A Buddhist Kingdom’s Descent Into Hell

All That RemainsIn light of this story in the Washington Post today about the trial of a former Khmer Rouge prison chief, I thought I would post a story I wrote for publication while I was in Cambodia. It was never published, as the travel editor I was working with was laid off the day after I filed the story. Some of my posts on Cambodia can be found here and here.

Phnom Penh, November 26, 2008.

Auschwitz, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen: each name is immediately recognizable as the scene of heinous crimes. But if you mention the words ‘Tuol Sleng’ or ‘Choeung Ek’ you’re almost guaranteed to draw a blank. What? Where? Huh?

Tuol Sleng served as the detention and processing center for enemies of the Pol Pot regime; the sentences were carried out at Choeung Ek, better known as the ‘killing fields.’

I was very hesitant to stay in Phnom Penh. And I certainly didn’t want to witness ground zero of Cambodia’s self-immolation. But the morning after I arrived from Saigon, however, I grabbed a tuk-tuk, the Cambodian equivalent of a tri-shaw and made my way to Tuol Sleng.

Toul Sleng is a former school. In the center sits the old administration building. Flanked on the left and right by two story buildings made up of classrooms the campus resembles an ‘E’ laying on its back. In the center of the campus children once played, laughed and dreamed. But no longer. A rough silence blankets the school grounds while the city surrounding goes about its business. Touts call out for tourists, beggars beg and the assorted smells, burning plastic mixed with the spices of the East waft in the air. South East Asia lives on in Phnom Penh.

The first two rooms had small iron beds in the middle. Here the regime electrocuted its enemies until they confessed their crimes. All questions were canned, the answers predetermined. The rules of transgression were clear, and posted outside the rooms: “While getting lashes or electrocution you must not cry out. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.”

The next room I visited was filled with rows and rows of black and white photos of the men and ‘processed’ here at Tuol Sleng. All were old and grainy, adding verisimilitude to an atmosphere of silent terror permeating the school-cum-prison. These simple black and white photos, the act of looking into the eyes of the damned, spoke more eloquently than any monument to human suffering could.

A young man with long fuzzy hair stares into the camera, eyes wide in sheer terror. His look haunts my nights still. A young girl, not more than 18 years old, looks out with a piercing, stoical gaze. A grandmother, short-haired, toothless, scarf hanging from her shoulders peers into space, exhausted. Another young man peers into the lens, head cocked in a last act of defiance; knowing what awaits. And finally, a boy, no older than eight or nine years old appears on the verge of tears.

Just who were these enemies? Mostly educated Cambodians, although the many children in the photos betray an all-encompassing barbarism. Some victims were even pulled off the street for the crime of wearing spectacles. The goal of all this torture? Pol Pot’s desired creation of an agrarian worker’s paradise.

I left the school grounds shaken, clambered into my tuk-tuk and drove to the outskirts of the city. The countryside surrounding the capital remains distressed. Blue skies and high, wispy cirrus clouds hung overhead. Below, in the fields death crouched. UXOs, the silent enemy, lay in the fallow rice paddies. Brambles and weeds hiding the deadly foe in what were once orderly, prosperous farms.

In the distance a large stupa (a Buddhist temple of sorts) rose up over the wasteland. As I drew near it grew larger and larger, until it was the equivalent of a four-story building. Unaware of what awaited me at Choeung Ek, I strode up to the stupa. Had I known I’d see four floors of glass encased human skulls—like a sickening high school terrarium project gone awry—I doubt I’d have continued. All showed signs of head trauma. Some with skulls shattered by blunt force, others with small, neat bullet holes. Each are very, very real. All the last remains of lives snuffed out by wanton cruelty and social engineering.

Before Pol Pot’s regime turned Choeung Ek into a charnel house it was an orchard. It is still fecund, trees grow all around, grasses and weeds proliferate. Water is plentiful. Tropical songbirds sing in the trees above the dozens of shallow graves littering the area around the stupa. Signs narrate the gruesome tale. One informs the visitor that the mass grave at her feet was filled with around a hundred women and children, all of whom were naked at the time of their execution. Another is nailed to a tree where executioners bashed the brains out of children. A glass case filled with bones and a cup of teeth is all that remains of the child victims of Pol Pot’s regime.

The sign that disturbed me the most said, “Magic Tree: The tree was used as a tool to hang a loudspeaker which make (sic) sound louder to avoid the moan of victims while they were being executed.” That man can be so cruel and cunning in devising a system that drowns out the voices of the dying, for the executioner’s ease, is unspeakable.

I returned to my barren hotel room, pondered heading to a bar to drink away what I witnessed but thought better of it.

There is much more to Cambodia than it’s heart of darkness. And there is hope. But it’s tenuous at best. Even now famine stalks the Eastern portion of the country. And yet, the people outside the capital are warm, generous and happy. Angkor Wat, adjacent Siem Reap, is stupendous, worth a full week’s visit itself.

But no visit to Cambodia is complete without seeing Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek. In one century man has committed four major genocides: those perpetrated against the Armenians, European Jewry, Cambodians and Rwandans, not to mention those against the Kurds, Bosnian Muslims and Kosovars. One, in the Sudan, is already underway in the 21st century.

“Perhaps there is a lesson to all this,” I thought to myself later that evening. Nothing is unique about any of them and complacency is deadly. If this once peaceful Buddhist Kingdom can collapse into an orgy of inhumanity so might we. It can happen anywhere.

Final Thoughts On South East Asia

ReflectionsI just had duck rice for dinner, which will no doubt be my last duck rice for a while. I’m in my hotel room and the usual packing ritual awaits. I can’t bring myself to do it, just yet.

First things first: this will be my last post for at least a week. I will be on a boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean and I doubt I’ll see an internet cafe floating by.

I’ve been in South East Asia for almost seven months now, three of which were spent in Singapore. I’m not ready to leave. And I’m not sure why. Is it because I’m not prepared for India? Or is it because South East Asia exceeded my expectations? I would imagine it is a combination of both.

I remember that first Saturday, July 5th, 2008 when I took this shot of Singapore’s Central Business District and it seems like an eternity has passed since then, both chronologically and emotionally. Have I put the time to good use? Yeah, I have. Seeing the things I’ve seen, doing the things I’ve done and most especially meeting the amazing people along the road have made this leg of the journey special. I never expected to enjoy, much less find a facsimile for paradise in South East Asia. If Lake Toba was the highlight, these last two and a half weeks spent in Malaysia have been eye opening and extraordinary.

(Today’s photos can be found here.)

More after the jump.

I mentioned before that most South East Asian countries are very homogeneous–at least the ones I visited on this trip. But Malaysia is the very antithesis of homogeneity. What makes Malaysia work is its diversity. Take a look at the shots from today, especially those labeled ‘faces of Kuala Lumpur.’ There are Tamils, Malays, Buddhist monks, Westerners and Chinese. They are old, young, men and women, covered and not. But what’s most impressive about Malaysia isn’t its dynamism, it’s that Malaysia has done it Malaysia’s way. No ‘Washington Consensus‘ here. Their economy works for Malaysians and the common good, something it shares with Singapore, although Singapore is all about an open-economy, Malaysia’s is just different. And that’s one of the reasons the country didn’t slump as hard and as long as so many others did during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1998. Indonesia has never recovered.

Malaysia is relatively clean, cleaner than Thailand, but not yet up to Singapore’s exacting standards. The countryside is gorgeous, palm plantations, wild jungle, tea farms and many, many mountains. All of it is green, tropical, wet and humid. ‘Tropicalness’ is much more pronounced in Malaysia than it is in Vietnam, or Laos or Thailand–but not as strong as Indonesia, although I didn’t get to see Malaysian Borneo–next time I hope.

And Malaysian food has distinct differences between those of the other South East Asian states. It’s much more Indian and frequently ‘halal’ food is de riguer in most places. Sure, you can find bacon in Chinatown, but that’s about it for pork and other haram foods here. However, the Malay’s aren’t hardcore Muslims. They aren’t Saudis, for sure. Women seem to get on well here. I imagine a part of that is because there is such a significant minority of non-Muslims in the country that hard core sharia law wouldn’t work here anyway.

It’s funny to think that I blew right through Malaysia when I left Singapore, heading strait to Chiang Mai. It’s probably a good thing too. I might have wasted a bunch of time here. There is still so much to see. I can’t believe I missed Pulau Perhentian! It’s the one beach I was willing to travel to in South East Asia, mostly because it’s not like Phuket and filled with a bunch of beer swilling hoodlums, or Bali, which is just too overdeveloped for my taste. I found Toba, and for me that is enough.

All the South East Asian countries have their charms. The frank honesty of the Vietnamese, the sweet smiles from lovely Thai girls, glorious Angkor and the mellow Mekong in Laos are but a few. But if it were my choice, I’d recommend Malaysia for the three reasons: prices are excellent, you can see just about anything that South East Asia has to offer in Malaysia and the multi-cultural diversity is just impossible to beat. One never knows what one will see in Malaysia.

Alas, of all the places in South East Asia I loved the most, well, that’s a no-brainer: Lake Toba was simply astounding. But I’m grateful I saw them all, or at least all but two: Burma and the Philippines. Next time, I keep telling myself, next time. And now I am going to go engage in the ritual of packing up, preparing to move on in the hopes that I’m ready for India this time, that I’ll not be too overwhelmed, or get too sick.

I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t a bit anxious. And I’d be an even bigger liar if I told you that I won’t miss East Asia. I will. I’ll miss hearing the languages and the amazing (and sometimes awful) smells. I’ll miss the smiles and I will miss the food. But the first leg of the journey ends tonight and the second begins tomorrow. As the Spanish say, “Traveller, there are no roads. Roads are made by walking.”

One in Five Humans Starving

House on WaterIf you don’t think there is a global food crisis you are wrong. One of every five people on this planet are either starving or malnourished. If my experience in Cambodia was any indication of what this means, let me reiterate what I saw there: massive inflation, massive poverty, urban and rural and a severely distressed countryside.

Cambodia was the most expensive country in South East Asia–but also the poorest. Why?

Mostly because the influx of foreign aid has caused a massive rise in both corruption and inflation. (Oh, and Angelina Jolie is supposedly building a huge house there.) Add to that much of the countryside being very distressed, still littered with UXOs and lying fallow you have a recipe for disaster. Now toss in a rise in food prices due to inflation and a concomitant price decrease, due to the commodities market collapse, in what the farmers can get for their rice and you have a massive mess:

Still, a country like Cambodia helps illustrate that lower prices have not ended the crisis. The price of rice – the country’s staple food – has gone down by about 7 percent since August. But observers say that’s not enough to offset the staggering 25 percent inflation of the last year.

“Workers already spend about 70 percent of their income on food. Prices have gone down, but they’re still higher than other years. If you look at people’s income versus inflation, many more are poor today,” says Yang Saing Koma, president of the Cambodian Center for Study and Development of Agriculture, a think tank in the country’s capital, Phnom Penh.

Again, almost one in every five people on this planet are either starving or malnourished. Think about that. Sure, you’ll never see it in America, we hide our poverty too well. But it is real, very, very real.

The ‘Conversation’

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long, long time. Finally, after traveling through Cambodia it coalesced into something meaningful. It’s about a ‘Conversation’ that the developed nations of the world and the undeveloped nations of the world are having. And it is a conversation that is going to get more intense in the next two decades. It’s a simple conversation, but one I do not think the developed world understands. I also don’t think the undeveloped world understands it either. Or, rather, neither side understands the stakes, both are in denial about it and it isn’t going away.

I’ve seen 43 independent nations on this planet. The majority of them have been developed countries, or those just on the cusp of developed status when I was there. South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Mexico being the top four in that category. For those of you who’ve been to Mexico and don’t consider it developed, well, visit Ethiopia or Cambodia or India and compare and contrast. Mexicans have it much better than most of the world. The reason immigration is so intense is that America has had so much better. And that is the main point. The conversation is this: there is no way all the inhabitants of this planet are ever going to have a standard of living equivalent to that which we have in the West. It’s not going to happen. And those in the undeveloped world I believe are in just as much denial about it as those of us in the West who aren’t talking about it. I’m not a Malthusian by any means, but I’ve seen enough of the world, enough of the deforestation in place like China, Malaysia, Cambodia to know that there isn’t enough wood. I’ve been to the Middle East and know there isn’t enough oil. I’ve seen countries like Ethiopia where famine is just one poor rainy season away. Too many places on this planet are on the brink of systemic ecological breakdown. China being chief among them. The ecological devastation in China is immense beyond words.

As I said, there is no way all the inhabitants of this planet are ever going to have a standard of living equivalent to that which we have in the West. So something is going to have to give. And I don’t know what that means. Does it mean the West will see a decline in living standards? Will some global cataclysm occur to change the dynamics? I just don’t know. Mind you, I’m not an alarmist. But I know enough about history to realize the worst can happen–and will. Anyway, these thoughts, as I see above, are still ill-formed. But it struck me as I drove across Cambodia that there was no way they would ever have our standard of living and it saddened me. But it also disturbed me on a very deep and profound historical level. I guess you could call it one of those, “what does it all mean,” moments. Color me confused.

The Road To Phnom Penh: On Border Crossings and Bus Travel

Me and the Mekong FerryOne of the best aspects of traveling by bus is border crossings. No, not the bureaucratic bullshit you have to endure, but the chance to see almost instantaneous changes in culture, architecture and politics. Take the Cambo-Vietnamese border for example: one moment everything is orderly, almost militaristic, clean, surrounded by high-Asian Communist architecture of bland, blocky lines. And the next moment everything is immensely poorer–and Vietnam is not a rich country–and dirtier–and Vietnam is not a clean country. The architecture on the Cambodian side is a crazy blend of Hindu and Buddhist, much more baroque than Thai or even Laotian temples. Everything is now a disorderly free for all and as you pass further into Cambodia the houses change from the well mannered small farms with pens for all the different animals and sheds for farming machines to houses on stilts, thatch roof huts, pigs, chickens, goats and humans all sharing the same space. Whereas agriculture in Vietnam is more mechanized than that in Cambodia this means that water-buffaloes proliferate. So do cows, the Indian kind.

House on WaterA lot of the Cambodian countryside lay fallow too. It’s obviously been farmed before but it has the tell-tale signs of two or possible three decades of neglect. Brambles, thatches and weeds cover an older layer of well plotted paddies that now look like swampy wastes. Seldom is my window view broken by a free holder reclaiming the land. It’s obvious, just by the distress in the countryside that Cambodia is still a broken land, whether it’s ‘killing fields’, UXOs, or the memory of Pol Pot’s atrocities. And the widening disparity between wealth and poverty has grown into a perverted chasm of gluttony and suffering.

As one approaches the city the gap widens again, becoming ever more obvious. Large, huge homes, newly built, sit behind great barricades and fences. Next to the fences shanties and lean-tos betray the needs of unemployed men and youths who gather by as Mercedes’ rush by with armed motorcycle guards. As always, urban poverty is much uglier than its rural cousin. Children with one arm, or both mangled from UXOs are an all too common sight on the streets on Phnom Penh. There aren’t many smiles, as the dark wind of history has only recently blown through Cambodia, it lurks just under the surface. I’ve seen haunted places before, but never an entire society.

Phnom Penh is a dangerous city too. Petty crime is on the rise and tourists are advised to leave all their valuables inside hotel safes. Offers to buy ‘little girls’ are almost as common as those to buy ‘skunk weed’ and ‘heroin.’ The runny noses of addicts, jonesing for their next fix are visible on almost every turn. And even though Cambodia isn’t as intense as India it runs a close second here in the capital. It’s filthy and the smells are less than salubrious, a combination of human, animal and vegetable waste wafts over the city.

As for the provenance of all this grief? Some would point their fingers in righteous anger towards Nixon and Kissinger. But like all historical morality tales it’s just not that simple. One must also look to the Vietnamese who started the chain reaction of Cambodia’s implosion by using the country as a sanctuary on the road to liberating the South, in a sense forcing Nixon’s hand to bomb the country, thus further destabilizing it to the point where a monster like Pol Pot could flourish. Sure, America played its part, but it is far more complicated than the one-off ‘black and white’ narratives which dominate the discussion still.

Meanwhile, back in the capital, a barge fights the strong current of the Tonle Sap, creeping slowly upstream with a cargo of bricks. Colorful flags ripple in the breeze along the waterfront and I’ve ordered too much food. I feel ashamed. I leave two spring rolls on the plate, while not 25 meters away a woman holding a naked child begs.

Cacaphonous shouts ring out. “You want tuk-tuk Mr,” yells one young man. Another says, “Motorbike?” And another asks if I want the ubiquitous ‘skunk weed’ on offer. Lots of construction machinery is everywhere. Making a hell of a racket on the riverfront. But the Tonle Sap ignores it all, flowing relentlessly downstream towards its union with the Mekong and then the South China Sea.

It’s a completely dollarized economy–ATMs dispense dollars and everyone takes them. Naked infants, toddlers and young children run amok. The Cambodians, I think to myself, resemble the Mayans. They are short, stocky, stout and dark. Even the architecture reminds me of some of the big lipped, big eared Olmec statuary of Mexico.

The language shares clear affinities with Thai and Isaan and sounds very, very little like Vietnamese. Words have many more consonant clusters and syllables than Vietnamese, which has a morphology based on mono-syllables.

The Hindu influence, as I have already mentioned is extremely prevalent. Much more so than in Thailand, Laos or Vietnam. It’s like parts of the country have been preserved in amber since the fall of the last great Hindu kingdom in the 14th Century.

Every country has its travel rhythms. Those in Thailand are laid back. You go to the bus station to move from place to place. No hard sell. It’s similar in Laos–except mopeds are difficult to rent in many places. The buses and roads in Laos are atrocious as well. About as bad as Georgia and Ethiopia.

Vietnam was pushy, aggressive–they want to get you from one place to the next, especially as there is always a commission involved. They pick you up at your hotel and take you to the bus. And the buses are nice–comparable to a Greyhound back home. The buses in Thailand run the gamut from awful, as in Laos, to plush, like the VIP cruisers in Mexico. Three rows, a TV and they recline almost like a bed.

In Cambodia, however, travelers are guarded. The fear, while not palpable, isn’t too far from the surface. The buses that make the main travel run, Ho Chi Minh City-Phnom Penh-Siem Reap-Bangkok are nice. They come equipped with a toilet, unlike those in Vietnam and Laos where you are at the mercy of the driver’s bladder not your own. They also collect you at your hotel. All in all, buses are a nice way to travel here in South East Asia, especially with the closure of Bangkok’s airport.

Finally, getting around Phnom Penh is rather easy. The tuk-tuk drivers are always in your face, but as supply way outstrips demand haggling is a breeze. If you walk away they melt, immediately. You can then climb in and drive away to whatever site awaits your attention.

My Latest ‘Young Turks’ Exclusive

My latest exclusive ‘Young Turks’ post is up. You have to read it there, that’s why we call it exclusive. The topic is my visit today to the Cambodian Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Prison. Extremely disturbing visit.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I’ve posted a handful of photos from Cambodia, here. Today I am, reluctantly, off to see the atrocities museum and the ‘Killing Fields’ monument and museum. I’ve been to places like this before, well, not exactly. I visited the Ossuaire de Douaumont in Verdun France, the one made of 600,000 bricks, representing each French poilu felled in the battled that raged here. And it was grim. I’ve also visited just about every major international battlefield of America’s foreign wars. But I don’t think anything has prepared me for something like this. Hence, the reluctance. I don’t know how I will react or what I will find. But I’ll do my best to faithfully report back what I find.

Off To Cambodia

Alrighty then! Saigon, it’s been fun. But not that fun, as I spent most of time here recovering from a stomach bug. But that’s no biggie. It’s a cool place with a great atmosphere, although the air quality needs a little help. Will I ever come back? Doubtful. But hey, I’ve said the same thing about a lot of places and ended up there once again. How about a top Ten List for Vietnam?

10. The countryside. Stunning and gorgeous.

9. Being 38 and actually getting catcalls. (Yeah, I know, they were from working girls, but a guy can hope, no?)

8. Freshly made spring rolls.

7. Pictures of Ho Chi Minh everywhere!

6. The people.

5. The ruins of ‘My Son.’

4. Hoi An.

3. Seeing Da Nang and the place my Uncle Paul died.

2. Da Lat and nice fall weather, even though I’m in the tropics.

1. Cafe Sua with ice. Nothing beats the heat like a good Vietnamese iced coffee. Starbucks be damned!

And with that I bid Vietnam adieu and head off towards Cambodia.

Two Months Today

Saigon by NightHas it already been two months? I realized it just a few moments ago sitting in a sidewalk café, sipping cafe sua, that wonderful Vietnamese concoction of strong coffee, condensed sweet milk and ice. Two months have passed since I walked away from the world of corporate America into the real world and I haven’t had a serious bout on loneliness or with ‘the darkness’ as I call it yet. I’ve only been sick twice–once was just a minor cough and I laid in bed all day to make sure it stayed minor, and the stomach bug.And if you count my time in Singapore I’ve been gone almost five months. The longest stretch since I lived in South Korea in 1994-95. Thirty-eight years old with a not-so-good back and I’m doing it. I’m actually surprised I’ve lasted this long. But you know what? I feel good.

Earlier I walked down the street here in Saigon just marveling at the fact that I was here, happily trudging the road one step at a time. I remember when I was making plans in Singapore for this quest I am on. I did make backup plans–there is a flight out of Singapore on the 24th of December just in case; just in case I got worn out, or tired, or lonely. But I feel good, ready for whatever comes next. And what’s even more surprising is that I’ve met several people around my age doing the exact same thing.

So what country is on deck? Well, this morning I bought a bus ticket to Cambodia, Asia’s Heart of Darkness. I’m leaving in the morning for the capital. There I will do some digging around and report for the Young Turks on Cambodia 15 years after the Peace Accords of 1993 were agreed to. I hear strange things about Cambodia and am curious to see what the place is like.

Two months? Amazing. It does look like I’ll be heading down to Indonesia to see Frank’s cousins after all, the teaching gig in China, well, they just couldn’t be flexible with a short-term contract. So, I’ll do Indonesia, then swing back up to Malaysia and catch a January ship out of Port Klang to Chennai. After that who knows. I’ll let the road rise up to meet me.

Frank’s Cousins Or Han Gao-Tzu?

Penguins!So, I’m in Saigon and the stomach bug seems to have experienced its Waterloo yesterday. Now that I’m feeling better it’s time to start thinking about my next moves. I’m definitely going to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat. That goes without saying. But as to what comes next? I’m actually rethinking my plans. It seems the boat from Singapore to India is pretty regular, running every twenty days or so, which makes this method of travel reliable and relatively cheap. It also means I can put off the journey for any amount of time to see some other places in the region I really want to see.

One of those is the Komodo Islands in Indonesia. I’ve always wanted to see a komodo dragon up close and personal (although not too close, as one bite would lead to massive infection and quite possibly death). I’d love to see one of those six to eight feet bad boys eat a live goat. That would be cool. And besides, it would give me a chance to visit East Timor and do some reporting on the place for The Young Turks. But it’s a damn long haul down there. I’d have to backtrack all the way down the peninsula (I’ll have to anyways to catch the Tiger Breeze) and then travel down Sumatra, Java and catch a ferry to an island in the Flores Sea. Add to all that, a new country, new bacteria, and more damned heat. I know to you winterbound folks up Minnesota and Canada way that’s a pretty babyish thing to whine about, but I’m sick of the rain. The 75 degree weather in Da Lat was a nice reminder of what fall should be like. And it is November, even if it doesn’t feel like it right now in this steamy South-East Asian metropolis they call Saigon.

Which leads me to option two: I’ve been offered a short-term teaching gig in Xi’an, China. It’s only for one semester, mid-December through late April. It’s part time, includes housing and the pay is reasonable. The benefit is that it is Xi’an–the imperial T’ang capital, a place I have visited twice and written about in my book. And it would afford me some time to explore the battlefield where the Xiongnu beat back the great Han army of Han Gao-Tzu two thousand years ago. It was a pivotal battle in Chinese history. And any chance to explore the arid Ordos Loop is a chance I’d really like to take. I’d also be able to experience some cooler weather, maybe cooler than I’d like, but still. It would also give me a chance to brush up on my Mandarin and Xi’an is the absolute best springboard into Central Asia. It’d be quite easy to take the Khunjerab down into Pakistan as soon as it thawed and then into Afghanistan.

We’ll see what happens. I’m still waiting on some more info from Xi’an, but I’m really leaning that way right now. But it would mean no komodo dragons. And I think it would make Frank very mad!