Day and Night: Strife and Frivolity in Cambodia

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Asia » Cambodia » North » Battambang
February 12th 2018
Published: November 14th 2018
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As I sat by the window eating my breakfast at the hotel café I noticed a Cambodian guy outside excitedly trying to get my attention. I didn’t have the foggiest idea who he was so I looked away and focused on my coffee and eggs. I was feeling rather refreshed from my early night and eager to once again tour the countryside around Battambang with my new pal, Sok. I lingered with my leisurely breakfast, downing the last sip of my coffee before exiting the hotel out to the street.

Unfortunately, I did not see Sok anywhere. Maybe he was late? Once again, the guy from the window came trundling toward me. He seemed to be saying that Sok was not going to make it and he would be doing the tour in his place. I must have just stood there blankly in disbelief that this was happening again. But wait who exactly was this? All of a sudden, a wave of recognition washed over me. The guy standing in front of me was in fact the original tuk tuk driver that was supposed to do the tour in the first place. I was slightly disappointed that it wasn’t going to be Sok, but at least this guide, Chim, might actually explain what I was seeing.

The first place that we stopped was a crocodile farm. Unlike Sok, Chim actually went in with me and introduced me to the owners. The crocodiles in the pit were stone grey. Some moved so little that I thought they were statues. In fact, I am pretty sure that there were some actual statutes down there. Before moving on I also got to hold a small crocodile, which was I thought was pretty cool.

We next drove along until we came to an old temple area. Here having Chim was a real asset as he was full of local knowledge. The temple area was actually a Battambang version of the famous killing fields of Phnom Penh. Chim explained that when the Khmer Rouge seized power they had emptied out all of the cities including Battambang. Before coming here, I had thought that this took place only in Phnom Penh, but apparently this was happening all over the country.

In Battambang they had converted the temple complex I was standing in to a prison camp. There were buildings where people were held, torture rooms, and finally the areas where they were killed. Chim explained that the fat, the educated, and the light skinned were particularly targeted by the Khmer Rouge. In that case I said I would have been totally screwed as I fit all three descriptions. In the torture rooms the prisoners, citizens, were forced to give information about their friends. He explained that Khmer Rouge rounded up all the most beautiful girls and kept them in a separate building. Then over the days they would be raped and then killed. This place heaved with sadness.

He then walked me over to a small lake. I could just feel the evil vibrations still buzzing in the air. This was where the prisoners were taken when they were of no longer use to the Khmer Rouge. There they would hack and bludgeon them and then dump them in the water. Often, they would slice open their backs and eat the prisoner’s liver. It was shocking to realize how far down into the depths that human beings can descend into. And this was not in some medieval dungeon. This was done during my lifetime. There was no one else around, just Chim and I. If you looked into the distance all you could see was a beautiful day.

Chim then lead me over to a stupa with an ornate golden roof. When the Khmer Rouge were finally defeated the surviving villagers came trickling back. They collected all the bones they could find and put them in the stupa to memorialize all those who had perished in the “Well of Shadows”.

When Chim would talk about these things he would get really exercised and was still clearly affected by what had happened back then. He explained that when the Americans pulled their troops out of southeast Asia it left Cambodia completely vulnerable. This was because the Chinese and Russians were still supporting the Khmer Rouge allowing them to wantonly slaughter the Cambodian people. Chim said years later when the Americans came back and were horrified at the extent of what had occurred, they apologized for leaving. That was not enough! At this point Chim was practically shouting. Not much to say except to say that I agreed completely.

The rest of the day was spent on more pleasant subjects. We stopped by to see fish drying in the sun and at a place where they made their own bamboo sticky rice. I was hungry by that point and very thankful for the delicious free samples. We stopped by a place where they made rice paper. The girls making it were young, maybe college age. I couldn’t help but think that maybe some day they might want out of this country existence and escape to the bright lights of the big city.

Chim asked if I wanted to buy some spring rolls that they made here for lunch. I declined hoping we would eventually wind up somewhere less touristy like on my tour with Sok. I had pretty much reached my limit of sightseeing at that point. However, we continued to some more sites such as another temple, a giant white statue of Buddha, and a room with a gallery of sitting buddhas. I asked Chim if there was any local place to get lunch. He said that there really were only the spring rolls at the rice paper set up. Hungrily I relented, spring rolls it was.

While we ate spring rolls Chim began to talk about the current state of Cambodia. How the prime minster, Hun Sen, was corrupt and was just interested in getting money and power for his friends and family. Hun Sen was getting increasingly friendly with the Chinese government. Things were becoming more and more like a dictatorship. Even the Vietnamese were coming into Cambodia and buying local businesses and taking the jobs for themselves. It was a very hard life for the Cambodian people in the countryside. No one was looking out for them. After we were finished he asked if I wanted to see the bats emerge at sunset from their caves. My head was so full that I declined, but I wasn’t doing anything the next day. So, I arranged to meet up with Chim then.

* * *

After a nap and some relaxation, I awoke to find that darkness had fallen. I was hit by burst of anticipation and hurried off to chase the night. I was headed back to the area where I had discovered the oil drum bar. In subsequent exploring I had found that the place next to it with Khmer music pouring out actually was calling itself a restaurant. Sounded to me like just the spot for my dinner.

I walked in there boldly in a manner that I would never have done back when I was a fledgling traveler. I have seen and experienced a lot since then. What do I have to fear from a little cross-cultural misunderstanding? The open-air restaurant was full and buzzing. Large tables filled with happy groups. There was a large stage where Khmer girls were signing Khmer songs. Bright colorful lights were strung overhead. I was ushered to a small table for one.

To my fortune there happened to be one waiter who spoke some English. His sister now lived in California. I could not read the menu, but I told the waiter I wanted the Cambodian dish lak lak and maybe another dish with pineapple in it. The lak lak arrived as ordered, but the waiter had gotten a bit confused and sent out to a local market for an entire plate of fresh pineapple.

I sat back with my unique meal and enjoyed the surroundings just happy to be a part of the scene. There was a large table next to me which seemed to be a party of Cambodian businessmen. Occasionally, Khmer girls in cocktail dresses would come over and join them. I just drank my beer and smiled. At one point a couple of western guys wandered in, but were obviously overwhelmed by the foreignness of the scene and stood around confused before retreating back to safety.

The staff had served me well up to that point, but as I tried to order my fourth beer the service ground to a halt. Even when I asked for a simple refill of my ice bucket this short no-necked girl just dismissively dropped one lone ice cube in my beer. I decided that this was my cue to go.

I kept my eye out for the English-speaking waiter. It took a while, but finally he came by and asked if I needed anything. I said just the check please. “Ok sir” and he scurried off. After that the wait became endless and I even found time to make a friend of a young cat who had begun to recline upon my foot. By this time I was thinking, “Where is this guy?” And then I saw him. He was sitting at the next table laughing and talking with all the businessmen and girls. I took out what money I estimated the meal cost, put in on the table, and promptly walked out without looking back.

After a brief stop at Madison’s Pub I began walking back to the hotel. As I walked, I was hoping I would make it back before temptation came wandering my way. I was so close to my hotel when a tuk tuk pulled up alongside me in the street. “Where you want to go Sir?” Damn. “Karaoke!”

I get out of the tuk tuk, all 6’6 foot of me, and start to wander into the karaoke place. The place practically explodes in happy excitement. Girls running this way. Ladyboys running that way. The manager, the only one who speaks English, comes out wearing a white shirt and tie and tells me that I need to wait a few minutes while they get a karaoke room ready. So I sit outside on a kindergarten sized chair, stretch my legs out and wait. I was basking in the attention as everyone was sort of clustering around and observing me. Even though they couldn’t really speak English they still were smiling and trying to talk with me. Finally, the manager came back and sort of laughed at the strange scene. He told me everyone likes you because you are so tall. With that I was ushered into my room.

The karaoke room was massive with a big wraparound couch. Absolutely everything was adorned in red velvet. Two room attendants milled about and got the beers and karaoke machine ready. Then two girls in cocktail dresses came in and sat on the huge couch. Not much communication, but one of them managed to convey that she liked my big nose.

Ok now it was time for the Karaoke King! Unfortunately, while the place was more modern than the place in Siem Reap there was no book of English songs to choose from. I would have to go to the machine to try to find songs. The machine was difficult to navigate and the selection was limited. This led to one malfunction after another. First, I chose “Yellow” by Coldplay, but it was pitched way to high. Then I chose “Let it Be”, but there was no music only words. Then I chose a Lenny Kravitz song. Same thing, words no music. I sat back on the couch while the attendants tried to fix the machine. They chose a random Richard Marx song and told me to sing it. But how could I when I have never heard it before in my life? The room got silent as they worked once more on the machine. I began singing a Blind Melon song a cappella. Then some random dance music started playing. What did I do? Get up and start dancing, of course. They all liked this and began cheering.

I decided to try the machine one more time. The only song I could find that I knew was Mariah Carey’s “Heartbreaker”. Oh, well. It’s better than nothing. EVEN that didn't work. Words, no music. At that point I gave up and handed the attendant some cash and tried to explain that since the machine wouldn’t work that I was leaving, which pretty much consisted of me tugging at my ear to indicate the lack of music. She was pretty surprised as I left to head outside. There was a group of young hoodlums outside and I walked through them saying “Tuk Tuk. Moto.” A couple of them yelled down the street and a motorbike arrived from out of the darkness. I hopped on and directed him to my hotel. Back in my room I burst into fits of laughter at the sheer absurdity of the night.


17th November 2018

"Back in my room I burst into fits of laughter at the sheer absurdity of the night"
You have no idea how this sentence sums up my entire travel history! I also loved reading about your Cambodian adventures. You saw some things I didn't, so I was fascinated. Thanks for sharing.
18th November 2018

Thank you. There's nothing better than laughing at yourself and your surroundings!
19th November 2018

The Well of Shadows
It is hard to imagine the evil of the Killing Fields and the power of the human spirit to endure. Yet when traveling in Cambodia one can feel it and still get lost in theirs smiles. Your blog reminds me so much that every family in that beautiful country is tainted by the slaughter of loved ones yet their optimism and gentle spirits seem to rise above it day to day. And now they have an oppressive dictator. May their spirits continue to rise and burst into fits of laughter at the absurdity of their plight.
20th November 2018

Yes. I was constantly trying to figure out how old the people I met were back when all this was going on and who was born after it was over.

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