China Dispatch vol. 3 Cambodia Special Edition #1: Keys to the Kingdom

My apologies once again for my prolonged absence. Rumors of my whatever have been greatly exaggerated. It’s hard to come up with
stuff to write consistently when one is in situ in the countryside in
China, but when one travels, the juices get flowing again and there
are things that need to go down on paper. And right now I’m sitting
in an internet cafe in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where you take off your
shoes before you go into internet cafes. It’s about 27 degrees
outside (Celcius, you American schvine! About eighty degrees F.) , and
I’m hurrying this so I can get back and join Carl Dull, whom some of
you from my Sewanee days might know, for a bottle of beer and an
attempt to commandeer the guesthouse’s television so as to watch Six
String Samurai. This is the Kingdom of Cambodia.

We arrived around 8 or 9 last night, after what turned out to be
something like a seven hour plane flight, and got off the jet to feel
the air around us like a blanket. The visa issue was a non-issue;
US$20 and I got myself a shiny new Cambodian visa in my passport along
with all the China stamps. The people behind the visa counter were
small, and darker than Chinese. Some of the women had very wide
mouths, and everyone smiled a lot. They were joking, and seemed
relaxed and happy. One girl was off-duty, hanging out with her
friends and eating oranges.

The guesthouse didn’t send anyone to come pick us up, so we took a
taxi from the airport into Phnom Penh. First impressions: something
like Nashville, sprawling, flat, and spread-out. Also shades of
Xiuning in the kids sitting three or four to a motorcycle. There are
young people around everywhere here, hanging out or lounging around as
often as working – very different from China also, where everyone
between 18 and 30 is either gone or working in some store in some city
somewhere. Lots of open-front stores and stands on the sides of the
road, Christmas lights, palm trees, men squatting and playing cards.

Our driver’s name was Kon. He was a country boy who came to the city
four years ago to marry, and has one son, born a year or two back,
named after his brother-in-law who is very smart. Kon drives an 89
Camry he bought used for $2500, and makes $9 for ferrying people
one-way to or from the airport. Kon pointed out some of those young
people I mentioned earlier, girls on the back of motorcycles – “taxi
girls,” he said. “Go taxi to bar, take client, go to next bar, take
next client. Not safe.”

Kon says that the prime minister here, Hun Sen, was set up by the
Vietnamese after they invaded and broke the Khmer Rouge control over
the country. He’s been in power 30 or 40 years. In 1993, he was
voted down, and in 1997, he gathered his strength and retook the city.
“The government’s arms,”he says, “all covered in blood.” Kon says
the city people vote against Hun Sen, but here too there is
gerrymandering of a sort – if you’re not a Hun Sen supporter you are
“registered” to vote far from your home. And Hun Sen buys schools and
bridges for the countryside so the people there love him.

At least that’s some good come of all this.

Kon is 23. He’s my age. It’s a different world over here.

The guesthouse culture and restaurants here are great – everything’s
in American dollars, cheap, pretty clean, especially if you’ve been to
the more dodgy of Chinese places. Anyone on the street speaks at
least a little English. Food is delicious, richer and more textured
than the Chinese equivalent. (Though be careful when you order the
happy pizza – I’ve heard tell that’s not Oregano on there! Though, of
course, you picks your poison…) The streets can get pretty dirty
sometimes, sidewalks covered with garbage or compost, but it’s all
made better by the presence of plants, sometimes huge Bodhi trees
growing up right out of the pavement, and sun and sky. Bright lights
make everything better.

Today we visited the National Museum, the world’s finest collection of
Khmer sculpture, curvy and basalt, with facial features strongly
Indian or Egyptian and hair borrowed from early Greek statuary. Garuda
birds and Ganeshas abound – Ganesh, my favorite god, the Remover of
Obstacles and the patron saint of writers, fat guy with an elephant
head and a smile like he knows something you don’t. That’s the way of
gods, of course, but Ganesh is more merrily in that mold than most.
The museum is open-air in an old Cambodian temple, with layered,
peaked roofs and curving spines that pierce into the sky. Outside, it
is guarded by red-laquer statues of naga – great red cobras with many
heads all nestled within their hood – and by asparas, divine dancing
nymphs. Stands within the museum sell water and beer, so you can
enjoy your Angkor-era sculpture with a bit of a buzz – the way all
good religious sculpture is truly meant to be enjoyed (though most
sculptors probably expected the buzz to come from the divine, not from
the grape or the wheat. Though I suppose for some that *was* the

And, of course, we visited Toul Sleng, one of the genocide museums in
the city. If you’ve been to a memorial of that kind of thing before,
I don’t need to tell you how that went. Psychic imprints of horror
cling to the place. It’s even worse that it looks almost exactly like
my high school in Xiuning – or what my high school certainly looked
like 20 years ago; Toul Sleng was a high school converted into a
torture and “interrogation” facility by the Khmer Rouge. The sky was
still bright blue, golden beams of sunlight lancing through palm
fronds to illuminate four by six brick cells with manacles still on
the floor. They left some of the interrogation rooms just as the
Vietnamese found them after liberation, though of course the mutilated
corpses were buried. One chamber was devoted to depicting
interrogation techniques. There was a large painting of a Khmer Rouge
officer waterboarding a victim, next to one of another officer taking
of someone’s fingers with wire clippers.

The final room contained nothing but skulls, on shelves, with medical
descriptions: Skull, male, circumference xx cm, .22 bullet wound in
left occipital etc.

And outside, the day settled into sunset.

Across the street Carl and I went, then, to the Bodhi Tree, restaurant
and recuperation facility par excellence – walls close out the
barbed-wire view, and the entire restaurant is a garden of peaceful
conversation and muted lighting and cool breezes.

Some might call that denial, blocking out the barbed wire for the sake
of breeze and food and fruit smoothies, and maybe it is that, or in
part it’s that, but it’s something else, too. We are creatures that
build. Buildings, systems, accords, treaties, laws, friendship, love,
kindness – we build these things obsessively, like children building
sandcastles. Sometimes the wind knocks over the castle, sometimes the
tide comes in, sometimes other kids come in and kick it to pieces. But
when that happens, we build it again. And maybe as we grow, we learn
to build our sandcastles out of things more concrete than sand – maybe
steel, maybe dreams…

Anyway. I’m about to go and get myself a beer and enjoy the
stretching, dark night and the good company. There’s plenty more to
see, and plenty more to talk about, but I’m intending to write more of
these this week so I need to save some energy up – no 10 pager from
me, at least not tonight. Fondest regards to all – I’d love to hear
what you’re up to these days, and of course if any of you are going to
pass through China, don’t hesitate to give me a holler. Keep on
keepin’ on!

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