Thursday, November 25, 2010

Bananas, Rumors and Fear

Rumors are rife. The city and the country are on edge as people struggle to come to grips with the tragedy on the Koh Pich Bridge two days ago. The mood in the city is dark and somber and the deaths of so many hang heavy in people's thoughts and conversations. On the streets today, in the markets and at the cafés it seemed all that people could talk about - death, the tragedy, its cause, its meaning, whether it represents some greater threat. A lot of theorizing going on, both pragmatic and spiritual. The streets of Phnom Penh this evening are unusually quiet, in part due to the mournful atmosphere and in part because people are uncomfortable, even in some sense afraid to leave their homes right now. There is a lingering stress and fear over the tragedy, providing fertile ground for rumor, superstition and even for those who would take advantage of the situation.

Yesterday a story spread that monks and mystics had instructed people to make special offerings to the spirits beyond the ordinary Buddhist practices and rituals surrounding respect and care for the dead. It was said that people needed to assemble offerings of bananas, rice, salt, water, incense and other ingredients to be placed at the front of their house. The reasons were not completely clear. Respect, to ease the passing of the dead, as protection for the house, the explanations varied depending who was doing the telling. It seemed that more than half the city quickly took to making these offerings. By evening yesterday bananas at the markets were in very short supply and the price of a small bunch had sky-rocketed from the normal 2500 riel (US60 cents) to as much as 30,000 riel (US$7.50) as gougers took advantage. People are still making these offerings today and this evening the smell of incense is thick in the air throughout the Phnom Penh.

Today the story of a bus crash on the road to Battambang swept the country. It was said that as many as 60 died in the accident. Some had details of a fiery smash up and others claimed to have spoken to eye-witnesses. Many said that this new tragedy was part of a pattern of ill-luck connected to the Koh Pich tragedy. But the rumor of a crash was patently false and seems to have been born of nothing. There was no bus accident let alone another massive loss of life. This evening TVs stations broadcast messages from the government informing people that the story was unfounded and asking the public to try to remain calm and not fall prey to hear-say and extraordinary claims. But the fear lingers and people are still trying to put meaning and understanding to the tragedy on Koh Pich Bridge. 

The following is a collection of non-empirical stories and explanations related to the tragedy that I have heard over the last two days. All amount to little more than rumor. Some are based in religion. Many in folk belief or just superstition. None have been fact checked. Most are of the sort that couldn't be fact checked anyway. Due to the use of metaphor and unusual concepts, some exceeded my ability to understand the Khmer and/or defy sensible translation. So I relate them below 'raw,' as they were told, without trying to force it to make sense. All were taken seriously by the teller and in my opinion represent mostly honest attempts to understand what happened, give it meaning and figure out how to protect against further such happenings.
  • A comet was seen in the sky 2 or 3 months ago. It was a portent of disaster and some monks said so at the time. The tragedy at Koh Pich was the fulfillment of that prophesy.
  • The bridge at Koh Pich was never properly blessed by monks after construction leaving it open to bad luck and mischievous spirits. The tragedy at Koh Pich is the result.
  • There was an abnormally orange sky at the time of the tragedy, indicating some higher involvement.
  • Monks warned the government 3 days before the Water Festival that there were supernatural signs of impending disaster. The government warned the people to be careful and be on the look-out. They thought that perhaps it would be a bomb or a terrorist attack. When a young boy drowned on the first day of the Water Festival, they thought this was the prophesied ill-event and let down their guard.
  • Koh Pich means Diamond Island. The island is like a giant diamond. It is too big. Giants eat people. The deaths on the bridge were, in a metaphorical sense, this giant diamond eating people.
  • Phnom Penh is now overwhelmed with spirits of the recent dead, wandering the edges of the city, many lost and unsure where to go. Children are in particular danger of possession by these spirits and should not be allowed outside after dark. In fact, due to these spirits, it is unwise for anybody to go out after dark.
  • Koh Pich (Diamond Island) is a name like Koh Dach. Dach is close to the word and phrase 'dach dong heurm' which means 'to not breath' or 'to be unable to breath,' which is what happened to the people who died on the bridge.
  • People must assemble special offerings to display in front of their house. The offering should include bananas, salt, rice, water, incense and other ingredients. Some say there must be 7 items in the collection. Some suggest there should be some sort of blood offering included, presumably to satiate the tiger. (This is the year of the tiger.)
  • This is the year of the tiger in the eastern calendar. The tiger likes to eat blood. People have died in many strange ways in Phnom Penh this year including several senseless murders that occurred in the last few months. These events, including the tragedy on the Koh Pich bridge, is the tiger eating blood.
  • This is the year of the tiger in the eastern calendar. 'Tiger' in Khmer is 'kla.' This word has a similar sound to the phrase 'ah kaw' which means to cut off the head. As above, the recent murders in Phnom Penh as well as the tragedy on Koh Pich Bridge are reflections of the 'cutting off of people's heads.'

(I began writing this at 10PM November 24 and posted it at 1:00AM, very early morning of November 25. When I refer to 'today' and 'this evening' I mean the 24th, 'yesterday' is the 23rd and 'tomorrow' is the 25th.)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Water Festival Tragedy

I wish I had something profound to say. I wish I had some great insight to offer. I wish I could say why all this happened. I wish I could blame the Cambodian police for failing to control the crowds beforehand, letting too many people on the bridge, taking bribes to let people through, for their incompetence, for firing shots and using water cannons contributing to the panic and rush. I wish I could blame shoddy workmanship for electrocuting people and starting the panic. I wish I could be as callous as KI Media, immediately taking political advantage, calling for resignations and blaming the 'Yuon.' I wish I could blame the Khmers for being gawkers and rubberneckers and running toward the panicking crowd to see what was happening. I wish I could blame some "big black guy with an American accent" for pushing people around rather than helping. I wish I could blame the endemic corruption and greed in this society for ill-conceived plans and poor design. I wish I could be angry at the government for praising and giving the police a pass just hours after the tragedy. I wish I could fault the Prime Minister for trying to write it off as "just an accident" before knowing what really happened. I wish I could blame the Bayon stage for continuing to blast music through the whole thing. I wish I could blame bad luck, karma or fate for turning this heartless way. I wish I could blame God for allowing this evil to happen. I wish I could rail against somebody or something. I wish I could put this all on somebody else. Somehow it would seem that might help alleviate the sorrow over this disaster, if only a bit. But at this point we don't know exactly what happened or why. And recriminations, though understandable from those directly affected, are for the rest of us at this point only self-serving and perhaps unfair and damaging. I can only feel for the people that have been killed and injured and their families and loved ones who are suffering horrible loss at this very moment. The dead women and children, the families destroyed. I am haunted by the image a man crying over his dead child, happiness only a moment before. I can only try to empathize with the grief and pain they must be feeling and offer my deepest most heartfelt sympathies. It's the only thing of which I am certain and all I have right now, as little and inadequate as it is.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Creepy Motivations

One evening last year I was relaxing over a beer after a late dinner at a bar & grill on the riverfront here in Phnom Penh. It was about 10:30 or 11:00PM. At the bar sat a 50-something Western tourist and a Vietnamese taxi girl chatting and laughing together. Four young tourists strolled in and sat at a table near the open front of the restaurant - two couples, 20-somethings I think. I was sitting at the near end of the bar between the two groups and after a short while noticed that the tourists at the table seemed to be grumbling about the guy at the bar. They were leaning in together, speaking in low raspy tones, shooting occasional sharp glances and other pointed little gestures in his direction.

Distracting their attention momentarily, a pair of tiny 'flower girls' wandered in from the street - perhaps 8 or 9 years old, barely tall enough to see over the tables, ragged but clean and laden with doughnut-shaped flower rings and broad Cambodian smiles. They approached the tourists and began their sales chant, pleading "flower, 1500 riel, 1500 riel, flower, OK?, mam, OK?" The tourist women were immediately captivated by the little girls. "They're so cute," one of the women commented, stroking the girl's cheek. "How old are you?...What's your name?" they queried in cutsy sing-song tones. The girls leaned into the women, giggled, batted their eyes and repeated their sales chant. The couples inspected the flowers and gently bargained them down to 1000 riel each (25 cents), eventually buying a couple of the flower rings.

After admiring their purchase, the tourist women quickly fell back to talking about the guy at the bar, now a bit louder but still difficult to understand over the usual pub din, "blah, blah, sex...blah, blah, older than ...blah, blah, disgusting..." Meanwhile, the males at the table had begun bargaining with a Vietnamese shoeshine boy who was about 12 years old. The boy wanted $1 to shine their shoes. They were only willing to pay 50 cents (the 'right price' is 12 cents, but I am not saying anything). They struck a deal. The boy took the shoes outside where he squatted next to a puddle in the street for a little water to clean the mud from the soles.

As I was watching the boy work, my attention was jarred back into the bar by a loudly-spoken "CREEPY!" echoing across the room. The guy at the bar had his hand on the taxi girl's knee and one of the tourist women was glaring at him intently, talking loudly to her friend, her face turning red with anger. As she spoke, her volume progressively increased so that everybody in the bar could hear, "...CREEPY ...sick ...HER FATHER ...police ...children ...SEX tourist ...ped..." The guy at the bar ignored them, or didn't hear them, and carried on. Continuing to talk amongst themselves, the people at the table seemed to get more and more agitated. Finally they called over the bartender, pointed at the guy at the bar and made some sort of demand. The only words I heard clearly were, "sick old bastard," "police" and "sex tourist." The bartender shrugged and looked like he was trying to explain something to them. Abruptly, the tourists stood up, threw a twenty on the table and left in a huff, forgetting the flowers in their haste.

These young tourists, particularly the women, were absolutely blinded by disgust for what they saw - an 'old white man' with a 'young Asian girl' in an apparently sexual relationship. They completely missed the plight of the 8 year old flower girls, working 10-hours shifts, late into night, hawking 1000 riel flowers for some unknown flower girl pimp. They did not think to ask why an 8 year old is working at 10:30PM. Or why an 8 year old is working at all. Or who is controlling these children. Or where the money is going. Or whether they were indentured servants or abused or even slaves as they might very well be. In fact, these tourists happily contributed to the plight of these child laborers, buying their trinkets (and bargaining them down 12 cents,) ignoring their situation and sending them on their way into the night.

Nor did they raise any questions about the 12-year-old shoeshine boy, who is probably an illegal immigrant living on the street, not going to school, not getting enough to eat, perhaps sniffing glue to pass the time and assuage his hunger, and certainly paying tribute to a street gang for the privilege of shining shoes in a tourist area. Where will these children be after 5 or 10 years working the street for pennies? These tourists didn't think to ask, let alone do something about it. They were preoccupied with sex. They were blinded by revulsion and rage at the sight of a middle aged man with a much younger woman.

In fact, I've known this particular taxi girl for more than 4 years. I've never used her sexual services but I have played pool with her at the bar dozens of times, we've had drinks together a few times and we occasionally share a plate of noodles on the street at the end of the evening. She is at least 25 years old, divorced and has a three year old daughter. She's not particularly young looking for a Vietnamese girl, but to the unaccustomed eye she may look younger. She works as a prostitute because she needs to support herself and her child, because it's what she knows, and because she has no other options if she wants to make that kind of money. And these tourists preferred to try to 'save' this adult woman from the 'old man,' and perhaps from herself as well, rather than give one thought to the 8 year olds that sold them the pretty flowers or the 12 year old that shined their shoes so well.

One has to wonder about the motivation of many of these westerners who seem so focused on the SEA sex scene. If asked, these people would probably say that they are against the exploitation of women and children, or trafficking, or pedophilia, or slavery, or some such worthy ideal. Yet when confronted with actual cases of child exploitation and even slavery, they ignore it in favor of the 'creepy' sexual practices of consenting adults. Some might say that it can be blamed, at least in part, on their ignorance, though IMO it shouldn't take too much thinking to realize that there is something seriously amiss about 8 year olds hawking flowers in tourist bars in the middle of the night. No, it's not ignorance. It is their fixation on sex and the sexual behavior of others that distracts them from the real problems of real people. Yes, of course there is exploitation and other horrible things going on in the SEA sex business. But the focus on sex is so intense for many (if not most) of these western do-gooders, it is to the exclusion of real abuses and exploitation, and to the reasons that all of these people end up in these difficult and exploitive situations.

(Originally published in 2006. Probably even more relevant now than then.)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Last Smile

For years Thailand has been touted as ‘The Land of Smiles.’ On arrival at the old Don Muang Airport in Bangkok tourists were greeted by a large sign emblazoned with the slogan “Welcome to the Land of Smile” in bright gold letters. That slogan, seemingly minus the plural ‘s’ at the end of ‘Smile,’ can still be found on souvenir t-shirts and other souvenirs for sale on the streets of Bangkok. There is a common misconception that the apparently absent 's' at the Don Muang Airport was an embarrassingly public grammatical error. But this is a misnomer. That sign was in fact a monument to the last smile in Thailand.

The real tale of the sign begins in the early years of Thai tourism when Thailand was, as the promotional slogan used to go, “The Land of Smiles,” with the emphasis on the plural. In those days the Realm was awash in smiles, quite unlike the stodgy West where smiles were in short supply and huge demand.

The promise of cheap, plentiful smiles drew hoards of foreign smile collectors to Thailand. Many of these collectors, when confronted with the overwhelming abundance of smiles and almost complete lack of legal regulation, acted like pigs in slop, wallowing, sometimes drowning in a sea of cheap smiles at the likes of Koh Phangan, Phuket, Pattaya and Patpong. Other collectors, perhaps the majority, were better behaved. But behaved or not, all of them had one thing in common. They all bought smiles as fast as the Thais would sell them.

In a matter of just a few short years virtually every smile in Thailand had been bought, packaged and shipped overseas. Such was the state of things when, at the end of a fated high season, a nameless European tourist on his way home from a Thai holiday was waiting in line at airport immigration at Don Muang. As the queue inched forward, he noted the bored, almost surly mechanical actions of the immigration officers - much like the hotel receptionist had acted when he had paid his bill earlier. In fact, he had not seen a single smile since he had gotten out of bed that morning. Not from the waiter at breakfast, not from the taxi driver, not from anybody on the street, not even from the bar girl he woke up with. This was not the Thailand he had known and loved.

Lost in this thought, he didn’t notice the open counter in front of him. The immigration officer harrumphed impatiently, waving him forward. He stepped up, handed over his passport and fell back into thought about the recently purchased smiles he had in his bag - a bunch of cheap 5-for-250 baht smiles from Khao Sarn Road and a couple of big expensive ones from Soi Cowboy. The officer pushed his passport back across the desk and harrumphed again for him to move on.

On an impulse, the tourist reached into his bag and pulled out one of his best new 'Made in Issan' smiles. “For you”, he said, handing it to the officer with two hands and a polite little bow of the head. Slowly, a broad, happy, inscrutably bemused smile spread across the immigration cop’s face. The tourist smiled back, picked up his passport and disappeared into the crowd. Over the next few weeks, as the officer wore his smile around the airport, it became apparent that he was alone.

As it turns out, that tourist was carrying the last few free-roaming smiles in Thailand. By chance alone, he left behind the last living member of a now extinct species. Shortly after the incident, the officer was transferred from departures to arrival immigration where his unique expression became a fixture, and later a legend. That smile, ‘the last smile in Thailand’, was commemorated by the sign, “Welcome to the Land of Smile” in the airport arrival area. He has since transferred to immigration arrival at the new Sovamabhumi Airport in Bangkok, where he works to this day. It is still possible to see him if you happen into the right immigration line. He is easy to spot. He is the only one smiling.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

November 9, Independence Day

Phnom Penh: Independence Monument
Vimean Ekareach (Independence Monument), Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2001

Phnom Penh: Independence Monument
Vimean Ekareach (Independence Monument), Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2007

Monday, November 8, 2010

A Police Story

Cambodian police enjoy a less than sterling reputation in general and are not known for their fair and impartial dealings with foreigners. That said, I had a pretty good encounter with a few of Cambodia's finest a couple of months back.

I was walking along the side of Sothearos Blvd here in Phnom Penh when some kid on a motorcycle came weaving through traffic going way too fast. Not an uncommon occurrence. As he sped past he weaved wide and accidentally clipped me from behind, catching me in the arm and the back of the leg with his handlebar and foot peg. It knocked me down, but not him. He just kept going.

I was scratched and a bit bruised, but nothing too terrible. Picking myself up I watched him disappear into the traffic ahead, his distinctive bright pink sequined shirt flapping in the wind. I thought he was long gone. But a moment later I noticed that pink shirt turn into a house about 300 or 400 meters up the road. I kept on walking that direction and after a few hundred meters, sure enough, there he was, marked by his pink shirt and nearby motorcycle, kneeling on the sidewalk outside a house delivering instructions to some workers repairing the pavement. And there just happened to be three cops standing there looking at the work being done.

Now I know that, generally speaking, the foreigner is at fault in any accident regardless of the circumstances, but still feeling bruised and miffed I decided to go for it. I waded into the crowd, pointed an accusing finger and scolded him in English for hitting me and running away. I looked around. People stared at me. Nobody seemed to understand anything except that I was angry. So I switched to speaking Khmer and said almost the same thing, but this time to the cops, displaying my bruised arm and pointing back down the street in the direction it happened.

When I was done all eyes turned towards Mr. Pink Shirt. He got a big shit-eating grin on his face and denied everything. The cops were having none of it though. My story made good sense, it jived with the fact that he had just come from that direction and his nervous smile branded his denial 'bullshit.' The cops immediately started lecturing him and moving in on him. The other Khmers there backed away. He continued his denials, which seemed to be making the cops angry. Other people nearby started to look our way, attracted by the sounds of angry words. One of the cops grabbed him by the arm and stood him up.

With all this commotion, I decided it was time for me to move on and just strolled away, continuing up Sothearos. About 30 meters on, I looked back. A cop had him by the scruff, Mr. Pink Shirt was screaming, 'no, no, no...' (in Khmer) and a crowd was forming. I felt completely satisfied with the results and continued my walk.

Kudos to those cops. Good job.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Pa Cha

Crematorium at Wat Ounalom, next to Phsar Kandal off of Street 154, now gone.

Cambodian Buddhist tradition is to cremate the dead. Major Buddhist pagodas in Cambodia often have a traditional crematorium (pa cha) on the grounds. Over the last year most of Phnom Penh's crematoria were shuttered and demolished. After many years of planning, the city implemented the closure of the crematoria within the city, citing air quality and traffic control reasons. (See 'Municipality prepares to move cremations outside the capital.') As the city has developed and filled in, many of these crematoria were within a few tens of meters of restaurants, schools, businesses and the like where wisps of smoke drifting by were less than welcome. The crematorium pictured above sat at the back of the Wat Ounalom pagoda grounds and was something of a minor landmark, overlooking the market intersection of Street 13 and Street 154. It was demolished earlier this year, now an empty lot within the pagoda grounds. For most of its existence it sat opposite the site of the old French prison T3, which was demolished several years ago.