Travelog: Cambodia

This is an essay I wrote several years ago and am republishing now as part of an occasional series on Southeast Asia.

On my first morning in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, I read in the English-language newspaper that a Frenchman overdosed to death at my overly drug-friendly hotel, so I found myself a new hotel – one that wasn’t in the guidebook but seemed nice and only cost $3 a night – and I had already paid, showered and taken a nap before I awkwardly figured out I was in a brothel. The next day, I met a motorcycle taxi driver named Eagle. It was January 2000.

Phnom PenhEagle was one of a pack of motorcycle taxi drivers who lingered in front of the guesthouse I finally settled on – the only guesthouse the guidebook called “wholesome,” the only adjective I was in the mood for just then. He designated himself my tour guide for a day and took me to Tuol Sleng, or S-21, the Phnom Penh school building that the Khmer Rouge converted into a torture factory in the late 1970s.

He said he had attended school in this very building for a year before the Pol Pot years, and I couldn’t decide if that was true or just a line for the tourists. Maybe he could have attended that school but didn’t, maybe guys like him attended that school, maybe he was nowhere near that school at that time or maybe he really attended the school. No way to know.

Pol Pot was the leader of the Khmer Rouge regime – a communist faction of Khmer people – which ruled Cambodia for just a few years in the late 1970s and in that time managed to kill about 20 percent of the population with war, genocide and ill-conceived social policies.

Hundreds of mug shots of tortured prisoners just moments before their executions hang in the former school building, now a museum. The Khmer Rouge made records of many of the 12,000 to 17,000 male and female Tuol Sleng victims, and this was just one of scores of torture centers throughout the country. Some of the women were photographed with babies that shared their mothers’ fate. In one photo, the child is not pictured, just a little arm reaching up to a mother whose beaten eyes stare ahead into the camera.

When I emerged from the tour, shaken, Eagle was out front waiting for me. He asked if I wanted to go to the killing fields next, the mass gravesite just outside the city for the bodies of the Tuol Sleng victims. I hadn’t realized he would be waiting for me but agreed to see the gravesite and hopped on the back of his motorcycle.

Just outside the city, we came to a fork in the road, and Eagle slowed down.

“Why are you stopping?” I asked.

“I just wondered which road you wanted to take,” he said in English that was worse than that.

“What do you mean?” I asked, annoyed and maybe scared. “You know we’re going to the killing fields.”

“Yeah, but maybe you changed your mind. If we go that way,” he pointed to the right-hand tine of the road fork, “we could go to the firing range and shoot guns. If we go that way,” pointing to the left, “there are killing fields. You choose.”

You could tell the self-named Eagle liked this joke, this irony. You could tell it thrilled him to pick up wholesome guests from the wholesome guesthouse and show them the fork in the road – firing range or mass grave. He had crazy, likable eyes.

After I saw the killing fields and the human-skull-filled, glass pagoda memorial, I let Eagle choose our next destination. He took me to watch the sunset at one of many huts along a road that overlooked a corn field. The shacks didn’t have walls, just mats on the floor and hammocks. We ate corn on the cob and drank coconut milk from the shell as the round and fuzzy sun set into a pre-industrial haze.

Mekong River Sunset

Some Cambodian college students arrived shortly after us, and Eagle proudly told them I was living in China, which I was at the time. About half of the students were studying Chinese, and the other half English. I spoke my limited Chinese with some of them and used limited English with others, switching back and forth, having them translate from one or the other language to get the meanings across.

One boy told me that their futures weren’t hopeful. They would graduate from college, he said, but there would be no jobs for them. Some of them would try to leave Cambodia, he said, and some would get bad jobs, and some would get no job.

The boys were lying in hammocks or relaxing against the hut’s tree-trunk posts, telling jokes and laughing with an authenticity that seemed to belie the bleakness. How is it that these genuine smiles didn’t contradict hopelessness?

Back at our end of the hut, Eagle told me Cambodia was finally peaceful, but it was more fun to fight. His smile was warm in the late-afternoon light.

By the time Vietnam took down the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Eagle’s’s entire family was dead, he said – his mother, father and four siblings. He was strong, crazy, and he had nothing to lose. Skirmishes between the Vietnam-backed troops and Khmer Rouge holdouts continued for more than a decade, sometimes bordering on all-out civil war. Eagle joined the Vietnam-backed forces and wandered through the jungle fighting. After each battle, the winner would hold a big party, he said, and often everyone could attend it.

Eagle: Killing, drinking, and, when things were just right, Vietnamese girls, too.

He told me he saw me arrive at the guesthouse the day before. “You were wearing all black,” he said.

“Yeah, that was me,” I said. (I was wearing a long, black silk skirt and a black tank-top, my attempt at traveler-chic.)

“During the Pol Pot years,” Eagle explained quietly, “everyone wore all black.”

“Oh, god,” I said. “So I shouldn’t wear all black.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “You can wear what clothes you want.”

“But I shouldn’t wear all black,” I said.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s your decision.”

Eagle took me back to my guesthouse, and I left early the next morning to travel north and then back to China.

*********************

The next time I was in Cambodia, more than six years later, in the spring of 2006, I looked for Eagle in Phnom Penh. I had only known him for about six hours, but he was the only one I knew at all in Cambodia, and the reason I never wore all black anymore.

Whenever I saw a group of motorcycle taxis or tuk-tuks – open-air taxi vehicles – I asked if they knew Eagle. Finally, I went back to the wholesome guesthouse where I first met him.

As I climbed the guesthouse stairs, I thought to myself that Eagle might be dead because he was so wild and crazy. But then again, I thought, after surviving the Khmer Rouge and nearly two decades of fighting, what could possibly have gotten to him in the last six peaceful years?

“Eagle’s sick,” the guesthouse owner said. All of the motorcycle drivers who used to hang around the guesthouse six years ago got sick. All at once. Most of them died.

AIDS? I asked.

Yes. (Cambodians often avoided direct reference to the epidemic, I found.)

They all got money from the tourists and would get very drunk, the owner said.

Ladies, of course not drugs, he said, with surprise that I would ask.

The guesthouse owner said Eagle drove a tuk-tuk now – a step up from a motorcycle. Later that night, I met a tuk-tuk driver who seemed like the kind of guy who would know Eagle. He did. He told me Eagle was fat now – which meant healthy, I knew – and he agreed to help me find him the next day. When I got to the designated meeting place, Eagle was already there.

He said he remembered me, but I wasn’t totally convinced. Back when I first met him, he would take people to the museum and corn field almost every day, making each tourist’s visit to Cambodia feel unprecedented. How could he remember every one of us? Still, he was clearly happy to see me. He was the type to welcome an old friend any day. He drove me to a nearby café.

At first he wouldn’t admit he had AIDS, and I didn’t tell him that I already knew. He referred to a sickness that nearly killed him and left him bed-stricken for several months in 2005, but he said it was from too much drinking and smoking.

I asked if he was taking medicine, and he pulled from his pocket a tablet in a little baggie. I asked if he had to take that medicine for the rest of his life, and he said he did. (When he finally admitted he had AIDS, he said he knew I knew when I asked about the meds.)

Everyone in town knows Eagle’s sick, and the town is no stranger to the disease. I saw a billboard advertisement for an anti-retroviral drug claiming to be better than the rest. The country is making strides, though. In the mid-1990s, nearly half of Cambodia’s brothel workers were HIV positive and 80% of police and military men reported that they used prostitutes regularly. While the men still go to prostitutes, the sex workers – some of them unionized, even though prostitution is technically illegal – now required condom use, and this was accepted as a right. A local paper said a prostitute in the countryside stabbed her trick because he refused to wear a condom. The police weren’t sure who to punish.

Eagle left me briefly at the coffee shop and drove home to get some pictures of his family and a few from when he was really sick the year before. When I knew him, he weighed 61 or 62 kilos (about 135 pounds), he said. At the lowest point last year, he was at 38 kilos (83 lbs). Now he was up to 58 kilos (127 lbs) – or, as his friend said, “fat.” He was skin-covered bones in the pictures, for which he still managed a warm smile, lying on the floor of his apartment.

Eagle infected his wife, who still hasn’t shown any symptoms but is under the clinic’s supervision as well. She’s not mad, he said, just sad.

*********************

Eagle had faced the real prospect of death, some doubt about wanting to live, a renewed dedication to his life and family and a lot of time to be honest with himself. He peppered conversation with philosophy: “We all come into this world and must die one day,” he said. “It’s a Khmer saying, but maybe the translation isn’t good.”

Raised Hindu, not Buddhist like most Cambodians, Eagle embodies the cultural hodge-podge that his country has been since ancient times. The Hindu influence on Cambodian people, art and music, while half the country’s college students are studying Chinese, is an example of why continental Southeast Asia is called “Indo-China” – the blending of Asia’s two giants.

Old enough to remember the worst of his country’s recent history, Eagle’s story is intertwined with Cambodia’s.

Before the Khmer Rouge, he said, his father had worked for the government, first under King Sihanouk and then under U.S.-backed Lon Nol, who took power in a coup in 1970, the year America admitted to bombing Cambodia’s border areas and the communists were going crazy and gaining crazy strength in Cambodia’s countryside.

Before the Khmer Rouge, Eagle had more than 200 relatives in Phnom Penh, he said. Few survived the 1970s.

Vietnam finally invaded Cambodia in 1979, ending Khmer Rouge rule, and shortly after that, millions of displaced Cambodians tried to return from their countryside slave camps to their home towns and cities. By the time Eagle got back to Phnom Penh, somebody else was living in his house. A godfather secured for him an apartment in another part of the city, he said. Everybody just lived where they could, he said. A housing grab.

The international community largely opposed the Vietnamese invasion – even though it ended genocide – because it was a reminder of the Vietnam War, which people were trying to forget. The Vietnam War wasn’t about Vietnam so much as it was a fight against Soviet expansionism. It was the Korean War in Vietnam, with seeds of the clandestine operations in Central America that came later.

By the time the Americans left Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975, China had already split with its only fellow communist behemoth and one-time big brother, the Soviet Union. On principle, China liked communists more than capitalists, but it liked non-Soviet communists best of all. The United States liked capitalists better, but if it had to be communists, the non-Soviet kind were better.

This was part of the backdrop of U.S. President Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972 and of warming Sino-U.S. relations in general. It was the closest the giant enemies – the U.S. and China – had come to a shared attitude in a long time, and Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge communists were détente profiteers: Both the U.S. and China preferred the independent Khmer Rouge in Cambodia over expanded Soviet-backed Vietnamese occupation.

According to Washington Post reporter Elizabeth Becker, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski said later: “I encouraged the Chinese to support Pol Pot…Pol Pot was an abomination. We could never support him but China could.”

On January 1, 1979, the U.S. established formal diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China, finally recognizing the 30-year-old communist victory in China’s civil war and moving the embassy from Taiwan to Beijing. Although Soviet expansionism was still considered a threat, the Vietnam War had been over for years.

Nine days later, Vietnam “expanded” into Cambodia — the country already held sway over neighboring Laos. Saving the Cambodian people from large-scale genocide may have been an afterthought or a happy byproduct of the invasion. Possible direct reasons for the invasion include the Khmer Rouge’s slaughtering of Vietnamese in Cambodia and the fact that the massacres had started leaking over the border into Vietnam itself.

A little more than a month after Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia, China launched a retaliatory invasion into Vietnam, with 85,000 to a quarter million troops, depending on who’s describing it. The conflict resulted in 20,000 to 50,000 deaths, depending on who’s talking. Then China withdrew, and both sides still claim victory.

Vietnam went on to occupy Cambodia until 1990 – when the U.S.S.R. dissolved and its aid to Vietnam dried up. That’s when the United Nations swooped in with $2 billion to ensure free and fair elections in Cambodia in 1993. Most of the money went to more than 20,000 international soldiers and civilians who oversaw the spectacle, and some in Cambodia complained about that, noting that it was during this time, with a heavy international military presence, that AIDS really got its foothold in the country.

The elections were initially called a success, though the runner up, Hun Sen, maintained power and eventually secured his position with a coup five years later. How much the well-intentioned United Nations intervention helped Cambodia has, in retrospect, been questioned. In 2006, Hun Sen was still in power, and the United Nations was back in Cambodia, this time helping to set up tribunals to prosecute aging Khmer Rouge leaders for war crimes.

The regime’s No. 1, Pol Pot, had died in 1998, and really there were just a handful of guys left to participate in the belated trials, which were aimed at the leaders, not the “victim-perpetrators” – often poor, rural teenagers who were forced, maybe brainwashed, to carry out the atrocities.

The tribunals were controversial in Cambodia. Some feared they would be as arbitrary as the genocide itself: Some Khmer Rouge leaders would be punished; some of the leaders had already died natural deaths and received full Buddhist funerals.

While some Cambodians felt the trials were too little and too late, others argued that without them there could be no rule of law in the country. If the national villains – some of whom still roamed the country freely – were not brought to justice, there was no disincentive for any crime.

I was trying to get a sense of how ordinary Cambodians felt about the United Nations’ tinkering in both 1993 and in 2006, when the team was significantly smaller but still comprised of well-paid experts who kept their earnings in foreign bank accounts so they could buy foreign houses and ice cream later.

(Of course people should be able to make a difference in the world and still buy a house in their own country. But the world’s pay disparities get confusing when you consider them from different angles. A week of U.S. unemployment benefits was at that time roughly equivalent to the average Cambodian’s annual income.)

Eagle didn’t blame the international community for spreading AIDS in Cambodia. I asked if he profited at all when the U.N. oversaw the 1993 elections.

Not directly, he said, smirking and looking down.

Was it drugs? I asked.

Oh, no! he said.

Eagle said he made money selling large, American-made guns (he didn’t know the model names) to Americans who figured they’d be able to get them back across the borders because they were U.N. or military or I don’t know what. Using his army connections, Eagle said, he bought these guns from unofficial arsenals for $10 apiece and sold them for $300 to guys who figured they could get upwards of $1,500 for them back in the States. Here’s my parents’ tax dollars at work, I thought: Trickle on down and then back around, why not?

Eagle asked if I thought he was a bad man.

I don’t care if you sold stupid guns to stupid Americans, I said.

My country already had too many guns, he said, ready with the argument he probably gives to all the anti-arms-dealing types.

*********************

For all his wild-eyed adventures, Eagle learned some English and managed to do all right for himself. He was now waking up at 4 a.m. every morning to get the tourists to their 7 a.m. flights, careful to take his medicine at exactly 6. He had cheated on his wife with all kinds of girlfriends – some Cambodian women seem to expect as much – but he managed to stave off AIDS until affordable medicines were available, and for that he was unbelievably lucky.

A few days before I found him again, Eagle found out he qualified for free medicine for the next three years. He had been paying about $40 a month for nearly a year – a significant sum for a guy who drives people around town for a dollar or two a ride and makes $5 a month for displaying an ad for a tourist restaurant on the back of his tuktuk.

I’m not sure how he qualified for the free drugs. He said it was because he answered questions right, but he got all shy about telling me what the questions were. Condom this, condom that. (It couldn’t have taken him a year to pass such test, I thought.)

He invited me to accompany him to the clinic where he got his monthly checkup. It was a lovely place, with an open-air lobby and delicate stone gardens – donated by the Japanese. From there, we went to Pharmacies Without Borders on the other side of town, but they wouldn’t give him the medicine without his wife present to verify that he took his medicine every day. He said I could sign, but they said it had to be his wife, and I felt stupid for being there at all, butting in where I don’t know a thing about anything.

Eagle’s wife went with him the next day, and I visited the family that afternoon. His wife bowed to me, hands in prayer position, and I reciprocated. When we got to their second-floor apartment, she sat on the cool green-and-white tiled floor while Eagle and I sat in wicker chairs. Their ten-year-old son came in after a few minutes and ran to his mother’s arms.

The boy went to the calendar on the wall, and I asked Eagle what he was doing.

“He wants to come with me next time I go to the clinic,” he said.

Perhaps, I imagined, this was because Eagle had to explain that he had taken me to the clinic the day before, and the boy wondered why a stranger should get to go when he’d never been.

Eagle showed me his medicine – made in Mumbai – and also pictures of his wedding and his life, pointing out the people who were now dead. On the wall was a foot-long lead pencil that said Australia all over it – a gift.

I can live now, Eagle said, with a kind of gratitude and awe.

Epilogue

A year and a half later, I returned to Cambodia and found Eagle drunk and flirty. He again told me I could write about him, but this time he asked me not to mention the AIDS part of his story as he gave me a knowing smile. I had a feeling he thought that little detail wouldn’t help him get new girlfriends, a feeling he was seeing new girlfriends.

I didn’t ask him if he had started seeing girlfriends again because I couldn’t bear to. As long as I didn’t know for sure, I could be disappointed in humanity in general, disappointed in the mere possibility, which seemed easier. But my disappointment was still palpable. Even the most extremely broad and inclusive morality would require the extramarital girlfriends of a guy like Eagle to know about his disease.

I still intended to tell the whole story, to the extent that I knew it. I felt I could have used his real name, because I had prior permission, but when I decided to write this epilogue, including speculative suggestion, I decided to change his name throughout the story. In real life, Eagle’s name is much better.

A friend of mine observed that even in his inability to change his ways or seize a transformational moment, Eagle again seemed intertwined with the larger story of Cambodia, which remains one of the poorest countries in the world, its economy fueled in large part by charity workers, many of whom lack hope.

For me the verdict is not yet in. Eagle may have simply been in a rut when I last saw him. Maybe the next visit will be better.