And at every hostel, every guesthouse and hotel that we stay in, we meet tens of other likeminded people. Young people traveling the world. But a surprising lack of Americans. Numerous Australians, British, South Africans, Europeans, Canadians, but no Americans. Maybe it’s the time of year? I don’t have an answer, but I find it striking. But our evenings are never spent alone. And it keeps Leah and I from getting tired of each other’s company.
So This Is Southeast Asia
There’s something exhilarating in standing out. Moving from the anonymousness of being a white man in America to being the only english speaking white person on the block. At least for the first few days, I like the stares I get. I feel like I’m interesting, even if it’s only superficially based on my race. From Teipei to Phnom Pen to Ho Chi Minh City, I tower over everyone. And while I clearly stand out, this isn’t Africa where seeing a westerner is a novelty. Tourism is abundant enough that most people pass us only with a smile and a nod—and there’s a reason Cambodia is called the land of the smiles.
Our first four nights are in Phnom Penh. 30 years ago, the streets would have been empty, devoid of everyone, while its millions of citizens starved to death in forced labor and death camps in the countryside. A totalitarian regime as brutal as any the world has ever seen, the Khmer Rouge envisioned a classless, egalitarian communistic country. Work would redeem their country and only if every person grew food could they free themselves from Western influences. The year was set as 0 and the Khmer Rouge ushered in a new age purging anyone seen as a threat. They massacred foreigners, the racially un-pure, the educated, the intellectuals, those that had glasses. Soft hands—a sign of education and city life—was a death sentence. Four years after their rise to power, they had slaughtered two million people, a fourth of the country’s population.
Today, Phnom Penh is packed. Mopeds, buses, and Japanese cars pulsate in a never-ending contest of life and death. Weaving in and out of traffic—on roads devoid of lanes, lights, and signs—vehicles scrounge for the meager inches that separate them from their surrounding cars. It is utter chaos, yet somehow it works. But I sure won’t be driving on the roads anytime soon.
And we peruse the streets. Walking, wandering, getting lost. While rides are only a dollar or two, my legs are my favorite way of learning a city. I am struck at the seeming disorder. There is no clear industrial area, or tourist area, or food area. Car shops neighbor restaurants; pharmacies and junk shops parallel hotels and souvenir stores. High end shopping malls rise up in the most improbable locations. Surrounded by only street vendors and markets.
But the smell. Oh the smell. On the same street I move from delicious aromas of cooking Pho and roasting chicken, to the nauseating stench of rotten fruit, piss, and trash heaps. I randomly stop at street stalls, spending 50 cents on mystery meals. Some are delicious, some unpalatable. Tarantula is like a cross between crisp chicken skin and liver. Snake—bones and all—tastes like chicken. Crickets are decent. As I hold two roasted beetles in my hand, actively voicing my concern over this dietary choice, a local Cambodian laughs at me. I offer him the second beetle. He promptly pops it in his mouth. Not to be out done, I give him a thumbs up, and eat mine. I spend the next 10 minutes picking beetle shell and cricket legs from my teeth.
The tragedy of Cambodia’s history is not immediately apparent. Cambodians pride themselves on their resilience and “live-in-the-moment” attitudes. Khmer Rouge soldiers and killing field victims have forgiven one another. Understanding that foreign influences and fear were responsible for their actions, not hatred towards their fellow brothers. But the evidence is still there. Torture prisons stand in Phnom Penh’s center and the mass graves of the killing fields lie only several km outside the city.
I shared a beer with a middle aged British writer who spent his last four years writing about the Khmer Rouge. He tells me about the largely unknown influence that the Chinese had on the genocide. China, used its money, power, and weapons to assist the Khmer Rouge in their climb to power. After killing any resistors, China had effectively created a country whose sole purpose was growing food, food that was happily sold to China for weapons as millions of Cambodians starved to death. “But I sure as hell didn’t put that in my book,” he said. I ask why not? “Because people get killed for that shit.”
Tuktuks—motor bikes with small wooden cabs attached—constantly offer their services. Lined one after the other, within ear shot of one another, they without fail, ask one by one if we need a ride. Hopeful that perhaps after the previous five steps, we have miraculously changed our mind. The most commonly promoted “package deal” is a trip to the “Killing Fields” and then the chance to shoot everything from rockets and machines guns, to M16s and AK47 at the ranges. I refuse. Seems very distasteful and disrespectful to me. Learn about the horrors of the genocide, then go try your hand. I can’t imagine the backlash if tourist shooting ranges lined the outskirts of Auschwitz.