Use What You Want

Richard House

The road from Siem Reap to Phnom Penn is a plain black hardtop with subsidiary roads that branch into the scrub as thick and pink unpaved tracks.  The coach driver, a young boy, appears to slumber at the wheel.  His head dips and lolls and he uses the horn to rouse himself and as an incidental warning to cows, traffic, pedestrians, men on bicycles, that he isn’t going to slow down.  The roadside is cluttered with pigs, black and ruddy fowl, tan dogs with tight-curled tails, and huge, slow, and handsome water buffalo, all dusted with red legs and bellies.  Beside them, calm enough, men squat in the dust while women and children labour, sweeping, or turning and picking through rice laid out to dry on loose sacking.  Sometimes, someone will catch your eye, and momentarily they will stop what they are doing and smile, and those smiles are well worth catching.  Set back from the road and raised high on slender stilts sit wood houses: bare one-room dwellings with thatched or tin roofs, and they string out along the road in a thin line; a line occasionally broken by schools, administrative buildings, large concrete complexes.  Between the houses and the road lie deep square ponds, thick with water stained orange by the dirt.  On either side the embankment is drecked with plastic wrappers and bottles, cans, and paper.  Almost all of it comes from the coaches as passengers stuff trash out of the window without qualm.  All of this seen in passing: fast traffic, slow lives.

The limits of the townships are marked with billboards, hand-painted public-warnings about guns, landmines, Aids.  The images are divided into two — the left side shows the past, and the right shows the hoped-for future.  In this future men do not lie shot and bleeding in the roads, women do not flee across barren fields, the land is green and productive, and children play in fields where there are no landmines.

Much of Cambodia is flat, and at the beginning of summer, dry.  Mountains line the southern coast and ring the east and northern borders.  On the map lush forests surround the broad central plain, but it is possible to travel diagonally across the country and see only level fields, lone palms, and dried rice paddies which don’t appear to have been cultivated for a long time.  From Seam Reap to Phnom Penn, from Phnom Penn to the Vietnamese border, almost the entire breadth of the country, lie baked, dead fields scored by ditches and gullies.  This starkness is beautiful, but like all places punished by the sun it appears exhausted.  This is how I imagine Africa, a place where possibility has been constantly frustrated and set-aside by other forces, usually human.  A place where things are taken and never returned.

DVDs are played on the coaches.  Pop videos, melancholy love songs.  The lyrics speed over the image, word by word, a kind of karaoke; mercifully no one sings along.  The videos have similar plots.  Young people leave their villages and return in expensive cars to sing mournfully to and about the families they have left behind.  In one video two brothers face separate fates, one stays at home, the other seeks his fortune in the city.  The brother at home loses a leg to a landmine, his life is hard, and he seems, understandably, argumentative.  The brother who has left returns to the village on the day that his sweetheart marries another man  Both brothers are bereft.  In these videos love is always defeated, hopes are wilfully devastated, the world intrudes only to leave people poor, sick, and disappointed.  Good times, celebrations, children playing, are shown in glowing slow motion, as memories, as something past.  The lives portrayed on the monitor don’t appear different from what’s happening outside the window.  A shinier version it’s true, but not too much improved, as if everyone has lived like this, in a house on stilts set back from a road.

Finding work and leaving home are long-standing concerns.  Young girls are bought from families with the promise of work; the sums paid are paltry but amount to one year’s earnings.  These young girls are sold to brothels, bars, and sometimes hotels.  Sometimes a daughter is sold in full knowledge of what this transaction means — that she will be taken to Phnom Penh, Seam Reap, or, more likely, to Thailand or Malaysia, and prostituted.  The likelihood is that she will not return.

As we drive by the houses I try to see what might be inside, but see little except the occasional silhouette of someone seated at the doorway.  Many appear empty and you can see entirely through them, from doorway to window.

The city arrives with a minimal suggestion of industry.  There are brick kilns and storehouses.  There are ornate temples and palm groves  In areas the land is filled-in to provide oblong plots of rubble for new developments.  Before we cross the river into Phnom Penh there is a billboard for Alain Delon cigarettes, and the sky opens so that rain gutters down forcing people on motorbikes to pause and crowd under gas-station awnings.  Some, prepared, stop to pull out waterproofs or dress themselves in plastic bags.  Others continue without regard.  Some smile, wet and sexy, and wave as we pass.  In the villages there are preparations for the Khmer New Year.  Purple silks hang over doorways.  In some households the entrances are dressed with texts.  In schoolyards pavilions are being built.  But in the city there is no sign of the coming celebrations just yet.  We have been warned that people throw flour and water bombs, all in good humour.

Nominally, for us, Phnom Penh is a staging post.  Like one million other people this year we came to see the temple complex of Angkor Watt.  Even so, I have been reading about Cambodia, and I want to visit the city that was evacuated in 1975 by the Khmer Rouge and re-occupied only after Vietnam invaded in 1979.  In that four-year period those fundamental ties that establish who we are in the world — home, family, commerce — were wiped off the map, and the public trials of the surviving cadres are only just beginning.  The statistics are frighteningly uncertain, one guidebook says one million people were slaughtered, another two million, and another, one quarter of the population.  The majority of those murdered were men.

The supermarket stocks what we’re looking for.  Simple provisions: bread and bottled water.  Something bland to quell the stomachache from the doxycycline, the harsh antibiotic we are taking as an anti-malarial.  The shop is a regular supermarket, brightly lit, with candy, gum, and mints at the checkout.  The woman in front of us answers her phone with a chipper ‘hi’, and pays in American dollars.  She says ‘cool’, ‘okay’, and ‘later’ in a languid, perfectly-pitched urban American accent.  These are the only words she speaks in English.  When we question her about directions to the hotel, all homely recognition shrinks.  The brightness of the supermarket, so familiar, quickly becomes alien.

Most of the travelers we meet have stopped taking their malaria medication.  Aside from stomachache, the side effects of doxycycline include headaches and hypersensitivity to sunlight, and it’s impossible to avoid the sun.  It’s the same drug they give you for the clap, chlamydia, and urinary tract infections.  I have developed blotches on my hands, liver spots.  Larium is more problematic, and will give you bad dreams, dreams you carry with you, hallucinations you can’t shake.  We chat in the hotel lobby with a clerk from London who tried taking her larium in the morning to break the intensity of her dreams, but by the evening of the first day she started hallucinating and imagined an elephant rampaging outside her hotel, slamming itself against the walls.  Certain that this red-eyed monster was after her she slept under her bed.  In the morning she woke to a terrible stink.  If you’ve ever been close to an elephant, she says, they smell, they smell bad.  Still under the influence of larium, she became terrified by the power of her mind, and believed that she had made real her fears from the night before, that this elephant, now free from her head was out there to get her.  When she managed to brave a look out of her window she discovered, of all things, an elephant’s rump, so close she could reach through the bars and slap it.  An elephant.  Not evil, not rampaging, but an elephant nevertheless, chained by one leg, ready to take tourists on rides across a scrubby park.

There is a legendary meal in Phnom Penn, the main ingredient is hemp, it isn’t getting stoned on the meal which appeals, especially to gap-year students, it’s the challenge of hunting down where the meal is served, and being in a situation real or authentic enough (this means dangerous) to make it count.

There is a managed air of danger, a slight edge, which is a little hard to take seriously.  Posted in the hotel stairwell is a printed sign, ‘no drugs, no weapons’.  In the room there’s another sign: ‘no prostitutes’.  The Rough Guide says that it is unlikely that armed gangs will rob you.  Unlikely.  Men on motorbikes loiter under the hotel awning.  As we leave they ask us where we’re going, where we’re from, what our names are, and if we need a guide or a ride.  One has a small photo album of where he wants to take us.  Included are handwritten testimonials from other tourists.  To every refusal the boys give a slight wan smile.  The boys’ final smile is a real smile.  Perhaps we’d like a woman?  Surely?  Why else would we come here?

On our second morning we make our way to the Toul Sleng museum, a former school used by the Khmer Rouge as a prison and torture camp.  We trek down a dusty street, and people squatting in doorways watch as we pass.  Outside the museum men wait, their bodies have been devastated by war; by landmines, chemical weapons, or plain and simple hands-on brutality.  The museum is a good place to wait outside as tourists come out visibly sobered by viewing photo after photo of the dead arranged on screens in room after room: a simple display, much like a display at a junior school.  You can avoid these images but you can’t avoid the beggars.  One man’s head is swollen, his eyes are set impossibly wide as if dislocated, and his skin weeps, another hobbles on crutches, he’s missing a foot and both hands, and it looks like someone has snapped his arms and legs and set them without care any which way they pleased.  Giving or not giving the man money is a problem, because making a decision on this is taking time, and the longer I’m standing beside him the more vivid is the image in my head of someone smacking him with a baseball bat or a shovel, or anything that comes to hand.  I can’t look at the man without seeing this.  I can’t look up either, because there are other men like him who cannot stand to make their way over to beg.  Tuk-tuk drivers insist that they take us to the Killing Fields, but we’ve seen enough in the museum, we’ve seen enough in the street, and there is so much to feel pity about that it will become the only way that we look at the country, as somewhere beaten, as a place of slaughter, as a place where people are physically broken.

Back at the hotel we watch TV and deliberately pass over news reports on Iraq and Afghanistan.  Today we have seen enough of war and civil war, and we are able to make the choice to ignore it.

Late in the evening we find a bar where women, dressed smartly in silks, buttoned tops, and airhostess skirts encourage you to buy beer.  The bar is busy with men.  One woman has a tag strung about her neck, another has a tag pinned to her dress.  The tags name the beers they are promoting.  One of the hostesses is invited to drink at the table beside us.  She stands at the head of the table, a skillful mix of bravado and elegance.  She downs the beer quickly, and encourages the men to order more, and the men happily order more.  There are no women other than the hostesses, and consequently there are no children.  At every other restaurant the tables collide out of open rooms onto the sidewalk, and there are always children.

Back at the hotel an English student boasts that his friend had two women last night.  Girls, he says, two girls.  Is he lucky or what?  Like the woman at the supermarket, he peppers his conversation with American words.  His friend is a horrible creature, a slug that needs salting.  They met the women at a bar, the way you would meet women at home.  He’s having a good time in Cambodia.  No, he’s having a great time.  The people, he says, are fine, the women, he smiles, are fine.  His smile shows that he has never felt so lucky in his life, and never so happy to tell people about it.  The hotel owner joins in, laughing, and it’s not a good time to explain that bars encourage women to drink with you, and they charge you for it.  There’s no luck involved.  There are many ugly reasons why a woman here would sleep with you, all of them economic, and none of them to do with desire or choice.  In Phnom Penh an estimated fifty-percent of the sex workers are HIV-positive, which means that a constant influx of young girls is needed.  Why?  Because condoms are unpopular, men just don’t like them, and the younger the girl, the less likely she’s going to be carrying the virus.  But the student is happy at the prospect that they will return tonight to the same bar, and maybe he will be as lucky as his friend.  It’s a fine place he says, and like everyone else he will book his tours and make his way round the museum and avoid the men at the gate and try not to become sick with his hangover, although he isn’t feeling too good right now.  Mid-afternoon is a bad time to wait by the desk.  A man from Ohio complains that he paid for a tuk-tuk driver to take him to the Killing Fields, but what’s there to see?  They should warn you before you go all the way out there that it’s pretty much just ditches, dust, and skulls, lots of skulls.

In 1974 the Khmer Rouge emptied Phnom Penh in one evacuation, claiming that the Americans were going to bomb the city.  Entire populations were forced out of Cambodia’s cities to became the ‘new people’ among the ‘base people’ to work, enforced, in the fields, and many, how many it is impossible to say, simply starved.  Money, cash, became meaningless.  Families were divided.  All signs of modernity and technology were chucked into the street and burned, and in Phnom Penh a school became a detention camp, and people in their thousands were led through there, already anonymous, as the Khmer Rouge began to cannibalize their own ranks, razing all threat and any weakness.  But does this all lie in the past?  I listen to a radio report about the sex trade.  The program blames the Vietnam war, the influx of Western military and aid workers to Phnom Penh after the war, the subsequent development of tourism, but it seems that the destruction of industry, the displacement that shattered and devalued families, the murder of so many men was also a precursor to such a wicked trade.  Cambodian women can be exceptionally beautiful, youthful appearing and slender, symmetric faces, taught to defer, to be and appear passive — all marketable qualities.

Phnom Penn is popular with travelers who like a little edge to their tourism.  The city has an air of possibility, with the faint and disappearing hint of a frontier town.  During the day everyone visits the same places: the tourists to see the sights, the tuk-tuk, moto, and cyclo drivers to seek business.  In one day faces become familiar, and people become familiar also.  In the evening the same tourists and language teachers crowd the cafés at the riverside, the same children tout books, the same women beg with their children, the same men wait patiently at the kerb to transport you back to your hotel, and when the lights fail through an electricity cut there is the feeling that the entire world is falling.

We leave the city by boat.  As I walk down the embankment to an old style jet which lies suspiciously low in the water, I follow a couple of young English students.  The heat makes us loose-limbed and easy with each other.  Stepping onto the boat one of them stumbles and curses.  His shoe, he says, is broken.  The sole is loose.  He holds the shoe up and laughs at the dumb pun of what he’s saying.  I have no sole, he says, I have no sole.  The last fact, the final piece of information I learn, is that when the rains come, as they always come, when the season finally breaks, this river flows backward.  The river, Tonlé Sap, fed by the swollen Mekong, changes its direction and fattens in the center of the country to become the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia.  I should see it then, I’m told, come back after the monsoon, and see this country green again, alive.

Richard House was born in Cyprus.  He has two novels, ‘Bruiser’ and ‘Uninvited’, published by Serpent’s Tail.  He lectures in creative writing at the University of Birmingham.

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