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Holiday in Cambodia

Habeas Mentem

Pol Pot's Unruly Legacy: The third installment in Habeas Mentem's strange tour of Asia

A cheap holiday in other people's misery!
-Johnny Rotten, Holidays In The Sun

The big secret about modern day Phnom Penh is that it is quiet at night. Well, there is the occasional automatic gun fire and the exploding M-80s set off by street punks, but all in all, the place is weirdly, ominously quiet. Maybe people with limited calorie intake aren't interested in making a lot of noise: Droves of semi-starving people lining the Sisowath Quay water front at night huddle around small fires, selling coconuts, Fanta pop, nuts, giant tangelos and small cheap dry goods of every persuasion. Walking the mile stretch along the river, passing all this humanity but hearing no blaring music from boom boxes, or yelling, or crying children, or police sirens, or cars back firing can be scary at first, especially after spending time in a free-for-all like Bangkok. But gradually you get used to the quiet here and realize it's very cool...


The dignitaries on the various denominations of currency here look distinctly nervous, as if they knew they were going to be executed after the treasury finished the engraving. I asked a Khmer woman what bill had Pol Pot on it. She said she didn't know. [Further scrutiny of the bank notes in my possession reveals only one dignitary, King Sihanouk]


What a pleasure to actually listen to Holiday in Cambodia by The Dead Kennedys in Cambodia! Just peddling around, tootling the multitudes on a rented granny bike, backpack up front in the precariously-affixed plastic basket, just grooving on all the exotic architecture, commotion and dust. From my bicycle tour, I'm amazed at the ephemeral quality of most of the religious buildings. They are exotic and alluring, but many Wats and monuments look as if they are constructed from plaster of paris and balsa wood, as if they were a sets from Disney at Epcott center. It occurs to me that much of what I'm seeing are replicas of original buildings razed by Pol Pot and his merry band of pranksters, about the time he abolished money and started offing anyone with spectacles. Oh! what a fascinating species we are...


I'm heading inland on Sihanouk Boulevard, one of the major thoroughfares of Phnom Penh. It leads up to the giant, awe-inspiring Independence Monument, a five-tiered maroon obelisk about 130 feet tall, each level decorated with circular rings of nagas, the menacing stone cobras of religious motif. Nagas are as common a symbol in Cambodia as the jovial, (the jutting snake tale affixed to the roofs and corners of Wats) and bespeaks a past steeped in animist influence. I'm thinking how threatening these stone creatures look, their furious fangs ready to attack, what apt representations of an authoritarian state, when-

Police whistle.

I look around, but the tunes are so loudly blaring through my earphones I can't be sure-

Another, louder, police whistle.

I crane my head back. Across from the monument is an open-air police compound. Fifteen cops are lounging about on aluminum folding chairs, playing cards, eating pastries, slapping each other on the ass, yuking it up. These are the custodian-ghouls of the snakes... fangs of the state...

A cop is pointing at me. But then his hand gestures seem to be telling me to leave quickly. So I pedal faster. A second cop pops up from his chair and comes running out at me. He starts pointing violently at me and then to the ground at his feet. My misinterpretation of the first one's hand gestures now puts me in a quasi-fugitive status. Three cops gather round me. They are all extremely dark complexioned, calling to mind more of Malaya and India rather than Asia. These are the notorious Khmer police, a freewheeling gang of thugs considered to be among the most brutal crew of grifters ever to walk the globe; brigands capable of any crime. Their ranks are filled with the same semi-literate peasants from the provinces as the infamous torturers and executioners of Toul Sleng, a.k.a.S-21, the Khmer Rouge interrogation center at the heart of Phnom Penh. At full throttle Toul Sleng destroyed a hundred prisoners a day (The Toul Sleng torture museum is about four blocks away from where I am). Abu Girab will probably have a walking tour in a few years, too, where Arab school kids will see pictures of Lyndie Englander pulling a man on a dog leash-

"No ride bike one-way! You is ticket now," he points to an unobtrusive stand nearby, something kids might sell lemonade from. I've suddenly arrived in Kafka's Penal Colony. Cops are doling out tickets like holy communion, bilking unwary motorists and tourists. Everyone at the stand happy and chuckling as the seated pontiffs scrawl something illegible on illegibly photocopied ticket forms, printed on crumbling emery paper. These guys are doing a brisk business this Saturday; a day, I was disappointed to find out, when the Khmers, like their western counterparts, lounge and move about in herds; making for some of the most chaotic traffic I've ever seen.

"Jeez-Gosh," I say in exaggerated consternation. A real expression of puzzlement on my face.

The three just stare at me. Wondering how they can work me for maximum pay-off.

"What nationality?!" one barks.

I'd been telling touts and petty hustlers I was from the North Pole. But nobody knew where that was. So I switched to Norway. But nobody knew where that was either. Still, just telling people I was from that blue-eyed scandoid nation gave me a thrill-fancying myself six feet tall and dourly existential-I described a fjord to a cabby so well I started to hunger to see one myself. Whatever a fjord is. They're mountains or something, only they've got like ice mirrors in them, right? (Studious readers may check more reliable sources).

I decide against being cute with these myrmidons.

"USA," I say, almost marching in place to the Star Spangled Banner like Ronald Reagan used to do at Republican rallies. The Great Communicator...

I'm not seriously concerned about my detention. There are a lot of witnesses and, briefly surveying the traffic, it does seem like I was peddling down a one-way street-along with a thousand other people, though. Suddenly, however, a smiling, good natured, and light skinned (Vietnamese-Khmer?) police sergeant comes dutifully over. He's avuncular and acts as if these cops in front of me were unruly children, to be dismissed and ignored. Boys will be boys! He and I share a wink and I pedal away quickly from my captors, like an evasive squid shooting jets of water from unseen orifices.

Now safely away, cruising north down Norodom Boulevard, I wonder about the racial overtones of that last interaction. Does this place work like Brazil, with an entrenched melatonin hierarchy? white on top, brown in the middle and black on the bottom? I'm starting to think so. Khmer women, though proud, speak in tones of envy and mild contempt for the large number of lighter-skinned Vietnamese nationals that reside in Cambodia. As usual in Asia, it's the Japanese businessmen who set the tone for what is considered desirable and what is not. There are clubs in Phnom Penh (ditto Bangkok and elsewhere) that cater exclusively to their needs, hiring only light skinned beauties as hostesses and leaving their dark skinned Khmer sisters to work for the barbarian hoards i.e. everyone else.

Still pedaling down Norodom Boulevard a teenage girl pedals alongside me.

"Can you help me please?" she asks.

"What do you need?"

"There is a man following me; I'm scared."

She is an earnest looking gal, about sixteen, her face badly pitted with acne. Her English is good and she seems like a humble soul. I already envision her with a successful career in data entry for a modest lawn and garden company. There is indeed a young ruffian trailing us, but he doesn't seem very craven, in fact, he doesn't even seem to be really following us. He sort of weaves along the road, hunched over a dilapidated dirt bike.

Prepared yet begrudging to do my filial duty of chaperoning a teenybopper to safety, I tell her bemusedly of my recent travail at the hands of the local police.

"Yuk!" she says like any lass from Chicago, actually shuddering at the thought of the cops here, "They just want money."


Alive you are no gain, dead you are no loss.
-Khmer Rouge slogan

The Khmers have a spicy fish curry dish they call "Amok". To my knowledge it is only coincidence that the Malaysian word for a berserker rampage, imported into English, is also the name of a tasty fish entree native to Cambodia. However, in my case, the English meaning becomes prophetic. I order "amok fish" at a hip pizza place across the road from the Sisowath Quay, facing the Tonle Sap river, tributary of the legendary Mekong. Some restaurants here openly sell cannabis and use it as a condiment in many of their dishes. I ask the waitress for "very much ganja" on my "amok". In a while my dish is served. About three hours after consuming the delicious victuals, I am hit with a tsunami of THC whose sheer wallop almost unmans me. I am astonished at the radical changes in everything I perceive. Everything is now threatening. A creep show. I schlep along the Sisowath Quay, clothes askew: shirt untucked, shorts partially unzipped and spotted with greasy food stains; hair unwashed, tufts of slick mucoidal nasal hair protruding offensively from a nose rife with glistening blackheads, blackheads I can actually feel fighting each other for space... I am not a happy camper...

Street urchins, touts, limbless land mine beggars and toothless, sclerotic whores attempt to buttonhole me, or make catcalls at me as I trudge along the potholed, red clay thoroughfare; a mere strip of rock wall keeping the Mekong river at bay. I am one of you! I want to shout to this pullulating mass of bedraggled indigents, old biddies, unemployed pornographers, card sharpers, hungry curs. Yes, a depraved character out of some Victorian novel about final comeuppance. I take to scheming evil: I will fight the extra charges in my laundry bill at the hotel, pretending to be completely certain I had already paid the paltry sum, when in fact, (and this is where the devil's weed forces me into a head-on confrontation with the usually-occluded reptilian aspects of my psyche), I was no longer sure if I had paid the bill or not...

I lurch along the riverfront-hand in hand with the Marquis de Sade... launched completely into a new career of irreclaimable sin and wickedness, one that could have been averted, had I the gumption, the courage, to listen to the heart-felt blandishments of any number of u.s. drug czars, D.A.R.E officers, high school principals, gym teachers, Y.M.C.A. spokespersons; congressman Mark Souder (R-IND), Michael J. Fox... Sonny Bono... Or taken a few pious moments, on that gently teeming Quay, to recall a certain Different Strokes TV episode, when former First Lady, Nancy Reagan, made a guest appearance, decrying the dangers of multimodal thinking induced by unapproved drugs, to the hearts and minds of our nation's youth...


Having made an initial error he was obliged to make still others.

The chaotic traffic of Phnom Penh on a Friday night is enough to send anyone off on a bender, much less a besotted scribbler on the cusp of total oblivion. Thousands of Honda and Suzuki 100cc motor bikes, wedged up with three or four people on a single one, zip by, clogging the streets, blatting noise and sensory overload. I need to go somewhere, anywhere, and head to a hostess bar in a desperate bid to regain baseline normalcy. But already I am shaken by a sign at the entrance, where armed guards are seated placidly:


The guards look imperturbable in their khakis. Their look says they've seen every armed shoot-out and bar-room knifing and aren't too bothered about much of anything.

I order water and make small talk with anyone within reach. A couple of Khmer women are seated at the counter. One asks what my job is.

"I'm a taxidermist, specializing in yaks. I have a contract with the Mongolian government."

She nods sagely, going with the flow.

"You like yaks?" I ask her diffidently, then burst out laughing; my guffaw is boorish and I feel penitent. My slovenly appearance and strange remarks confuse her, and she gently excuses herself from my company.

I swivel over to the other woman, in her early twenties, and try to chat amicably. She looks studious, no nonsense.

"What books do you read?" I ask after a while.

"I don't read books, just CDs."

"So you like music?"

"Play station." She makes the gesture of using a command console for a Sony Play Station.

"You don't read any books at all?"


As I contemplate her response of indifferent analphabetism, something in my unhinged physiology magically clicks, and I start to feel partially recovered. I look for the woman I confused with gibberish about yaks, but she has disappeared.

Now I want to find out what a person with no effective print culture thinks and feels about the world. I discover that her ability to sum up people and situations is peasant sharp. She says her last boyfriend was from South Africa and taught her English. She speaks it well, says she wants a foreign husband so she can travel the world and get out of Cambodia. I check the glaze in her eyes to make sure she is not a speed queen (Methamphetamine, a.k.a. Yaba, comes in from Burma, Thailand and the Philippines, and sees a big demand in Phnom Penh). But she seems on the level, just an innocent trying to get by-but still capable of hitting you with a two-by-four if you pull something weird. A nice girl, destined to fill out her days giving back-rubs and yam yam to bloated American fixers from Daytona Beach, and dirty old men from Cornwall and Queensland.

Long live the WTO!

Tags : cambodia phnom penhn ganja
Rating : Teen - Drugs Sex
Posted on: 2005-11-14 00:00:00