Thursday, February 19, 2009

How Easily Could It Have Happened?

Feb 18

I take a ride in the morning in Max’s row boat and take pictures of his guesthouse from the river.

I pack, and the van comes to pick me up.

The road to Sihanoukville is well-paved, all along on the right is the high peaks of the Cardamom Range, with cloud covering its tops, the mountainside covered in lush green tropical vegetation.

Who will imagine these mountains were the staging areas of one of the most brutal regimes in my lifetime, one that had cost over 2 million lives of men, women and children, a genocide that exceeds in sheer numbers even those committed by the Nazi Germany.

SIhanoukville is boring after Kampot. I am here only for the bus to Bangkok tomorrow morning.

While at lunch a little boy comes around to sell newspapers. I see that the front pages of The Cambodia Daily and The Phnom Penh Post have Duch’s portrait on them—Duch is “the Lost Executioner”, the commandant of S-21. His trial began yesterday.

The entire Cambodian upheaval has occurred l in my own lifetime; I have come closest to it now. But as I read the beginnings of the Khmer Rouge and the involvement of idealist students and intellectuals early in its days in the mid to late sixties and their inspirations from the cultural revolution of Mao’s China, I shudder at my recollections of the late sixties and early seventies West Bengal and its Naxalite movement.

I remember a perfectly reasonable and respectable acquaintence telling me in subdued voice in 1970, “Keep quiet, don’t express your opinions easily. There are CIA agents everywhere in India. Even people like Amlan Datta and Amartya Sen are CIA agents; they have sold themselves to the capitalists.” As I read accounts of the prisoner’s confessions, little children and innocent villagers, whose photographs I had just seen displayed in Suol Sleng walls, were brought to S-21, tortured by whipping or the application of electricity, and made to write in confession: “I am a CIA and a KGB agent, recruited to pee and shit in the sewing machine factory and on clothes made for our base comrades so that our Kampuchean dream is undermined” and then they executed by their head “smashed” with an iron rod or their throats slit, I am reminded of that warning. I remember hundreds of innocent youths in Calcutta in the late sixties eliminated just because they were found loitering in the wrong neighborhood and someone shouted “khochor” (a police spy). Had the Naxalites won in West Bengal, would we have had an equivalent of Suol Sleng, where Amlan Datta or Amartya Sen or even my mother would be brought to sign a confession, implicate others, and then their heads bashed in or throats cut?

Were we really that close? I would like to think not, but human history has repeatedly surprised us on the narrowness of the edge between sanity and insanity.

Update: September 4, 2010. Tuol Sleng commandant, Duch, has been found guilty of crimes against humanity. (see John Vink's documentary) But many more remain at large, and even more have eluded justice by dying of natural causes before they could be tried, including the Pol Pot.

A Quiet Day

Feb 17

Today I had planned to read the whole day, but instead I get deep into the manuscript that Ranjan wants me to correct and spend half a day on it. Then of course is the book.

There are high cumulonimbus clouds over the horizon, behind he hill.

In late afternoon there is rain while the sun dips low. A light rainbow gives way to a subtle golden hue that bathes the entire countryside and the river is awash with that glow.

The Earth's Age

Feb 16

The French couple leaves me a bottle of betadeine, some sterile gauze pads, and a can of sterile water spray.

My last day with the rented motorbike, I go to town on fourth gear, eat my patent spicy lemon soup with prawn, then sip on iced tea with lemon.

On my return trip, I go to Lockie’s. He was out on the river on a boat with a couple. The guy is Russian and the woman is Kazakhi. They return as I enter his house. They dive from the deck and have a swim while to shoot Lockie. We settle on the upstairs patio, where they eat fried rice and I have a cup of coffee.

The Russian fellow, in his mid thirties, has a cross on his neck. He believes that the earth was created hardly 4 thousand years ago, and point me to Internet articles that cite errors in dating by radioactive disintegration. His main argument is that dating is an approximate science and that there are errors. I point out that there are errors but there are also margin of errors that are computable. He asks why do we need to answer questions about life and nature when all the religions have provided "all answers satisfactorily". I suggest that that is my main problem with religion: it professes to provide all answers, that one thing about science that is certain is that it is always incomplete but that it is self-correcting.

Lockie is a bit uncomfortable with our respective fortified positions, so we drop the debate.

The Kazakhi woman, also in her mid thirties, is smart. She is a lawyer with the International War Crimes Tribunals. Trained at the bar in the Hague, she has been all over Africa; the last assignment was in Sierra Leone. She seemed bitterly frustrated at the arbitrariness and stupidity of how the United Nations handled the tribunals and the outcome in Sierra Leone. She insisted that some sort of internal reconciliation is an absolutely necessary outcome of these war crimes tribunals. She remains quiet during my sparring with the diminutive Russian.

Lockie shows the draft of a book he has been writing, an autobiographical account of his long imprisonment in China where he was traveling with his two sons in the early nineties. I grab a few quiet Leica shots while we chat on the patio. Later he looks at my black and white portfolio and says he is going to paint some of those later.

When I depart I say that I will send them the digital images in a few hours but that the film images on the Leica, which I took on the patio while talking, will take a few weeks. They were all surprised that I took photos during the discussion....this even impresses me--the legendary unobtrusiveness of a film Leica!

"Motorcycle Diary"

Feb 15

Peter leaves in the morning.

Max suggests I drive up river to the rapids and also take a dirt road up the hill.

The rapids are not very interesting. But going up the hill is kind of fun, and the view from the top is marvelous. I only wish it were later in the day, so the light was more favorable. But I have not brought the camera with me lest I fall and break it.

The drive down was pure terror for the first few seconds. I did not think the downward trip through, and as soon as I started the motorbike began to accelerate downwards without much help from the gas handle. I panic while trying to turn the gas down and instead I turn it up. The motorbike takes off at a frightening speed, a curve looms ahead, but I mange to correct myself and slow down in time. The rest of the trip was nice and slow, and at the bottom of the hill I feel as if I have earned the right to drive the motorbike.

Max had also suggested that I look up his artist friend Lockie, who leaves on the same road but closer to town. I go to town, to the same restaurant where I ate before and order the same dish. The girls have come to know me here. They smile knowingly as I enter and appear to be ratcheting up the spicy heat. Today I love the hot taste, but I begin to hiccup. They seem alarmed and bring me water, but I say I love the taste.

After lunch I go to Lockie’s house. The house is on the river, with a deck that looks out to the river, rattan sofas are spread around the deck, two hammocks. He asks me to sit on a sofa while he lies down on a bed he has on the deck. Wiry and thin, balding with some white hair, Lockie looks like in his late sixties or early seventies. A Scotsman painter, his work is spread everywhere in his home. An unfinished portrait on the easel lies downstairs. He takes me upstairs where his bedroom and the small sitting area are choked full with canvases and paints.

I tell him I will return next day with a camera.

Back in Utopia, I immerse myself into The Lost Executioner.

A harrowing account.

Max starts the music. A French couple is staying in the Bungalow. They are from Paris and have traveled all over India and Asia. Max insists I should show them my black and white portfolio.

I do a bit of portraiture of Max’s family with the Leica.

The music stops by 9:30PM. A toh kay beeps, TOH Kayh TOH Kayh some seven times. They seem to always beep some seven times. These funny looking lizards are about 8 to 12 inches long, with dark skin with red spots, a smiley face and beady eyes, are everywhere in Utopia and the surrounding jungle. Max says they are numbered and every room has its own.

Like last night I take a Tylenol to ease the pain in my ankle.


Feb 13

The moto driver is back at 10:30 in the morning. I jump on to the back and he takes me to a village of Muslim fishermen, of Cham enthnicity, who are apparently descendents of the ancient kingdom of Champa that once covered the south and central Vietnam and north eastern Cambodia.

The villagers are thrilled to have their photos taken.
I was offered a glass of sweet cold tea. The children are a bundle of laughter as they pour over my camera to see their portraits.
The young woman who serves me tea is not at all shy. Though she had her hair out at first, after a while she takes out a black scarf and puts it around her hair, all the while smiling at me while I take her photos, her husband glad to be included in the photo.

I go to Kampot town and have a late lunch, of lemon soup with prawn. What a fantastic soup—spicy hot and sour, light and huge, with some 10 huge prawns. The restaurant is totally Khmer run, and extends into the river beside the new bridge. The old bridge was evidently destroyed by bombing or by artillery fire—only a third of the span still exists, the remainder of the bridge is a pontoon.

I return to Utopia and take a nap. In the evening, I chat with Peter and Max.

Feb 14

Max suggests I rent a motorbike and ride it. Apparently these are all 100cc bikes that are semi-automatic, with no clutch but they have four gears. So I get a bike. Max instructs me how to ride one.

I roll on, tentatively. I try the foot break and the hand break, and try to think through the reflexes in case of a quick response if needed. I leave the guest house, wobbling badly on the sandy stretch. I dare not go above the second gear on this stretch, but as I hit a stretch of deep sand I fall. I clamber up again, and get the bike straightened and start again. Upon hitting the road, I try my breaking reflexes again and again, and try out a bit of dodging potholes and gear changes, both up and down. It seems fine, but I still dare not go to the third on the road which is mostly gravel. Then the stretch with the construction zone come, where I take the right hand strip of dirt trail, with other motor bikes zooming past me. I survive that stretch, some three kilometers long, then the road is nice and paved. I go to town, first to the restaurant where I ate lunch yesterday, and order the same items. After a sumptuous meal of spice sour soup with prawn, I decide to explore the town a bit. I discover a used bookstore, Kepler, and get a book called The Lost Excecutioner, by Nic Dunlop, a photojournalist who tracked down the Commandant of S-21 (Suol Sleng), and a book by Noam Chomsky written in the 60s (and since updated with appendices) on the folly of US policies in South East Asia.

Just beside Kepler is a nice café, where I order an iced tea with lemon. After a hot day, sweating with tension at trying to drive the motorbike for the first time with a swollen ankle and a raw heel, the iced tea tastes heavenly. I begin to read The Lost Executioner.

A gripping account.

By early afternoon I return to Utopia, take a shower, then back to reading the book.

The mishap

Feb 12

Last night there was sound of distant thunder and lightning beyond the hills. This morning there is a dark cloud cover on the eastern horizon and there is a light drizzle. I am supposed to leave Utopia this morning for Phnom Penh and then another bus to Kampong Chnanag, which is near the lake Tonle Sap. After that it is still uncertain. I wanted to go to Veal Veng, but they say there is drug resistant malaria and security situation may not be good. Another possibility is to go to Battambang, not too far from the Thai Border before returning to Bangkok, but Francis (Furachan) has already warned that Battambang is dismal, not really worth going. So I leave Utopia reluctantly. Why am I leaving this paradise of quiet waters and lush vegetation?

Max and his family says goodbye. I climb on the back of the motodupe. I say that I can easily carry the backpack on my back, but the driver is insistent that it will be ok to keep this huge bag between him and me on the seat. I sit awkwardly, with my legs splayed on both sides. The motorbike starts, then skids a few times on wet sand before reaching the road. The road is wet, with red slush; construction trucks have taken most of the center and on the two sides there are two narrow dirt trails where motorbikes run. We go about three kilometers, then the road gets slightly better, and the motorbike picks up speed. As it passes a little village, it lurches sharply through a pothole and my right foot slips so that my sneaker gets caught in the rear wheel and I feel a violent pull towards it. As I try to wrench it away my heel gets banged sharply and repeatedly by the spokes; I scream at the driver to stop. I clamber out of the seat; my foot is still encased in the sneaker, which the driver takes out by pushing the sneaker off. I limp to the road side. The sock is torn at the heel and it is red and blue, with roughly two square inches of skin gone. I feel a dull pain on my ankle. The heel looks terrible but I am more worried about the ankle—is any bone broken. I decide on the spot to return to Utopia. There must be doctors in town.

We are back to Utopia in less than 15 minutes. Max quickly washes off the wound with mineral water, then puts antiseptic on. Then he puts ice into a tumbler and orders my right foot into it for 2 hours. After two hours he pats the wound dry and sprays Hansaplast liquid bandage on. Then he fixes me a stiff gin and tonic. The pain is already much less. I push the ankle around and flex and rotate my foot. There was no obvious problem, except for the burning sensation due to laceration. I decide to stay in Utopia for the remainder of my Cambodia visit. Why run after a mirage when I am in Utopia.

I shuffle around whole day on the deck, working over my photos. In the evening I meet Peter, a young fellow from Brisbane who has been traveling in Scotland and now in Asia for the past ~ two years. A quiet chap, who likes Camu, Sartre and Kafka. I tell him to look up Bruce Chatwin and also Coetzee. Peter swims in the river. I dare not in fear of infecting my wound.

The cloud disperses by the day’s end. Peter and I eat Gao’s fish soup. Max puts on an eclectic collection of music that even has a little segment that sounds like Lata Mangeshker in a jazzy beat. There was another female Hindi singer who did nice assimilation of Latin into Hindi. There was a Baul, singing in Bengali.

Before bed, Max sprays another shot of Hansaplast on the wound. I sleep fitfully, with my foot raised on a pillow.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

"They had a plan!"

February 11

At 8 in the morning my motodupe driver arrives. The woman from Perth in Siem Reap to Phnom Penh bus had told me about salt flats near Kampot. We travel some 12 kilometers to a flat landscape divided into myriad neat rectangles, nearly all of them a shallow glass bed of salt water from the sea. People were pounding on the dry rectangles’ to make the dark soil as flat as possible; then they open a little inflow into the rectangle and salt water flows in. The heat dries by the water fast, leading to super saturated brine, and salt crystallizes out of solution. These crystals are then brushed into pairs of heaps. Then these are brushed on to two flat bottomed containers made of woven bamboo, which are hooked onto a yoke, shoulders placed underneath, lifted and carried away into a large hut for drying.

I am thrilled by the possibilities of composition and reflection—rectilinear shapes everywhere, broken by figures of workers being reflected on the mirror-like salt beds. I take out the Leica and try to get the nearest person, a slender woman of some thirty odd years into a geometrically strong composition.

But as I peer into her, I notice she is pointing at me and then back at her baskets and the yoke. I understand that she wants me to come closer and try lifting the yoke. I ask the moto driver whether it is ok to step over the salt bed, and he nods in affirmative. I go closer, and see the glint of smile in her eyes. Without thinking I take the yoke from her hand and try to lift it.

That was the first surprise. I couldn’t even budge the baskets with both hands placed under the yoke and pushing up. They were impossibly heavy. She started laughing, as other men and women in nearby field started laughing at me. Not to let this get out of hand, I put my left shoulder under the yoke and heaved up. The baskets were airborne, but I had not anticipated the incredible weights of these two containers filled with water-laden salt crystals. She signs me to put them down, but I start to walk towards the hut, some hundred feet or so away, my cameras swinging wildly on my right shoulder and from the right wrist. She runs after me, but I make over the slight slope into the hut and put down the baskets near the pile of salt gathered inside. She talks excitedly to the moto driver who is quite amused at all this. I am quite winded. I take a few shots inside when they empty out the baskets, which also is not a simple affair because it is impossible to lift them separately by hand, so one has to swing the yoke such that both baskets are emptied together in one fluid motion.

This gives me a totally new perspective on what people do for a living. I asked my moto driver to find out how much do they get paid for this job. 200,000r for five people for a five hour day. That makes it $10 per person per day. I do an estimate of the volume of the salt crystals in each basket, which is approximately 15 liters. Since sodium chloride is three times as heavy as water, each basket should weigh around 45 kg, making the total weight around 90 kg or close to 200 lbs. Allowing for even 25% error on the high side, its weight could be minimum 150 lbs. Imagine having to haul 150 lbs over few hundred feet over soft grounds every 10 minutes for five hours a day, and getting paid $10 for the job. If one is lucky, the moto driver points out, because no one gets this job all the time. Often, when there is rain or cloud cover for example, such that the evaporation rate slows, one does not make as much salt and so the salt field shuts down or works at reduced forces. The amazing thing for me is that a slightly built woman can do this seemingly effortlessly.

I continue shooting in the salt field. The men and women there are suddenly a lot more accessible to me; but because they pose I have difficulty catching them in good composition. They keep asking me about my home and family. I struggle on with catching them at work. After a while I give up.

It is better to remain somewhat remote if you wish to take good photographs.

After the salt flats we visit a cave with limestone stalactites and stalagmites, with an eighth century Hindu shrine with a Shiva lingam inside a terracotta construction that is partly encased in calcium carbonate crystals. This is probably one of the oldest signs of Indian influence in Cambodia, predating the oldest of the Angkorean complexes (the Roulos group) by at least a century.

A group of three young boys, ages 10 to 12, take me to the caves with a flashlight. Just before the rise of the hill, there is an area closed off with red tape with scull and bones drawn on a post—mine, they say. I just cannot believe there would be mines there, because it is squarely on a dry field of rice paddy with bristles of last season’s straws still on the parched soil. I ask incredulously, “Are there mines still there? Really?” They say yes yes in an airy way that leaves one doubtful. One normally walks up a steep flight of stairs hewn into the stones and then down into the limestone cavity, and then returns along the same path. I see an English couple following me there. But the boys encourage me to come with them out through another route, one through which we scramble up and down steep and slippery rock faces, with tiny footholds and little ledges to grip with hands. My metal lens hood bumps hard against the rock and gets a dent. The kids are horrified, and help me put away the camera inside the bag. I follow the kids through utter darkness, scampering over rocks and holes. At the bottom there is a shallow stream, on the calcite ceiling there are bats hanging, which get disturbed when one of the kids, A’p is his name, shines his flashlight. The kids talk incessantly; what do I do in my spare time—I take pictures—“I play football”, says A’p. We begin climbing again but it is a very short way up. At the end is a shallow opening through which I will not pass with the camera bag on my back, so the kids take it from me and go through first. Then they excitedly take the camera out and asks me to fix it so they can take a picture of me emerging. The take two shots. I think those are the best shots of me in ages.

On the way they show me this and that. I ask whether seriously there are still mines there, and they smile and say, that indeed there were mines there but those have been removed. They show me an egret, and a small mint garden, and gives me a little bunch of mint leaves to take home as a memento. They ask me repeatedly to bring my family here next time, so they can take them into the caves.

Back at the moto, they show me a huge tamarind tree and as my eyes light up, they throw stones and shoes into the trees to drop ripe tamarinds to the ground. They break one and offer me. I eat without wincing—that is my specialty—and the kids go wild. They keep feeding me tamarind, and then packs me a whole bunch to take with me. I give them a dollar for the trip and the flashlight, and move on.

We drive another 10 or so kilometers to Kep, the seaside town where Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese army had showdown in the early eighties and that encounter had wrecked the town. I see huge compounds with intricately curved ironwork gates but with nothing inside, facing the sea. An island looms in the distance. Along the beach are lines of restaurants. I eat a calamari soup, while the moto driver eats fried rice. I try to pump him about his days during the Khmer Rouge times. Here at last is a man who slowly opens up during my hard grilling. Perhaps because he had seen me carry the salt bags, perhaps because he had seen me eat tamarind out of the boys’ hands. But he began to describe what it was like.

“Very early in 1975 they came to my village. They separated my sister, who was 15 at that time and me, 12, from our parents. Our parents were taken very far away, and separately. I did get to see them, about three, may be four times in the three years until the Vietnamese army broke up our camps. My sister was in a separate camp a few miles away, and I did see her about once in two months or so. It was very hard. Yes, of course I cried. What do you think? It was very hard work, from morning until late in the evening. No work, no food. Sometimes the bad ones would even beat us.”

“What if you walked away from the camp one day?”

He has difficulty understanding my question first. Then when I persisted, he was incredulous. “Oh kill! Just kill you!”

After the Vietnamese came, my sister and I walked home. It took us eight days of walking. When we came to the village, my parents were there, they had walked back earlier.”

“Did they cry seeing you and your sister?”

He seems embarrassed.

“How about the guards in your camp? Did they not have any brother or sister or children of their own? When they mistreated you, did they not think that someone could be doing the same bad things to their brothers and sisters?”

“I don’t know.”

“But” I say, “you were from the village, you are a Khmer, why did they do that you? I thought they were against the city people! Why did they separate you from your family?”

He struggles at first. Then he spreads his arms expansively, and says, “They had a plan, that’s what they said. They had a plan”.

I rest my case: A faith in determinism, that you can plan your life and your social structure according to some elementary ideals.

Back at Utopia, Max is cross. He doesn’t like the untimely rain. Where is the rain, I ask, it is only a drizzle. “This is not good. The whole damned weather is changed. The last rain was on December 31, can you imagine! It normally does not rain after November until June or July.” “Do you get guests even during the rains?” I ask. “Yes, but fewer; Phnom Penh professionals, fewer tourists, who want to get away from work for a while.”

You cannot get a better place than this to get away from it all. The sunset was unobservable because of dark cloud in the west. We discussed Cambodian history, and Max’s travails in the 70’s. He had run away from home at 13, then traveled all over Europe during the seventies. “A coastal person,” he described himself. He spent a lot of time in Spain and Italian coastal towns. He had spent a year in Katmandu. Ultimately he had found his calling in Indochina, choosing to marry a Cambodian woman and settling down in this little out of the way place. “There was nothing here before the French came. Just pirates. The Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Cambodians, the Siamese, no one was interested in this area. Until the French began to establish their weekend getaways in this area.”

A glorious moon rises through a hole in the clouds. We both take photos of it, but have uninspiring results due to the deep darkness surrounding the single beacon of brightness. Frogs croak and the river sleeps as we chat in the semi-darkness over two glasses of gin and tonic. “Very colonial,” he offers. “Good against malaria,” I try. “That’s what they say, but I think it is rubbish,” declares Max.

After a bit of listening to my story of the driver, Max says, “You know, that’s what you get when you combine Taoism with Maoism”.

I don’t understand Max, so I will have to read about Taoism.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

In Utopia

February 10

The guesthouse people are very nice. Although the room rent is a bit above my budget, it is nice to stay with good people.

I awake by 6AM and out with my camera by 6:30. Market scene is always interesting. The sun rises of Mekong. The riverside reminds me of the old strand in Chandernagore. The same misty river that bends half-moon past the city, boats ferrying people across, barges plying goods up river, buildings painted a tawny yellow that all of Chandernagore used to be painted before whitewashed boxlike buildings began to sprout in every corner.

Here in Phnom Penh a section of the strand has been spared so far. An elephant lumbers down the street, its feet encased in netted sandals, the mahout walks alongside.

I go to a café and take a seat. There is no power, so no coffee. I order coconut juice (milk) and mushroom omlette.

The bus for Kampot leaves at 1:15PM. The same monotonous road, this time going straight south from Phnom Penh. Some three hours later, the landscape begins to become more interesting. The outline of a hill, eerily resembling the silhouette of Angkor Wat at certain angles, rises above the heat haze. We pass through Pet, a small seaside town, and arrive at Kampot taxi stand.

A motodupe takes me and the luggage to an in-town guest house but it is too dingy. Then he takes me some 8 kilometers out of town to a guesthouse named “Utopia” which is in my Lonely Planet guidebook.

A truly utopian setting; thatched roof bungalows with decks that reach over the tranquil waters of a small tidal river. The owner is a German fellow, Max, with white Ho Chi Min beard on his chin. His wife is Cambodian. They have a daughter who is six, completely trilingual in Khmer, English and German, and a 1 year old son.

I get a $8 single room. Low ceiling—the Catholic floor, Max quips. The balconies open on to the river. There is a moored boat, rattan sofas everywhere, a few hammocks. Reflection of luminous cloud and palm trees on deep greenish water that is totally still between tides now. The sunset is out of this world. Bokor Hill is on the left. I so like this place that I contemplate not going much further than this.

I eat mushroom soup for dinner.

When will they ask for iPod Nano?

February 9

Mr. Cheun, a part-time tuk-tuk driver who teaches chemistry at the local community college, comes sharp at 8AM. We purchase a bag of rice, some plastic bags and cut a water bottle into a spade-like contraption.

Then we drive across Phnom Penh to its garbage dump. Along a wide road lined on both sides by squat warehouses we come to a vast open space of undulating heaps of human detritus. Multicolored, smoke in the air, air heavy with putrid smell. And then the children.

They are camouflaged within the colored patches of the garbage heaps, with their shirts and pants of veritable color, but a colony of moving, throbbing, living beings.
While Mr. Cheun unties the sac of rice and gets settled with the bags, I follow the children, some as young as four or five, others teenagers and some might be even older, rush on with sticks and poles as a garbage truck drives in, one every few minutes, and empties a load of smelly content into a new pile.
They probe through the garbage, quickly sorting some of the recoverable items for recycling, others for burning, a fire is lit nearby, a truckload is quickly sorted out, then the next truck arrives.

Mr. Cheun shouts out the news of rice. The children rush towards the tuk-tuk. But Mr. Cheun, an experienced teacher, quickly arranged them into three files. Little and tall, young and old, all in multicolored garments, some in rubber boots and gloves, some without, nearly all in hats, file on. Excitement is in the air, for a bag of rice, some have their hats ready—alas, some have porous baseball caps that leak nearly as much as are retained—others have the end of their shirt, or those who have neither get a plastic bag. One hapless boy has dropped his capful on the soil.
Immediate five boys and girls kneel down to help him scoop up the rice from the soil, except those that are mixed in with the red dust—a slightly older girl comes by and offers a bit from her own bag, and immediately two other boys do the same. All the while, Mr. Cheun keeps doing out the rice in measured amounts. Eager hands, little eyes, as much interest in my camera and the view in its back panel as in the bag of rice.

We empty the bag. The children are quieter now; some have gone back to their work. We wrap up. A guy comes forward and asks Mr. Cheun to tell me to hide my camera on my way out. I ask no question and put my camera away, and take a last look over my shoulder at the apocalyptic scene under a scorching sun.

When will these children ask for an X-box or an iPod Nano?

The next stop is the “killing fields”.

A signboard at the entrance reads, “Here is the place where trucks transporting victims from Tuol Sleng prison to be exterminated would stop”.
There is a memorial, with a few thousand skulls and bones that have been dug out. I can clearly see some of the skulls have obvious signs of being shattered by sharp blows. Here they did not shoot to kill—they beat their brains out. Children were swung and struck against a tree that still stands.

On another tree they used to hang a loudspeaker blaring music so that the dying moans of those that did not immediately die could not be heard. There are large depressions in the ground where there were mass graves from which the bones were recovered.

I get back into the tuk-tuk and head for the Tuol Sleng prison, the infamous S-21 of the Khmer Rouge.

In the city, in the midst of a very normal and natural neighborhood, in front of a little Buddhist pagoda, by the side of a nice outdoor restaurant, the Boddhi Tree, along a street lined with shoe shops and motorbike repair, there is a walled in compound with four buildings of the old high school that became the Tuol Sleng prison, the place where enemies of the people were brought in for interrogation, before being transported to the Killing Fields.

I do not have words to describe the horror within those walls. I have pictures to tell, which I will post in due time. So I will spare you the vivid descriptions. No, I am not chickening out—I have already filled in four pages of my note book, but just don’t have the nerve to recapitulate them again.

I need to unwind from here. So to the Boddhi Tree, for a lunch. Mr. Cheun joins in. I ask him about the Khmer Rouge time, but he was too young, only 5 years old, so has very sketchy memory of those times. He remembers his mother relating to him that his grandfather had implored his father, a government employee in Phnom Penh, to get out of the country. But stubbornly his father refused.

His mother and grandfather fled to the countryside, where they were separated and sent to labor camps. His mother survived. He went with his father to a village near Batam Bang, not too far from the Thai border, where his father began to work in a rice field in an effort to elude the Khmer Rouge. He was with him. Near the end of the Khmer Rouge period, his father was caught. I asked him what happened. “Oh he was killed of course!” Very strangely, however, he does not blame Pol Pot. He still thinks that Pol Pot might not have known about all the atrocities that were happening around Phnom Penh. He thinks Pol Pot might have been too preoccupied fighting with Vietnam, to recover some disputed territories on which Cambodians had a historic claim, to really have any time to bother about internal affairs. It was other people, who were really sick in their heads, who did all the atrocities.

Most scholars however do not agree with this view.

They think Pol Pot knew all. If you looked remotely like a Vietnamese, have a fairer skin than an average Khmer, your days were numbered, because you will be brought into S-21 to be interrogated on suspicion of collaboration with the enemy—even boys and girls as young as seven or eight, and babies with their mothers—there are photographs that document these young faces that look at the photographer’s lens, of boys and girls and men and women forced to sit on a wooden chair and place their head on a frame while a numbered tag hung on their neck as the photographer clicked his shutter.

I could not but be amazed at the artistic quality of some these portraits. You will get to see them eventually when I post them.
After the fall of Khmer Rouge, Mr. Cheun studied in a school then in a college. He had learned Vietnamese and Russian. But now it is too difficult to support his family with only income from his teaching job. He is a Buddhist, whose wife would like to do a worship today at 3PM, so we leave.

After a shower I head to a café to write my blog and edit the masses of digital photos accumulating in my hard drive every day.

A moon rises slowly over the Mekong.

Phnom Penh is alive again.

Whither next for the children of Phnom Penh? The future does not seem rosy from the smoke filled vista of the garbage dump.

Many questions still remain unanswered. Why did the Khmer Rouge do what they did? Why such a mass insanity? Was it just revenge? Is that what happens when unsophisticated people are suddenly given infinite power over other men?

Tomorrow I go to Kampot, a town near the sea, south of Cambodia, smack on the greater Mekong delta, where the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge once fought a pitched battle for control.

Evening in Phnom Penh

February 8

After my usual breakfast of fruits, coffe with bread and cheese, a van comes to pick me up at 8:30am to the bus stop. I get a window seat; beside me sits an Australian woman in late twenties. She is an research assistant from Perth, working on microRNAs in brain tumors. That livens up the conversation. Apparently she is mostly working on establishing primary cultures of brain tumor cells. I tell her that my wife learned how to establish primary neuronal cultures from Ed Furshpan in Harvard Med school, the guy who first started primary neuronal cultures. She is duly impressed, but confesses that establishing primary cultures from tumor cells is a lot easier because you do not need such stringent growth facture requirements.

We chat about Battam Bang, where she had been before Siem Ream, and had traveled by boat from BB to SR, and highly recommends that trip. Perhaps I should do that on my return journey. She will spend a few days in Phnom Penh then go on to Ratnakiri and Mondulkiri, the two north eastern districts near Vietnam. I look it up—lots of forests where one can take elephant rides, hill tribes which I am sure would be interesting, but also the two most expensive districts of Cambodia.

The entire distance of Siem Reap to Phnom Penh is lined by exactly the same general motif: houses on stilts, farm lands parched dry due to lack of rain in this season, a few scattered palm groves. We reach Kompong Cham, where we break for 15 minutes or so. I eat a sour mango with salts. The bus starts; more of the same. We reach PP at about 4 PM. A tuk-tuk driver comes forward, and I pile my backpack into it, and off we go to the first guest house on my list. A dark wooden contraption with lots of hammocks, the single room is crappy, and the only other room is a dormitory reeking with hashish. I bow out, and depend on my tuk-tuk driver to take me to a more reasonable place.

We drive near the Mekong river, just past a large open air market to a cramped building. An A/C room for $15, the only one available. The folks appear to be nice, so I take it…it sort of busts my budget but, well, what other option?

The tuk-tuk driver asks whether I would hire him for the next day. I ask about the rate, and he says whatever I gave in Siem Reap, that will be the same here. So I say $10 for the full day, and he readily agrees.

I unload, shower, then walk to the riverside through the busy market. Phnom Penh is a city that I think I can grow to like. Busy with life, which has a ghost hanging in its history that gives a totally different perspective on this city.

April 17, 1975. Where was I? We might have returned from Jim Corbett National Park just a few weeks ago and I had dived headlong into the Spring semester in JNU. That was the day when Khmer Rouge walked into Phnom Penh at about 8 in the morning. A recent article by a resident describes the day in these words (I am quoting from memory):

By 9AM, the initial trickle of a few bedraggled, tired soldiers in black uniform swelled into masses of grim faced armed soldiers. Then they stopped coming. The city was silent. By noon, there were tired patients, some in wheel chairs, some still carrying serum pouches, were walking down the street—the Khmer Rouge had evacuated the city hospitals. By 1:30 the city began to empty out—every man, woman and child were either walking or riding a bicycle or were in push carts through the road, being silently watched by soldiers in black uniform. By evening the city had emptied itself. Phnom Penh was a ghost city by the end of that evening, with people only in the foreign embassies. What happened afterwards is mind-boggling. I remember the utter confusion in those days in my mind: Is Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who took refuge in Peking several years earlier, who gave the call to millions of rural Cambodians to rise up against Lon Nol, the rightwing despot, to form the Khmer Rouge the good guy? Is Khmer Rouge against Vietnam or for Vietnam in the US-Vietnam war? Which side is the US in all of this, after its carpet bombing campagn for three years over Cambodia? I remember the enthusiastic response of JNU Marxists in the early days when Khmer Rouge was winning, only to fall strangely silent as weeks passed by after the fall of Phnom Penh.

I sit in a restaurant by the Mekong, an old building that harks back to the French Colonial days, in a cane sofa, and try to write a defense of Khmer Rouge. A full moon rises over the Mekong, against which a constant flow of motobikes and bicycles and cars passes by.

Imagine being a villager in Cambodia for generations, being tied to the land, with ancestral memories reaching into the dark crevices of time, and then on a wet monsoon day, you look up into the sky, into the dark clouds and hear the drone of strange birds high above, and then little dots come down in formation, like a flock of cranes over green wet rice fields blanketed by fresh rains, and the dots become larger by the second, and then you hear a series of sharp whistles, and the sky falls apart in thunder and lightning and fire and smoke, and the only world that you knew blow up on your face. And this continues every night for over two years, 1971-1973. What will you do? Will you not rise up against the only symbol of this misery that you can identify, the city folks led by the American stooge, Lon Nol, who betrayed the prince who abdicated his throne to embrace democracy, who had to flee to a foreign country because he wanted Cambodia to be neutral in the war across its borders, and yet those city folks led by Lon Nol and his cronies made secret pacts with a country thousands of miles away who rains fire and destruction on your dreams?

So they did. That much is reasonable.

But what was not reasonable is what happened afterwards.

What happened afterwards was the result of nothing but the last throes of primitive thinking influenced by historical determinism—the sense of historical inevitability, and the ideal that our future can be planned in a grand scale.

Primitive determinism was already rejected by our western philosophers at least half a century before the fall of Phnom Penh, but in real life, its rejection is still to come, even after we countenanced what happened in Cambodia.

For now, I must go back to bed, to be ready for my driver tomorrow.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Two Adventures

February 7

What a day! Two mini adventures. First one was in R’Ong’s home. It is almost 2.5 hours away from Siem Reap on R’Ong’s motorbike. I purchase some apples and oranges for them on the way. Their house in the countryside is typically Cambodian—wooden, placed on four stout 6ft stilts. Underneath the house are maachans lined with woven palm leaves where people sit and R’Ong’s two nephews sleep. There is R’Ong’s wife, a smiling shy woman of 22, her sister, 19, visiting from her family, R’Ong’s mother, 63, and R’Ong’s last unmarried sister, 24. The nephews stay with them because his married sisters live deeper in the countryside where there are no convenient schools. The kids are ecstatic to see their photos behind my camera.

Presently a woman carrying toddy palm juice comes along and I was offered the sweet juice as a welcome. Only I was asked to drink it, and I was not allowed to share it. Very sweet and fresh. A 4 mm long and supple red ant tries to share my juice by biting hard on my ankle. I will have my revenge later.

We are served food. Rice, a soup of small shrimps and water chestnuts, two kinds of small smoked fish, and a sauce to dip the fish in before eating. R’Ong’s sister has cooked the dishes, with R’Ong’s mother having prepared the sauce. The sauce seems to have little mustard seed like stuff floating in it. I dip the smoked fish and eat it. Slightly sour tingle on the tongue is delicious.

About half way through I suddenly discover there were some dead ants on my plate. Upon looking closely I discover the source of these—goodness gracious, the sauce is actually all dead ants, thousands of them, floating abdominal segment up so they seemed like round mustard seeds. I am fascinated. I ask R’Ong how they do it. It was R’Ong’s mother who makes these; she collects the weaver ants with their nest leaves and dips them down into oil and water and adds a bit of salt. She shows me the jar. Seeing my interest in this, she coyly tells me through R’Ong that I am welcome to make it. I smilingly refuse, citing the bite on my ankle. I dip into the sauce bowl with renewed vigor, with an enthusiasm that comes only with secret knowledge.

After lunch, I find the family is dispersed and so I too leave R’Ong and his wife discreetly for a walk into the countryside. Through the dusty farmland, parched dry, with bristles of old straw and dry mud that blows in the wind as a gray dust, I walk about a mile to a toddy palm grove. I look hard for any mine left over, but I am reminded of R’Ong’s word that he had never seen one. A gentle wind soars through the palm leaves. The wind whips up a whistle through the rope of my hat. I lie down in the shade but scrupulously avoid a site of a possible direct hit by a falling toddy palm because in Bengali being hit on the back with a thwack is synonymous with being hit by a falling toddy palm (taal). After a brief nap, I move on. Presently I surprise a few men on siesta. They are delighted to have their pictures taken. A young man takes me to his home where I take photos of his wife and three children, the oldest daughter, about six or seven, is impossibly shy.
I slowly retrace my steps, and on the way I meet a couple straining under huge loads of collected toddy palm leaves, who graciously pose for me while sweating under their load. They are evidently collecting these to mend their thatched roof.

The neighbor of R’Ong is there with his family. So I oblige them with more photos. The kids are charming. This is the gift that I find here; the excitement of the kids is priceless.

Soon we say bye to R’Ong’s family and take off on our next adventure—a trip of about 30 km to a village on stilts and submerged forest on the shore of the lake Tonle Sap.

Lake Tonle Sap is one of the world’s largest natural flood control devices. The lake is massive, almost the size of one of the great lakes. It increases its area by about 30% during the rainy season. In dry season, the lake, a part of the Tonle Sap river, flows into the Mekong. But in rainy season, the Mekong overflows and the direction of flow in the Tonle Sap reverses, thus inundating the surrounding low lying lands, providing much needed water for the agrarian economy of its shore, but protecting the Mekong delta from periodic flooding. Adapting to this natural variation in lake depth and area, the people around the lake, mostly fishermen and peasant communities, build their houses on huge stilts along most of the region and on floating drums in the southern-most region where timber is less available. There is also a massive forest on the lake shore that gets submerged at various times.

We were to visit this village on stilts. United Nations have also arranged the local fisherman community’s teenage girls to take the tourists out on dinghies into the submerged forests as part of their Women’s Empowerment project in which the aim is to build confidence by exposure and through knowledge of worldly ways of women so they do not fall victim to sexual or other exploitation by visitors. Recall that Cambodian women were exploited massively by the Cambodian army, especially by the rightist factions, during their civil war in 1990s, as a device to curry favor with foreigners.

We set off in the little motorbike, the standard here are the small 100cc ones. R’Ong’s friend has advised about a short cut from R’Ong’s village that will cut the distance by about a half.

Man! What an ordeal! Is that what one calls a road? It is fit only for the passage of Khmer Rouge guerillas! In the back of this rickety motorbike, I practice horsemanship by springing with every lurch over huge recesses on the dirt trail. Wait a moment! Trail, I said? Forget that. It is only a high embankment between two low lying areas that evidently gets flooded in monsoon, perhaps even this embankment too, because there is nothing by holes and a maze of rims of these holes that together constitute the ‘trail’, like the pitted surface of the moon. To prevent a total breakdown of my coccyx, I must use my hawk’s eyes over R’Ong’s shoulders (it is good that he is some three inches shorter) to watch for the holes, then steel my haunches to hop up and then gently lower my rump down using the thigh muscles, and you can easily imagine the enormous strain that befalls one’s knees to do that. And they said Mongols on their horses have steel for their backside. Am I glad that I endured those weeks of squats on sweaty tippy-toes in Bikram Yoga classes! This ordeal continued for over an hour, when, through the maze of potholes, vistas of murky red slushy water, and bands of sand bars, the motorbike slipping and sliding, we suddenly reach a high wall of fishermen’s stalls, with the pungent waft of drying fish in the air, around trays of Cambodian nick knacks.

Asunder are a bunch of motorized boats and row boats. The tiny row boats are plied by children, who seem to be doing nothing but playing.

The motorized ones are large, mostly used for ferrying goods, and a few for passengers. On to one of these latter we alight. The boatman takes us through a narrow channel of reeds and mangroves, snaking through sharp bends in the river, flocks of surprised storks take to their wings, we at last take a sudden turn and come upon a most incredible view.

Hundreds and hundreds of huge houses on massive stilts, all raised over the ground some ten or 15 meters high, with men, women and children bustling about on the dry land, in the tottering houses, on a myriad slender ladders. Some are mending their boats, some fixing their nets, some simply lazing about, children playing, pigs milling, a few dogs walking around with tail held high, and ducks, chickens, roosters, ducklings, chicks, running, bamboos piled high, men chiseling through logs, women washing dishes—a symphony of activities that appears to have been grandly orchestrated as if in a David Lean’s epic movie set.

Our boat winds its way through the serpentine river to the edge of the village, takes a sharp turn to the right, and then the submerged forest begins. It is curious to see these massive trees with gnarled dark trunks and twisted branches reaching up into the sky through deep water to expose their deep green foliage to the sun. We take a few more turns and suddenly the open lake looms ahead.

The lake’s enormity is stunning in contrast to the nearly claustrophobic forest, its opposite shores are way beyond the horizon, large waves roll through the tawny water, the sun is bright over the western horizon. The boatman moors the boat on a bamboo pole and cuts the engine. The only sound is that of wind, waves and screeches of a few water birds. We rock with the waves for some 15 minutes and head back. As we enter the village, the boatman shouts around for some kids who might like to take us on a dugout into the submerged forest. Most say that they are too busy and can’t take us. As we nearly give up, a pair of chirpy teenagers wave at us.

They place a palm leaf matt on the dugout and we get into it. Two sisters, Cham Li, 12, and Sarit Li, 15, take the two paddles and take position fore and aft. I sit cross legged in the middle with R’Ong. Very uncomfortable, I get into a leg cramp almost immediately. So I wave Cham away and take the paddle from her. She readily gives but as the boat careens to one side as we change position she is alarmed. The boat stays afloat. R’Ong also goes forward and takes the paddle from Sarit. The two of us are a pair of disasters—the boat immediately gets tangled among the woods.

Sarit takes over and so she and I row on. I stop rowing now and then to take a few shots, while Sarit continues to row. Both are fluent in English, but Sarit is a bit shy so she carries on conversation mostly with R’Ong in Khmer. In the mean time I have the full attention of the little one. A beguiling little devil that Cham is, she quickly instructs me on how to row, then asks where am I from. I say, “India, but now I live in America”. “Oh India, New Delhi is the Capital”. “Good”, I say, “what grade are you in?” She hedges a bit and then casually says, eight.

Almost immediately she magically brings out a stack of some 40 books and a bunch of pencils wrapped in plastic papers. “Sir, please buy these books for $20, and the children in the school will be happy”.

I am quite confused. Who is going to buy the books, who will be happy, and who gets to read them?

She is exasperated, but takes a deep breath and explains.

“Sir, you buy the books for $20, then I take the money and give the books to the children”.

I see the light; so she has become an NGO who is raising money for books for the children.

“Good”, I say, “I will buy only two books for $2”.

“Oh no, sir, how can you do that? There will be 38 unhappy children who will have no books, no pencils, they cannot go to school and study, so they will remain poor. How can you do that?”.

Nothing doing, I say, I will only buy two books. She argues with me for another ten minutes, and then takes another tack.

“Sir, will you marry a Cambodian?”

I know what is coming next, so I say, well if I do then my wife will be very, very unhappy and angry with me!

“Oh you are married, already?” She exclaims.

I say that I am not only married, I have two children who are very big, that in fact one is bigger than I am. She is even more disappointed.

“How old are you?” she asks.

“I am very old, older than you father”.

Then she asks why did I not bring my wife and children along? I explain that they have work or schools to go to. She asks what do I do, so I explain. She spies my $20 strap sandals purchased on sale in the outlet mall, then she looks at her own little feet, dark with layers of dirt, a little corn on her sole. She falls silent.

We are among the gnarled trunks of a maze of dark trees; waves push us along. Sarit begins to sing—what a gem of a voice she has.

“You can’t sing like your sister,” I tease Cham. Cham shows off. I say, “you know the words but she sings better”. Cham makes a face at me. I say, “you will need to grow up and practice singing more, so you can also sing like your sister”.

The two sisters are suddenly all excited; they have discovered a fishnet in the water which they lift at bit and found little silvery fish stuck to the net. They excitedly call a woman in a neighboring boat, who comes to investigate and harvest the catch. “Is she your mother?” I ask. “No, no, not my mother, just a neighbor”.

We turn around. Cham has a cut on her finger from the net. Sarit sharply asks her to wash it off in the water, which she does. I try to pick up the conversation again, “So what do you learn in school?”

“Oh I don’t go to school any more, I am done with school!”

“What do you mean? Why don’t you go to school?”

She suddenly gets very serious and proper, “You see, sir, we are very, very poor. I have to help my parents catch fish and do other stuff, so I don’t afford to go to school any more. I have been to school for three years, but not any more”.

We reach our motorboat. I hand out two one-dollar bills to Sarit and say that these are for Chams books. Sarit’s face lights up with a most beautiful smile as she thanks me; Cham’s attention is already taken over by her little brother who she is dragging up on to the dugout from the water. We wave one last time and the motorboat speeds away leaving the village on stilts dark against a setting sun, eerily reminding me of a Picasso’s ink drawing of Don Quixote.

The return trip is more hair-raising in the semi darkness; a big moon is up in the sky but it was not much of a help. My bottom is raw with shakes and thuds. At last to my relief we reach a paved road and speed along to Siem Reap. I invite R’Omng to an Indian restaurant. He had clearly never had Indian food before. He struggles with it, and we together manage to finish only half of what we ordered. So R’Ong takes the remainder for her friends at the guesthouse.

Tomorrow I take a bus to Phnom Penh.