Chapter 21 – That Which I Can’t Relate To
We’d started our only day in the Cambodian capital by getting up early, walking out the hostel and facing our nightmare from the evening previous. In the light of the morning sun, Phnom Penh was a different world. The streets that had caused my penis to invert with fear the night before had sprung to life. Women walked away from the market with armfuls of fresh groceries as hoards on motorbike made their way to work. Sure, the dire poverty hadn’t gone anywhere and still disturbed the hell outta me, but I found it less difficult to cope with during the day than when arriving around one in the morning with a massive Tet hangover.
Following directions given by the man at the hostel’s front desk, we crossed the street, cut through a park and began heading toward a centuries-old Buddhist temple called Wat Phnom. Not having walked a whole five minutes, we could already see the white-colored, cone-shaped stupa of the site from which the city had derived its name craning its neck out over the trees.
As we drew closer to the imposing structure, the sidewalk ended giving way to a wide open grassy area. There, sitting in silent meditation, had been a young group of monks wearing bright orange body-length robes that’d only covered one of their shoulders. Had they not been so peaceful and quiet, I might’ve mistaken their posse to be a bunch of frat bros who’d been getting ready to head over to the Sigma Chi house to chase some tail, pound some brews and paddle all the freshmen wimps at a tangerine toga party.
In the area just beyond these holy men had been a small hill covered by a pristine lawn and the enormous, grass-backed clock that’d been built into it. The hands and the numerals of the Megatron-sized Rolex appeared to be made of stainless steel and had been encircled by a shrubbery-strewn brown stone curb. Atop the hill housing the ticking timepiece that would’ve driven Captain Hook off the wall was Wat Phnom.
On our way up to the temple, we came across more orange-robed monks who’d been offering their praises alongside a large crowd of incense-waving civilians, photo-snapping tourists and a huge-ass elephant named Sambo that I would’ve loved to have seen, in one fell swoop of the trunk, rail a fat line of some pure, uncut, Colombian bam-bam.
With only one more flight of steps to traverse before reaching Wat Phnom, a dead bird had come falling out of the sky and landed at our feet. Situated at the top of the ledge in front of us, overlooking the stairs had been a pair of elderly Cambodian women with a small crowd gathered around them. Perched on the ledge between them had been a cage filled with some of the tiniest birds I’d ever seen. While watching to find out how one of them had gotten from there to where we’d been standing, I’d gotten the gist of their routine. Why they’d been doing it, I haven’t a clue but the ritual went as follows.
One of the golden girls would reach into the cage, snag a handful of these little dark-colored creatures and then pass them over to the other woman who, while reciting some sort of chant, would throw the handful up towards the sky. The majority of these things would fly away but a few had either gotten crushed or suffocated during the hand-off and, following a flight pattern similar to that of the tenth Challenger mission, would go slightly up before their lifeless bodies came crashing down to earth.
Once at the top of the not-so-high hill and a safe distance from dead bird attacks, we began to have a look around.
Considered one of the country’s most sacred structures, the strange, upside-down funnel of an edifice – the one we’d seen from afar – had stood about eighty feet above ground. I don’t know if this description would be appreciated by those who hold this stupa – as it’s called – in such high regard, but the thing appeared to me as a massive white Hershey’s Kiss that had melted a bit and become slightly elongated from having gotten squished around in some forgetful kid’s pocket. Next to the stupa had been the main pagoda, or temple, to where all the almsgivers had been flocking. We too began to move that way.
At the time, to cope with the heat, I’d been wearing my normal Southeast Asian ensemble of ratty thrift-store-bought basketball jersey thrown on top of some filthy white shorts that’d had dirt all over the ass. Looking around the temple grounds, even though monks with their shoulders exposed had probably showed as much skin as I had, I could tell that I fucked up. Pretty much every non-monk man on the premises had been wearing khakis or jeans and long-sleeved, collared-shirts. Although playing the role of insensitive, underdressed white jackass had made me feel uneasy, I continued to explore.
Before heading in the temple, I’d at least had enough sense to do like everyone else and remove my sandals at the entrance. Just inside the doorway, a bunch of dudes had been playing live music using some crazy-ass instruments of which I’d never seen or heard the sounds. Among others, one mellow-ass dude sat like a beatnik and kept everybody in time on some sort of bongo drums while another percussionist banged away on a circular set of mini-gongs which he’d sat in the center of. I’d have liked to have stood there and watched ‘em rip out a few more tunes but as soon as I started to slow down, I began to feel the gentle nudging of hands on my lower back signaling that I keep moving forward.
Although a fair amount of sunlight had been seeping in from the open doors, the room had been brightened by an army of orange and gold-colored candles that had each been about the size of Sambo the Elephant’s coke-blowing trunk. Every inch of the walls, the ceiling and the two rows of pillars holding it up had been covered with frescoes depicting images and symbols important to Buddhism. Although a wide variety of colors had been used in these paintings, the artist(s) had decided to go heavy on the greens, blues and a Ron Weasley shade of burnt orange to get the message across.
Almost every part of the ground in the garage-sized temple had been covered. While trying not to trip on the members of the band, the array of candles or any of the fragile-looking artifacts scattered about the floor, I did my best to not stand between any the bowing, kneeling, incense-wielding almsgivers and the room-sized golden Buddha staring back at them from the perch of his heavenly altar near the front of the temple.
Like Donny in The Big Lebowski so often had been, I was out of my element. The Buddhists in attendance were truly and sincerely dedicated to their beliefs. I’d never felt that passionate about anything in my life. Contemplating my spiritual void while surrounded by people on a totally different level of consecration in their place of worship had made me feel as uncomfortable as a fire hydrant would in a room full of thirst-quenched and asparagus-fed dogs. I needed to get outta there.
Making my way along the very narrow, unobstructed “middle path,” I headed for the door. After gathering my flip flops, I reconvened with the O’Shaughnessy’s and we headed towards our next destination.
From the looks of a homemade map we’d been given at the hostel, Cambodia’s Royal Palace seemed to be the attraction closest in proximity. The route we’d chosen to get over there led us through an area called Sisowath Quay that runs along the brown-watered junction of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. As we strolled along this well-manicured riverfront parkway lined with posh-looking hotels, cafes and bars, I took notice of all the locals selling junky wristbands, knockoff sunglasses and other trinkets out on the street. Similar to the DVD-slangin’ hawkers we’d encountered in Saigon, these vendors were quite adamant that you buy whatever it is that they’d been pushing. Taxi drivers and tuk-tuk operators offering their services had been no exception.
While slowly but surely making our way to the Royal Palace, I could sense we were being followed. Peering to my side, I noticed a slow-rolling tuk-tuk inching along several feet behind us like a molester zoning in on a hot, velcrow-footed kindergartener he’d been “flirting with” every day on his way home from school. I’d accidentally made eye-contact with the man.
“Hey! Hey you!” the driver shouted from the side of the road as herds of motorbikes and the occasional Mercedes blew past. “You take ride! I give you ride!”
“Nah man, Royal Palace,” I pointed at the destination towards which we walked. “We’re just goin’ right up there.”
“No, no, no, no, no! You ride!” he added while waving a piece of paper at us. “Choeung Ek. Toul Sleng. Phnom Penh tour for you!”
The O’Shaughnessy’s and I looked at each other. It had only been like ten o’clock but was already ninety degrees out. Aside from the Royal Palace, none of the other stuff we’d wanted to do was within walking distance – at least on a day as hot as that one it hadn’t been. So, we decided to check out what he had to offer.
As we’d approached the man on his auto rickshaw, he reached out and handed us the laminated slip of paper he’d been waving around. On the menu, with fixed rates for each, had been about six or seven tourist attractions around Phnom Penh that this guy was willing to drive to. Each destination had a corresponding photograph next to it. The pic that had caught my attention was that of a government-run gun range. In it, a Cambodian military officer had been assisting some sunglass-wearing jag-off in a basketball jersey who stood taking aim with the rocket launcher that’d been resting on his shoulder. I wanted to be that jag-off.
As a group, we’d decided to first visit the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, then the shooting range and would end our tour by having our driver drop us back off at the Royal Palace from where we could walk to the hostel. Accordingly, the three of us rammed, jammed and crammed into the tiny carriage behind his motorbike and pulled away from Sisowath Quay.
During what ended up being a long-ass tuk-tuk trek out Phnom Penh and through the countryside, I realized how devoid of infrastructure most of Cambodia remains. Not too far away from the hustle and bustle of the capital city, street signs and advertisements disappear. Fast food chains are non-existent. Even markets were nowhere to be seen. The only sort of commercial activity I’d noticed out in the boonies were mom and pop roadside fruit stands and your occasional homemade gas station which had been quite a sight to see.
Every so often on the bumpy-ass stretch of road between PP and Choeung Ek, we’d pass up a thatch-roof hut or two on the side of the road surrounded by nothing but miles and miles of rice paddies. In front of some of these huts had been makeshift shelving units stocked with old school, glass-made, gasoline-filled Pepsi bottles. That was it. No pumps. No signs boasting ridiculously high prices. That was the whole thing. The simplicity of it all was so beautiful. When comparing and contrasting the drastic differences between these primitive filling stations and the ones back home, I couldn’t help but think of a high school classmate’s cannabis-induced blunder that never would’ve happened had we grown up in this Third World environment.
I’m unsure of the exact time and place in which this incident had occurred, but the tale remains clear. My buddy Garrett – a dude who everyone had always ripped on for being a John-Deere-riding hillbilly – had been high as a satellite when he pulled into a Chicago gas station to refuel the parched tank of his gas-guzzling ride. After rigging the nozzle to let the fuel flow without his clench clamping the trigger, Garrett sat back in his pickup truck and, moments later, had forgotten what he’d been doing and could not figure out why he was at a gas station.
Neglecting the task which he’d initiated but had not yet seen through to completion, my man stuck his key in the ignition, started his car and began driving away from the fuel pump with the nozzle still stuck in the side of his ride. After hearing a loud “clank” which had caught his attention, Garrett peered into the rearview mirror to check out the source of the disturbance. This is when he’d noticed that the gun-shaped dispenser had become detached from the now dangling hose which’d been spraying gas all over where his car had just been parked. After fleeing the scene of the crime, The Urban Hillbilly disposed of the figurative and literally smoking gun that he’d accidentally stolen from the refueling station and, from there on out, opted to get his gas from other locations.
Following a bumpy fifteen mile ride southwest of the capital, Mr. Chan, our tuk-tuk driver, drew to a halt and pulled up to a gate off to the side of the road.
“Okay,” he said. “This Choeung Ek. I wait out here.”
We thanked him, paid an entrance fee and marched into The Killing Fields.
Just inside the grounds, off to the right, had been a little museum. To get some background on the site before wandering around, we’d decided to pop in.
The inside of the museum had been pretty crowded. The only display without anyone in front of it at the time had been a glass case housing a hoe, a stick, a wooden club, a sickle and some other farming tools. I approached it and inspected the rusty old bamboo equipment from up close. I then read the description printed on a white piece of paper at the bottom of the display and my stomach dropped.
“Actual weapons used by the Khmer Rouge to kill enemies of the regime.”
I moved over to the next display which some other tourists had vacated.
“Towards the end of 1980, 86 of 129 mass graves were unearthed in this extermination camp and 8,885 corpses were found.”
I went on to the next one.
“All the victims (peasants, workers, intellectuals, ministers, Khmer diplomats, foreigners, women, children…) detained and tortured during interrogating at Tuol Sleng were later sent to Cheoung Ek for liquidation.”
After reading the rest of the captions and checking out the artifacts, I left the museum and went to walk around The Killing Fields.
The grounds at Cheoung Ek had looked like the surface of a golf ball. Craters were everywhere. Above a few of these holes had been signs written both in Khmer and English. Next to one of the larger pits was a sign that said, “MASS GRAVE OF 450 VICTIMS.”
Not too far away from the last sign had been another that read, “TRUCK STOP: Here was the place where trucks transporting victims to be exterminated from Tuol Sleng prison and other places in the country stopped. Each truck held 20 to 30 frightened, blindfolded and silent prisoners. When the trucks arrived, the victims were led directly to be executed at the ditches and pits or were sent to be detained in the dark and gloomy prison nearby.”
I moved along.
“THE DARK AND GLOOMY DETENTION: As the number of victims to be executed was increased up to over 300 per day, executioners failed in attempt to kill them within a day. That is why they were detained for execution the next day.”
While making my way around the site, I’d learned that back in its days of operation the camp had been equipped with electricity. I’d also learned that the death squad at The Killing Fields was not allowed to use bullets on the prisoners. Bullets were considered too precious. Instead, they were directed to use the farm tools I’d seen beforehand in the museum. Since these weapons weren’t made for killing, they didn’t always do the trick on the first whack or whacks. As such, the wounded prisoners would often scream. So, the electricity not only allowed the Khmer Rouge to kill at night but also run ambient noise over a set of loudspeakers to drown out the verbal agony of the political prisoners being murdered.
The next sign I encountered had been adjacent a tree of which the bark had been chipped off the trunk. Although the message on this sign had been one of the shortest, it was easily the most disturbing.
“KILLING TREE AGAINST WHICH EXECUTIONERS BEAT CHILDREN.”
The final sign in the area around the mass graves read as follows.
“THE CHEMICAL SUBSTANCES STORAGE ROOM: Here was the place where chemical substances such as DDT…etc. was kept. Executioners scattered these substances over dead bodies of the victims at once after execution. This action had two purposes. Firstly to eliminate the stench from the dead bodies which could potentially raise suspicion among people working nearby the killing fields and secondly was to kill off victims who were buried alive.”
Beyond the graves had been a several-story-tall memorial stupa that serves as the centerpiece of The Killing Fields. The majority of the remains on the site have been exhumed from the pits and placed in the stupa. At the core of this obelisk-shaped monument is a four-walled tower made of acrylic glass. Within this case, the bones have been placed on separate levels according to gender and age. Among the collection are more than five-thousand human skulls. The shattered bone fragments deemed unworthy of eternal stupa storage continue to lay as they had over the past thirty years amid tattered-ass pieces of clothing at the depths of the mass graves.
It remains unclear exactly how many people were killed between 1975 and 1979 under the paranoid, “everyone’s a threat to the regime” dictatorship of Communist leader Pol Pot. While totals are often debated, it’s universally accepted that thousands upon thousands of the million-plus who’d died under the reign of the Khmer Rouge had been put to death at the once-peaceful orchard of Choeung Ek.
Tim, Kathleen and I left The Killing Fields with our shoulders slumped and climbed into the back of Mr. Chan’s tuk-tuk.
“Now go shoot gun?” he asked.
“Nah,” after having visualized executioners grabbing babies by the ankles, swinging them around like baseball bats and slamming their faces into a tree, the last thing I’d wanted to do was go and handle any sort of weaponry, “just take us back to the Royal Palace.”
Upon our return to Phnom Penh, we discovered that the palace had been closed for the day on account of it being some sort of holiday or something like that. At the time, it was only a little after noon. We still had a few hours to kill before a three o’clock bus departure to Siem Reap and we decided to spend this time at one of the outdoor restaurants of Sisowath Quay eating lunch and getting drunk. Mr. Chan was invited to partake in the merrymaking.
As the O’Shaughnessy’s and I sipped Beerlao while discussing our plans to visit the temples of Angkor the following day, Mr. Chan’s eyes lit up.
“Oh? You go Siem Reap?”
“Yeah, we’re headed there this afternoon.”
“You already have driver?”
“Let me call my brother! He do tour there. His English better than mine. You want?”
“Okay,” he whipped out his cell phone, punched some digits, put it to his face and started jabbering in Khmer. A minute later, he turned back to us. “You go this afternoon?”
He relayed the message to his bro and nodded.
“He say it good. So I drive you for bus here at three o’clock. He waiting when you get there. Good?”
“Yeah man. Sounds great.”
Photos from Phnom Penh and Choeung Ek…