Postcard: Phnom Penh Notes

Ernest Larsen and Sherry
Millner,
writers and media makers, are
traveling in Southeast Asia and reporting on their visit.

Hi-Ho_cap.jpg
Ho-2nd-fl-cap.jpg
Travel:
Getting from this place to that place in one
piece.
We arrived in Phnom Penh on the so-called fast boat from Chau Doc, a
mere six
hours upriver, and weighing at least two kilos lighter, after the
slow/fast
sweatbath  in the ever-increasing
heat.  At the Viet/Cambodian
border, a minor blip with Sherry’s passport might well have sent us back
downriver. The whole boatload was
kept waiting while it was sorted out, with documents passed from hand to
hand
to hand, examined, altered, stamped, discussed, brought back to us, for
further
alteration, signature, explanation, comment. And then more hand to hand
to
hand.  More stamping.  Then we are brought
forward.  You can only stay five days, Sherry is
warned.  And then just as us last
two semi-Ugly Americans are about to board the slow fast boat, one final
concerned look-see by another customs officer at the gangplank.

Remember
the
next time you enter Cambodia: you need three months before your passport
expires–not two.  This rigmarole
seemed to require a small bribe to set right–a quiet and in some ways
justly
corrupt contribution, that is, to two devastated economies, in the
shadow of a
premonitory glimpse of Khmer architectural wonders.   There
aren’t nearly enough jobs anywhere  and certainly not in
the touristic
chunk of the economy–so there’s doubling and re-doubling of functions
and
services, which jostling lends a sometimes comic but certainly
good-humored
hubbub to everyday encounters.
We’d been on the Mekong Delta for several days,
staying
mostly at a very cheap riverfront hotel in Can Tho we’d been led to by a
friendly elderly Finnish woman, who’d been doing volunteer work at the
local
university for a number of years–that ethic certainly persists here.
In the park across the street stood a
massive statue of Uncle Ho, made of some mysterious shiny alloy, that
sometimes
seemed silvery but was definitely gold at night when young parents
brought
their toddlers to play under the avuncular god.
We hired a longtail boat and young woman guide
for a long day
on the river, beginning at dawn. 
The initial aim is to get 10K downriver to the picturesque but
vibrant
floating market (which we did) and then after lunch in a riverside pho
(noodle
shop) to float through some of the myriad canals inaccessible to the
bigger
tour-boats.  At one point we took a
walk on a narrow dirt path through the rice fields, passing kids who
wanted  to practice their quickly
exhausted TV-English on us.
All of this in an earlier era might have been
described as
settling into a groove.  One is
always conscious how everything in a poor country is used and then used
again–but there have been very few undertones of desperation and none
visible
here-as they were so palpable, for example, in Honduras when we were
there not so long ago.
In the morning before we left Can Tho I rose
early again
aiming to get a shot of some live shrimp in the street market (don’t
ask–it’s
an idea for the film about the counter-intuitive relation between 
the U.S. war-time devastation of the
Delta and the VC’s consequent harvesting of the resurgent shrimp
population)
and realize again how babies and toddlers react to me with wide-eyed
wonder  as some strange
white-haired white apparition in
their midst, which I attempt to defuse by bits of mugging, foolishness
which
their parents at least appreciate. 
Thus is the language barrier side-stepped rather than broken.
Phnom Penh is as crazily energetic and
everything-happening-on-the-streets, watch out, as Saigon but
appears to be
much more stretched to extremes of past and present, errant splashes of
wealth slathered over the intense
poverty–in clashing registers of visual display.  After
all
these years the very first trial of one of the top
Khmer Rouge torturers has just been completed–the  chief
of
the notorious S21 prison is now awaiting
sentencing. 

Early yesterday
morning we hopped into a tuk-tuk (a moto-taxi, of sorts–which are
everywhere)
and headed for the Genocide Museum, on the site of S21.  We
hired a guide, a woman who at age 14
was force-marched out of Phnom Penh with her entire family (guilty of
intellectualism: her father was a teacher) for two months.  So
this woman, who lost her entire
family to Khmer Rouge torture, who saw her uncle shot pointblank along
the
march, now earns her living giving these incredibly unspeakably
harrowing
tours, day in, day out.  On another
level entirely, I was reminded of the 67-year-old guide at the CuChi
Tunnels–both of these guides had been fitted out for their current line
of work
by their formation during the wars, with the prospect of escape
foreclosed by
sheer necessity.
The saffron-robed monks do carry saffron-colored
umbrellas
everywhere  as they walk the
streets.  At the model of Angkor
Wat that sits behind the Silver Pagoda one monk in a group of four
pointed to
the turtle flopping around in the mini-moat and asked me its name in
English.
Today we tuk-tuked to the Bureau of Fisheries,
which is just
where Mao Tse Tung Boulevard begins–because in its previous incarnation
(you
see how karmic we are in danger of becoming) it was the U.S. Embassy. 
Just before the Khmer Rouge hit town in
1975, the ever-generous US diplomats on site offered the not-so-shadowy
puppets
experiencing their final moments in power–a helicopter ride out–only 1
of the
higher-ups thought that a good enough idea.  The next day
the KRs lined up the other suckers in the
tennis courts behind the building–and mowed them down.

A few
hundred meters from there is a gorgeous pagoda, all golden cobras,
assorted
happy demons, and smiling Buddhas, in front of which five or six barbers
ply
their trade in the open-air.  I
think tomorrow I might go back for a dollar haircut.
But I didn’t get back there–we took off for Angkor Wat instead. . .

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