Thursday, March 11, 2010

Day of the dead

I’d hate to be recognisably famous as it would mean that everywhere I went there’d be an endless parade of goons shouting, whistling, honking horns and waving at me in the street. It’d be… well, a bit like the past few days in Phnom Penh actually.

I’m referring, of course, to my old friends the tuk-tuk guys - and the moto guys, I mustn’t forget the moto guys. They’re worse than the ones in Siem Reap, if that’s possible. I can’t have a five-second rest without them pestering me. They even do it when I stop to cross a main road (which, in a busy Asian city like this, can take some time, as you need to seize a moment of relative calm and zigzag through the moving mass of cars and motorbikes like Jackie Chan performing one of his daredevil stunts).

I’ve been so irritated that I’ve reneged on my vow not to be a rude, obnoxious arsehole on this trip, no matter how stressed I am. Yes, for the first time since I set out two months ago, I’ve been telling the more persistent and irritating fuckers to fuck off.

This is my fourth day in the capital, although the first doesn’t really count, since I spent most of it either on the bus from Siem Reap or flaked out in my new hotel room. The only time I breathed any fresh air was on the journey from bus station to guest house. On a moto, naturally.

The hotel in Siem Reap had booked the place on my behalf, which meant a guy was waiting to pick me up and transport me there in a scene straight out of The French Connection (I‘m exaggerating, but it did feel like that as we were weaving through traffic). My big bag rested between us on the seat with my right hand holding it in place. My left hand, meanwhile, was gripping the base of the seat for dear life.

That evening I had dinner in the hotel restaurant watching The Killing Fields, a film I hadn’t seen since the mid-1980s. I don’t think I’d quite grasped the full horror of it then, as an adolescent. In any case, seeing it again brought the tragedies of 1970s Cambodia alive for me. (Later on I had to laugh, hollowly, reading comments on the movie website IMDb from staunchly patriotic Americans who think Nixon secretly bombing the shit out of a neutral country was unconnected with the subsequent rise of Pol Pot.)

The following morning I set out to visit the ‘nice’ attractions of Phnom Penh, in particular the Royal Palace, not realising that it’s closed from 11am to 2pm. By the time midday rolled around I was hot, hungry, disorientated and very, very thirsty, so I stopped for some lunch and decided to get my thick, shaggy hair cut at the barbershop two doors down.

As far as I can recall I’ve had this done twice in developing countries, in Egypt and Turkey in 1996. Both times were an experience and the results were severe but pleasing. On each occasion I was also shaved with a cutthroat razor, leaving my chin smoother than it had been since puberty hit. So when the Cambodian hairdresser started wielding his blade, I readily agreed to him using it.

Scrape, scrape, scrape. Discomfort, discomfort, discomfort. Isn't he going to use any bloomin' shaving cream?

It was the worst shave I think I‘ve ever had, leaving my chin feeling raw, sore and dotted with random patches of stubble. Still, for $2 the haircut wasn’t bad.

The Royal Palace wasn’t exactly shabby, either, and neither was its Silver Pagoda (a big religious building with silver floor tiles), although for the life of me I can’t understand why my not-so-trusty guidebook, The Rough Guide to Southeast Asia, places it top of its “35 things not to miss”. Bangkok’s Grand Palace wipes the floor with it, as do Angkor and several other place I can think of.

I’ll even venture to say that if there’s anything that’s unmissable in Phnom Penh, it’s Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, which formed part of a harrowing tour of not-so-nice tourist sites yesterday. The former secondary school, used as a Khmer Rouge torture chamber and prison from 1975-79, ranks alongside Auschwitz as the most grisly place I’ve ever set foot in. But for anyone interested in modern history or the Cambodian people - damn it, anyone interested in human nature - it offers a fascinating, if horribly disturbing, insight into how political ideology can turn human beings into monsters.

Stepping into some of the former classrooms of block A, you’re confronted in each instance with a bare metal bedstead fitted with manacles. Sometimes above it there’s a large black-and-white photograph (mercifully not that well defined) of one of the 14 mutilated bodies discovered here by the Vietnamese when they invaded Cambodia in 1979. On top of each bed there are instruments of torture, usually poker-like rods used for beatings and the remains of batteries for inflicting electric shocks.

Another block consists of tiny cells, some wooden, some brick. Others contain the museum’s exhibits, among them hundreds of victims’ photographs.

For me the most upsetting part was overhearing a tour group’s guide describing the murders of small children. One common method was to smash their heads against trees.

Then, too, there were transcripts of interviews with former Khmer Rouge loyalists who’d been recruited as teens and worked at the prison. Most consisted of: “It wasn’t me, guv, I didn’t kill anyone, honest, and anyway, why haven‘t they prosecuted the Khmer Rouge leadership yet?“ I wasn’t sympathetic, although I suppose the fact that they were brainwashed when young might count as mitigation.

Another room detailed the experiences of four idealistic Swedes who came to Cambodia on a fact-finding mission in 1978 and had the wool well and truly pulled over their eyes by the crafty Khmer Rouge, who recognised a group of useful idiots when they saw them. Some of the Swedes’ naïve, contemporaneous comments are listed beneath the photos they took at the time, along with their more sober reflections 30 years later. It would be wryly amusing if it wasn’t so tragic.

About 15km out of town, Choeung Ek is one of the numerous killing fields dotted around Cambodia. I went there yesterday morning before I visited Toul Sleng. There’s not much to see - it’s just fields with the positions of mass graves marked out - but there is a Buddhist stupa in memory of those who died. Until I got up close I didn’t realise what was piled high inside it, and when I did I gasped in shock.

The thing is, I’m well aware that seeing all this puts my moans and niggles into context. Put against the suffering of the Cambodians, I’ve led an incredibly charmed life. So, after briefly mulling things over, I thought I’d try to condemn a little less, understand a little more and tone down my irritability. (I don’t know where it’s springing from, to be honest, though I suspect that worries about my planned career change might have something to do with it. I‘m not feeling very secure at the moment.)

Then it hit me. Just this afternoon, as I was coming back from the Vietnamese embassy with my newly acquired tourist visa.

I’m the only person in Phnom Penh who walks anywhere.

At least, I think I am. I rarely see anyone else wandering about. They’ve either got transport of their own, or they’re on a moto or in a tuk-tuk, or they're confined to one place such as the shop they work in.

I must really stick out: the tall white guy in the hat, walking around in the sweltering heat, doing his best to stick to the shady parts of the pavement and scowling at every offer of a ride.

And with that, I took to turning down moto guys and tuk-tuk guys with the best smile I could muster. It’s a pained smile, I grant you, but at least I‘m not telling them to go forth and multiply.

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