If you have not visited Angkor Wat and its surrounding ancient city complex, you have not seen the best of what Cambodia has to offer. At dawn, sunset or throughout the day you will be haunted by the mystery of these ruins, and by the secrets they have witnessed. Angkor remained shrouded in dense jungle until the middle of the 19th century, known to local residents but not beyond, so I had been told..
Literally a wonder of the world, the entire area was steeped in mystery as it re-emerged from the jungle which hid it for so many centuries. Angkor is a symbol of the former glory of Cambodian rulers, a monument to the nation’s proud heritage, a unifying principle.
The city is a testament to the immense power of its rulers over the rest of humanity, a celebration of battle, a glorification of the seductive nature of woman. Soldiers and apsaras, the ancient forms of sexy dancing girls. Here too you will find them, carved forever in the silent stone, just as you will see them in the flesh in every provincial town. If nothing else, this will convince you that Cambodia is by its very nature a place where the power of military force has always been supreme.
When I was living in Cambodia there were two main ways to reach the town of Siem Reap, which lies near the ancient city of Angkor, both of them from Phnom Penh. Either you took the boat up the river (a half day trip) or you flew. These days you can take a plane direct from Bangkok and avoid the seedy capital. The boat was not as safe, with reports of some sinking and others being shot at by bandits. Being the cheaper alternative, and in order to see more of the countryside, I took the boat.
Luckily, it was the right boat. On my first trip to Angkor I met up with a Cambodian woman from the capital who had come up the same day as me. While on the massive inland lake, the Tonle Sap, the passengers witnessed a police patrol vessel nearing some fishing craft. An argument ensued and shots were fired. The captain of the passenger boat, curious, steered towards the others, only to be greeted by warning shots over the heads of those on deck. The woman blamed the captain, as he was endangering the lives of others by not minding his own business.
For many months after the coup many security problems remained. Bandits abounded, especially near lucrative spots frequented by middle class Cambodians or foreign tourists. There were less visitors than normal, with some of the more remote ruins truly a singular experience. You could well be one of very few there. I remember the feeling of awe as, having swum out to the middle of a lake, I was able to stand on a submerged statue of another age. In my own country, Australia, all our ancient monuments were naturally carved by the elements of wind and water. This was unique. How privileged to be able to touch and feel this underwater treasure.
When I wanted my guide to take the motorbike further up the road to be even further away from the few people around, his reply was that it would not be safe. For the very reason that I, accustomed to the beautiful solitude of nature, was attracted to isolated spots, he avoided them.
It is difficult to convey in words the awe which the ancient city of Angkor inspires, in all its moods, from dawn to dusk. Some vignettes will have to suffice. There were always extremes.
For example, during the opening of the renovated five star hotel various performances were held, free for all to attend. One was on New Year’s Day. The governor of the region was seen to be reassuring the Singaporean hotel owner that he had patrolled for a couple of hours beforehand, checking the security of the jungle area surrounding the temple chosen for this ceremony.
High born young ladies of the revitalized Royal Dance Troupe (partly funded by French aid) graced the platforms and while some were peeping out behind temple pillars. A scruffy little beggar girl, complete with diarrhoea stricken puppy, looked on, calling out occasionally to the elegant performers, some not much older than herself. I met an Australian singer who was contracted for the opening, with her boyfriend and we walked down to view the mist rising from a nearby lake between performances. In contrast there were two backpackers tagging along, totally doped out on the local weed.
On another dawn morning, I took a motorbike taxi out to the main temple to watch the sun rise over its rutted walls. Luckily I was the first tourist there. Inevitably before me the resident monkeys had started to play, scampering over the ruins, and not long afterward a couple of the local kids, equally agile, were skipping up and down the steps. The friezes outlined hundreds of soldiers armed with spears and shields. You could almost hear the cries of battle. Panel after panel of gracious apsaras complemented this visual ode to brutality. As the solid light of day diminished the shadows and secrets, Angkor’s half hidden past receded. It became just another magnificent photo opportunity.
We were told that to visit one of the most beautifully preserved temples, Bantey Sreay, we would need to take a road near a Khmer Rouge camp. There was a “tax” on this road, with a checkpoint operated by soldiers. The long trip was well worth it as the rock was of a different type, much harder, so that you could even make out the teeth on the carvings of the monkeys.
As it was a secure area I was wondering why I could hear gunshots nearby. Was it another case of soldiers renting their weapons to tourists at $2 a bullet? What were they shooting at among the trees? Well, surprise.. the target was huge bunches of orchids. There were plenty displayed for sale. An enterprising tourist venture, Cambodian style.
We were at a rock concert sponsored by American cigarette companies. It was down by the river in the centre of the capital. 4th of July, 1997. At a table full of Chinese suddenly the mobile phones started ringing. They left quickly. One or two songs later came the announcement “Sorry everybody, the concert is cancelled. There’s some kind of trouble and you should all go home now. Hey, that’s Cambodia!”
Four of us piled into a car. Now that the music had stopped you could hear it. Booming in the background, like a big surf, but not as constant. Still far away. We drove through streets lined with soldiers and past the Independence Monument roundabout which had four very scared looking young soldiers standing behind hedges, north, south, east and west, guns at the ready.
“I have never seen it like this!” commented one of my companions. I had been in Cambodia three weeks, still staying at a guest house and only just having begun my new job ten days ago. More mobile phone calls, then we knew. The coup had begun.
As the battle sounds were still quite distant I knew there was time to do the essential. I rang Australia from a public phone, then watched two tanks drive down the street. There was a choice, stay with my new friends or go back to the guesthouse. I went back as I only had the clothes I was standing up in.
An unpredictable collection of travelers was holed up there. I had a room on the top floor, with the terrace outside it, and a security fence at the perimeter. This was normally used for hanging washing but it was also a great vantage point. One after the other, the main fuel depots were blown up at the airport and by Saturday evening four furiously burning pillars of smoke blackened the sky. By Sunday morning we could see that traffic was moving on the main street, though there was still a battle raging in our neighbourhood.
Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s palace was halfway up the next street. A stray rocket had exploded in the courtyard behind our building, injuring one person. But other than that the area was safe. I knew people who had been forced to stay for six hours in their bathroom, the most enclosed area of their apartment, while the battle was carried on outside their very windows. They lived opposite the college where I was managing language training. Their windows were shattered and their front fence a mangled mess of iron.
They had witnessed the tempered glass in my college bending with the force of the explosions, but all windows remained intact. The only visible damage was one rocket shell to the outside wall of the grounds, and a very shot up sign advertising the University of San Francisco’s Law Faculty, which rented the top floor. Perhaps San Francisco was the offending part of the sign, for a patriotic Cambodian, rather than the law. One would hope so. Perhaps law was not an English word they knew. Perhaps it was just convenient target practice.
The coup was swift, strategically organised and very successful. So much so that later the Australian embassy referred to it as a skirmish, while the French reduced it to “les evenements” (the events). It was all over, nearly, in a weekend. We lived behind shuttered doors for those three days, getting news from visitors, phone calls, and eventually the television. Towards the end a panic stricken sweaty faced newsreader announced the takeover. Then there was a speech by the big guy himself, Hun Sen, the guy with the eyepatch.
This was the former leader who had not rescinded his power when the U.N. sponsored elections narrowly brought the King’s son to power as prime minister. The U.N. then condoned his appointment as second prime minister. Obviously this was an unworkable solution so in the end it had been resolved in typical Cambodian style, by the gun.
After Hun Sen’s T.V. appearance, declaring victory, there was a news blackout. Hour after hour of music and dancing. This was peace. But the looting went on for days and the kidnappings and disappearances for weeks. And the smoke from the crematorium gave witness to the silence of death.
So clearly I remember that Monday morning, two days after the coup had begun. The curfew lifted at six a.m. As I saw two soldiers turn the corner in the early light I slipped out of the guesthouse, leaving the sleeping bodies of the maids on their benches in the dining room. I needed to see what was happening with my private student, a French tax consultant employed by the International Monetary Fund. I had started teaching him four days after arriving in Phnom Penh. He had not been answering his phone.
His house, a mansion, was located opposite the French Embassy and (although I did not know that at the time) around the corner from Prince Norodom’s Funcinpec party headquarters. The whole street was blocked off but I made my way on foot past the barricades and the guards and kept to the walls. His guard told me in broken French, that “Monsieur est parti, je ne sais pas ou il est.” He also mentioned that he had been told to remain guarding the house and was worried about his family.
For two more days I visited and eventually found Monsieur at home. He had been staying at the Hotel Cambodiana where a lot of foreign residents took refuge, as the Funcinpec headquarters had been one of the first targets. Day after day we continued to have our morning lessons, he offered to pay cash at the end of each one and told me that he was on final alert status. At any day he was expecting a phone call, telling him to leave with 3 minutes’ notice. This was not for security reasons. The IMF and many other organizations pulled out their staff until their heads decided whether to accept the new status quo or not. As far as I am aware, they nearly all did, eventually.
We resumed business at the college after a week and stayed open in daylight hours only. Although the curfew had been lifted, everyone needed to go home before the lonely roads were subject to the thieves and bandits of the night. Every morning I gave my private lesson for an hour and a half then went to work until dusk.
This was a time where you really felt fate at your shoulder. So much depended on so little. Being at the right time in the wrong place. You wondered what was a coincidence or whether there really was such a thing as destiny.
One morning as my student and I were ploughing through financial terminology and trying to make sense of the impossibly worded economic reports generated by his organisation which went on for pages while the authors remained uncommitted to making any recommendations, the world of international finance was quickly forgotten. There was a grenade blast. We rushed out. A child had been hit.
Apparently she had been playing with a live grenade half buried in the grass at the nearby roundabout. True to form the police dealt with the ever increasing crowd quickly and effectively. They aimed their AK 47’s at the sky and let them rip, raining a shower of bullets somewhere, who knew where? We all raced for cover. I noticed Monsieur had no problem with pushing people out of his way. A few minutes later, from the safety of the garden gate, we saw a motorbike speeding towards the nearby Pasteur Hospital. Behind the driver rode another man, the unfortunate little girl being carried limp in his arms. If she was lucky she had a chance. I never heard if she survived.
On another occasion halfway through our lesson a Mercedes pulled up. Monsieur had made arrangements for it to be garaged at his house. Its owner was a French woman whose husband had owned a merchant bank and was now in a Cambodian prison as he had not bribed enough officials to keep out of it. They had lived in a superb treefilled compound in a well to do district near my college and the Australian embassy, which she was vacating.
Not a week later Monsieur’s call came through, as I was teaching him, and he was picked up by his American boss and whisked on to a plane. How fortunate that lady was that I saw her, just by chance in the street, only two hours later, and could give her the news. “Your friend has gone but your Mercedes is still in his garage, for now.”
I really began to wonder what would happen next. There was a hope that things were settling down. We kept telling ourselves that although these were uncertain times the worst was over. But the tension was constant, and every day brought new stories of trigger happy people causing fear or even worse, grief, to those around them. Someone refused to hand in his gun before entering a local bar and proceeded to threaten those inside. People had been robbed on their way home just before curfew. Shots cracked the night time silence. As did answering shots. It was difficult to sleep through this but eventually after a couple of months, I became habituated to the sudden noise of gunfire. I was too exhausted by then to care who was shooting who.
One morning I was about to take a late breakfast when I witnessed a kidnapping at first hand. Three men bundled out of a car with guns, raced into a building and dragged two guys out, kicking them and throwing them into a car. As this happened everybody froze. In the park nearby, person after person stopped moving, arms kept well away from their pockets, they surrendered to silence. All in the same lifeless pose. It was unforgettable. They all looked like frozen zombies. This must have been a memory of those dark days of Pol Pot’s extreme regime. Nobody wanted to stand out from the crowd. The entire human landscape stood still.
We drove around the park and came to a stop at the opposite side, in time to see a soldier outside Hun Sen’s house speaking into a walkie talkie. He had a perfect view of the whole thing and seemed completely relaxed. Mission accomplished.
I looked back at the park. People had started to go about their business again. It looked like a normal day. And the rest of it was, almost.
We all hoped that day by day these kinds of events would merge into the past and fade from view. As the months went on they did or at least there were less of them. Gradually life returned to its previous rhythms, businesses reopened, the roads outside of the capital became safe to use again and life went on.
My search for an apartment in Phnom Penh had been delayed by the uncertainty generated by the coup. We were limping along at work, with most of our corporate clients (non-government aid organisations) temporarily shut down and far fewer individual enrolments in our courses as well. The school’s records of where these organisations were located were very out of date and I wasted hours trying to re-establish contact by going to office after empty office. I really was not sure how long I could handle this situation and not willing to commit myself to a lease.
The guesthouse was driving me crazy, with the television blaring in the dining area nonstop and a nightly Islamic prayer group gathering on the rooftop terrace outside my room. Late one night screams erupted from the room next door. An Israeli had been entertaining himself with two young prostitutes, and obviously something was very wrong. The screams stopped and the two girls left. I mentioned it to the guesthouse proprietor the next morning and the Israeli fortunately left that day. With the tourism business at a low ebb the proprietor had his own problems too.
An English girl working for a mobile phone company who knew someone I knew approached me and asked if I would like to take over her apartment for a month while she was away on holiday. I paid her a month’s rent in advance, as it looked like a way of giving me enough time to find something suitable for myself. This arrangement brought with it some extraordinary consequences.
Her rooms were located on the top floor of a house. The entrance was at the side, and to reach her door you had to pass by the door to another flat located at the back of the house. She told me that she kept to herself and didn’t have any contact with these people, a Cambodian couple with two small children. She also mentioned that I might receive a visit from the owner, who was curious to know who would be in the apartment while she was away. How much she didn’t say you will soon learn!
The power was cut on the day I moved in. Thinking it was an ordinary blackout, which happened just about every third day, I checked up and down the street. No. The power was cut in the flat. I phoned the landlord and his sister and daughter arrived the next morning, presenting me with a bill. Luckily the daughter had a reasonable grasp of English and they were both understanding of the fact that this bill had nothing to do with me, so were prepared to have the electricity reconnected as I explained their tenant would be back in a month.
That morning, I had heard what sounded like some pistol shots, about six of them, as I was making coffee. At that stage I could not be sure where they came from, and in Cambodia there are so many guns that you see and hear them every day of the week. Guns are used as tools as well as weapons, they are used to send signals as well as warnings, strange though that may seem. After about two months in the country I had finally got used to hearing gunshots at night and could sleep through them. Partly this was because I was so exhausted by the deprivation of complete rest.
Before long it became very clear that there was a maniac in the back flat. When I first moved in he was alone there but after a couple of days his wife and kids returned and he would regularly threaten and beat them. The gun would come out, you would hear him cock the trigger, silence would fall. They left again and I realised this was part of a pattern. The Cambodian lady who came to clean for me told me to move out. She said she was frightened to visit the place, because of what she had heard him say. She asked some of the neighbours about him and apparently he was a policeman who wasn’t working at the moment. (Thank goodness for that, at least! What kind of trouble he would have caused while working doesn’t bear thinking about!)
I really had no idea where I could go, and having paid this cow of a girl in advance for the month’s rent, I looked around for help. I was so stressed that the thought of looking for an apartment was too much to deal with, and just hoped that one would turn up by word of mouth, which it did, eventually. In the meantime I approached one of the security guards at work to drive me home each evening and try to check this guy out. He agreed and the days rolled on.
At the same time I got to know a highly placed official in the prisons department, just by meeting him on a bus as I was heading down to the seaside one weekend. After seeing him a few times I told him of the problem and sought his advice. He told me he could do nothing to remove this guy and that mediation was always the best way out. While I respected this, it was clearly time for me to leave.
Through the grapevine I heard of something suitable in a quiet area and took my few belongings there, to start afresh. Can you imagine my surprise when a few weeks later the English woman confronted me with an electricity bill for $20?
It takes all types to make a world, so they say, and in Cambodia there are so many aid agencies that you can literally find something for everyone. This is not to say that Cambodians are so well serviced by such agencies that all their needs are met. Far from it. On the contrary there are so many aid organisations of one kind or another in Cambodia that their diversity is extremely apparent. Non government organisations range from the corporate style operations of Care Cambodia to the smaller budget cooperative ventures like Concern Worldwide. Within the culture of aid, the distinctions between NGO’s and government to government projects can also be quite marked. UN projects are in a league of their own. Ethos, modus operandi, scope of projects, working conditions and of course budgets and salaries vary tremendously.
During and after the 1997 coup, many organisations postponed operations temporarily. Some, like the Red Cross, turned their attention to emergency relief work. Some simply sent their staff back home for a while, to resume when the situation was calmer and conditions afforded more feasibility of successful outcomes. Throughout it all Cambodians carried on as best they could.
I met some fascinating individuals who were working as volunteers. One was a video production specialist, training staff in a women’s media unit. She had an apartment overlooking the river in the centre of town, and amused herself by watching the passing parade, living in her own movie, as she put it. A very positive person, with a house in Nimbin in northern New South Wales, she was close to retirement and still looking for the adventure of new challenges. Another was involved in AIDS prevention and domestic violence issues, which to me seemed like the most spiritually exhausting projects I could imagine in a country such as Cambodia where prostitution and private armies were endemic. This woman was extraordinarily happy, gaining strength from the abundant energy she put into her work and from her many collages of photos of friends and family in New Zealand scattered around the walls of her home. One I met found herself teaching English in Cambodia as a volunteer simply because she had nothing better to do, a sad case.
The Irish had by far the best parties. Word would get around town and pretty much an open invitation was extended. One of the best was a couple of months after the coup when people really needed to let their hair down. Cambodian guests arrived, ate and left early while the revelers partied on, dancing the night away. There were the inevitable security arrangements, with around six guards stationed outside the house checking on vehicles.
The French, due to their longstanding love affair with the country, had access to some of the special touches.. the almost surreal beauty of the country’s temples and tropical landscapes a fitting background for fine dining experiences. A candlelit evening at table bordering a popular beach, deserted now that dusk has fallen, while an armed guard looks on.
The most extraordinary evening I ever spent was at Angkor Wat on a full moon. Organised by an American involved with a UN restoration project, every month there would be a moonlit picnic among the ancient stones of the Bayon temple. This is the one with the innumerable towering heads of the reigning king adorning it, a monument to personal vanity and pride. As we approached it a soldier would appear out of the darkness, AK 47 in his arms, ready to guide us on our way up the steps and through the various levels of the structure.
When I left the group for a short walk to soak up some of the atmosphere another was watching me, and anything else that moved in this eerily isolated spot. The ambiance was overwhelmingly lovely, the conversation subdued and the experience one to treasure for a lifetime.
We were taken on a tour by our American host, who had gained permission for this monthly event from the governor of the region and also from the administration in charge of the reconstruction project. For this evening, candles had been placed among the archways and lintels of the stonework, sometimes casting shadows that heightened the perspectives of the temple’s design, sometimes illuminating the carved friezes adorning the walls, always reminding us of the ghosts of Cambodia’s heritage.
But the undercurrent was forever there, the security precautions, grotesque anomalies for anyone trying to relax within these social situations. We needed to be protected by gunslingers, just as Cambodians are themselves, unless they pack their own weapon.