09 August 2002

2. - 9 AUG: Enter Indochina, a little corruption and massage

After an uneventful flight, a tropical Summer night welcomed us at the airport of Siem Reap (pronounced Seem Reep), the modern city which rises next to the ruins of ancient Angkor – which means "the Capital" in Khmer, and was indeed the capital of the Khmer Empire from the 9th century to 1431, when the Emperors moved to Phnom Penh’s region. The air was hot, very hot, completely still, and invasively sticky under my shirt. Pearls of sweat began to form on my forearms as I descended the plane's ladder, before I even had a chance to touch the Cambodian soil. The few uncertain floodlights which punctuated our solitary airplane's parking area cast an eerie spell over the tarmac. After a short walk, we were directed into the arrivals building. At passport control, two lines formed under a battery of lazy fans which churned the air from the ceiling above: first we lined up to have our passports checked, then again to get a visa. Funny, usually you get a visa first and then have your passport checked and stamped, but never mind.

At the end of the visa line we had the first direct experience of the petty corruption for which some South East Asian border posts are deservedly notorious. We all needed a Cambodian visa but would later require a Laotian visa in the continuation of our travels. Laotian visa offices have been known for their peculiar habit of refusing a visa unless they can slap it on a perfectly virgin page of a passport. Loredano had only one blank page left in his well worn passport, and therefore he needed to have his full page sized Cambodian visa – for which each of us must pay twenty US dollars, several days' wages for an average Cambodian – placed on top of an old and faded Italian stamp, which sat alone and forgotten on another, otherwise clean, page. This way, he would be able to use the blank page for the Laotians later. Knowing the guys in uniform on the other side of the table could be difficult, he pragmatically offered a little tip of two dollars for this special favor.

I am obviously against bribing one’s way to get what one has a right to, especially if that right has just been purchased with twenty dollars. However, when small sums of money are involved, it sometimes …pays to be practical and a little tip can save hours of aggravation. It is not right, but it is not worth wasting one’s time on. “No problem", said the officer in charge of visas, keeping his cool but obviously smelling blood in broken but unequivocal English, "but that will be ten dollars". Whaaaat? Ten dollars just to put a visa sticker on one page instead of another? Roberto urged Loredano to pay up and shut up, it was late in the day, we were tired and we might have had problems with the Laotian consulate later. Outraged, Loredano refused to pay a ten dollar bribe after having hardly been ten minutes in the country and his bright green Cambodian visa landed, implacably, on his passport's blank page. And the Laotian visa? We would cross that bridge when we got there, though we feared the ten dollars saved today from the greedy Cambodian officer might end up costing even more when we would have to face his Laotian colleagues. (In fact once in Phnom Penh, it will translate in subsequent painstaking work to carefully erase the old Italian stamp with a sharp blade and thus produce another blank page for the satisfaction of the Laotian visa officers.) With that, we are out of the airport.

Freedom Hotel

On the way to the improbably named – as of 2002, there is still precious little freedom in Cambodia except on paper documents such as the Constitution and on hotel signs – we passes by a row of spotless new or renovated hotels which have sprouted up after the country opened to international tourism in the early nineties. They mostly catered to the hordes of foreign visitors who fly in and out of Siem Reap in organized package tours to spend a couple of days in the magnificient ruins of Angkor. These hotels appread as magnificent oases of impeccable comfort, all the more in stark contrast with their surroundings of dark muddy roads, precarious shacks of corrugated sheet and dusty street markets. They glitter with tastefully arranged halogen lights which illuminate individual palm trees, walkways and fountains. For anything between two hundred and two thousand US dollars a night one can be completely insulated from the reality of life in Cambodia.

As we drove by, I wondered, what was the point of visiting a country as poor as Cambodia – per capita gross national product just a bit over one thousand US dollars per year – and spending most of one’s time in these artificial capsules of otherwordly luxury? Why go to Cambodia to sleep how no ordinary Cambodian will ever sleep, where a night in a superior suite cost easily more than a year’s average salary? To eat food which is probably quite good but bears little resemblance to the average fare of Cambodians? To be driven to and from the sights in softly cushioned air-conditioned buses? Surely, to get a better idea of this country, like of any country, one should try to get closer to the ways the people live, eat, work, play, and move around as they do, should one not? I felt a sort of superiority complex as our little rattling van headed toward the dimly litFreedom Hotel, where real Cambodians come to stay and eat. I also felt some contempt for those arrogant Western or Japanese tourists who travel to visit the world but always expect to find the same infrastructure they have at home and are easily disappointed when they do not.

And yet, as I kept thinking about it, it appeared to me that this question was not so simple. Anyway, how much more of a direct experience were we really going to get just because we would be closer to a few more Cambodians, with whom however we would have precious little substantial interaction? As far as the Cambodians themselves were concerned, these hotels provided jobs, far more jobs than the twenty-dollars-a-day Freedom Hotel. They attracted high-income tourists who would otherwise not visit the country at all; moreover, they would not just spend for their hotel but will eat out in premium restaurants, buy the most pricey souvenirs, etc. is they will inject loads of money into the local economy. Even if the big international investors who own most of these hotels repatriated some of the profits, the posh tourists will provide jobs for far more Cambodian families than we budget travellers.

Only the most obstinate idealist would argue that injecting more money into the local economy and providing more jobs is a bad thing. Funnily enough, such people, whom I would describe as the ultimate conservatives, in the sense that they strive to save the old ways, are usually found on the left of the political spectrum, and would probably reject to be so labeled, except perhaps they would see themselves as conservatives inasmuch as the environment in concerned.

Not to speak of the fact that the Western and Japanese (now even Russian and Chinese) who checked in at the grand hotels would spend a far more comfortable holiday than we would at the Freedom, and what was wrong with that? We all live at home in ways which an average Cambodian would not dream of, what is the point in pretending to be like them for a few weeks, dipping our toes through the surface of underdevelopment (or poverty, or traditional ways or whatever one wants to call it) and then retreating back to our consumerism? Who are we trying to fool? Not the Cambodians, they are quite aware of the material gap between us and them, and far the most part they want to bridge it. Maybe, in the end, we are trying to fool ourselves. When visiting an exotic country, we love to feel genuinely local for a few weeks and come home persuaded this was a more real experience than if we had admitted all along that we are not, will never be and anyway do not want to be like the locals.

In less than twenty minutes we cover the distance from the airport to the Freedom Hotel. We have hardly checked in and we see a small sign behind the counter which advertises massage by the "Seeing Hands". Custom has it that many massage parlors are a prerogative of the blind in Cambodia; there are dedicated training centers to give these unfortunate fellows who do not see with their eyes a chance to see with their hands and make a decent living. These are serious massage enterprises, no sexcapades envisaged. I am sure one could get “special” massage in Siem Reap if one wanted to, but we did not look for them and they were never surrepetitiously offered to us. Or perhaps they were but we just did not get it, who knows, we were tired…

We dropped our luggage off in our rooms and five of us booked an hour of massage.

Massage by the "seeing hands"

After a short van ride, we were in a dark side street in downtown Siem Reap. In no time we were lying down on five beds in an otherwise empty room which looked a bit like a hospital ward and was equipped with neon lights, a couple of crancky fans and a Japanese air conditioning unit. Most importantly, the window shutters all have mosquito nets, not an insignificant detail since this is the rainy season and this is a country where malaria is pretty much endemic, though not so severe in towns as in the jungle. The air-con unit was the reason why our massage cost six dollars an hour, it would have been three dollars in a non air-con room but it was so hot and it was our first day so we decided to splurge. Yet, as I changed into the white robe which I found on my bed, it was a bit disturbing to reckon that one hour of operation of a Japanese air-con unit was priced at fifteen dollars (three dollars times five of us sharing its use), ie the same price of one hour of work of four trained Cambodian masseuses and one masseur. But then I thought that if this was what the (mostly foreign) clients want, why not? At three dollars per hour per person over and above the price of the massage itself, the association of the seeing hands should pay off the Japanese machine fairly quickly and then make a handsome profit. We were told the money is used to help the blind, there are no third parties involved. Hope this was indeed the case, I did not feel so bad anymore after all and got ready to enjoy the treat.

Odd, after twenty-four hours of intercontinental travel we landed at night in the middle of a completely foreign country and the first people with whom we had any significant human interaction were a team of young blind masseurs and masseuses. As they found their way a bit awkwardly around the room, and then, confidently, around our shrouded bodies, we could not help first cautiously smiling and then laughing at the scene… and at each other, as some – I, for one – were a bit ticklish at the soft touch of the seeing hands deploying onto our bodies! For a moment, I feared we might be perceived as disrespectful; as they could not see us perhaps they might have thought we were laughing at them. But there we were, lying flat in our clean white robes and enjoying the careful but very firm and sure touch of the seeing hands.

Then, the five of them immediately broke out in a loud irrepressible giggle of their own that would continue, on and off, interspersed with only a few spoken words, until an hour later, when we left the premises… Were they laughing at us? Well, surely not at the way we looked in our silly white robes – last time I had seen myself in one was at some toga party at Georgetown a quarter of a century earlier – since they can not see us! Was our language funny? Was our own laughter contagious? They must have heard this kind of reaction from first-timers so many times, and clearly they did not understand a word of what we are saying. It was actually the four masseuses who were doing most of the laughing, the masseur perhaps did not feel too well, as he kept caughing; to be polite, while massaging Luca, he would turn his head when coughing and direct his virally charged exhalation toward the intake of the air-conditioning unit, which of course would immediately spit it out nice and cold for all the rest of us in the room to breathe. No matter, they just kept laughing. Perhaps they were just exchanging the latest town gossip, how presumptuous of me it was to think they had to be speaking about us.

After all, our relationship with them was absolutely asymmetrical. Everything about them was new to us: it was our first day in their country, the first such interaction with a group of blind people, most of the environment was also new. But to them, we must have been just another five bodies, more or less the same type of foreign, unintelligible bodies, under the same white robes, as they must have gotten pretty much everyday, several times a day. Anyway, considering they were working late in the evening, they seemed to be having a jolly good time, and we did too… a good way to start a journey in Cambodia. We paid our six dollars each to a (seeing) staff of the “Seeing Hands”, who carefully counted them and thanked us, and after a few minutes were back at the hotel and fast asleep.

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