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Phnom Penh:
Where Anything Goes

by Christina Hoag

Christina Hoag is a reporter for The Associated Press in Los Angeles and former correspondent in Latin America where she wrote for The New York Times, The Miami Herald, The Financial Times, Business Week, Time, and many other news publications. Her fiction and creative non-fiction have been published by Straitjackets Magazine, The Oddville Press and Liquid Silver eBooks.

           “You want boys, heroin, shoot gun?” My motorcycle taxidriver Koy made the motions of toking a joint. “Girls? Smoke?”

            I shook my head. “Really, I just want to go to the Killing Fields.”

            “Okay, but I get you anything you want.” At least he aimed to please.

            I had arrived in Cambodia the previous day after traveling in Laos and Thailand where I had been offered everything from fried spiders dripping in ochre-colored grease to opium freshly processed from mountain poppy fields. But Phnom Penh obviously rose to the regional height of Western fantasy fulfillment.

            Koy tossed his cigarette stub and revved the moto -- a dirt bike type. I slung my five-foot-seven frame on the back, feeling as I did everywhere in Asia, like a big, gawky, whiteass. But Koy was used to hauling around foreigners twice his size. With a flick of his shaggy, collar-length hair and barely a sideways glance, he plunged us into the sheer anarchy that is traffic in Phnom Penh.

I wanted to come here because it’s one of those places in the world that occupies a perch in journalistic lore. Being a newspaper reporter, I knew well that Phnom Penh was where correspondents gathered for R&R while covering the Vietnam war.

I was up on the story of New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg whose photographer Dith Pran couldn’t make it out of Cambodia as the Khmer Rouge closed in. Schanberg spent years getting him out.

And, I knew the horrifying story of Pol Pot and his murderous regime.

So unfortunately for Koy, Phnom Pench wasn’t about sex or drugs for this customer.

We headed out to Choeung Ek, better known as the Killing Fields. Little did I know that killing fields would be an apt name for Phnom Penh roads.

Most of the traffic here comprised motorcycles, which buzzed along the street in huge swarms. I clung to the back of the bike as Koy wove in and out of other motorcycles at breakneck speed. We buffaloed into intersections, along with every other motorcycle, cyclo (rickshaws) and the odd car all charging in from different directions, not a brake light flashing. This was every wheel for itself. Who needs stop signs and traffic signals?

Traffic lanes didn’t mean much – when more convenient, we just drove into omcoming traffic, our unprotected bodies veering within inches of other vehicles. I had to draw in my gangly legs so they wouldn’t be torn off. I had to duck I wouldn’t get knocked out by a tower of rice sacks sticking out of a pickup bed. Helmets? Nah.

Out of the city, traffic thinned but the asphalt gave way to a dirt “road.” It was really a track of lunar-sized craters. To negotiate the potholes, Koy swerved onto the grassy bank, where we bounced along til he found a way back onto the road, or he deftly zoomed along a five-inch-wide strip between the holes, kind of like running down a tightrope. We finally arrived. Now I understood Koy’s reflex was reaching for a cigarette.

The serene countryside belied the grisly history of the Killing Fields. Here, some 17,000 people were executed and buried in pits during the Khmer Rouge’s bloody rule from 1975 to 1979. The remains of nearly 9,000 people have been exhumed - their skulls and bones, sorted by gender and age, sit ghoulishly in a glass tower memorial.

Butterflies flitted over the mass graves, big pockmarks in the ground now grassed over, but the past was discernible – torn remnants of clothing peeked out from the earth, a bone shard lay here, a tooth there. The place was filled with ghosts.

On the way back into the city for Part II of the tour – the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Koy motioned to a rice field with his hand.

“Ever shoot an M-16? Only 20 US. You can shoot a cow. Over there.”

“Say what?”

Turns out that enterprising Cambodians have found a way to profit on the weapons left from the war by providing a service to satisfy the killer instinct in us all: machine gunning of cows. I turned down the offer, prompting Koy to confide that the farmer always moves the cow at the last second so you never get to kill the animal. 

  We arrived at what was known as S-21 in Pol Pot’s era - a high school converted into an interrogation and torture center. Prisoners were usually sent from here to their death at Choeung Ek for crimes such as speaking a foreign language or wearing eyeglasses in Pol Pot’s mad effort to weed out the educated and elite.

The government has left the prison much as it stood when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979 and pushed out the Khmer Rouge. Iron shackles are still fixed to the floors of the former classrooms. Bedsteads stand in the torture chambers, black and white pictures on the walls show the last victims sprawled in pools of blood. Barbed wire remains affixed to the balconies, to prevent prisoners from jumping to their death.

Torture instruments, such as water chambers and racks for dislocating limbs, were on display, as well as rooms full of mug shots - victims and their teenaged guards, along with some interesting testimonies of the latter. Nothing was glossed over here.

It had been a harrowing morning, time for a little shopping therapy. Koy dropped me at the market, where an old woman promptly planted herself in front of me and laughed, I guessed at me. I found myself looking straight into a mouthful of black stumps. She was obviously a fan of betel, the nut chewed as a stimulant. It took me a while to recover from that gory image, but buying some silver earrings and silk helped.

I strolled along the banks of the limpid Mekong River lined with hotels filled with foreigners at sidewalk tables. It seemed as if the scene had changed little from the days when the war correspondents gathered to lose themselves in beer. Late in the afternoon, I saw another of this city’s oddly fitting sights - a wizened old elephant ambling down the street. I later found out he was an institution: Sam Bo worked all days giving rides at Wat Phnom, a hilltop temple from which the city takes its name.

I headed back to my cheapo guesthouse in the backpacker warren on the banks of Lake Boeung Kok. To get there, I had to cross a main street. It was a life-threatening endeavor. No lights, stop signs, brakes, gaps, just a continuous onslaught of wheeled weapons. After about half an hour of walking up and down looking for a way to get across, I plunged in and weaved and bobbed literally for my life. 

The guesthouses were built on wooden platforms jutting out over the lake, where a huge pad of water lilies traveled the surface pushed by the wind. It was picturesque enough until someone pointed out the huts on the other shore were the $2 a whore brothels. So much for the postcard view.

The next day I took in more conventional sights – the Royal Palace that houses King Norodom Sihanouk and family, as well as the Silver Pagoda. The pagoda possesses 5,329 silver floor tiles weighing 2.2 pounds each. Other excesses included the Emerald Buddha, made out of green Baccarat crystal, and a glass-encased, life-sized standing Buddha, molded out of 200 pounds of solid gold and studded with several thousand diamonds and precious gems.

I was impressed with the National Museum, which houses Cambodian antiquities dating from the 4th century in a quaint building.

I had noticed all the limbless people – landmine victims - so I made a point of buying items at the handcraft shops whose wares are made by the disabled. Likewise, I patronized the Seeing Hands Massage, where blind masseurs give an hourlong rubdown for four bucks.

This area was the old French quarter, full of time-ravaged colonial villas and buildings such as the National Library, which Pol Pot turned into a stable after chucking the books, and Hotel Le Royal, the city’s fanciest hotel owned by the famed Raffles of Singapore.

I wandered up to the hilltop Wat Phnom temple and surveyed the chaotic city below. Around the hill, peddlers sold little birds in cages, which locals buy to release and earn merit for their next incarnation. Maybe they’d come back and install traffic lights.

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