Every year on July 4th, I am reminded of where I was on this same day in 2006. [Original post here. Click through for more/better pictures. All photos are mine.]
Happy 4th of July! this year it sort of snuck up on me, and i guess i “celebrated” by crossing the border from Lao into Cambodia. amazing the freedom with which i can roam around this area, despite the fact that America really hurt these countries during the Vietnam War (i believe Lao is the most bombed country in history). the bus ride was hellish, probably the worst of the trip. started out in a Toyota Camry, then switched to a mini-bus that bombed down mud roads, over massive potholes, and once the monsoon hit in the afternoon, the road became a giant Slip'n'Slide, at one point, requiring a few people to get out and push the bus away from the steep edge of the road, back on to more solid ground so we didn’t continue to slide off through the mud, into the jungle.
as we trucked along through the night (the trip took from about 8AM to midnight), we passed children playing in the street, well after dark, and at one point, saw a young woman laying on the side of the road. Luke and i thought she was asleep or something, but one of the Cambodians said she was probably dead. welcome to Cambodia.
according to Luke, who has been here before, we had to see the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng, a museum about the Khmer Rouge and their tactics in the 70’s. so Mike, Jimmy, Emmanuel, and i go for a ride. i will mention that most tuk-tuk drivers try to also take you to the “shooting range” while you are at the Killing Fields, where you can fire AK47s ($1/round), throw hand grenades, hell… shoot a bazooka. i’ve also heard you can get in a tank and fire one, and if you’re really twisted, i’ve also heard of people shooting at farm animals and whatnot. we decline.
get to the Killing Fields, where the Khmer Rouge took captives to be executed and buried in mass graves. there are still pieces of clothing and bones laying around the grounds, and a monument in the center is filled with thousands of human skulls, complete with bullet holes and whatnot. i feel sick, and i want out.
we leave, and go to Tuol Sleng. what was once a school for children, was turned into a prison and torture center during Pol Pot’s reign of terror. thousands died here, and their photos are all displayed. i force myself to look at as many as i can, despite the fact that i am near tears, and close to vomiting. it is miserable. the methods of torture are sickening, and the displays are graphic. i feel more and more weight on my shoulders with every step, harder and harder to continue looking, but not turning away, because i’d feel worse if i tried to ignore it.
coming out of the museum, we are approached by beggars, a man without arms, another missing a leg, and the one who shocked me the most, a man who looked like napalm had gotten the best of him, his skin melted and scarred. i give him money, despite the recommendations not to by our guidebook and others. it will get him food for a few days maybe, it isn’t miraculous, and it is no repatriation for his scars, if indeed they are from the Vietnam War, and American bombers.
we eventually relax, reminding ourselves that we didn’t make Cambodia like this, justifying our presence there now, and in time, we are able to crack a smile again, and go out for dinner. [photo at right is a man selling gas for mopeds] as we get out of our cab, we are approached by two boys, begging for money in the street. again, it is better not to give money, so we take them to the restaurant and tell the staff to make them some food and put it on our bill. during the meal though, Mike leaves to make a call, and he sees one of the kids down the street… eating a slice of pizza which, according to the boy, was given to him by his mother.
we head out to the Heart of Darkness (aptly titled), a bar that has been around for ages, and is a true tourist site ofPhnom Penh, even if it is quite a hole. upon arrival, it is clear that 90% of the girls inside are Cambodian hookers of one sort or another. (indeed, on the way out, we’d been asked by many guys on the street if we wanted girls, “boom boom?” etc.) these girls are the lucky ones. they go out at night, meet whomever they like, do what they like and charge him in the morning. a much larger portion of the prostitution industry in Phnom Penh are girls sold by their families or forced into prostitution by debt, many are under aged (14-16 years old), working out of makeshift brothels in various areas of the city for prices as low as $2 a pop (this information was read in “Off the Rails in Phnom Penh” by Hunter S. Thompson - a disturbing read).
we spend the night dancing, batting away the hands of the Cambodian girls who try to get close to us (and our wallets), and eventually the scene is old, we leave, catching a tuk-tuk to our guest house. we arrive at our place, and Mike and Jimmy go to pay the driver. there are random Cambodian tuk-tuk drivers and street hustlers all over. after we get out, one of them gets into our tuk-tuk. the others don’t have enough, and i pull out my cash to chip in. i’m holding it in my hand, asking how much they need, when suddenly the guy in the tuk-tuk grabs it and sprints down the alleyway.
i take off after him (later thanking god that i wore sneakers that night as i ran over rock and dirt and debris and avoided giant sewage drains in the middle of the street - 2x2ft squares about 2ft deep). i grab his shirt, but he twists and turns back down the alley toward the others. he must have seen one of my buddies, because he hesitated for a split second and in that moment, i tackle him into the ground, full on leaving my feet and drilling him into the dirt. i get my arms around his neck and he’s flailing about and i have no idea what to do with him, as my money and ID’s have been handed off to another Cambodian. Jimmy and Luke get a hold of that guy, and though the money is gone, they get my ID’s.
someone yells that Emmanuel has been stabbed, and the others saw the guy who did it, giant, rusty machete in hand. i look from my wrestling to see the distinct mark of a blood stain on his back, oozing through his white shirt.
someone yells to leave. looking around, there are about 20-30 Cambodians in the immediate area, and more are coming out from each dark corner. i don’t remember letting go of the original thief, and i don’t even have a clear image of his face. back at the guest house, we clean our wounds, Emmanuel got it the worst with one bad gash in his back (requiring stitches) and another slight graze that could have been deadly (across his organs) had it cut him deeper. among other scrapes, Luke had a hole in his shin from a large rock that was thrown at him during the melee. i got out with a nasty scrape on my elbow, and a loss of about $45, but looking back on it, we’re all just lucky no one pulled out a gun. (this is a place where it is accepted to shoot into the air to call the fire department just fire into the sky from the vicinity of the fire!).
i feel responsible for the whole incident, as i never should have chased after the guy in the first place. looking back, i like to think that maybe he saw the money in my hand and thought it would help feed his family, but who knows.
the next morning, we are eager to leave, though it is an eerie feeling walking out of our guest house, into the same alley, seeing all these Cambodians - some who may have been Khmer Rouge mind you - staring at you, looking for ways to make money “tuk tuk? marijuana? girls?” knowing that some, if not, most of them, know exactly what happened the night before. i would be ignorant to believe that all Cambodians are thieves, and i know they aren’t. it is an unfortunate country, and it is unfortunate that this incident happened on my trip; though it is unlikely that i return to Cambodia soon, it is impossible for me to hold any grudges.