One 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.
A 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.