotel.

 

IMG_0756A couple days later, when it was raining, a girl came into the hotel with a pair of backpacks on her front and back, both bulging beneath a giant red poncho. She looked like some kind of wild yuppie tourist beast from National Geographic. She was a giant compared to the 13-year-old girl from the country…the one who survived on $.50 per day and who was so malnourished she looked like she was 6.

The traveler asked the owner about a room, then whispered to me anxiously, Is this place any good?

She went upstairs, and a minute later she came rushing downstairs and practically ran over the little Cambodian girl on her way out. She looked positively terrified, so I was sure she had spotted some bed bug poop under the pillows. This hotel is waging an endless war against them.

 

My sombre mood fueled me to get Emergency Sex, which should win a Pulitzer Prize. And while the committee’s at it, they should award one to The U.N. Exposed, a searing expose that makes you wonder if there’s any hope for world peace.

Emergency Sex takes you to the front lines of the worst UN missions in the nineties, beginning with the U.N.’s mission to restore democracy in Cambodia. Twenty years ago, one of the three narrators has divorced her husband of ten years and left her life-crushing ennui to see this after her arrival in Phnom Penh:

 

Entire families pass by on single motor scooters, toddlers standing in the space between the driver’s legs. Live chickens dangle by their legs from a rope tied to the back fender of the bike. Plunk, plunk, plunk goes the one with its head caught in the wheel spokes. A naked baby wanders to the curb to squat and defecate. A pile of squirming worms drops to the gutter, with a few left dangling from his bottom. It looks like spaghetti in curry sauce. A man walking by kicks some dirt over the slithering mass.

 

And it goes on.

Phonm Penh circa 2013

Phonm Penh circa 2013

The book’s three non-fictional narrators meet in Phnom Penh, become friends, and keep in contact over the next decade as they join UN missions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Rwanda. They witness firsthand the incompetence of the government bureaucracies that end up costing thousands and thousands of lives.

In Somalia in 1993, UN and US troops were on a peacekeeping mission, when a botched secret US military mission left eighteen US rangers dead and many more wounded. Their bodies were dragged through the streets, and, to paraphrase We Did Nothing, Americans who didn’t even know where Somalia was woke up in front of their TV sets.

Public opinion pulled US troops out of Somalia and out of Haiti. Clinton’s policy then became non-intervention, and this mindset prevented an invasion of the war-stricken Rwanda in 1994, where 800,000 people were massacred in three months. The UN instead sent in a mission after the fact to dig up the bodies and try the warlords in an international war crimes court.

In Rwanda:

 

The forensics is clear already. These were unarmed civilians, mostly women and children, almost all of whom died of blunt force or sharp-force trauma. They were hacked or clubbed to death, or both…This is an average massacre by Rwandan standards, unremarkable in scale or circumstance. Several thousand civilians had gathered in the church grounds, promised protection by the Hutu governor…Then the governor fired his weapon in the air as a kill-the-Tutsis signal and young men drunk on banana beer hacked them all to pieces. It’s hard work killing that many people in a confined space with only machetes and clubs, so the killers returned home to their families each night to rest and drink before the next day’s work. It took three days and so far we know of only two survivors.

 

 

Later, listening to the rain in the darkness of my room, I remembered the girl who’d run away from the bed bugs in terror. I wondered if she’d be able to get any sleep that night.

Once More into the Breach

Fun fact: one-fifth of Thailand's population of 70 million people live in the greater Bangkok area. Four-fifths of Cambodia's population lives in rural areas.

Fun fact: 1/5th of Thailand’s population of 70 million people live in the greater Bangkok area. 4/5ths of Cambodia’s population of 15 million people lives in rural areas.

A short plane hop lands me back in Phnom Penh, and I avoid the taxi stand, which charged nine bucks for a ride into the city on my previous trip. Someone yells out Tuk tuk! at me, and I pick out the voice from a crowd of transportation vendors clamoring for my attention. At first he is eager to be of service, but by the time we get to his ride, a little Q & A session has established I know exactly where I want to go and what I want to do. This means that I won’t be hiring him for a day to take me on a tour around the city, and I won’t be staying at the hotel he’s got in mind for me, which means he won’t get a lot of business from me. He’s understandably upset, so en route he transfers me to another tuk tuk driver. They work out some kind of profit-sharing deal or something, and Driver 2 takes me through the worst rush hour traffic I’ve ever seen, and this includes Bangkok gridlock. Cars waded through a swollen river of fume-barfing motorbikes, and at one point a mini-van bonks into us when the tuk tuk failed to swerve out of the way.

Neither vehicle was damaged, so we moved on. Driver 2 gestured at the van diving into a pool of motorbikes a few minutes later, saying, Crazy!

Yeah, I agreed, but to me the entire road looked like chaos bent on self-destruction.

A few minutes before we got off the exit I noticed a line of soldier-laden black trucks heading out of the city. This, I was sure, had to do with the recent political unrest that has been bubbling up over the recent election results.

 

Bamboo tattoos are less painful than machines and you can go back to doing normal things like bathing and swimming thirty minutes afterwards.

Bamboo tattoos are less painful than machines and you can go back to doing normal things like bathing and swimming thirty minutes afterwards.

When I got to my hotel, a low-priced family-run joint, I chowed down on some amazing sour soup that I’d had the last time I was here. For the price of a couple crappy McDoubles I was treated to a plate of rice and a tangy soup with mushrooms, pork, onions, and other unidentifiable but tasty ingredients. While I was eating, I noticed a couple of additions to the hotel owner’s family: a pair of scrawny little kids who must have been seven or eight years old. Their skin was dark, and I have come to associate darker skin with poorer people, since all the street kids and beggars I’ve seen tend to have noticeably dark hair and skin. I just assumed the kids must be some relatives from the countryside.

My bed was thankfully free of bed bugs that night.

The next evening, as I ate the soup again, the owner told me one of the critical ingredients was a green fruit with curly skin, prevalent out here, but unheard of in the West. She brought the shriveled fruit out to me and it took me a few Google searches to find out it was a kaffir lime. I told her I liked sour food and spicy food, so she said she would make me a spicy bean soup the next day.

Then she pointed to the two little kids that I had noticed. They were from the country, she told me, staying in her house out there. She owned a house and some land, and while had been working here in Phnom Penh, thieves came and stole everything from her house. They took her TV, bed, furniture, belongings, and even the iron fence that surrounded her property. So when she went back to survey the damage, she was asked by the children’s father if they could stay in her house. The other family was so poor they could not afford a house of their own.

IMG_1392So the owner agreed, and the father, mother, and I think nine children stayed in the house until the father ran away to marry someone else. The father’s family had urged him to marry someone who wasn’t sick all the time. After having nine kids, something happened to the mother’s womb, and she became paralyzed and couldn’t work. Now she was able to walk a little and could ride a bike, so the owner had sent money for her to buy a second-hand bicycle.

The kids, who I had thought were between six and nine, turned out to be eleven and thirteen. Their small size, the owner said, was due to a lack of nutrition. Physical and mental stunting was the result of chronic malnutrition and starvation, according to Cambodia’s Curse. The owner’s son, also thirteen, towered over both the other kids, and he had a lot of extra weight on his frame besides. He looked like the kind of kid you’d find in the States.

I just want to go home, she told me.

I just want to go home, she told me.

The thirteen year-old girl worked every day, said the owner, but hardly made any money. She would borrow ten thousand riel — two dollars and fifty cents — from her mother, and walk three or four miles to a port. There, the girl would buy fish and sell them back in the village, for a net profit of fifty or seventy-five cents per day. With this money she would buy a couple eggs and cook dinner. Now, though, heavy rains were flooding the village, so no one could work, and the children had come into the city to visit the hotel owner.

While she was telling me all this, her son and the two country kids sat in front of a laptop watching cartoons. The owner said she was surprised that the kids had even known what cartoons were, but when they’d arrived they’d told her they wanted to see some. Apparently they could go over to a friend’s house back in their village and watch them from a CD. No channels on the TV, though.

I mentioned Japanese cartoons and my plans to teach English, and she told me about an international school that was taught by American and Chinese teachers. She shook her head sadly, saying that she didn’t think her country had a future. Chinese and Vietnamese were buying up everything, and trying to make Cambodia theirs. The government was corrupt and complicit in these activities, she said. All the foreign aid and investment money went into the pockets of government officials, who would only hire friends and family, and this is why everybody voted for the opposition party in the last election.

And that’s why all the barbed wire fencing? I said, referring to a barricade I’d seen a couple blocks away. It hadn’t been there a month ago.

Voila

She said yes, that now the people were starting to understand, and that’s why they voted against the ruling party. The same prime minister had been in office for three decades, she said in an exasperated voice.

Would anything like that happen in your country? she asked.

No, I said, that’s illegal.

Some old white guy came in and started wandering around looking for something, so I told her to make me the bean soup tomorrow, and that it was time for me to study my kanji.

 

 

Back to Phnom Penh and Beyond

When I got off the bus from Sihanoukville, it was Friday afternoon. I found some tuk tuk driver to take me to a hotel, where the staff told me I could go to nearby bars and get many ladies. You like weed? the guy asked me as he let me into my room. I got, no problem. You ask me. You smoke in room, no problem.

The room smelled like something died in the toilet, even after four sticks of incense.

For dinner I had lok lak for the first time, and a Cambodian sat across from me and ate hard-boiled eggs with chicken fetuses in them. I could see the little fetus parts dangling from his spoon as he scooped them from the shell into his mouth.

I told him I was considering teaching English out in Asia somewhere, and he said, Why don’t you teach in Cambodia? He told me about himself, said that he lived in Siem Reap for eight years and liked how peaceful it was, but Phnom Penh was better for work. He said his name, which I forgot, and then hopped on a motorbike with a couple cheerful Italians to go back to work.

Balcony overlooking street 172

Balcony overlooking street 172

On Saturday, I moved to a new hotel and read The Cambodia Daily from the second floor balcony while it poured rain. Most of my weekend would be spent on the balcony, and I would even sleep on the couch out there, since my beds crawled with bed bugs. The big news in The Cambodia Daily was about an upcoming political rally.

Cambodia recently had a national election for a new prime minister, since this country is a democracy, theoretically, but there has been a lot of evidence indicating the election was rigged. On Monday, August 26th, there is supposed to be a rally by the opposition party, which has some people worried about civil unrest and the potential for violence. Though the rally is intended to be peaceful,the US Embassy website makes a good point that “Demonstrations or events intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and possibly escalate into violence without warning.”

The Cambodian government has placed extreme and absurd restrictions on the rally, limiting the rally to two hours and the attendees to six thousand people, but as one local politician pointed out, how can you control the number of people that come?

Ten thousand are expected.

The government has stated that it is perfectly capable of crushing any violence from the opposition. Thousands of police in riot gear are trained and ready. The government has also been stockpiling weapons and machinery. Ten thousand guns and fifty thousand bullets from China, plus a bunch of heavy machinery like APCs and rocket launchers from other countries all arrived soon after the election. The ruling party insists the timing was “coincidental.”

Equally coincidental will be my timely return to Bangkok, since it is time to move on to the next phase of my travel plan: the job hunt.

 

A Little About the Cambodia Situation

Sometimes you see signs telling you not to buy from kids. If they're selling, they're not in school, which costs money here. Not buying from them is supposed to convince their parents to start paying for their school somehow?

Sometimes you see signs telling you not to buy from kids. If they’re selling, they’re not in school, which costs money here. Not buying from them is supposed to convince their parents to start paying for their school somehow? I suppose they want you to only support networks that ensure non-abuse of kids, but that would still never change abusive parents’ minds about making their kids work and would only leave the abused kids with less money and food.

All day long I sat and read Cambodia’s Curse, a modern history of this troubled land. For those who don’t know, here is a very brief history of Cambodia, to give some background to the current election situation, all of which I learned from that book in the past 24 hours.

In ancient times, peoples from the Indian sub-continent migrated to the Cambodian land and settled there. The ancestors of the Khmer would establish the Angkor empire, which would stretch far and wide and last longer than the Roman Empire. The Angkor Empire has been made famous by Angkor Wat, a true mega-monument to slave labor. In time, the Angkor Empire would fade, possibly due to its inability to sustain its population.

Flash forward, and the French colonize a weak Cambodia in the 1800s, then leave halfway through the 1900s, then Cambodia does its own thing until 1970, when there’s a coup, then some more military and political complications internally and with the Vietnamese, which is then followed by the Khmer Rouge taking over from 1975 to 1979. The Khmer Rouge cut off the country from the outside world and, among other horrible things, decimated a quarter of the country’s population. After the Vietnamese knock the Khmer Rouge out of power, Cambodia became socialist until the early nineties, then the UN steps in and spends three billion dollars to turn Cambodia into a democracy. There was an election, the UN backed out, and it’s been a train wreck of corruption ever since. Not that it was very pretty before that…

The same few people have been vying for control with zero concern for the people, who are still suffering from the residual trauma of the Khmer Rouge years. The current prime minister, Hun Sen, used to be a Khmer Rouge officer who defected to Vietnam when Pol Pot’s paranoia made him afraid for his life. After the Vietnamese deposed the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen became a contender for political power. Through cunning and perseverance, not to mention mob tactics such as intimidation, harassment, censorship, and murder, which he still uses to this day, Hun Sen managed to climb to the top of the pyramid, where he funnels millions upon millions upon millions of dollars into his pocket from donor countries’ money every year.

The Cambodian government is rife with corruption, and despite receiving around a billion dollars in donations each year for the past few years and in the five hundred million range before that, Cambodia’s poverty and low quality of life statistics still put many other developing countries to shame. Cambodians suffer from starvation, lack of education, psychological problems, and a long list of ongoing horrors among the abused people, including vicious murders, torture, high rates of child rape, and all manner of crimes, which all remain unaddressed by the government and the numerous worthless NGOs that inhabit the country like flies. The country is beset by horrific abuse and dysfunction in all facets of life, from the society to the family to the psyche.

Read Cambodia’s Curse to find out the gruesome details.

 

PS – As of 8/27/13 the rally has been held peacefully and the opposition party promises to hold more demonstrations if their election concerns are not investigated.

Blah Blog Phnom Penh

IMG_0671PHNOM PENH–While the plane was descending and I was watching the shallow marshes that stretched out to the horizon, I thought this must be a very wet country. Off in the distance a thick layer of misty clouds hovered over the land, and within a few minutes, the plane landed in the middle of a downpour. On the taxi ride over here I watched bikes & motorbikes carve paths through ankle-deep puddles that covered half the highway. The taxi driver said it was like this two or three days a week. At stoplights in the city, soaking little kids materialized out of the rain and pressed their faces against the car window, asking for money in Khmer. My old hotel was full, so I paid fifteen for this other place and paid half that for a four-hour bus ride to the beach tomorrow.

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Stock picture from Thailand to illustrate Westernization

I got a wad of rice & an egg patty & a couple sausages for a couple bucks at the market from a girl whose English was mind-boggling. The sausages almost made me hurl, so I ended up spending three more bucks on a pork-and-rice plate at the hotel restaurant. The TV was playing an American cartoon and “Let’s Get This Party Started,” while some cheap painting prints of Angkor Wat heads hung from the wall.

I was reminded of a Canadian traveler’s observations of the Khao San scene: the music, Western clothes, the party scene — all of it was American. America has basically built the modern world we live in, from airplanes to computers to “culture.” I looked at these ladies sitting at a table eating what, in Cambodia, was a pretty expensive meal. They were dressed in Western business clothes, eating in a Western restaurant, and aspiring to the Western capitalist ideal of materialistic success, spearheaded by, of course, America. “Let’s Get This Party Started” and Hollywood and the lie of the free market masquerading as justification for exploitation hardly qualify as culture when you look at ancient civilizations with deep modes of thought such as India, China, or Japan.

The food was good though.

The waiter was extra extra extra friendly and kept asking me why I didn’t have a girlfriend. I asked him if he did, he said he had a “wai” or something, and I said “How long?” and he said “Forever” and he looked like he had eyeliner on. I couldn’t decide if he was gay or if this was another androgynous cultural thing like Thailand. It reminded me of when the Japanese kids at my high school in Osaka would always ask about the exchange students’ love lives.

MBK in Thailand, a multi-story mall designed to part tourists from their money.

MBK, a multi-story mall in Bangkok

After the meal, I relax in front of the tube, hoping for some Bloomberg to catch me up on the markets. Instead, a Japanese channel is airing a TV show where two dudes creep around with cameras and spy on cats and narrate about the hidden lives of felines, speaking in soft, deep voices. They speak quietly, as if the pre-recorded cats might get scared off by their bass tones.

When some Japanese American Idol comes on I turn off the TV and read about a Cambodian man who was murdered in some province. He was a manager at a finance company, and his body was missing his iPhone and a ring worth over $1000. The police are calling it a robbery-murder. The man was stabbed eleven times in the back of the neck, had several axe wounds to the head, and the skin on his legs was burnt black from electric torture.

Apparently that’s how they rob people here.

America’s not that bad, right? Capitalism’s nothing compared to that level of brutality. Right? Of course not. It’s not like the sweat shops that spoonfeed our first world economy and make our luxurious lifestyles possible have anything at all to do with maintaining this level of poverty in the rest of the world. And yet I come out here and see everyone aspiring to the same capitalist ideals.

Two years ago I don’t remember seeing smartphones, but now I see them all over Thailand. I see women in shops sitting there playing those bubble-Tetris games or using Facebook. And I’ve been in Cambodia less than an hour and I see Cambodian business women sitting in a Western cafe eating fancy to American party music. China gave Cambodia like ten thousand guns and fifty thousand bullets a week ago and APCs rolled into Phnom Penh yesterday to quell potential discontent over the recent election controversy. While communist APCs and “free market” capitalist music flowing from American bars claim to represent opposite ends of the spectrum, they somehow both work together seamlessly to maintain the exact same system of exploitation.

Kenneth Patchen says war is the lifeblood of capitalism.

And he says capitalism is the same thing as fascism.

Sounds about right to me.

To me, the two are about as different as Marlboro and Camel.

Phnom Penh Photos, 2011

I only took a few photos in Phnom Penh.

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