“One of the most difficult things in the world is to convince a woman that even a bargain costs money.”
-no one will admit to this quote.
How much honey can I get with a dollar fifty and a couple food stamps?
“Sir, in Cambodia you must visit the killing fields,” says the tuk-tuk driver in Phnom Penh, trying to solicit a fare. It’s without coincidence the site is thirteen kilometers outside the city, that to visit on foot would eat up most the day and require three gallons of Gatorade to replenish the lost fluids and electrolytes in the humidity. What’s that? They don’t sell Gatorade here? Well, I guess if I want to visit then you, sir, are my only option.
Unfortunately, I have no desire to go. I’ve already tiptoed through the Killing Caves of Battambang and the S-21 torture chamber of Phnom Penh. I get it. The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, decimated a quarter of the country’s population from 1975-79 in an effort to transform the nation into a peasant-dominated cooperative. Taking Marxist and Maoist ideas to the extreme, Pol Pot sought to wipe out the educated and elite, sending all city-dwellers to the fields for hard physical labor. When doing so the Khmer Rouge proclaimed it Year Zero. The beginning. It ended four years later. The Vietnamese entered and liberated the country. Famine and civil strife followed. Many Khmer Rouge leaders still await trial for the atrocities that are now over thirty years old.
The gears of justice turn slow indeed.
The Cambodians want you to know their story, their struggle. They want to sell it to you.
Without historical context these sites are benign, the Killing Caves just interesting tunnels in the earth, S-21 simply an abandoned schoolhouse. But for the skulls, pictures, and pamphlets not worth meandering to out of one’s way. Well, what of appreciating something for what it is now?
Unless I see spirits it’s just a few dilapidated buildings converted into primitive prison cells. Whereas Angkor Wat astounds for what it is now, as much as for what it was, these sites of genocide or, more appropriately, of class-i-cide, for the revolution was one of economics and labor, are not worth a visit. Gloomy, solemn, depressing, light on information and heavy on pictures and emotional paraphernalia, it’s the equivalent of a late-night infomercial asking you to pledge $1.60 a day to support a Sudanese orphan. The ‘why’ and ‘what for’ are missing. One’s much better off reading a book and gaining an understanding of the history rather than ambling through these sites where your hosts expect tears, which, naturally, should be followed up by the opening of your wallet and the retrieval of an additional donation beyond the entrance fee.
Let’s take three steps back. Isn’t it incredible a Cambodian won a scholarship to study in Paris, found truth in the Communist Manifesto, and returned home to revolutionize Cambodia into a farming community utopia? Like Hitler and Mao, a great leader with grand revolutionizing ambition that, in many ways operated without regard for self and solely for the engineering of what was perceived as the greater good. Of course, no good came of it, but the ability to mobilize and arm an idea is incredible. Now, why was it that I need to visit these fields?
Cambodians will try to sell anything. Like the police officer hawking his badge outside a temple near Angkor Wat. He pointed at the medal and asked, “You see this?”
Damn. What did I do and how much is it going to cost to buy your silence?
“You want to buy?”
“Give you medal for good price.”
No thanks. You might need that if you ever attempt to enforce the law.
I’ve seen police officers signal and yell at children manning motorbikes to stop and pull over. The kids whizzed right past, laughing and calling the policemen names. The officers grimaced, shrugged, and resumed their posts.
Expectations and social norms are vastly different here from those of the world’s economic elite. While reading by the river in Siem Reap, Cambodia I was interrupted several times by Cambodians wanting to practice their English. Not reticent to interrupt, their logic is without fault. As explained, reading that is unlikely to lead to greater earnings does not make sense. Noting that my book was of the paperback variety, i.e, not a textbook, they were doing me a favor by taking my attention away from it.
Well, if you’re not trying to sell me a tuk-tuk ride or ten postcards for a dollar my time is yours.
The conversation would, inevitably, venture into the dream of marrying a woman because one is in love, as is allowed—if rather foolishly—in American culture. In Cambodia it’s all about money. Marriage must be of economic advantage to the bride, her family, and family that’s to be borne from the union. Without the ability to provide marriage, like reading, does not make sense. The parents of the pursued female will not allow time for seduction, let alone approve of the matrimony. Family, both primary and extended, is so important to Cambodian culture that defiance of its wishes never intrudes into the cerebellum. The standard amount necessary before marriage and coitus: five thousand dollars. About three times the average Cambodian’s annual income.
In Battambang the back of the tour guide’s tuk-tuk was home to the phrase, “No money, no honey.” Touring with two independent travelers, a woman from Australia and a woman from the United Kingdom, I find they are, apparently , both die hard romantics. They interrogate our guide for ten minutes on the topic of, “Well, but what about if you’re in love?”
“Only in American movies.”
“The more the money the more the love.”
Finally, exasperated, he points to the back of his tuk-tuk, at the slogan a foot and a half in height.
“But is there anyone special if you had money?” the girls ask.
“Yes. Need money.”He holds out his hand.
“Uh,” the women stammer simultaneously, “we’d better get going to Phnom Banan temples before sunset.”
In Phnom Penh I had to dine at the ‘ol F.C.C. or, for the crass and uncultured, the Foreign Correspondents Club. There were no identifiable correspondents.
This place popped up in several books I’ve read, most recently Yoga For Those That Can’t Be Bothered To Do It, by Geoff Dyer, containing an excellent chapter on the author’s comically frustrating travels through Cambodia, for which I have a new appreciation for. The F.C.C. overlooks the Tonle Sap River and comes off as nonchalant classy, filled to the brim with ostentatious travel-wise Caucasoids smoking, drinking, and biting into overpriced entrees.
A pack of cigs: 40 cents.
A pint of Angkor beer on draft: 50 cents.
Spending $12 on an American hamburger while perched above the impoverished masses struggling to survive in Cambodia’s capital: eternal guilt.