90 Days in Cambodia

In which country can you stroll through the biggest temple in the world, jump into a crystal clear volcanic lake, and have a beer in swimming Video Karaoke Bar? In which country can you shoot a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and play roulette with former Communist guerillas? In which country are skulls a tourist attraction just like Buddhist monasteries? Welcome to one of the most contradictory and fascinating places on the face of the earth: Welcome to Cambodia!
A magic temple at AngkorThere is something magic about Cambodia. Either you feel it, or you don’t. There is nothing in between. During my first trip through the former Indochina in 1997, which included Cambodia, I certainly felt it. I’d better not analyze too deeply what made me come back. My dad in Ho Chi Minh City to visit, improving security in Cambodia’s provinces, but also .. the exceptional, the unknown, the magic.
To get from Ho Chi Minh City’s Kim Cafe to my favourite Hotel Indochine  in Phnom Penh cost precisely 10 US $. One hour to leave the moloch of Vietnam’s sprawling city, unfriendly Vietnamese border guards, saying good bye to Latin characters, walking 100 meters to the other side, and there you are, in the country of landmines, American bombings and the Killing Fields. But it may be different than you think. I will learn it in the course of the next three months – hopefully I can share it with you.
“Suo Sedei – Sok Sabaii?” (“Hello, how are you?”). On the road to Phnom Penh – the same road the Vietnamese took to invade Cambodia in 1979 – about 200 party signs are visible. It’s election time in Cambodia. The main contenders are the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), FUNCINPEC, and the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP). But there are also the more bizarre names like the “Woman and nation’s rule of law party”, the “Buddhist liberal democratic party”, or the “farmer’s party” – no less than 39 of them are registered for the second post-communist elections of July 26th, 1998. They could be the last chance for a democratic Cambodia. After last year’s coup (5th/6th July 1997), the optimists are rare. Numerous self-proclaimed Cambodian experts advised me against going: “Have you not heard that there is a Hun Sen style election campaign going on?”, was the useful comment of a Lao opposition group. “We’re all watching world cup footie here in the Heart”, emailed someone else, describing a rather quiet situation…
Cambodia – the “Heart of Darkness”?
“The Heart” is the name insiders give to the most popular bar in the capital – the “Heart of Darkness”, named after Joseph Conrad’s famous book. He described the Congo of almost 100 years ago, but what happened in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 can certainly be compared to the horrors of Central Africa. In the Congo, it was exploitation of humans by humans for economic reasons. In Cambodia, it was exploitation of humans by humans for ideological reasons – the most radical transformation of a society ever attempted. Pol Pot’s idea of a purely agrarian society without money, cities, schools, and hospitals – practically cut off from the outside world – had a human price: 1.7 million people died due to exhaustion, starvation, and political persecution.
The latter took place at Security Prison 21 (“S21”), a high school transformed from educating the young to torturing the educated. Intellectuals were in low demand in Pol Pot’s “Democratic Kampuchea”. Wearing glasses was enough of a crime. Having to confess to working for the CIA, the KGB or even worse – for the Vietnamese. A sign told the victims not to cry while being tortured with electric shocks and other methods. Barbed wire prevented them from committing suicide – jumping down the second or third floor would have been much preferable to watching your child being stabbed with a bayonet. Today, “S21” is the “Tuol Sleng Holocaust Museum”, and all of this can be seen on pictures. Thousands and thousands of portrait pictures are on the walls, with fear of death in their faces. This girl can’t be older than 17 – what has she done? Human creativity has no limits, also when it comes to cruelty. The horrendous results of torture can be seen as well. Also the torturers – mostly teenagers – were later tortured themselves. Paranoia of the ruling elite. In the last room, skulls and bones make up a huge map of Cambodia. Is that what Cambodia was all about? In the museum there are some camera teams, no tourists, some mine victims, and a few crazy people.
Beyond description: Cambodia's killing fields“Tuol Sleng” helps not to forget, but it doesn’t help to understand. The same is true for another place on the Khmer Rouge tourist circuit. It is one of the most horrible places in the world, known as the “Killing fields” – the mass graves of “Choeung Ek” outside Phnom Penh. That’s where my motorcycle driver (most common way of taxi transportation) drops me off. Skulls taken from the mass graves remind future generations never to let genocide happen again. They are in a 25-meter glass stupa, where they are sorted according to gender and age. What have these people done against Paradise on Earth? “Female, 15-20 years”, is written on one shelf of the immense glass stupa. It’s my second time here, but now, I am all alone. Alone in the “Killing Fields”. Only a cow is drinking some water out of an empty grave, with a sign next to it: “166 victims without heads”.
So maybe Cambodia where people forced to work in the fields were beaten to death (to save bullets) was really the “Heart of Darkness”? Back to the bar. It is a strange, small, kind of dirty hole-in-the-wall pub where the decoration includes a snake wine and big fake spiders hanging down from the ceiling. And of course: it’s dark in the Heart of Darkness. You can also play pool, but that’s not why you go there. (NB: driving at night on the back of a moto taxi was not always very safe – losing your money at gun point is very common at night time Phnom Penh). You go there to drink beer and meet the fascinating mix of expatriates (UN and NGO staff), local and foreign journalists, English teachers, backpackers, tourists and weirdoes. The American working for the council of ministers on behalf of the World Bank, the Human Rights Monitor from Colombia, the Japanese photographer waiting for the next shoot-out, the British political science researcher, the Irish bodyguard…. the list has no end. What drives them to the Heart of Darkness? Cheap drinks, the best music in town, or perhaps…. the magic?
Let’s take the Irish bodyguard. Black jeans, black T-shirt, black woollen cap, black hair, and small black beard “goatee style”. I remember him from last year when I saw him in the very same bar. He did some kind of shadow boxing in the air then, every now and then right in front of someone’s face. You meet strange people in Cambodia. I am trying to stay away from him this time around. But he takes the initiative. He fixes me with his dark eyes, points at me and says slowly with his calm voice: “I know you”. He’s the kind of guy you don’t object to. He knows me, ok. He wants to talk, also ok. He’s in his 30s and works as a bodyguard, one of his previous customers was the son of Prince Rannaridh. You don’t talk about salary in this job, which is “99.9% boring – just waiting”. You also don’t talk about how many people you’ve killed. What you do talk about is yourself. He lifts his T-shirt and shows me his body full of scars and some tattoos. In Ireland, he has been a heroin addict for eight years, he says. But then that wonderful country called Cambodia made him completely clean. Quite admirable, considering the fact that drugs are cheap, laws are neither known nor enforced (Marihuana is free in the Heart), and that anarchy and corruption are probably the two most accurate words to describe the country we are in. Now he’s proud of being “100% clean”, as he sips his 11th Tequila. He is married to an Irishwoman and has a child. The kid will never go to the International School – “We will teach ourselves”. The future? “I have nowhere to go”.
Election campaign in Cambodia
The infamous Foreign Correspondants Club of Cambodia (FCCC)Visitors, however, have lots of places to go. Before moving to the Heart at around 10 to 11 p.m., the colonial-style “Foreign Correspondents Club of Cambodia” (FCCC) is clearly the place to be. You can “watch the river go by”, as the advertisement says (if you ask me: the best view in South East Asia), while sipping a drink, eating good food, and talking to interesting folks. It’s more the upscale crowd who goes there. A UN employee I met was dealing with, amongst other things, getting the election material to the 11,699 polling stations all around the country. Amongst the stuff are seven tons of indelible ink – one of the ways to make sure no one votes twice. This ink had to be flown in from India via Thailand, he explains, while we were sitting in the large armchairs of the Club. Yesterday morning, however, there was no ink in the Thai airplane arriving at Pochentong airport. Today is the deadline. If he couldn’t manage to get the ink to Phnom Penh by today, the election could have been postponed, he says. He phones the Thai ambassador, who phones the Thai Prime Minister, who phones the CEO of Thai airways. The PM makes clear to the CEO that the ink is going to be on the plane. And guess what – it was on the plane…. Going to the FCC has something colonial in it. You fight your way through amputees to get upstairs, where there is a 10 US $ / hour internet cafe, buy the newest magazines and newspapers, and look down on people who earn 100 times less than you while you are eating pizza – don’t ask why a lot of expatriates are overweight.
The riverside in Phnom Penh. Election propaganda on the tree.The first Canadian election observers have arrived. An English-speaking newspaper ran an advertisement looking for additional International Election Observers. A chat with one of the Canadians gives me some hints about whether I should apply. The man in his 50s with a T-shirt “Jamaica election observer” explains: “We have been briefed back in Canada – you know, things like Malaria, and how to overcome the culture shock”, he says, “If you do that job, it’s gonna be an eye-opener”. Next day I became a volunteer international election observer for the “Neutral and Independent Committee for Free Elections in Cambodia” (NICFEC).
One of the places I can unconditionally recommend is “Tom’s Irish Pub” – a very relaxed place run by former UNTAC employee Tom who has his heart at the right spot. Every now and then, he organizes a party for orphan children, and this makes him at least as happy as the kids. His wife and his staff are extremely nice, always there for a chat, and “Tom’s” is by far the easiest place to make friends. [Unfortunately, I have heard since that Tom has died.]
As a whole, Phnom Penh still seems pretty much like the year before. Less expatriates (a number of aid programs were cancelled after the coup), a lot less tourists (except the drug and sex tourists), a lot of political propaganda (trucks with supporters of Sam Rainsy driving through the streets: “Sam Rainsy, Sam Rainsy!”; posters everywhere), more crime – but Phnom Penh is still Phnom Penh. Big boulevards, quite a nice riverside to stroll by, thousands of motor taxis (easily recognized by their baseball caps), and beggars in front of the expatriates places: “njam njam”. The Phnom Phenois talk a lot about the elections. There seems to be a lot of support for the rather intellectual opposition candidate Sam Rainsy. Not surprising in an urban environment. Also there seems to be some irrational feeling with the people that violence or war is ahead. It has been like that every time something changed in Cambodia since 1970.
“Wanna shoot gun?”
Another constant since 1970 are guns. Time and again, people are asking: “Wanna shoot gun?”, referring to an army shooting range near Pochentong airport where everyone willing to pay can give his instincts a free ride. First, a motorbike takesAt one of the shooting rangs, the handling of weapons is casual. you to the “army market” to buy ammunition for 15 US$. Then the moto driver drops you at the shooting range, easily located by the sound of serial fire. It’s basically a wooden hut, open on both sides, in which members of the Cambodian armed forces hang around. Children are playing. A Briton and an Israeli are shooting some automatic weapons. The young Israeli seems to have a lot of fun, though “we have this for free at home”, he says. The local Commander lies in his hammock (hammocks are a universal passion in Cambodia) and plays with his loaded handgun. Every now and then, he stands up and shoots a few rounds. What a comfortable place. Of course, like everywhere, there is also a Buddhist shrine. The instructions for me how to shoot the AK-47 take about one minute. Unlock, hold it the right way, point, and press the trigger really slowly, slowly. This is the place where 500 – 1000 US $ gets you out of prison if you’ve committed a murder – this is Cambodia. Some people go an shoot cows there.
Buddhist monestaries are being rebuilt all over Cambodia.The tourist spots of the more regular kind in Phnom Penh is the Wat Phnom, for example, where you enjoy the wonderful peaceful feeling of a Buddhist pagoda with its flowers and smoking sticks inside. It’s impressive how the Cambodians have kept their Buddhist culture in their hearts despite the fact that the Khmer Rouge have destroyed almost all places of worship. Pagodas are being re-built all around the country despite massive poverty. Every morning, monks in their orange robes are going on their alms rounds and get their food for free from the population of one of the 20 poorest countries in the world. Still, the longer you spend in a monastery as a young man, the more respected you are.
Buddhism survived Pol Pot
Heng Hoeung is one such young man. I meet him in front of the magnificent Silver Pagoda in the compound of the Royal Palace. He and his friend ask if I would allow them to practice their English with me. (NB: In the tourist shop, you can buy the Cambodia Lonely Planet guidebook from 1992, even before UNTAC. They admit that they haven’t sold a single one for years.) Thanks to UNTAC, Cambodia may be the prime English speaking country in South East Asia. The elderly who have experienced French colonial rule still speak French. But the young, like those all over the world, want to learn English, the American accent. They want Coca-Cola, ATM machines and nice-looking women. That’s what TV tells them the West is about. America does not have to conquer the world, money does the job. If you read somewhere that the national currency of Cambodia is something called “Riel”, replace it with “Dollar”. The Riel is generally only used for amounts smaller than 1 US $. But Heng Hoeung doesn’t care about Dollars or Riels, at least not for the moment. Board and lodging is free, and living in poverty is not only a constraint, it’s also a choice for a Buddhist monk.
Heng Hoeung, my friend, the monk, in his living quarter.I get a chance to see how he lives in “Mohamontry Pagoda”. The living quarter is very basic – one big room where 18 people live together. Only some orange curtains provide a bit of privacy. Hoeung offers me some water, and his fellow monks (novices, to be precise) are quickly there to see the “barang” (the world for “foreigner” is not meant to be derogatory like in Thai). Few dare to practice what they have learned so hard in daily English lessons from teachers who have rarely enjoyed more than three months of training themselves. Before I leave, one of the monks tells me: “I will give you my prayers when you go to Stung Treng”.
Stung Treng is my province of choice for the elections. It is in the very northeast, a sparsely populated region of Cambodia near the border with Laos. Only 35’675 voters (= 1 seat in parliament) are registered in the rather large province, but the recently defected KR make sure international observers are needed there. My group is composed of 89 international observers spread all over the country, mostly expatriates working in Cambodia. The UN and EU observers make up the bulk of roughly 600 international observers. National observers and party agents will also be trying to make sure the elections are “free, fair and representative”. It is well known that people close to the ruling CPP dominate the Polling Station Committees of the 11,699 voting stations. Our job as observers, we learn in the training, is strictly that: observing. We are not running the election.
Driving to the real Cambodia with my friend, the monk
But before I fly up to Stung Treng, I meet him again, my friend, the monk. He invited me to his home province Takeo for a day. I hire a motorbike at “Lucky Lucky Motorbikes”, where the friendly employee keeps my passport saying: “In Cambodia, no insurance”, meaning I am paying 500 US $ if something goes wrong. My friend, the monk, seems to think something will go wrong all the time. He sits in woman’s posture behind me, while we are heading south out of Phnom Penh. Hoeung never forgets to tell me when one of the newly installed traffic signals is red, probably thinking that I have never seen a thing like that before. He also frequently mentions that I am driving fast. To be honest, I would prefer if my friend, the honorable monk, would balance himself a bit better instead of providing advice. While driving and counter-balancing the monk, I remember Lonely Planet’s advice to consider all Cambodian drivers as “visually impaired psychopaths”. The rules, which I have found out in an empirical way, are as follows:

1) Only look what’s going on in front of you. Everyone is doing the same.
2) Never make abrupt changes in your movements. Everyone supposes you continue doing what you are doing.
3) The bigger the stronger. Truck, big car, small car, big motorbike, small motorbike, bicycles and cyclos, and God bless you if you are a pedestrian.

Takeo provinceHaving those rules in my mind, we are driving through rural Cambodia, the real Cambodia that makes up 85% of the country. Some of the rice paddies look like deserts – the rainy season has not yet taken off. The lives of thousands of people could depend on it. Sometimes people shoot at the clouds to get some rain. Everywhere people are waving at us, especially children.
After a stop at the little-known ruins of Tonle Bati, we drive up a “mountain” to a monastery, where fellow monks from other places are always welcome. A “mountain” in Cambodia is anything in the landscape that is not completely flat. In this case, we are talking about a mountain of app. 300-m altitude. An elderly man who came to provide food for the monks is asking me whether we have mountains as high as this one in Switzerland, and if we, too, have problems with the rainy season this year. He, about 20 villagers and about 20 monks listen carefully to the translation of Hoeung, as I am explaining that we have mountains with eternal snow, that we have four seasons and are rather into potatoes. Everyone is very attentive and seems very happy. The villagers have cooked for the monks, who eat first, but only after chanting prayers in their traditional Pali language. It sounds monotonic but somehow magic. After we’ve all watched the monks eating, the others are also allowed to sit down on the ground and eat. Village people waiting until the monks have eaten.It goes without saying that I eat amongst the most elderly persons present, and my friend, the monk, translates constantly. They read my lips. When I mention in passing that I am a bit tired, someone brings a mattress and allows me to rest for a few hours. Then I go outside, look down the wide landscape of palm trees, even see some monkeys jumping from tree to tree. We hear the music of a funeral and decide to join it after asking the senior monk if my presence is in any way disturbing, of course. It is not. A 26-year-old monk has died of a stomach problem. Strangely, his body is not burned, but buried. We can’t find out why. The last stop on our tour through Takeo province is the village where Heng Hoeung lives. We turn from highway number 4 into what I would call a bad footpath. I try to keep the balance with my unbalanced monk on the back for about 20 kilometers until we finally reach his village. It’s a hot day in Cambodia. The children surround me immediately – they have never seen a foreigner, Hoeung explains, and they hesitate between curiosity and fear. Hoeung’s mother offers me some hot tea – not that I am cold, but who wants to refuse hospitality? Finally, my friend, the monk, and I are driving back to Phnom Penh. “I will never forget this day”, he says.
Unforgettable is also the day of my departure to Stung Treng. An article in the Cambodia Daily, a pro-opposition English newspaper, misquotes me as saying: “Unlike the EU/UN observers, we are covering different polling stations in one day”. What I did say to the backpacker-turned-journalist was “Like the EU/UN observers… “. In other words: the contrary.
Arrival at Stung Treng
So on this Wednesday, July 22nd, 1998, “Royal Air Cambodge” (RAC) flies me to Stung Treng. Very few foreigners ever went there during that summer. I meet Ruth and Walter, two EU observers, and Sheila from COMFREL, another independent organization. At the “airport” Tom, a tall American greets us. He’s been around since the middle of June to observe the pre-election period and has built a high level of confidence with the local authorities. It is those authorities to which we want to introduce ourselves first:
– The (CPP) Governor of the Province. Everything is under control. Four KR had divisions defected to the government. Peaceful campaign; recent shootings concerning animals…. it’s gonna be a peaceful election. On Election Day, no movements allowed, not even for going to the market, in order to prevent any possible unrest. Alcohol will also be prohibited. “And I would like to inform you that the Khmer people like to drink”, the Governor smiles, and the translator translates nervously. For us, of course, no problems whatsoever.
– The Provincial Election Committee (PEC). No serious problem apart from the “high-jacking” of a polling station kit by KR, who released it shortly afterwards. And a nasty flyer against CPP. Unqualified national observer groups make money with false promises. Everything else: excellent.
Judging from the statements of these high authorities, it seems as if Cambodia were the most peaceful place on earth where government-affiliated election officials are only interested in democracy.
Stung Treng province - in the middle of nowhere. Take note of the cow in the water.Meeting amongst the international observers: How to divide up the province? Tom, Brad, Walter and Ruth will be covering the 18 polling stations of Stung Treng district, which can be reached by car. Sheila and her colleague are thinking about moving further out. So am I. The likelihood of intimidation and cheating increases the further you are away from the centre, and that’s where we are needed. Tom would have preferred if I had doubled up on some of his stations. He cites security risks outside the district, which can only be reached by boat and motorbike. “What exactly are the security concerns?”, I ask. He leans back on his chair, undecided whether he should smile or look angry: “What’s the problem in Cambodia?!”. Landmines, banditry, hijackings, bad roads, KR, communication difficulties – Cambodia has no lack of problems. No hope for a precise answer.
Translator Chantha knows the province very well from his half a year with UNICEF. On a small canoe-like boat with a motor on the back, we cross the Sekhong River. The boat has barely the width of the bike, and if the later had fallen down, it would have been my second unintentional swim in an Asian river. Certainly one of the scariest boat rides of my life. We visit the polling stations on the island of Samaki, get to know the chairmen of the Polling Station Committees, let them know that I am there. Of course, they insist that everything is completely fine. 45 Khmer Rouge (KR) defectors are registered in Samaki District. We are told they live in a camp and are rather unhappy. The roads on Samaki are horrible, so is Chantha as a driver. He explains that only half a year ago, it would have been extremely dangerous to be here.
“They are Khmer Rouge”
With another boat, we cross the most beautiful and untouched stretch of the Mekong I have seen so far, to get to Thala Barivat District, where hundreds of KR defectors are registered. It is there where my first direct encounter with some of the most extreme communists takes place. Chantha is driving; I am on the back of the motorbike. “Can you see the four men?” he asks, “they are Khmer Rouge”. Here I am at the end of the world, approaching four Khmer Rouge guerillas, armed with AK-47’s and B-40 rocket launchers. The latter are a rather … strong means for self-defense, and could better be used to blow up polling stations, for example. Smiling, we drive by the four teenagers in regular Cambodian army uniform. A radio call to Walter confirms that this is nothing to worry about. Villagers tell us that there was no immediate intimidation by KR as far as the elections are concerned, but that violThey don't look like it, but the uniformed are Khmer Rouge vice commanders for this area.ence and rape by KR is fairly common. We check out three future polling stations in Thala Barivat, eat surprisingly good noodle soup in a local “place to eat”. We again pass the four KR and ask them where they are heading. They say that they were going to the local KR headquarters to store their weapons for the duration of the election. This is apparently a deal made with the Governor. We went to that very headquarters: It’s a medium-sized basic wooden hut filled with hammocks and unmotivated bored people who clearly haven’t seen water on their bodies for weeks if not months. It’s only been in May that most of them have given up their long fight for another Pol Pot style Cambodia. They look like normal Cambodians. They smile like normal Cambodians. They are friendly like normal Cambodians. But only a few years ago, they may have kidnapped and/or killed a visiting foreigner. The most superior member present is Pin Ten, the Vice-Commander. In his 66th company, 93 soldiers are under arms; 114 family members also live at the headquarters. “I hope that the elections will be free and fair and I am happy that you [the international observers] are here”, Pin Ten says. A human rights organization or the Khmer Rouge? “A lot of the reports you hear are intentionally falsified”, he says. We are shown the piles of weapons, which have been stored to decrease the likelihood of crazy individuals disturbing the vote. Sometimes history is not a dramatic rupture, a change that can be reported in the news. Sometimes history is former guerillas handing in their weapons when elections are approaching. Sometimes also history is not made in the capitals, but in a place no one has ever heard of, like Thala Barivat.
Talking about history being made, remember the Gettysburg speech of Abraham Lincoln? Sometimes history is made differently, in a commune room in Stung Treng, Cambodia, where every Friday members of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), FUNCINPEC, the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), the Governor of the Province, the Provincial Election Committee (PEC), and members of the security forces meet around a big table to discuss the campaign. At the last meeting before the vote, all observers are present. Before the actual participants of the meeting make their points, they always offer their regards to the others – even if they hate them. Issues on the agenda: the national observer groups who have recruited large numbers of persons for the purpose of exploiting them; nasty leaflets against CPP, and too little police. The only one who really complains is Chao Phaly, the provincial chairman of the Sam Rainsy Party. According to him, members of the armed forces and of the police have been threatened when they were trying to join the SRP. A member of the military police replies that this is simply not true. An agitated Chao, speaking in a very loud and angry voice, also complains that most of his party agents (observers from the party), didn’t get their admission cards. It turns out that it is only a technical problem, they will get their cards, and the voice of the SRP chairman calms down. Later he even offers a light to the CPP Governor.
These meetings have certainly contributed to the good campaign atmosphere. “No beating, no stabbing, no shooting, no chopping”, Tom quotes one official as having said once. No chopping…
The day before
The big day comes closer. Saturday, July 25th, 1998. The campaign has stopped at midnight. No leaflets, no party T-shirts, no rallies allowed anymore. It will now be up to the people to decide. We divided the zone amongst the observers. Chantha had the excellent idea of hiring a boat and forgetting about the motorbike altogether, as all the stations are either along the Sekong or the Mekong rivers. Schools and worship places are slowly transformed into temples of democracy – or at least of elections.
When we return in the evening, a leading member of the local group of the “Buddhist Association for the Relief of the Poor” (BARP) is sitting outside our Hotel (the only one in the Province) with the other international observers. The “National Election Committee” (NEC) has suspended the accreditation of his group, meaning they are no longer observers. “I am afraid about my security”, says the man in his blue shirt (that’s why Tom calls him “blueskirt”). Blueskirt is afraid of his security because the 270 members of his group in the province have been promised anywhere from 150 to 200 US $ per month for the next three years. In order to get that kind of fortune, these unfortunate idiots have paid 6 to 8 US $ to join the group and traveled on their own budget here up to the north, only to find out that they have been deceived. So was probably Blueskirt – the national leader of BARP has reportedly already left the country with the money. Tom: “there is nothing we can do for him. You are an observer. You are not to interfere at all“. Ruth to Tom: “They are desperate. We should make sure nothing is stolen from our hotel rooms this night”. Brad to Blueskirt: “What a hard lesson to learn!
The Cambodians I talk to are rather tense. No one knows what’s ahead. On the evening before Cambodia’s second post-communist elections, the rain sets in. One of those romantic monsoon rains when it just pours down and down and down… I am running in the warm rain outside the hotel chasing children.
The big day: Elections in Cambodia
Early in the morning, everybody wanted to be first to cast the vote. Democracy in action.The big day: Sunday, July 26th, 1998 – the day voters, journalists, photographers, cameramen (and -women), observers and politicians have been waiting for. Just what will happen on the first supposedly democratic election organized by the Cambodians themselves? I am standing inside the veterinary station in Stung Treng, where the assistant, Chantha, is voting himself. A large number of people in their best clothes are already waiting outside. The procedure is as follows: Chantha presents his registration card to the secretary, who also checks if his right pointing finger has ink on it and if his name is on the national computer list (safeguards against voting twice). The vice chairman of the polling station separates one ballot paper (format A4!) from the block, stamps it, folds it twice, hands it over to him and explains what he has to do with it. Then Chantha goes behind the voting screen, which had to be installed in a way so that no one sees which one of the 39 parties is ticked. Inside the screen, he unfolds the paper (where both party names and their logos are on; 35% of Cambodians are illiterate), marks the party of his choice, re-folds the ballot paper twice and leaves the voting screen. He places the ballot paper into the metal ballot box (re-cycled from the Japanese election), that has been sealed before the polling station was opened. An assistant puts the right pointing finger of Chantha into indelible ink and waits a moment to let it dry. The chairman supervises the process, decides in cases of doubt and answers questions from party agents as well as observers.
That’s how boring democracy is on Election Day. A secret vote. It is that very same procedure that we will be observing at the eight polling stations:
– Boat to Hang Khoban in Samaki district – total chaos there. The Cambodian way of queuing up is not quite the English way – it’s more leaning inside every hole of the wooden school-turned-voting-station to see what the hell is going on in there. The Cambodian way of doing things in general is early in the morning. They could vote until 4 p.m., but they all do it at 7 a.m. A mass of people are waiting. One seal is not correctly attached to the ballot box, but the second seal is ok. I was suspicious of the chairman of that station right from the beginning; he just left a bad impression with me. So I make another surprise visit later on.
Poster explaining to analphabets how the voting process works.– Boat to O Trel in Thala Barivat district. Everything quiet. As usual, introduction to election officials. Outside, we tell people that we know how they voted. An elderly man smiles: “I know you can’t”. The message seems to have gotten out. The National Election Committee (NEC) has produced information videos with model polling stations. The TVs, videos and generators have been brought to the furthest corners of the province. The turnout of the villagers for these to see these videos has probably been even higher than that for the vote. Also COMFREL, the biggest national observer group, has done a tremendous job in informing the population in the simplest way possible.
– Boat to Kang Decho. Like everywhere, three smiling party agents (CPP, FUNCINPEC, SRP) and a smiling COMFREL observer. What we are seeing is sometimes even over-zealous. If someone folds the ballot paper once instead of twice, the chairman himself stands up and sends him back behind the voting screen, making absolutely sure no one in the room sees where he makes his tick.
– Walk to Thala Barivat, the main polling station in the district. App. 640 voters registered. Most have already cast their ballot when we arrive. As always, I report by radio that I have left the polling station.
On the way to a remote polling station with translator Chantha.– For the next few hours, Chantha (on picture left) and I will be out of radio contact as we are moving up the Mekong back to Samaki district to the most distant station we cover, in the small village of Koh Kondin. It seems as if time had stood still at that remote place. Even the water buffaloes go: “Barang?”. Chantha tells me this region used to be very dangerous only a few months ago. Now it has completely changed. People walk or oxcart-drive from as far as 10 kilometers to cast their votes for the future of Cambodia. If all of them know what they are doing is a different story. But I have doubts about that in Switzerland, too. By now, I am quite exhausted.
– Boat to the small village of Thmei, where, allegedly, I am the first foreigner to set foot. I am more being observed than I am observing. Out of the 264 registered voters, only 13 have not yet shown up. The elderly nice chairman uses the loudspeakers to try to convince even the few guys who live on a small Mekong island to come over. As if to apologize, he says that a woman has given birth this morning and is not ready to move, and that some people are sick. At least I can observe one person voting, bringing the number of absentees to 12.
– Boat to Hang Khosoun, the communal election center, where also the counting will take place the following day. Same picture there. Everyone who can get out of bed has already voted. Not a single complaint filed by any of the observers or party agents.
Finally, on the boat back to Hang Khoban. Radio conversation with the EU team. They confirm no troubles at all also on their side.
40 out of the 45 KR defectors at Hang Khoban have decided not to vote. They are rumored to have disappeared back into the forest, but no incidents have been reported. All other KR have participated in a normal turnout, which is about 90%. In the evening, everyone in Cambodia has ink on his finger.
The day after
Monday, July 27th, 1998. Counting day. We are observing the Hang Khosoun communal counting center, where votes from four different stations are counted. After unsealing the metal ballot boxes, the ballot papers from different polling stations are mixed together on four different tables. The secretary takes one paper, unfolds it, quotes in a calm voice the party ticked, and marks it on a form. The Vice-chairman checks the validity of the ballot paper (e.g. not more than one party ticked) and repeats the name of the party. Finally, the chairman verifies the party name, holds up the ballot paper for everyone to see, and announces the number and/or name of the party with a loud voice. If there is any doubt about validity, they allow us to check it out ourselves. There is no discrimination. Also votes clearly cast for CPP, but not at the right spot on the paper, are declared invalid. When it comes to filling out a form or following a certain procedure, they sometimes ask us because they think that the “internationals” have studied .. The party agents have developed soAn overcrowded boat, but a relieved crowd - the big day went well.me kind of confidence between them. They have overnighted next to the ballot boxes in their hammocks. Cigarettes, bananas and smiles are exchanged. They made their notes, they were attentive, and in the end, they all signed the paper saying that the counting day was ok. Asked whether he has made new friends from other parties, the FUNCINPEC agent says: “We are building up Cambodia together“. Another one adds: “Whoever wins, gets the flowers”.
In Samaki district, CPP gets the flowers (707), followed by FUNCINPEC (375) and the Sam Rainsy Party (319). Some scattered votes go to others; three people have voted for the “Woman and nation’s rule of law party”. On the whole, it’s clear that CPP gets Stung Treng Province.
A small wooden boat drives along the Mekong and crosses over to the Sekhong one last time, completely overloaded with ballot boxes, radio antennas, and 20 persons. Despite the … let’s say “unstable ride”, no one seems to be afraid. Relief sets in – the election is over. Shortly before we reach Stung Treng, the boat strands on a sandbank. Pants down for the captain, and there he goes pulling us over.
Reports from the rest of Cambodia also talk about a surprisingly peaceful election with a minimum of negative incidents. “Voice of America” gets it completely right: “If there was any intimidation, voters ignored it”. The only major disturbance was a KR attack on an election convoy in Along Veng, where 11 people have died. Also in Stung Treng, someone has died. It is the colleague of “Blueskirt”. He supposedly hung himself, but it could have been murder. “What a hard lesson to learn“.
Demonstrations in Phnom Penh
All international observer groups have given a thumbs up to the second democratic elections in Cambodia. The Joint International Observers Group (JIOG) talks about free and fair elections to the extent that “it represents the will of the Cambodian people”. This means: irregularities have taken place, but they have not affected the result. Even before the result is known, JIOG asks all parties to accept the it. To the surprise of many, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has won a relative majority (but not enough to form a government on its own). The divided opposition came in second (FUNCINPEC) and third (Sam Rainsy Party). It is clear already a few days after the elections that whatever coalition is formed, Hun Sen is going to be the sole Prime Minister. FUNCINPEC and SRP immediately reject the result, talk about massive cheating and manipulations, threaten to boycott the Parliament, file hundreds of complaints with the National Election Committee, and take their protest to the streets. From a square opposite the National Assembly they re-baptize “Democracy Square”, they shout slogans like “Hun Sen is a Vietnamese puppet”, as if the campaign was still going on. But it is not. They have simply unexpectedly lost the elections. No one talks about an election that was 100% free and fair. Access to the media, for example, was not fair. Votes have been bought. But hey, this is a country that has had four years of Pol Pot, followed by two decades of civil war. UNTAC with its 22,000 personnel could not provide for a better election in 1993 than the Cambodians themselves with little outside assistance. A
Unhappy about this undeniable fact is not only the opposition, but also a lot of the local English-language press and some of the international media. An academic debate is going on as to how to allocate the seats. Everyone is an expert now. Talking to some of the journalists after a press conference we were invited to, we get the impression that they are rather unhappy. Lucky is the photographer who was present at the Along Veng attack, the only major violent incident. A peaceful vote in a former war zone, one of the 20 poorest countries in the world, with a turnout of more than 90%, doesn’t make big news. The majority of the correspondents fly back to their bases in Bangkok or Singapore.
Rattanakiri: The destruction of one of Asia’s last big forests
Rattanakiri province looks idyllic from the surface, but major logging is going on.Back to the Northeast, to Ban Lung, the provincial capital of Rattanakiri (again over pristine forest). This mine-free mountainous province will certainly attract more visitors in the near future. The whole of the northeast is a completely different world. In Rattanakiri, “chunchiet” (ethnic minorities like the Kreung and the Tumpuon) practice their own culture. Two American Baptists are working on establishing an alphabet for the “chunchiet”. Of course, they have basically one book in mind to translate. It’s important to tell people about God’s word when they do strange things like this: Before a couple gets married, they spend some days together in a tree hut. There they try to find out if the spirits are favourable to that marriage. They may also include sleeping with each other during that time to find out if they fit together (that’s the part generally known…) But I don’t want to criticize the missionaries too much, as I don’t know what other work they do there. As I will find out later, a lot of the local people are striving for survival.
Few aid organizations are in Rattanakiri, where the Ho Chi Minh path cut through Cambodia. Too remote, too difficult, population density too low. Nonetheless, believe it or not, Ban Lung offers an “American Restaurant”. Don’t check what the kitchen or the toilet looks like, but the owner “Nai” provides some of the best and cheapest food in Cambodia, including hamburgers. On my first night, I eat one of them and encounter a very slim man in his forties, grey-black long hair, and very long beard of the same color. He looks like a backpacker who has been travelling for 25 years. “USLTO?” (United States Long Term Observer), I ask. “No, I am an aid worker” – “In what project?” – “Rural development. Different projects”. A quiet man. He doesn’t like to talk, especially not to travellers who apparently came here in the past to smoke Marihuana and sleep with virgin village girls. He knows about it, he’s been here for three years. It turns out that the long-bearded Dutch with his deep voice is the director of the regional CARARE (Cambodia Area Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Program) office and has an excellent reputation. So much for judging people according to their looks.
Another interesting guy I meet at the “American Restaurant” is Ben, 32, an American himself. He is one of the two USLTO’s in Rattanakiri who is observing the post-electoral process. His Khmer is as good as his English, because he has been building wells in Kompong Thom since 1992. (NB: EU election observer Walter has been working on a similar project in Kompong Thom for the German government. Walter built the wells for free, Ben for a symbolic amount of money raised by the villagers. Experience has shown that if people have paid for something, they take better care of it. Two organizations doing exactly the same thing in exactly the same place in a completely different way). While working in Kompong Thom (where now the ruins of Sambor Prei Kuk in the middle of the jungle can be visited safely), Ben has been shot at several times by KR and once fell into an eight-meter hole. Before the election, he trekked through the forests of Rattanakiri for three days. On Election Day, he went only to the polling stations where he thought there might be problems. And apparently, there were quite a few problems in Rattanakiri, much more than in Stung Treng. Villagers had been threatened; observers had been forced to stand at the other side of the room while the counting was going on…
But now the election is over, and the demonstrations and legal battles are going on far away, in Phnom Penh, three days by pick up and boat, 40 minutes by the RAC plane, which comes once per day like a thunder over that peaceful little town. At the friendly “Mountain Guest House”, I hire a motorbike to go to Yok Lom lake. Yok Lom is one of the magic places in Cambodia: an almost perfectly round, crystal clear volcanic lake, about 1 km2, surrounded by primary forest. You can take a swimEverybody gains from logging, except the environment and - in the long run - the local population., visit the little culture museum, and walk around the forest. It’s a wonderful peaceful place where you completely forget where you are. Nobody visits Yok Lom only once. The romantic feeling would be perfect if one would not know that all of Rattanakiri once was full of primary forest like that. Logging is going on at an alarming rate. Big Vietnamese trucks take away the trees – which are sometimes hundreds of years old – directly across the border. They have built the roads themselves, and the Cambodians are thankful for it. No one has a real interest in stopping the deforestation of one of Asia’s last big forests. Everyone makes money out of it. The only ones trying to hit the alarm button are environmental organizations like Global Witness and sometimes parts of the local population which realizes that since the trees are gone, the rain is gone, too (not scientifically proven as far as I know). But money needs no missionaries. It is a universal religion. The Vietnamese sell the wood on the world market for a price several times of what they pay the Cambodians. And loggers are not only dangerous to the environment, but also to humans. I find this out on the road to veoun Sai – big trucks with armed loggers, looking unhappily at me and my camera. Smile, even if they don’t smile, and turn around.
Expedition to the “Virochey National Park”
What was on the mind of this Rattanakiri farmer fighting for survival when he saw me tramping through his rice paddies?A lot more smiles and no arms are at the headquarters of “Virochey National Park” in Veoun Sai. Khoy Sokhan, the director of the park, and his ten employees are incredibly happy to meet a foreigner and show him around. I am the fourth foreigner. There was Mr. X (forgot the name) from the WWF; there was Mr. Andy from the World Bank (a credit of 5 Mio. US $ is under consideration), there was Mr. Tom the geographer (and election observer), and now there is Mr. Marcel the journalist. The bad road is not the only reason why not more foreigners have made it to there. The headquarters have only been opened at the beginning of the year, and for the time being, that’s all there is of the so-called “Virochey National Park”, a piece of land marked on a map, declared a national park by the King. Any attempt to get into the park itself is an expedition and should not be done in the rainy season. We have decided to go to the buffer zone close to the park, spend the night at remote villages. With a lot of supplies, Sokhan, three rangers, and I are driving up a river from village to village and through beautiful nature. After a long ride in the hot sun, we are getting out at the village of Koh Piek. To reach the forest, we have to walk through the village and cross the rice fields. The rain has finally set in – this means everyone is planting rice, the water is high – and it also means that it’s raining… The weather can’t decide between rain and sunshine, and my body doesn’t know whether to get soaked or sunburned. Sometimes the water is as high as our hips. At one specific point, there is something I would describe as a “minor lake” with one big wet round tree serving as a bridge. It reminds me of the balancing scene in “Dirty Dancing”, except that this has nothing erotic in it. “Do we absolutely have to cross here?”, I ask I am the center of attraction, but it's more fun afterwards then while you are doing it.Sokhan. “Yes, but we can take another way back”, he says. OK, if it’s only way, but there is no way I risk my almost 960 US $ camera (bought the year before in Phnom Penh, reportedly the cheapest place in the world for Nikon equipment), my exposed and unexposed films, and my life, by walking across that slippery tree. Sokhan and his friends have more experience – I give them my valuable stuff, let them cross (while I am praying) and then walk across the water, which is pretty much covering me. While you are walking through deep muddy water at the end of the world, questions like “Why the hell am I doing this?” cross your mind. Pretty much the same question comes up when you are walking across rice fields where people are eagerly planting rice. They stop whatever they do, watch you, smile at you. But even if it is not apparent, they are fighting for their survival. The rain set in late – and a bad harvest can mean malnourishment or death.
After the rice fields, there is an area I would describe as “scattered forest”. Brief visit at the village chief’s house to introduce myself. We have to pass on a flood warning. The villagers here in the buffer zone have cut the big trees for their own use; a few kilometres further north starts the national park. Tigers are around here. Nobody knows their exact number in Cambodia, but they are certainly in the hundreds. Here at Virochey National Park, villagers sometimes still go out there to hunt them. 4’000 – 6’000 US $ is a big incentive. The Chinese illusion of tiger penis making them more virile pays well. The village chief says that nowadays they have to go further and further into the forest to hunt tigers, whereas in the past, tigers were very close to the village. The potential for eco tourism would be tremendous; especially because protected areas are also on the Lao and the Vietnamese sides of the border. Maybe one day a trans-indochinese national park where potent tourists pay lots of money to see some of Asia’s few remaining tigers? (A tourism policy like Botswana or Zambia).
In this house in Koh Piek, I spent a night not too different to how I would have spent it 500 years ago.Maybe my great-grand-sons will also want to know about my night at Koh Piek (in the house to the right) which I spent in a hammock covered with a mosquito net (never had so many bites) in a wooden house with no walls. The fire on which we cook fish and rice provides for some romance and reminds me a bit of Africa… Koh Piek will always stay in my mind. Most probably, my great-grand-sons (and daughters) will not be able to see a real village like this anymore. TV and tar roads will have destroyed it. Here in Koh Piek, there is absolutely no evidence of the 20th century. No electricity, no roads, no Coke can, nothing. While Sokhan and me discuss about the environment and about his time under Pol Pot (he pretended to be an analphabet), I actively look for signs of our century. There must be something. But all I see is wooden huts between palm trees and other plants, women with baskets on their backs, a pig every now and then, a chicken, a buffalo making strange sounds with his wooden bell. Finally, at night, there is something. If we listen very very carefully, we hear the over flight of a big airplane at an altitude of about 10 kms. It’s barely audible. The only thing foreign in this place is we with our motor boat. Do we have the right to disturb it? In the morning, I brush my teeth at the river covered with fog, look at the mountains (real mountains out here) where the national park is, and thank God that I had a chance to be here.
Middle right: Koy Sokhan. Middle left: me.We go back to Veoun Sai, where we visit a Lao village. An English speaking Chinese (the Chinese are well respected all over Cambodia) chats with me – but no photos: “I am too old”. Generally people die before they are 50 at these places, Sokhan explains. Even if there were effective medication available, there would be no money to buy it. Also in Veoun Sai, of course, there is no electricity. But the sound of a generator can be heard out of a “restaurant” where a TV and a Karaoke machine entertain about 60 people. 80% children and 80% of them find me much more interesting than the Karaoke. The rangers who have come with me are singing Khmer love songs to Thai kitsch videos. They are having so much fun. They are about my age, earn 30 US $ a month, and are so happy.
The train to Kompong Som
Every time I get back to Phnom Penh, more political news. Basically: no new government formed because of the opposition protests, demonstrations still going on. Hun Sen says they can demonstrate as long as they wish. Let’s wait and see. This is Cambodia. My next destination is Sihanoukville, or Kompong Som, as the locals call it. In 1994, three foreigners were kidnapped and killed by KR on a train to the south coast. I find the “chef de train” in a yellow French colonial-style building and talk to him for a long time: “Yes, you can go to Kompong Som by train”, he says in French, “there are no KR anymore”. But quickly he adds: “We are not allowed to sell you a ticket. This would leave a trace…”. (The government has prohibited the selling of train tickets to foreigners after the 1994 incident.) An offer for a free train ride to the beach without kidnapping and killing – that sounds nice enough. But because I would still like to take many train rides in the future, I continue to enquire. A well-informed motodop gives a strange piece of advice: “You can go, but you have to pray to your ancestors first”. Hmm….- “What do I have to pray for with my ancestors? I mean, is there a special reason why I should pray to my ancestors?” – “We always pray to our ancestors before we undertake a trip”, he says.
Train station in Phnom Penh.The next morning, at precisely 6:40 a.m., the “chef de train” is waving the flag, and the old train – which includes also three cargo cars loaded with soldiers – is leaving Phnom Penh at a speed of about 20 km/h. This speed we will keep up for the next 13 hours and 10 minutes until we reach Kompong Som – sometimes waiting half an hour for wood to be loaded or unloaded along the way. Soldiers hang their hammocks at the luggage departments and watch the rice paddies passing by. The whole family is working on the fields now that the rain has come. The train looks like in a Second World War movie, and the wagons have wooden seats.
A blind man, about 60 years of age, walks from the front to the back of the train and sings constantly as if he was singing to a child – a very nice slow melody. Then he turns around, walks from the back to the front of the train – and sings. I will never forget his blind eyes and his nice voice. A few hundred Riels are being put into his pockets by the locals. Also the traders want money, at every stop, they sell bananas, coconuts, and God knows what else. One of the coconuts changesA look out of the window during that very, very slow train ride to Sihanoukville. hands for 400 Riel – 0.11 US $. An elderly woman is laying down on the wooden seat and is being massaged by a relative – she is sick. Massage is for free and the only treatment available. Train is the cheap way to get to Kompong Som; the bus would be much faster and more comfortable. The only one, who doesn’t pay on that Tuesday, August 18th, 1998, is the big attraction. The “barang” is surrounded. “How much did that camera cost?” – “50 dollars”, I lie. “How much did that watch cost?” – “3 dollars”, that’s the truth (the Russian market in Phnom Penh, near the place where they sell illegal software copies). “Why are you putting this [sunscreen] on your face?” … An elderly woman is more than amused by my few words of Khmer. And then, the big attraction, “barang” pisses. Trains are no exception when it comes to the absence of public toilets in Cambodia. This means pissing into the bush at one of the numerous stops. Everyone does it, but a barang… Not that anyone of the app. 40 people on the roof and the 20 at the windows want to admit that they want to see the barang pissing, but yes, barang pissing is interesting. Pissing in the bush is not the activity I like to be observed.
Beach in Sihanoukville. No tourists at the time when I was there.The landscape changes from rice paddies to former forest. We are practically driving from logging village to logging village. At around 6.30 p.m., it’s getting dark. I don’t know if the soldiers make me feel more or less comfortable. I arrive safely at Kompong Som. The town as well as the beaches are unspectacular, but nice for a weekend off or so. The 900 tourist beds are filled with about 9 tourists. (Pot-smoking, gun-shooting, and prostitute-using). Almost a ghost town. The expatriates living in Kompong Som are some of the most decadent in all of Cambodia. As far as they are concerned, I spare you the details. The only interesting guy I meet is a Taiwanese who has built a shoe factory, surprisingly the Swiss brand “Bally”. A few afternoons at the beaches make me bored, and an air-con bus (Swiss standard – no kidding) drives back to Phnom Penh for 3 US $.
Drinking and shooting party
Back in the capital, after almost two months in the country, numerous nighttime motor rides, a peaceful election and for the most part peaceful demonstrations, I get reminded where I am. “The world’s biggest automatic shooting range” says an advertisement on the road, co-owned by a Taiwanese-American named Victor, one of the most important men in town. The “Marksmen’s Club”, as his shooting range is called, is not the only element in his empire, which also includes a Casino, the “Holidays Hotel”, the “Manhattan’s Club” (the most exclusive night club in town), a radio station, an island off Sihanoukville, and I think he has something to do with the new “President Airlines”. Certainly an interesting guy to meet. But the first guy I meet (picture below) at the range about 8 km outside Pochentong is one of his bodyguards. Our accents are the same – he’s Swiss
Andy, a Swiss, is no stranger to weapons - and shootouts.There is something strange about talking in Swiss German (“We have a good reputation. The bandits know: One shot of us is enough. And I am not afraid”) in front of about 40 individual ranges where you can realize all your dreams as far as weapons are concerned: Hand guns (from 19th century revolver to laser-guided hand gun), guns, machine guns, grenades and grenade launchers. But contrary to the army range, security is high on the agenda here. Everyone on the staff is experienced. The Swiss has been a bodyguard in Bangkok, the guy from Sri Lanka has participated in that civil war, and the Russian doesn’t talk about his past, but is known to have been a “tough guy” in Afghanistan. Anyway, they do make sure nothing goes wrong. They say that one of the best customers once shot for 1,200 US $ in one session. Also Victor, who joins us, is experienced. The naturalized American with his deep voice and his dark glasses was in Vietnam. He seems delighted to talk to me. He says I came at a good time, since he will be having a “drinking and shooting party” with some of his equally important friends.
This “drinking and shooting party” is also one of those … things I’ll never forget. Imagine a few people sitting around plastic tables on plastic chairs. Alcohol is constantly provided. Every now and then, one of them stands up and does the whole training course: get out of a car, shoot a few human silhouettes (“always hit the one closest to you first”), shoot a hostage-taker (not the hostage), shoot through a hole out of concrete, finally tramp into a door and also shoot some figures inside, … I don’t recall all the details. All has to be done as quickly as possible with as few shots as possible. The scores clearly decrease with alcohol consumption. (NB: I limit myself to the alcohol.) “If I hadn’t drunk so much, I would have hit better”, one of them once says. Jokes are being made a casual atmosphere. At around 6 p.m., serial fire can be heard. “Is this from the range next doors?”, I ask Victor. “No, this is probably the two army compounds next doors having an exchange of fire. The atmosphere changes immediately. When the shooting gets real, it’s time to go. Hundreds of serial shots can be heard. Victor radios half of Phnom Penh to find out what’s going on. He decides that we leave in convoy, not on national route number 4, the normal way back, but on national route number 5, driving around the city. I am joining Victor in his car. His loaded silver handgun is next to the handset of his radio. Personally, I am sitting on an AK-47, which hurts my ass every time we hit a pothole. “I want to know where little Igor is, by street number", he orders. He also tries to radio two of Hun Sen’s advisers. It’s become dark. No one knows what’s going on. People are on the streets looking into the direction of the shots. Sometimes Victor first touches his gun before finding the handset on the seat next to him. But he's in control, it's not the first shoot-out. Reports come in that the shooting has stopped. 12 people dead. A few days later, it will turn out that these people have died of rice wine with too much rat poison (reputed to make you more virile), and that people were simply shooting at the Ghosts...
The party goes on in Victor’s "Manhattan Club", the most upscale place in town. Even the prostitutes are upscale. "Absolutely no firearms" is written in front of the metal detectors - much more appealing for me. Victor himself is doing the DJ from time to time ("I wanted to bring music to Cambodia"). After I’ve had my share of drinks and dancing, I would like to go back to my beloved Hotel Indochine. At around 2 a.m., I am sitting on the back of a motorbike, like so many times before. I am a bit uncomfortable because I don’t know the driver. He’s trying to communicate with me in extremely bad English, and I am just saying: "Indochine, Hotel Indochine". At a street corner, a nightmare: soldiers lying in hammocks. Some of them pick up a few bricks and throw them in our direction in order to stop us and probably rob me. The driver thinks: "Oh, they are throwing bricks, let’s better slow down". I think: "Oh, they are throwing bricks, let’s better hurry up". I am shouting at him: "Go! Go!" - a word everyone understands. Maybe he’s teamed up with the soldiers. Bricks are still coming our way. From the back of the bike, I take the gas device into my right hand and accelerate myself. No bricks have hit, but the message is understood: It’s summer of 1998, there is no government, and you are in Cambodia.
Chunchiet - local ethnic minorities.Mondulkiri: Hills, forest - and the elephant
And Cambodia has much more to offer, even during these troubled times. I am off to the eastern province of Mondulkiri, where the ATR-72 lands on a dirt road in the middle of Sen Monorom. Even the provincial capital has no electricity. The few generators are used for Karaoke and TV. One morning in the market I can see with my own eyes how culture gets destroyed: literally hundreds of chunchiet, baskets on the back, pipes in their mouths, are sitting and standing around a TV showing some Thai soap opera. Even those outside use every hThe only TV set in Sen Monorom attracts hundreds inside and outside that house.ole of the basic house to get a glimpse of that strange machine showing things from far away. They will probably show Thai kick boxing one day. Mondulkiri is one of the last places in the world where people live in their traditional way. Only four foreigners are resident. And of course, the people have the right to change their lives; they have the righMarket in the early morning in Sen Monorom.t not to die of malaria if medication is available. They have the right to improve their life quality by building sometime in the future a dam to get permanent electricity. And yes, they have the right to watch TV and see how the Western (American) way of life is. But do these mostly illiterate people really know what they win and what they lose? In the end, we will have to share the responsibility of the consequences. As soon as we set foot on these territories, we have made this change inevitable. I am happy and sad at the same time to be able to see something that will not exist anymore in the not too distant future.
My personal not-too distant future is exploring the green hills of Mondulkiri with a motorbike, on which I could luckily get my hands on at the friendly "Pich Kiri" guest house. Two nice waterfalls. I hear of a third one at Bou Sra, near the Vietnamese border, which is much bigger, on three stages, much more beautiful, but difficult to reach. I decide I want to go there, but as so often, have not the slightest idea how.
In Mondulkiri, I experience something I have experienced at many remote places in the world: Difficult access means interesting people. One is an employee of the education ministry, with whom I have extensive discussions in French about education and development policy. Another one is Paolo, a Colombian Human Rights monitor working for the United Nations. With the latter and his assistant Tho, we arrange an elephant trip through the forest. Elephants have even been used to transport election material inside this province, because if there is something at all in the forest, it’s a path. There are reportedly still wild elephants around, but as with the forest and the tigers, they become scarce. A local tourism official (there used to be a time with tourists...) helps us hire the elephant at the village of Phulung. We pay way too much, but going through the Cambodian jungle by elephant is worth almost every amount of money.
An elephant ride through the forest with the blessing of the spirits of the jungle.If you can climb a mountain, you can also climb an elephant. That is the motto we follow when we try to get on this hairy sympathetic Asian elephant. A small bamboo thing keeps us from falling down. Off he goes. After a few minutes into the forest, we are on paths that can only be used by elephants. Sometimes I am wondering where she will go now. We cross rivers, and around us is nothing but the sights, sounds, and mostly the smell of that wonderful forest. For the local population (mostly non-Khmer), the forest is not necessarily something good. It’s where the diseases and KRs are. Therefore we have to stop at a deserted waterfall to calm down the spirits of the jungle. "Very important", says our "elephant driver". We sacrifice a few bananas and smoking sticks. The guide mumbles a few prayers. Tho donates a smoking cigarette because he has no smoking sticks with him. We have to drink rice wine - reluctantly, because we still remember the 12 deaths recently... Surely they have not put rat poison inside here...
Then we take a bath in the perfectly clean cold water (you could even drink it, no human population further upstream). The elephant takes a little walk by herself to eat some green stuff. What a wonderful peaceful place. You can't believe you are in Cambodia here, and you want to stay forever. On the way back, I insist on taking a different path, and I will have to bear the responsibility for it. Sometimes it’s going up so steep that we are almost sure that bamboo thing we’re sitting on will break. I am joking about the message that would be posted at the FCCC: "Two employees of the United Nations and a foreign journalist have been killed while fulfilling their duties on an elephant ride in Mondulkiri". Paolo finds it not so funny: "That’s not the way I wanna go". Thorns and rain are also making the trip back less of an enjoyment. The elephant proves to be very intelligent. When a water bottle falls down, he stops immediately, even if nobody has recognized it. But she’s also stubborn: if she wants to eat, she wants to eat. But the spirits have been well meaning, and we all have a wonderful time.
Bou Sra - Paradise on Earth
I hope the spirits will do their best to allow me to go to Bou Sra. It takes me literally days to find someone who is prepared to take the risk to go to that reportedly most beautiful waterfall. Three rivers to cross and rain almost every day. What if we reach the falls in the morning and then rain makes the way back impassable? Finally, 15 US $ (driver and big motorbike) are enough to convince a local driver with absolutely no knowledge of any language I know. I proudly practice my 60 words of Khmer with him during the whole day.
The drive is 40 kms. The road is acceptable (dry so far...), the first two rivers doable. At the third one, the current is simply too strong. We could not even push the bike across. 35 of 40 kilometers are behind us, but this river won’t let us cross, with the bike. We decide to hide the bike in the bush, try to cross by foot and walk the last five kilometers. More than once we think that the current is going to take us away, but we safely arrive at the other side. The guide also nervously looks if clouds are coming up. No clouds so far. After less than an hour’s walk, we are there, at Bou Sra, 15 km from the Vietnamese border, which is not open for international travellers. If it were, Bou Sra would be one of the major eco tourism attractions in South East Asia. It’s a waterfall on three stages surrounded by nothing but pure jungle, as you would imagine it - evergreen majestic trees. The trees are kings here. As I am sitting on a stone on the second stage looking down 70 meters, I am writing in my diary: "God has created a wonderful kingdom right here on Earth. What I see in front of my eyes, is nothing less than Godly perfection". I can see how the water cut itself a gorge over millions of years, without any help from man whatsoever. It’s just perfect.
I would love to camp here, but I have no equipment and too few supplies. We have to go back. The afternoon rain sets in when we have already crossed all three rivers, and we reach Sen Monorom without any major problems.
Talking about problems, ordering food in Mondulkiri is not all that easy. If you do that in the friendly guest house (no English spoken), you do precisely that: order food, whatever food is available that day on the market. The formula is: rice + x. My little bit of Khmer helps to order: "Njam njam bey-pii" – "eat six [o’clock]" – and at six o’clock there will by surprise dinner served by the smiling owner of the guest house. The Khmer are generally very friendly and hospitable.
Before I leave my favorite province (where NB: app. 350 KRs officially defect while I am there), I meet another fascinating person. I forgot to write down his name; he’s a hero without name. The Vietnamese sent him to prison from 1979 to 1987 for contra-revolutionary activities. Apart from occasional torture and a handful of rice a day, he had to endure forced labor and detention conditions beyond imagination. And now it comes: When finally the day of his release came, it was not revenge; it was reconciliation that came to his mind. Maybe it has to do with the time you have to think; maybe it has to do with him being Buddhist. But since then he works to improve the human rights situation in Cambodia. An American organization sent him to Mondulkiri where he goes out to the villages to tell people about their rights. He was also the provincial chairman of COMFREL, the most important national observer group. Sometimes his observers had to walk for two days to get to their polling stations. His wife and his three children are back in Phnom Penh; he sees them every three to six months. "My life is very miserable"; he says in French and has some kind of smile at the same time. But I can see definitely no bitterness in his face. The hate for the Vietnamese is universal in this country. But this man doesn’t hate the Vietnamese, who tortured and humiliated him. He even lives in a province with a lot of Vietnamese, and leaves the past behind. This man is a hero for me. He is a hero of reconciliation, a hero of peace and democracy. While Paolo and I listen to his explanation we are close to tears.
The tragedy of Phnom Penh
Arriving back at Pochentong airport, I realize something has happened that is not in the spirit of reconciliation. It’s full of police. At the hotel, Savuth is agitated: "Sam Rainsy will be arrested. You have to go to Cambodiana now." What a difference a short plane ride makes. Two grenades were thrown at Hun Sen’s house, where he never is, and then Cambodia’s strong man apparently lost patience with the demonstrators. He declared that today, at midnight, the demonstrations will be over, and those suspected to be responsible for them, including Sam Rainsy who has used a lot of violent words in the last few days, will be arrested. Since then, Rainsy is in the office of the UN’s special representative to Cambodia, which is under the luxury Cambodiana hotel. I immediately go there. Outside the compound, app. 500 demonstrators shout slogans like "We want democracy". Some police are inside tPhom Penh: People running away from warning shots.he compound to keep them at a distance. All foreigners with some importance are there (more foreigners = less deaths). Several camera teams, photographers, journalists, diplomats, human rights representatives, Sam Rainsy’s spokesman and somewhere... Sam Rainsy. An Italian colleague and I try to get to the opposition leader. Of course we know we will not get through. At the entrance of the Hotel itself, friendly porters open the door for you. Inside, the typical atmosphere of a luxury hotel: nice instrumental music, you can have an expensive drink at the bar. The only thing that reminds you of the agitation going on outside are the foreigners with the sound of their mobile phones and radios. But everyone knows they are not going to storm the hotel. At reception, we are asking: "Can you please tell us the room number of Mr. Sam Rainsy?" (That would be like asking: In which room is Chelsea Clinton?) The answer: "Can you write down guest name, please?". We write down guest name. "Oh, Sam Rainsy... ha ha, he not here". Why then does she think all these demonstrators (many more by now) shouting "Sam Rainsy, Sam Rainsy", all these barangs and all these armed people are out there? We are going downstairs to the UN’s office, where of course nervous Rainsy bodyguards keep us from doing anything.
Then the tragedy happens. Police shoot into the air to disperse the crowd. Inside the hotel, everyone has the urge to run, even though there is no need for it. Outside, all the journalists are running away from the shots (something of a natural instinct, isn’t it), while the camera teams and the photographers are running towards the shots. After the demonstrators have been forced back, we see a dead man in his thirties is lying on the ground with his motorbike. A few minutes later, another journalist asks me to take a picture of him touching the remaining shoes of the dead man with liters of blood around. For what purpose? To show what a tough guy he is?
At midnight, nothing happens. The armed forces wait until the demonstrators are so tired that they will encounter little resistance. They dissolve "Democracy Square" the next day using fire-fighting cars (no deaths) while I am sleeping. When I try to get out of the hotel, all the streets are closed down by military police. "It’s difficult to get a cup of tea", says one of the rare tourists in the hotel. From time to time, warning shots are fired in the air. One of the most bizarre scenes of my trip is this: about 30 military police close down Sisowath (the street parallel to the riverside). A motodop is trying to come too close, they fire in the air, the man stops and gets beaten up. Only a few minutes later, while every Khmer on Sisowath is afraid of leaving his or her house, a foreigner with walkman jogs next to the road. He doesn’t even slow down the speed of his daily jogging trip when he passes the military police roadblock. Barangs can do whatever they want in Cambodia. And they do whatever they want.
Kratie: Dolphins and a mountain monastery
Kratie: Setting up a provisional bamboo boat to transport illegal logs down the river at night.What I want to do is to see the freshwater dolphins reported to be in the Kratie area. I have to remind myself that I am here to write travel stories, not to run after the bad news. To get to the fast boat, I have to climb over several other boats, until I reach "Rambo 4". Rambo is almost an airplane on the water - really fast (5 hours upriveFreshwater dolphin north of Kratie.r, 4 hours downriver). It goes without saying that like everything that moves in developing countries, it’s overloaded. Sitting outside gives you a bigger chance of sunburn, but also a bigger chance of survival if the boat flips. On the other hand you miss the wrestling video inside. So I am inside. Kratie is a wonderful clean town on the Mekong. Too bad my time is running out. I am driving with a motodop north for about 15 kilometers near the village of Kampi, looking for dolphins. But for now, I only see people building provisional bamboo boats to get the illegal logs down the Mekong. So let’s take a boat - someone will surely be happy to make 5 US $ an hour. Finally I see the rare freshwater Mekong dolphins, always at a distance of at least 8-10 meters, but it’s a wonderful experience. Spotting these animals while they jump out of the water reminds me of the game drives Sandra and I have done in Africa. There is such a big fuss about some dolphins in the very south of Laos. No one I talked to has ever seen them. Here, there are about 30 of them, and you can easily spot at least two or three in an hour’s boat ride.
A monestary on Phnom Sambok with an elderly monk happy to receive me.Later we stop at Phnom Sambok, a Buddhist mountain monastery. Like at many places in Cambodia, some police guy offers to protect you, but there is no need for protection in this monastery. I leave him some water. An old monk they call "Grand Father" waves me inside his sleeping cell. He has no teeth and no English or French word left, but a younger novice translates. I am trying to find a sitting position where my feet don’t point at any of the two people in robes, which is not only difficult, but also extremely uncomfortable. Same thing later on when they allow me to attend a teaching session. About 40 nuns and monks in white clothes listen to what a senior monk comfortably seated in a big chair has to say. For me of course, a purely visual experience. Their visual experience is enlarged by my presence. A nun whispers in perfect French I should recite some of the Pali phrases. But Pali sounds to me as familiar as Swahili, and I would feel uncomfortable anyway reciting something I don’t understand. If you go up there, pay the utmost respect to these people - they don’t often see foreigners. One monk invites me to sleep on that monastery hill, which would certainly have been one of the great-grand-son-experiences, but I have to return to Phnom Penh early next morning. Before I leave Kratie, I am forced to see the other side of Cambodia again. Dozens of soldiers are in the restaurant I eat. They will be "escorting" illegal logs down the Mekong during the night. One of the wood traders tells me later about the old times when there were two prime ministers and he needed three signatures: "The minister of agriculture (FUNCINPEC) wanted 50’000 US $, the first PM (Ranarridh) 60’000 US $, and the second PM (Hun Sen) only 40’000 US $ for their respective signatures. So Hun Sen is the least corrupt!"
Last interviews in the capital: de facto Minister of Tourism, the CEO of Royal Air Cambodge, the managing director of the popular Swiss company "Diethelm Travel", and others. The general feeling is that after a new government has been formed, Cambodia has made it. Filing articles, then: saying good bye to the dozens of people I got to know well in Phnom Penh. Last night at Tom’s - incredible, I almost cry. Talking to Tom again about Kratie, where he was stationed under UNTAC. "It’s close to my heart", he says. And yes, I also have to say good bye to the "Heart". But I find only the four or five most crazy customers there, so not many to say good bye to. Many of the foreigners in Cambodia do excellent development work, though I am not really qualified to judge. Personally, I was impressed with Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital, run by Swiss pediatric doctor Beat Richner. He runs probably the only hospital in Cambodia that is full, clean, and corruption-free. His friendly Swiss nurse Simone shows me around. Opinions whether this almost Western-style medicine is sustainable in a country as poor as Cambodia are divided. But one looks into the eyes of one of the hundreds of sick children waiting to be treated in Kantha Bopha, and you forget about politics.
The tragedy of Siem Reap
The politicians don’t leave me alone during this trip - not even in Siem Reap, the most peaceful place you can imagine. Inauguration of the 122 new Parliamentarians, including Hun Sen, Prince Ranarridh and Sam Rainsy, in front of Angkor Wat. Someone attacks the car of Hun Sen with a B-40. Instead of hitting the car, it huts a house, where a 12-year-old boy is killed in a horrible way. His sister loses two legs. The litres of blood on the destroyed walls of that house will always remind me of the reality of violence and war. It is ... beyond description. The news journalists grab the story and wire it as fast as possible all around the world. If you watched CNN that day, you get the impression that Cambodia is in a state of terror. In the evening, one of the resident free-lance journalists is giving a philosophical speech to me: "A million deaths is a statistic. One death is a tragedy". Give me a break, my fellow journalist. No one is interested in what’s going on in Mali. You make your money with these dead 12-year olds, and a day like this is eldorado for a freelancer. If it were not for events like this, you wouldn’t be here. But violence sells better than the inauguration of a Parliament. If you are that concerned about children dying, why don’t you try to get 6-7 km outside of here, where the roads are so muddy that basic food supplies can’t get through anymore? The body of that boy doesn’t get out of my mind. On that day, I hate everyone.
Angkor - capital in the jungle
Too many traders, too little tourists; the biggest temple of the world in the background, Angkor Wat.It’s strange to switch now to talking about how beautiful Angkor is. I spend a full week exploring again the ruins of Angkor, the centre of a big kingdom between the 9th and the 13th century. I am exploring every corner of Angkor Wat, the biggest temple on the face of the earth. Once I sleep a few hours inside Angkor Wat over the hot time. I go back to the spiritual centre of the mighty Khmer empire maybe five times, go to the mountain to see it from the top in the middle of the jungle, and of course the place I return to most frequently is Ta Promh, a Buddhist temple left in exactly the same state the French found it in 1860. Big trees have grown over the stones, have cracked them apart but help at the same time to maintain the structure. A strange symbiosis between nature and culture. Complete romance. Once one of the monsoon rains comes when I am there. I am sitting inside one of the windows. In all of Angkor, only the holy has survived, because stones were reserved for the holy. Wooden buildings have disappeared over the centuries since the capital was moved away from the jungle. I am sitting inside this broad window and watch the rain falling onto the partially overgrown stones. I am doing nothing else than enjoying the moment.
Another place not to miss is Banteay Srei - the "citadel of the woman", allegedly built by a woman. But de facto women (the beautiful Apsara dancers) were responsible more for the erotic part 1’000 years ago in Cambodia. And today, the woman does all the real work in Cambodia, while men enjoy their lives. The beautiful fine carvings at Banteay Srei are reproduced all over Cambodia. Banteay Srei used to be one of the off-limit places at Angkor, but those times are over. On the first World Tourism Day celebrated in Cambodia, the temple is officially re-opened. The de facto tourism minister - Secretary of State Thong Khon - had invited me for the event when I interviewed him. He arrives in style - by special airplane and brings with him the Chinese chairman of the chamber of commerce ("This is my friend Marcel, journalist from Switzerland"), the minister of culture, the Governor of Siem Reap province, a number of people from the tourism industry, and of course the compulsory five Cambodian camera teams. I am on Cambodian TV a lot these days, just that the TV per inhabitant ratio is not enough to make me famous. At the ceremony, Khon says: "Security is very good now. The roads are bad, but we have already asked the Asian Development Bank to make a new road". We tour the wonderful citadel.
Selling cold drinks, hot photo films - and if necessary sex.What else shall I tell you? Everything has been written about Angkor, which was bigger than any European city 1,000 years ago. Shall I tell you about the limb-less and blind who play their melodies on their erh hums and manage to keep up their smiles even if most of the few tourists ignore them? About the five-year-old girl that doesn’t take no for an answer: "Wanna buy cold drink? Postcard? Guide book? Krama?". Or shall I tell you about the owner of a restaurant who has his distinct opinion about the Khmer: "The Cambodians are not a people of rice farmers. If they can have an easier life with an AK-47, they will prefer that. They love war"?
An Apsara dancer.Maybe I should tell you about the Grand Hotel d’Angkor - think about colonialism what you want, but it is worth a visit. It has been completely renovated so you can enjoy the atmosphere of the 20s with the luxury of the 90s and the price of ... the next millennium. 320 US $ costs a night in Cambodia’s most upscale hotel. Even if you can’t afford that, there are three things you should do there except wandering around its colonial halls:
- Eat at least once at one of their restaurants and forget for once that you are in Cambodia
Many of monuments such as these are taken away by looters.- Absolutely go to one of the Saturday night Apsara (traditional dancers) presentations. You haven’t seen Cambodia if you haven’t seen the Apsara dancers with their very soft hand movements. I wish my English was good enough to describe it. Go there!
- Also go to the "Elephant Bar" downstairs. Like the restaurant, this bar could be anywhere in the world. It has its price, like the two of the above, but it gives you a feeling of what colonial life must have been like. The Elephant Bar is where I meet up with Tim, an American photographer whom I got to know at the Banteay Srei inauguration. You realize immediately that he is an open-minded person. It’s also not his first time in Cambodia. He spent the summer here as a photographer and was indeed one of those guys "running in the direction of the shots", as he explains himself. He has to sell his pictures for next to nothing to the Daily or - if he is lucky - to an agency. But he can live with the money he makes in winter with a slightly different job. The Alaskan manages research stations on Antarctica. Once he spent a whole winter at the South Pole station, where he was locked in with 26 other people from February to October. If temperature drops below -55 degrees Celsius, the planes don’t work anymore. So even in the biggest of emergencies, nobody could get out of that research station, that burns 2’000 liters of fuel a day, amongst other things for refrigerators. And you know what the biggest problem at the South Pole was? Computer games! Some want to sleep, others want to play... Tim certainly wants to find out something about life. That’s why he goes to Antarctica, that’s why he goes to Cambodia.
Pailin: Where communism and capitalism merge
There is something strange about the Cambodian way of extending visas. You have to do it in Phnom Penh at an office where the working hours could be those of our two cats during the day. "I’d like to get an extension for one month, please", I said when I didn’t know yet I was going to be here for three months. "All right", said the official, "this costs 30 US $ and takes 30 days to proceed". Extending your visa for 30 days takes 30 days? "Oh, we also have an express service where you can pick up your passport the next morning. But this costs 45 US $... (NB: Having said this, you normally don’t get overcharged in Cambodia). Well, I did this twice, and now there are only two weeks left and the most interesting destination is still ahead of me: Pailin, the former KR stronghold that became something of an autonomous province in 1996. This means: The flags and some of the uniforms have changed, but the KR are still in charge. Ieng Sary, number two after Pol Pot, lives there in peace.
I have to go through Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city - the only one deserving this qualification except Phnom Penh. The boat ride from Siem Reap (why do it the normal way when there is an exceptional one) takes an incredible seven hours to cover the 100 kms or so - but it’s a lot of fun driving over the Tonle Sap. There is even another barang, Rebecca, a feminist, who does a study for her MA on domestic violence against women. There is something about feminists that I ... dislike ("Children? I’d like to kick them across the street"), but we end up spending half a night in a Battambang disco, sharing the hotel room and having a lot of interesting discussions. During the civil war, Battambang was the place to be for journalists. In the yearly "dry season offensive", the government tried to push the KR further into the jungle. And that’s where I want to go. Now Battambang is full of expats – it’s full of mines. Some Italian surgeons tell me horrible stories about mine victims they operate. Sometimes when there is a big explosion they have to decide who to treat first, second, third... and sometimes whom not to treat at all. I inquire about security in Pailin. "You can go", says one CARARE official, "and we’d like to hear from you when you’re back". Not a lot of foreigners go up there.
Hotel in Pailin: He's sleeping, his gun is there: so I can be reassured and go to my room.Khmer Rouge in his ancient KR uniform; Pailin.Maybe I should see a therapist back home. It might be better to get to the bottom of whatever my problem is instead of driving on a road where there are signs to the left and to the right saying "DANGER!! MINES!!", passing no less than six military checkpoints, and doing all of this in a cramped pickup taxi to meet some of the most extreme communist guerillas. Former guerillas, of course. But some of them didn’t even bother changing uniforms. Pailin in the hands of the KR, just that the war is finished. The town is basically a long very dusty road. Everything has a bit of the Wild West, and it is in the Wild West of Cambodia. A lot of people bear guns. But crime is reportedly rather rare, because there used to be only one penalty... But since Cambodia has luckily abolished the death penalty, they had to build a prison (but nobody could tell me where it was...). There are definitely more weapons here than are necessary for my personal well being. But believe it or not, even the presence of weapons is something you get used to. In my hotel, the owner always sleeps in the entrance hall under his mosquito net with his hand gun next to him. KR play pool (it seems to be the sport in Pailin; don’t ask me why) with their AK-47’s on the back. Once I play against a KR. Back in Battambang, and someone told me: "Be careful whom you piss off up there". As I don’t know who qualifies for being pissed off, I took it as a rule strictly not pissing anyone off, even that KR playing pool with me. He was clearly losing - and I am really bad. But nonetheless he was giving advice: "You have to learn, step by step", he keeps repeating. OK, step by step.
A real Casino amongst the toughest Communists in the world.Pailin gem stone dealer: Capitalism has its good sides.Next step: the casino. There is nothing more capitalist than a casino. There is nothing more communist than the Khmer Rouge. But it’s right here that a new casino has recently been opened, and you can loose as much money as you want. Even KR can occasionally be seen playing roulette. What a strange, contradictory place I spent my summer. Just once, I want to play blackjack, and once roulette. In less than five minutes, my money is gone.
A young boy absolutely wants to present me to his hopefully future girlfriend when he sees me sitting in a street restaurant. Not many people know a barang here. OK, why not... Pailin is clearly the place where I got the most attention in all of Cambodia. Walking up and down the dirt road means dozens of eyes fixed on you. But there is one resident foreigner (absent now), an American dealing with gem stones. Gem stones are the main source of income in Pailin. At one of the numerous traders, I behave as if I knew what I am doing, and finally the souvenir problem is solved. Diamonds from the Khmer Rouge.
But I have also something for the KR, a letter and an article published on Ieng Sary from a colleague of mine addressed to "His Excellency, Mr. Ieng Sary". He asked me to transmit it. According to his instructions, I ask for Mey Meak. I don’t have the slightest idea who this man is, except of course that he must be a KR. That's him - Mey Meak, personal secretary of Pol Pot during 13 years.I find him and hand over the envelope. He invites me to eat rice with him; a few days later, we will tour the whole province together. When I tell him that I write about traveling, he becomes more open: He’s building a guesthouse right now. Do the Westerners want toilets inside their rooms? What name should he give to his guesthouse? "Khmer Rouge guest house", I suggest, and he finds it very funny. The envelope is sent over to Ieng Sary directly by a motodop – he transmits his thanks. So I have done what I have promised to do. Nonetheless, I want to know who this Mey Meak is. Finally he shows me an article written about him: He was the personal secretary of Pol Pot from 1979 (after his loss of power) until 1992. He was in charge of propaganda. During "Democratic Kampuchea" (1975 – 1979), he was in charge of Pochentong airport, with only one flight per week to China and one every two weeks to North Korea - and of course he didn’t know anything about the genocide... I reluctantly try to ask more questions, but he doesn’t like investigators. He talked about living in the jungle, and he described Pol Pot - whom he saw almost daily - as a decent, kind, almost warm person who always listened carefully when someone else spoke. But Mey Meak's preferred topic is the future, not the past. Pailin will certainly become part of the tourist trail. Direct flights to Phnom Penh, a casino, honest gem stone traders, and then you can tell your great-grand-son that you have slept in the guest house of a former guerilla - perhaps the "Khmer Rouge guesthouse".
On my last night, there is a Buddhist festival, which supposedly should announce the end of the rainy season when the monks are allowed to leave their monasteries again. There is a destroyed temple on a hill in Pailin where I went a few times and looked over the area where the civil war went on for decades... Now I stroll through that other monastery and again enjoy the atmosphere. Barang, barang - I am the center of things, one more time.
Leaving Cambodia - My heart will go on
The day I left Cambodia via Battambang and Sisophon (NB: on the last "bush stop" it was a snake which watched me pissing), I have an ear jaw problem, but nonetheless the crossing of that border brings up some emotions. On the other side of the border: a perfect tar road and an air con bus to Bangkok. Why do I prefer Cambodia's crater roads? After 90 days, I was ready to leave. But already after my first week at home, I wanted to go back to Cambodia. It’s the magic. Either you feel it, or you don’t. There is nothing in between. I hope I could share some of it with you. Re-reading this report, I feel the negative impression it leaves is much too strong. I left out so many good sides. Angkor alone would be worth an article like this. The many invitations I got; the exchange of ideas with the locals, the good NGO people, researchers like David Roberts, the children I played with in Sihanoukville, the discos (Apsara-style rock dancing) of Rattanakiri ...
Amputees in the foreground, the peak of Khmer civilization in the background: Cambodian contradictions.
Every one of my trips had its song. First time Africa: "Shosholoza", the South African Rugby song everybody knew (they won the world championship). First time Mekong: "Hotel California", it was everywhere in the Karaoke bars of Vietnam. Second time Africa: "The gambler" from Kenny Rogers, one of the few tapes we had while driving our Beetle over the potholes. And finally, the soundtrack of my 90 Days in Cambodia is "My heart will go on" from Celine Dion. On my flight to Asia, they showed "Titanic". In the end, the guy from the third class dies. The woman from the first class survives. From now on, it will always remind me of my 90 days in Cambodia.

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