13 August 2002

6. - 13 AUG: Phnom Penh prison, killing fields, shooting range, massage at the restaurant and dancing!

I did not expect this to be a day of such intense and contrasting emotions, but here it was. In a few hours I had visited Khmer Rouge torture centers, mass killing fields, had practiced at an army shooting range, had been riding a motorbike recklessly around town, had been sensuously massaged at a restaurant table and had visited a local disco. It is not a normal thing for a capital city to hold a center of torture and an extermination camp cum mass grave at the top of its "must see" list for visitors. Phnom Penh is anything but your "normal" capital city, however. It was, only a quarter century ago, both the scene and the command headquarters of one of the most hard to believe genocidal displays of ruthless, mindless, aimless violence in human history.

Urban society has to a great measure overcome the horror -- two thirds of all Cambodians alive in 2002 were not born when the Khmer Rouge were evicted from the capital city in 1979 and pushed to continue their fight in the jungle; that ratio is even higher in Phnom Penh than in the country as a whole, since urban dwellers were a specific target for physical elimination. The city itself has largely healed from the destruction, though those who knew it before contend that it never regained its pre-revolutionary charm. The problem here is not only the work of the damage caused by the Khmer Rouge but also the mismanagement of subsequent governments.

Tuol Sleng

It was actually a school in the old days, but the Khmer Rouge turned it into a prison and torture center. It is now a museum, and has been kept the way it was when the Vietnamese troops came in 1979. I can see torture beds with shackles, various instruments of torture, tiny cells for detention of prisoners and chilling translations of prison regulations. It is too much to describe in words.

The Killing Fields

A few amputees guard the entrance to the shrine. Their faces are somber, their expression resigned and their eyes communicate deep sorrow. They look like they are in their thirties, which means they are probably in their twenties, victims of landmines exploded when the worst of the civil war was over. We pay a small entry fee (or the upkeep of the shrine) and walk through the door of hell.

Inside the fenced grounds, a huge brick and glass stupa has been erected in the middle of a field, and thousands of skulls have been piled inside. Clothes which belonged to the victims are displayed on a separate shelf. It is a grim scene, and it only gets worse. A few meters further, some of the common graves have been left as they were found, for people to remember: roughly dug holes in the ground, with torn cloth and bones still sticking out of the mud. A few children help point the most gruesome corners to us, and ask for a pen. In one place a human jaw lies half-buried in the thick dirt, to the point where one wonders whether it has been artfully displayed for the visitors; but it does not really matter, hundred of thousands of jaws will lie, forever undetected, in the mud of Cambodia. A small display and a site map explain in various languages what this is all about. It is one of the "Killing Fields" so well depicted in the eponymous movie. Some seventeen thousand people are estimated to have been executed here, a huge number and yet only a drop in the ocean of the Khmer Rouge genocide.

As we leave the site, I give a few Riel to a couple of the amputees who count on alms to get by. One is grateful, but the other is not; he explains with his hands that I gave his buddy more than I gave to him. He has only one leg, but quickly follows me to the van which is waiting in the parking lot. I do not have any more Riel, and in any case it seems to me to be a bit much that the recipients of alms should also set what is appropriate to give. A souvenir shop on the edge of the parking area is also a bit out of sync with the character of this site. I fear this mass grave, which should be venerated as a historical admonition to humanity, may acquire a sort of economical dimension which will trivialize it and does not suit it at all.

On the way back, we are all speechless. A stunned silence pervades our van, where an hour earlier we had all been cracking jokes in the many Italian dialects spoken in the group. One of the distinguishing characteristics by which you can tell a group of Italians is that they tend to speak all at the same time, no matter how many. That no one was so much as uttering a word was in itself a very loud description of our innermost mood after visiting the killing fields.

Pizza in town

By four o’clock in the afternoon we were hungry and stumbled upon “Antony”, a pizza parlor with a pretty good collection of French wines to boot. I am always sceptical about Italian food abroad, and especially here since there were no Italians in sight, but there is not too much that can go wrong with pizza after all and this was the only open eatery in sight. The only problem was, in the middle of the afternoon, there was no one to make the pizzas. We were served our drinks and sole cold foods and the owner said he would go look for him. Which he did, and after a pretty longish wait – but we could not complain, it was the middle of the afternoon and this is no round-the-clock eating North American country, in an Italian pizzeria one would simply have been told to come back at eight in the evening – the pizzas started to make their way to the table, one by one, slightly undercooked but edible. During the wait and while munching on my pizza margherita I wondered whether anti-globalization activists would protest about the pernicious globalizing effects of pizza, which preceded McDonalds by many decades as the most ubiquitous standardized food the world over. They might say it hurts local tradition by preventing foreign patrons from tasting local foods and might even create a dangerous and expensive addiction among Cambodians. They would be drawn away from their healthy culinary tradition and pushed toward this round piece of doe with tomato sauce and other assorted bit on it. Come to think of it, a pizza could be a good symbol of globalization, it also has the right shape, it is round just like the globe!

The shooting range

To go to Cambodia and to speak of war and guns is one and the same thing. The ubiquitous "No Guns Allowed" signs are a constant reminder that until just a few years ago firearms were as common here as in the Wild West. They are a bit less common now. We were nonetheless surprised to learn the army provided anyone with a few dollars to spare the opportunity to experience the kick of playing Rambo for a few minutes and four of us decided to give it a go – the others went shopping. The most excited were the two girls!

The road to the shooting range passes by the airport, and I recalled reading how this was the scene of some very real shooting only five years ago, during the latest violent coup d’etat. It is mid-afternoon and a traffic jams slows us down. This is one of the few places where I actually liked traffic jams: for one, it means we are slower on the million pot-holes and our backs greatly benefit from it; also, jams are an indication of activity, and while conscious of the problems of sound and air pollution, it is encouraging to see Phnom Penh alive.

After a few kilometers we turn right into what is obviously an army base. A few dozen very young soldiers in smart fatigues are practicing on an obstacle course; practicing for what, now that the war is over, I am not sure. But a large army serves a domestic purpose in Cambodia, it allowed its top brass to claim a larger slice of the state budget and increases their prestige and the perks which go with it.

Just past the obstacle course a small building with a wall display of all kinds of guns awaits us. A couple of European tourists who have just completed their shooting are on their way out and we are now alone with a couple of Cambodian officers. In broken English they lead us around the display: Russian, American, Vietnamese, Indonesian rifles, machine guns, pistols, carabines, and a whole host of other rifles unknown to me -- shame on me, after working at NATO Headquarters for seven years can not even recognize guns… A few meters further down some targets are ready and waiting for their share of lead. We are presented with a menu, much like what you get in a restaurant, with the price of ammunition. Bullets are between 50 and 90 US cents each, depending on the type, several times their market cost, but hey there is supposed to be market capitalism in Cambodia now right? We buy a few dozen rounds for the for AK-47s and M-16s, two symbols of jungle warfare, put on our ear muffles and off we go.

I am somewhat disappointed that the M-16 is actually a recent Indonesian copy and not an American original; they do have some of the latter as well, but they are old stuff from the seventies and tend to jam, oh well never mind. The officers set the guns on "semi-automatic", ie we must pull the trigger for each bullet, or else our store of ammos would be through is a few seconds! It is with some trepidation that I start to aim; at first, it is somehow not funny to shoot live ammunition, not here in Cambodia, not after having been to the killing fields. Then, after the first few shots, it all begins to feel what it is supposed to feel, ie just target practice.

We shoot and photograph each other in turns, and after twenty minutes we are done. Before returning the guns I see some purple flowers on a plant and I can not resist picking a few and taking a few more pictures with flowers in our gun barrels! The young Cambodians laugh… well that's good, that they can now laugh at guns, it is probably one more sign of the passing of an awful era. Upon leaving the range, I did not especially relish the thought that we had just contributed twenty-five dollars to the budget of the Cambodian army – that is if, and it is a big if, those in charge of the shooting range kept proper accounting of their receipts – but the exhilaration of shooting with an AK-47 and an M-16, I admit, prevailed over any lingering sense of guilt.

Anyway, the problems in the Cambodian army are far more serious. It is way too big for either the defense needs of the country or the budget. International donors have provided aid to provide opportunity for military personnel to fid jobs in the civilian life. Soldiers have been offered tractors and sewing machines to help them integrate into the economy, but with mixed results. Much remains to be done.

dinner at Pam Lok

The chubby owner racalls how during what he calls “the communist times” – which he somehow subjectively defines to mean “up to 1993” – the restaurant already existed but only had four or five tables and very little, if any, choice of dishes, There are now perhaps tewnty tables and the choice of appetizers and main courses is enormous. To make things easier on non-Khmer speakers (the restaurant is not cheap for average Cambodians, but we saw both local and foreign patrons) the available choices are presented in a fat photo-album: under each photograph – there are two per page – the dish is explained in Khmer, French and English and the price is given for small, medium and large portions.

Each of us was waited upon by two or three waitresses who must have been in their late teens or early twenties (it is late in the evening and most other patrons were finished and on their way out) who, together with their male colleagues who take care of drinks, bread, etc. exuded a sparkling joie de vivre which betrayed their relative immunity to the horrors of the recent history of their country. They were born after the end of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979 and although they had lived all their lives in a poor and dictatorial country, they had not experienced the genocide (though surely all of their families had) and could have a reasonable hope for a better future. After dessert, a real treat: one waitress took position behind each one of us and began and neck and shoulder massage which really was an unexpected and surprising pleasure. I feared this would be reflected in our bill, but it really was not.

...and disco

At the end of the meal, the owner suggested we go for an evening of dance at a disco, in which it became soon clear he or his company had an interest. I do not like discoteques. I never did and I am pretty sure I never will. In fact I do not like dancing to begin with, any type of dancing, and I detest loud pop music. To be precise, I do not like to dance myself, I do not mind going to a ballet or watching others dance as long as the accompanying decibels stay within the two-digit range. The only few times I went dancing in my life were either as an adolescent in the United Kingdom, during a couple of Summers spent there learning English, and the only purpose then was to pick up classmate girls on the floor, it was a sort of heavy duty work that I abhorred but had to be done if I wanted the chicks. Or, more recently, visiting Russia and Ukraine as a NATO official to discuss political and military cooperation and partnership with the former enemies of the West; after the long formal working sessions and ensuing vodka inundated dinners our friendly Russian or Ukrainian interlocutors often would insist on going to a discoteque, and it would have been too rude to refuse – so let us say in this case I did it for the cause…

In Phnom Penh, I went along because I was curious to see a Cambodian disco and the kind of crowds that would frequent it. I feared they would look just like those everywhere else in the world. I was right, which will probably keep me safely out of further discoteques for a few more years. The general ambience and décor (psychedelic lights and pop music loud enough to prevent conversation) was the same you would find in a discoteque in Toronto, Turin or Taipei; Berlin, Boston or Bombay. Also the absurdly overpriced drinks were the same. However, one felt more protected here than in an equivalent Western establishment: a prominent sign by the door announced that no guns were allowed inside, thus relieving fears of getting caught in the middle of a salsa and merenge shoot-out! No photographs were allowed, either, phew, my privacy was not at risk! When I said I just wanted to take photos of my friends bouncing like monkeys on the dance floor I had to argue with one of the bouncers who wanted me to leave my camera by the entrance; I was reluctant to part with my Nikon, but had to solemnly promise not to turn it on. I said I understood the no-gun policy, but why no photos? The reply was that certain habitual patrons, such as high government officials or foreign diplomats, did not want to see themselves in the pages of the local tabloids in possibly compromising positions or company! Speaking of the latter, I became slightly suspicious when the restaurant owner offered to let the waitresses come to the disco with us. As they were so friendly, we packed as many as would fit in our van and went ot the disco together. I expected some sort of advance, and was nearly certain this was a thinly veiled offer for sexual services which would be meant to wrap up our sumptuous meal and wild dances. I was wrong. The girls danced with my friends (I did not dance but sat deep in a soft sofa with my switched-off Nikon on my lap, sipping gin and tonic) seemed to have a good time, and when the moment came for us to go back to the hotel they hitched a ride on some passing motorbike, waved good-bye and went home. I was relieved.

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