Traveling, I prefer to be on the ground, for that’s how you get an overview of the countryside. The bus from Saigon to Phnom Penh took more than seven hours, but that included 30 minutes for lunch, plus 45 more at the border. My seatmate was a young fellow, Morris, from Halle, Germany, and we had a fruitful, wide ranging conversation. For a moment, I had mistaken him for a woman, for he had a pony tail and such a smooth, unblemished face.
In 2016, I gave a talk at his university. Of Halle, I remember its imposing 16th century clock tower, other fine buildings that survived World War II bombing, an ugly promenade from Communist days, two Vietnamese restaurants, some Turkish eatery where I had doner kebab and an Ur-Krostitzer, many more African pedestrians than nearby Leipzig, an artsy neighborhood with striking murals and a budget store displaying its made-in-China clothing outside.
Morris had been outside Germany for 11 months, with three of those in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and most of the rest in China. In Guangdong, he took a university course in economics, but the Chinese lecturer’s English was so mangled, Morris understood almost nothing, “Still, it was worth it. I’ve learnt a lot just being in China.”
China is becoming a cashless society, Morris said, so everything is done with the smart phone, “Without it, many Chinese can’t function.” This means that people are entirely at the mercy of their government, I pointed out, and Morris agreed. If a citizen misbehaves, just deactivate his phone, and he won’t be able buy even a baozi.
“All governments will try to do this,” I laughed. “It is our future!”
“And I will suffer much longer than you!” Since he’s three decades younger.
Of his own country, Morris complained about the rise of the nationalist right, “They harass people, but Germany has long been a nation of immigrants. First, the Italians, Poles and Turks came, and now these people from the Middle East and Africa. They will all contribute to the economy.”
Despite the stereotype of the raging neo-Nazi, there is nowhere on earth where the national consciousness is weaker or more discredited than Holocaust-shamed Germany.
Exiting the country, many Vietnamese tipped the officer a buck to get their passport processed immediately, ahead of the thick stack next to him. They knew the ropes. Morris said of a woman in floral pajamas, straw hat with a polyester daisy, black scarf, white socks and plastic flip flops, “I don’t understand why she’s dressed like that.”
Borders are magical. From Juarez, one can see the El Paso skyline, and I remember seeing a mother and son walk to the border crossing, just to witness the streaming traffic, then they turned back, for they could not cross. With the erasure of borders in Europe, one can drive from, say, Spain into France, and hardly notices it, but that won’t last. A man, tribe or community can only define itself with borders.
Once I stood in Lao Cai, on Vietnam’s border with China. Hekouzhen was clearly visible across the Red River, but I couldn’t experience it. For an American, China charges $140 for a visa, and this can’t be applied for online, much less at the border. By comparison, my Cambodian visa cost but $36 and was approved within two hours, after I had uploaded my photo to complete the easy application. A hundred-and-sixty countries admit Americans either without a visa, or with one granted on arrival.
Morris, “There are many more foreigners in Vietnam. In China, you hardly see any outside the biggest cities. Foreigners only see Shanghai, Beijing and a few other places. If they take the train, they ride the fast, modern one, so only see the best stations, but there are local trains that only Chinese use, and the stations aren’t so nice.”
Morris likes to take photos, “At first, I wasn’t sure how to do it in China, but then people started taking pictures of me, so I snapped pictures of them! I don’t know, but for them maybe it’s like, ‘Hey, I saw a white guy on the subway today!’”
Finally, we’re in Cambodia. Dusty Bavet’s main business is gambling, and so on both sides of the road were casinos, with most quite modest. Our Mekong Express Bus rolled past chintzy Bao Mai, Good Luck, Emperor, Roxy, Le Macau, Las Vegas Sun, King Krown, New World, Tan Hoang Bao and Titan King, etc. Interspersed among them were restaurants and eateries, mostly ramshackle.
Since Vietnam only has casinos for foreigners, Vietnamese must spill into Cambodia to empty their wallets. Each Bavet casino hires hustlers to recruit Vietnamese gamblers, in Vietnam even. For each sucker snagged, a hustler gets $10, and he can even smuggle someone across the border for $22. Hustlers and faux suckers have teamed up to divide the commissions.
Gamblers who run out of money can borrow from roving hustlers, but if they’re still broke at the end of the day, a high likelihood, they’ll be locked in a “dead room,” until cash is sent from home.
With its kitschy pseudo luxury and promise of instant wealth glossing over mass destitution, each casino is a Potemkin village, with its owner a master hustler, someone any sensible person should be super leery of, but there’s one nation so drugged and gullible, it has actually entrusted such a conman with its destiny. That entire nation is a smoke and mirrors, nonstop come-on Potemkin village, however, where all news is fake, and each public figure is an imposter. At this all-you-can’t-eat buffet, there is nothing but bullshit, where beneath each layer of bullshit are more cow pies, artfully presented, so the morbidly obese patrons keep lining up for more. Let them eat bullshit!
Outside Bavet, there is the preposterously named Manhattan Special Economic Zone. Most of the companies there are Taiwanese, making garments and electronics. Frequent strikes have broken out over wages and working conditions, and in 2012, the governor of Bavet shot into a crowd of strikers, hitting three women, two in the hand and one in the lung. Arrested only in 2015, Chhouk Bandith was given a draconian sentence of, ah, 18 months!
Crossing from Germany into Poland, I noticed the houses became shabbier, and I saw the same entering Cambodia from Vietnam. It was clear I was in a poorer country, and a dirtier one, too, with trash everywhere. Though Vietnamese also litter, they do sweep up, at least much more so than Cambodians. Later in Phnom Penh, I would see no more than a handful of public trash cans in a week, after walking for miles each day through various neighborhoods.
Houses on stilts, shopkeepers dozing on hammocks, a butcher sitting on a low stand surrounded by five forlorn pieces of meat, the Japanese flag on the commemorative plaque of several bridges, the word Angkor everywhere because it’s the name of a beer and grand, elaborate gates to temples with magnificent roofs.
Chiphu, Prasaut, Svay Rieng, Svay Chrum, Kraol Kou, Kor An Doeuk, Kampong Trabaek, Neak Loeung, Kien Svay, each town was similarly dusty, forlorn and trash strewn, then the houses and stores brightened up, high rises rose, traffic thickened, nice cars appeared and folks became better dressed, for we had reached the capital, where most of the country’s wealth seemed concentrated.
Say Cambodia, and most people will think of Angkor Wat, a long-dead city, and the Killing Fields, a genocidal site, but I only came to observe the most quotidian, and to muse on the resilience of these enduring people. The globe is filled with stateless nations, and in this corner of the world, there are the once powerful Chams and Mons, not to mention dozens of tribes even their countrymen have barely heard of.
Cambodia’s motto is “Nation, Religion, King,” and surely it’s the first, with its ethnic cohesion and common language, that has allowed these people to forge forward. As for religion, the Khmers were Hindus before they became Buddhists, and their king, well, he’s no more than a figurehead. Norodom Sihamoni has spent more time in Czechoslovakia and France than his nominal kingdom. His unifying function is also compromised by the fact that he’s widely believed to be gay. At 64, Sihamoni is a lifetime bachelor, with no children, a big no-no.
Sihamoni’s half-brother, Norodom Ranariddh, was elected prime minister in a UN-sponsored election in 1993, but then was shoved aside by Hun Sen, the de facto ruler of Cambodia since 1985. A regiment commander under Pol Pot, Hun Sen fled to Vietnam with four soldiers in 1977, then returned to Cambodia with the invading Vietnamese on December 25th, 1978. In two weeks, the war was over, and the Vietnamese-speaking Hun Sen became the foreign minister in the Vietnamese-installed government. This year, Hun Sen will run for election unopposed after disbanding the opposition party and arresting its leader.
Pol Pot was a China-backed tyrant, and after being propped up by Vietnam, Hun Sen is also embracing China. Last month, the strong man said, “For sure, some people said that we are too close to China, but I want to ask back, ‘Have you offered me anything apart from insulting, advising and threatening to impose sanctions on me?’” Between Chinese cash and Western censure, Hun Sen is choosing to fatten his already enormous bank account.
Western dough is also pouring into Cambodia, via NGOs and tourists. Strolling around downtown Phnom Penh, I saw white faces everywhere, and many of the businesses were clearly aimed at them. There are bars with names in English like Laughing Fat Man, Lone Star, Home of the Brave, Come Here, Male Boxx, Frog Skin, Bird in Hand, Angry Birds and Shooters, with the last showing, on its sign, John Travolta and Samuel Jackson aiming their pistols in Pulp Fiction.
The Dead Kennedys sang, “Pol Pot, Pol Pot, Pol Pot, Pol Pot / It’s a holiday in Cambodia / Where you’ll do what you’re told / It’s a holiday in Cambodia / Where the slums got so much soul / Pol Pot.” Though the Communist is gone, his legacy is a huge attraction, and you can go to the Killing Fields in a tour bus that “keeps you away from heat, dust, polluted air, noise, rain and hassles!”
For my first meal in Phnom Penh, I decided on a rather grim sidewalk eatery. Seated on a plastic chair in the semi-dark, I was approached by a 12-year-old waitress who spoke a passable English. After taking my order for beef fried rice ($3) and Angkor Beer ($1), she asked where I was from, which she jotted down on a piece of paper. Extremely curious, the girl chatted away with all the customers, and even hugged some as they left. Tiny, she wore a soccer jersey with a Cambodian flag patch.
“Is that your mom?” I nodded towards the cook, twenty feet away at her stall, manning a wok.
“How old is she?”
“Fifty-three. Or fifty-four, because of Chinese New Year.”
“Is she Chinese?”
“I’m also 54, so I’m like your grandpa!”
“That kid,” she said of a toddler who was roaming around, “if you give him money, he give to his mom to buy snakes.”
“Snakes?!” I made a serpentine motion with my right arm.
“No, snacks!” She laughed.
“Do you go to school?”
“But you also work here.”
If a customer wanted fruit juice, the girl would run across the street to get it, or she would season and bag the fried chicken, at another stall, for takeaway customers. Childish yet responsible, she was all over. Contorting her body, she walked like a polio victim towards two new customers, straightened up and took their orders.
Right behind me was the heart of Cambodian Buddhism, Wat Ounalom. When the Communists came in, they murdered its 84-year-old patriarch, Huot Tat, and threw his statue into the Mekong. If the great Chuon Nath was still alive, they would have killed him too, no doubt, for the intellectual monk represented what they most despised, a love of heritage and traditions.
Chuon Nath compiled the first Khmer dictionary and wrote the Cambodian national anthem, as well as the enduring nationalist song, “Savada Khmer.” It begins, “All Khmers, do remember the root and history of our great nation / Our boundary was wide and well known / Others always thought highly of our race.”
A defender of Khmer identity, Chuon Nath is honored with a handsome statue near the Mekong. Across the street, though, is Nagaworld, a huge casino, hotel and restaurant complex owned by a Malaysian Chinese, with a clientele that is mostly Chinese. Nearby, there’s also the imposing Vietnam Cambodia Friendship Monument, with its clunky depiction of a Vietnamese soldier and a Cambodian one standing behind a Khmer woman, holding an infant. In the best hands, Soviet styled statuary is ugly enough, but left to the Vietnamese, who have never had a strong sculptural tradition, the result is beyond hideous.
Last year, China donated 100 buses to Phnom Penh, and the China Development Bank is financing the building of one of the world’s largest airports, plus an expressway from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, a growing center of Chinese tourism and industry. By 2020, the Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone will have 300 Chinese factories. Those who pay the bills call the shots, and Cambodia is increasingly beholden to China.
The US, though, still exerts the most influence culturally. It’s still sexier than China. English is on many shop signs and ads, and the language is taught everywhere, even in the poorest neighborhoods. There are schools named Big Success, Rockefeller, New York, Washington DC, Florida, Texas, Golden Gate and Apple Tree, etc. A recently shut down academy was called, simply, World Best School. The most popular brand of condensed milk, My Boy, features a blonde, all-American kid, and the Stars and Stripes are on many articles of clothing. A woman wore this on her T-shirt, “HALF AMERICAN / HALF CANNADIAN / MAKE YOUR LIFE BETTER.” Most tellingly, the US dollar is universally accepted as currency, and not just in Phnom Penh, but across Cambodia. If something costs 4,000 riels, you can pay with a buck.
Sixty-four years after the French left, Phnom Penh police stations still display “Poste de la Police” signs, and the Institut francais de Cambodge has the largest French library in Southeast Asia. By the Tonle Sap, there are cruise boats named “Paris” and “Paris Mekong.” A decade ago, I had an excellent French dinner in Paris, but the owner/chef was Cambodian, and some of Phnom Penh’s best restaurants, Armand’s, Langka, Topaz, Chez Gaston and Comme à la Maison, dish up French.
With just 13 million people, Cambodia is a small nation surrounded by much more powerful neighbors. Plus, it has to deal with the global behemoth, the USA. Rulers of weak countries often have to balance the interests of competing outsiders.
Using only media and diplomacy, a 30-year-old Norodom Sihanouk managed to win Cambodia’s independence from France, and he was allied, at various times, with Japan, the USA, China, the Soviet Union, North Korea and even Pol Pot, all to secure not just his nation’s survival, but his own.
Those who routinely invade, but are almost never invaded, at least not militarily, can too easily mock such inconsistencies or contradictions, but they’re understandable to much of the world. Further, the weak have survival skills that may allow them to outlast the smug and fleetingly powerful. Constantly threatened, they can’t afford to not know what are most enduring and inviolable about themselves, and what are merely cosmetic.
A virtual king, Hun Sen has commandeered his nation. History will judge if he’s deft and prescient, or just a glutton who has sold out his people.