Dispatch from Cambodia: “I Had a Great Time”

DISPATCH by Tyler Jagel

The reason for my trip was simple enough. My cousin Matt was finishing up his prestigious Fulbright Fellowship research in Cambodia and my mom’s airline miles were about to expire.

I knew almost nothing about Cambodia. I knew about the genocide committed by the ultraviolent Khmer Rouge cadre in the 1970s. I knew about the diseases (Google “Japanese encephalitis”). I knew I would have to find a good pair of linen pants because in Cambodia a man does not wear shorts.

Cambodia is a country of 15 million people. It’s roughly the size of Missouri, but I’ve also seen it compared to Oklahoma (conveniently, Cambodia and Oklahoma are equally alien to most Americans). The country sits between Thailand to the west, Laos to the North, and Vietnam to the east. Cambodia, in particular, has been understudied because from 1975 until the early 1990s the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, made travel to the country nearly impossible. During those years the Khmer Rouge emptied cities, forced entire populations into the countryside to work on rice farms, and murdered nearly two million Cambodians (roughly 21 percent of the country’s population at the time).

They treated with special brutality anyone who bore the marks of an intellectual life. This meant artists, writers, and doctors. But also people who wore glasses or spoke French.

For a tourist, it’s impossible to go anywhere and not think about it. Or to stop thinking about the fact that the tourist economy depends at least in part on a fascination with genocide.

The author in a tuk-tuk.

By the time I arrived in Cambodia, Matt had been living alone in Phnom Penh for eleven months. It was supposed to have been a yearlong federally funded honeymoon with his beautiful new wife, but it lasted only two weeks because of a fateful trip to a massage parlor.

It’s not what you think.

Massage parlors are everywhere in Phnom Penh and since massages cost eight dollars per hour—six, if you talk them down—they are always crowded. I don’t know exactly what happened inside that dimly lit massage room, but I do know that at some point the masseuse’s hands inched down Jes’s abdomen until coming to an abrupt stop. When Jes looked up, the masseuse smiled. “You have baby,” she said.

A few days later, Jes flew back to Illinois to prepare to have a baby. Matt stayed behind.

When I met up with Matt in Cambodia, his beard ended well below his chin. He rarely wore a shirt indoors; and when outdoors, he wore one of two pairs of cargo shorts and an army-green boonie hat with a “Nixon’s the One!” pin. He embodied the role of a deranged historian, deployed on a mission he no longer remembered signing up for, who missed his new wife and the child he hadn’t expected.

He speaks Khmer, the national language of Cambodia, and by the end my trip he had taught me to say beer, ashtray, check, hello, and thank you. Every day Matt would video chat with Jes and his baby boy, Marko. The rest of his time he spent in the national archives in Phnom Penh searching for documents, piecing together Cambodia’s past, biding his time, waiting to go home.

Matt (left) and the author.

As if to get it out the way, on my first full day we went to the killing fields, located about seventeen kilometers outside of the capital city of Phnom Penh. Although there have been hundreds of mass grave sites discovered throughout the country, the killing fields outside of Phnom Penh have become the primary site for remembering and reflecting upon the Cambodian genocide. When you enter the grounds, you find a series of paths twisting around sunken graves. They look like craters. During heavy rains, pieces of clothing and fragments of bone still wash up on the paths. In the center of the grounds, a Memorial Stupa houses 5000 skulls, ordered by age and sex, behind glass panels. To the left, tourists take photographs of a tree. A sign in broken English explains that the Khmer Rouge saved bullets by smashing baby skulls against it. Next to the tree is the pit that the babies were thrown into. Australians, Koreans, Chinese, me—there were no Cambodians around. We stood there in silence listening to our audio guides on our headphones in our respective languages, staring at nothing.

I felt uncomfortable. The audio guide headphones stuck to my ears as I tried to ignore the horrible things it told me. Standing in an empty field among shade-bearing trees, the horrors were invisible. Signs and markers stick out everywhere, but it seemed clear that no single thing could contain or capture genocide. Only an empty field might come close to symbolizing the horror of something so lacking in exactness of time and place.

Matt and I walked back to our tuk-tuk—an open-air carriage attached to a motorcycle and the primary mode of transportation for tourists. Our driver, Mr. Vannak, who drove us just about everywhere, lost family members to the Khmer Rouge. Did he mind ferrying tourists to and from the killing fields?

Vannak smiled when he saw us. “You like killing fields?” he asked.

I equivocated.

My discomfort disappointed him. Mr. Vannak pulled out a laminated brochure with photos of all the popular tourist attractions. The killing fields sat snugly between the Riverside Restaurant District and the royal palace. But he pointed at a picture of a shooting range that for $300 lets would-be commandos blow up cows with a bazooka. I shook my head to indicate that I wasn’t interested.

“Bang-bang!” he said.

Today my trip exists as a collection of scribbled notes, crumpled receipts, countless tweets (nearly every bar and restaurant offered Wi-Fi), 1,095 photographs, and five postcards that have long since posted. I try to reduce; I try to reconcile, but I still don’t have a reasonable response to the question: “how was your trip?” Cheever famously said that to “admire the color of another sky draws us deeper into the mystery of our condition.” If we think about why we actually travel, we travel because we believe, at some level, that it will be good for us. We travel because we hope that by searching the horizons of another country, we search the contours of ourselves.

But what does that even mean? How exactly does one find an experience that “draws us deeper into the mystery”? At best, travel increases our capacity to linger in anxiety, discomfort, and uncertainty—with ourselves, with our ordinary surroundings, with our companions. Or maybe it encourages us to stare at the empty space between our expectations of an experience and the thing that actually happens. To stew in our inability to give an account to some of our experiences.

To give up and say, “I had a great time.”

Near the end of my trip, we hired a driver to take us on the 200 kilometer overland journey to Prasat Preah Vihear on the border of Thailand. Preah Vihear is just one of the hundreds of 11th and 12th century temples that dot the Cambodian landscape. Nearly everyone who travels to Cambodia will see the temples of Angkor Wat, and I certainly encourage this, but Preah Vihear intrigued us because the US State Department’s website explicitly advised against it.

It sounded like good news when our driver told us that he had been a driver for the UN in the early 1990s. The roads in Cambodia require a particular kind of confidence and derring-do: buses passing motorcycles with entire families riding on them, cars squeezing through impossibly tight spaces while traveling in the wrong direction, potholes the size of cows, actual cows.

A typical Cambodian highway

Much like a New York taxi driver, the line between a good driver and a bad driver depends on whether you arrive at your destination on time and in one piece. For every close call (and there were many) our driver would lay on his horn, look at us with a deep smile, and simply say, “crazy.” Like two vehicles colliding, his car horn combined the throb of a squad car siren with the honk of a ‘97 Buick. We could tell how close to death we came by how much he elongated the first syllable of “crazy.”

“Crazy” meant a dog ran in front of the car, or that a tuk-tuk veered in front of us. No sweat.

Craaaaazy,” operated on an existential frequency that I am sure only our mothers can hear.

After three hours, and a little luck, we arrived at the base of the mountain below Preah Vihear. To get to the top we paid five dollars each for a seat on the back of a motorcycle—the road was almost suicidally steep for cars. My motorcycle driver’s shocking pink helmet reinforced my own lack of one. I distracted myself by trying to remember the number of times my Lonely Planet guidebook emphasized that medical emergencies in Cambodia typically require an airlift to Thailand. I wondered about the inadequate availability of reasonable healthcare in Cambodia. The motorcycle jerked suddenly as the driver shifted into a lower gear to begin our ascent. The gentle switchbacks had turned into nearly perpendicular inclines. The physics of the situation didn’t make sense. I tightened my grip. The tires slid on the loose gravel. The driver tried to stave off head-on collisions around blind corners by beeping his meek motorcycle horn. I wanted to look at Matt, but I couldn’t.

When we got to the top, Cambodian soldiers ran around and pointed at the Thai side of the border where a brigade of Thai soldiers conducted a military exercise. Every day around noon the Thai soldiers march in formation as a show of force, which, to the Cambodians, seems more like entertainment. As recently as 2011 Preah Vihear was an active war zone. It’s quiet now, but walking around the foxholes, signs warning of landmines, and sandbagged machine-gun positions, it felt as though things could turn hairy pretty quickly.

Cambodians watch a Thai military exercise

When we approached the first part of the temple, I found the ruins underwhelming. The heat shocked me more than the pile of rocks. It had only been twenty minutes, and I had already soaked through my shirt. Behind the temple we found a walkway and ascended another 100 meters. At the top we found another temple and then another walkway. And then another. And then another. With each new path, we laughed like little shorts-wearing boys.

Just behind the fifth temple I followed a small dirt path that led to a large rock ledge. Directly below me the green lowland plains of Cambodia stretched out forever into the horizon. Except for a light wind, I heard nothing. The clouds descended around me. “Matt, you have to come see this,” I yelled.

We both stood there, inches from a 2,000 foot cliff, clouds at eye level.

Tyler Jagel (MAPH ’10) splits his time between the Catskills and Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. He’s on Twitter at @tylerj. He’s still not sure he was actually in Cambodia..

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