Sunday, August 19, 2012


500 riel note, stuck in my journal that first week in Cambodia
It's my Cambodia anniversary. Nineteen years ago today we arrived in Phnom Penh, by mini-van from Saigon. I recall my primary concerns of the time were safety, the price of a ticket at Angkor and the infamous Cambodian amoebae. I had no real plans of staying more than a week or two, but here I am 19 years later. The following are excerpts from my journal entries that first day and from a long-winded letter to a friend written a couple of days later (mostly journal rewrites.) A different Cambodia through different eyes.
This place is dark. Cambodia. Steeped in history still in the making. Khmer Rouge, American bombing, Pol Pot, genocide, war, UN, more war…and here we are, in Phnom Penh. We took a van in from Ho Chi Minh City today. I never thought I'd really come here.
We were originally planning to go back to Bangkok after Vietnam, perhaps find some teaching jobs there, but we met a couple of women at a café in Saigon who had just come back from Cambodia last week. They told us the UN is leaving the country and that there are lots of jobs available and a shortage of people. But safety is a big concern. There is a war going on here and tourists have been killed... On the other hand, several travelers fresh back from Cambodia all agreed that Phnom Penh and the road there from Saigon has long been firmly in government hands and that the military problems are confined to the other side of the country. So we decided to at least check out Phnom Penh.
It took about 8 hours on the road. We came through the Moc Bai crossing - a couple of wood shacks for the immigration cops and a 300 yard walk through no-mans-land between checkpoints. Like the Lao Bao crossing with Laos, streams of local people move in both directions, carrying huge loads of goods, perhaps contraband - Coca-Cola, cigarettes, beer, kitchenware, shrimp chips - dangling from shoulder sticks and sometimes just piled on their backs. Once on the Cambodian side we (Lucy) negotiated a van for the four of us the rest of the way to Phnom Penh - $15, good price.

The road from the border to Phnom Penh was paved but rough. The few people we saw looked very poor. People, often children, squatted along the shoulder at points, begging for money from vehicles passing at more than 40mph. I didn't understand what they were doing at first. I still don't. Am I supposed to throw money out of a moving car?
The countryside we drove through seemed barren compared to Vietnam, far fewer structures and houses, and I saw some signs of the war, old blast marks on a couple of buildings. When our van reached the edge of Phnom Penh the driver pulled over in an empty parking lot in the middle of nowhere and told us that if we wanted to be taken all the way to the hotel it would cost another $5. Lucy's 'forceful' negotiations ("no go hotel I pay $5 less!") got us the rest of the way to the Capitol Guesthouse at no extra charge, where we are staying now. Which turns out to be a backpacker dump. We came here on the recommendation of the same people that told us Phnom Penh is safe. Hmmm. Actually, I am not sure if it's much worse than anything else that might be available here.

Lots of backpackers here. The place seems full. The room is small and dank, the bed hard, the walls and door very thin and there is a group of 'vocal' Israeli backpackers partying hardy in the hallway. Interesting restaurant downstairs though. Full of travelers. Exposed fluorescent tubes lighting dirty tile walls, folding tables, cheap traveler's food, and a little cigarette stand at the side where the lady also sells palm-size plastic packets of leafy old ganja for 500 Riel (20 cents). Glueless rolling papers included free of charge. How do glueless papers work anyway? People twist up and smoke right in the restaurant. That particular traveler's tale seems to be proving true.

It's late now…well, 10:30 or so. The restaurant closed at nine, driving us up to our noisy little wood cell. A balcony runs around the front of the hotel with a good view of the street below, obscured only by a utility pole standing within arm's reach, densely cocooned in a meter-thick bundle of ragged electrical wires and cables.
For all the wires I would have thought there'd be some lights on somewhere, but there are almost none - absolutely no street lights at all and most of the house lighting I can see seems to be from candles. It's very dark. The streets are puddled from the rain and seem almost empty save the occasional passing motorcycle. It's Thursday night, not that late, in the middle of the city and yet it's almost dead quiet. Why? I saw a group of armed men, soldiers I think, walk by. Maybe that has something to do with it. One traveler in Vietnam told me that she could hear the sound of artillery at night in Phnom Penh. I don't hear any artillery, but I can hear the sound of somebody tapping a bamboo bell (why?) several blocks away. It's that quiet. (Though I did also hear what may have been distant gunshots, just a couple.)

As I stand here in the tropical heat, looking at that dark empty street below, soldiers wandering by, candlelight flickering in the windows of blocky old buildings, the smell of rain and mildew and incense, I think about what occurred here in Cambodia, what is occurring here, and where I am, and the gravity of it all. Twenty five years of war. Three million killed under the Khmer Rouge. The forced evacuation of the cities, Phnom Penh, here. War stretching from the 1960s till now. I find myself fascinated with the idea and the feeling of being here in this 'strange and dangerous' place, in the midst of history still unfolding. Tonight at least, it's a rush just standing here watching a dark empty street. 


  1. Wow -- what a posting -- an old, worthless, non-revelatory account ...
    "Tonight it's a rush just standing here in watching a dark empty street."
    Be still by brain, what prose.

    Francesca Lack @
    (I read your tweet on the Newsweek piece - jealous much?)

    1. You missed the misspellings and factual inaccuracies. It was, after all, a journal entry by an ignorant traveler on his first day in the country. I thought I made that relatively clear at the beginning.

  2. I enjoyed your story. I'm coming to Cambodia in March 2013 and saw your blog linked on Reddit. I'll be reading much more!

  3. Came across this on reddit...great story!

  4. Hi! Awesome blog and great post. I'm quite a newbie to the Khmer Rouge regime and Cambodia in general but have been doing nothing else for the past two months since I picked up a copy of Haing Ngor's autobiography.
    I'm coming to PP next month and just thinking about standing in the city where so much has happened gives me a rush! I can't wait, to be honest!

    And of course, visiting S21 and Choeung Ek. I live in Malaysia, so I'm sure I'll be visiting more often.

    Thanks for a great blog.