A country town coalesced, concrete in a tanned plain. A rust riddled helicopter with arms at a crazy angle flashed past the windows. A green ditch cut deep through dried grass and white cows chewing cud. The sign on the low slung pink building said “Phnom Penh International Airport.”
At odd unexpected intervals old army hardware stands abandoned in a free space near the airport. It begins as the plane taxis in to the airport past a rusting helicopter that isn’t going to get off the ground any more. This was my first view of Cambodia back in 2005. Things have changed now. The city has it’s new airport and doesn’t have any of these relics from the Vietnam War anymore.
Phnom Penh was is a low city, scattered across a Mekong flood plain, with sporadic teak and coconut palms rising over the roofline. Not any more. Out to the northwest, where I am staying, there is a property boom in progress. Four or five story apartment buildings, with ornate windows and balconies, replacing the one and two story cement and wooden buildings.
The Cham Muslim across the river are being pushed away from the tributaries with these land developments. Back in 2005 they were moored on the fancy side of the river in their boats, and could generate income from begging or selling flowers. Not any more. They are now far away from the tourists on the nice side of the river. This is now 2014. An eye sore, and no more tourists being hassled by the beggars. That’s one way the government has looked at it. And soon they’ll be moved further out of sight and out of mind as I will documented on this trip, River Gypsies and Ancestors with Disco Lights.
These institutional beggars, pushed on the margins, are being pushed out by investors. Prime real estate on the river has gone up ten fold and Chinese backers are building hotels and condominiums. Taiwanese and Malaysian cash is also moving in. This is the new face of Phnom Penh
Straight across the river from the Foreign Correspondents Club, they were then building the new National Assembly building, cutting a fine symbol on the horizon, though not quite squaring with what one Cambodian person said to me . “We have freedom of speech but no-one to speak about it.” Materialism is keeping the population in check, as Hun Sen continues to dominate the political landscape. Boutique hotels are popping up and the franchise fast food places are more prominent than a decade ago. But poverty still persists. Not much changes in this country.
So far all of the people I’ve encountered have been very nice, very kind, and very serious. War has cast a long shadow and many people still don’t feel very safe. But that isn’t stopping the building of high rises, that has completely changed the landscape along the Mekong River.
The Mekong flows through the city centre, lined in coconut palms, flagpoles with the pale blue UN flag repeating at intervals among the flags of other nations, with tall carved dew standing street lamps running with them. US dollars still competes with Riel, and you never know if you are getting the best rate or deal.
Instead of earth levee banks, the top of the slope down to the river is faced in cement. Beneath the cement the vegetables take over, down to the water’s edge. There are mutterings that the Japanese want to buy the soil the river leaves behind, because it is so fertile. But so far the government has said no, officially.
The monsoonal rains have arrived, and the river is almost up to the roadway. It’s 30 feet down to the blue brown grey water plied by fisherman in motor driven pirogues and cruise boats like cattle trucks filled with people. But no sight of the Cham.
Before I see my host family, I grab a tuk tuk in search of the Cham. I’m told they have been moved across the river.
The Cham jigsaw of memory rolls. Stone statues parading in a Saigon museum gallery, sailor-soldiers endlessly falling to the waiting crocodiles on a wall in Ankor Thom, Henri Mohout writing of a people whose most precious possession was a Koran they could not read, women with pink headscarves and flowered sarongs on a plank at a river landing. People of a great Islamic trading city-state in central Vietnam, over-run from the north, hundreds of years later still refugees, and being moved on.
Travelling around the town by tuk-tuk, twenty story buildings remind you Phnom Penh isn’t a sleepy back water any more. Black smoke rises down river. A fire engine thunders past, kicking up dust from the bitumen. brings us to a new hotel going up over the river. The tuk-tuk forges through the scooters on the footpath of the Bassac river bridge. Turning, it bumps down the Chroy Changvar peninsula dividing the Bassac River from the Nam Mekong, to more cranes and yet another new hotel going up.
Nestled among the pipes, barges, and traffic going up and down the Mekong river, the Muslim Cham live on wooden boats without engines. The shadow of the new five star hotel swings across them. We saw them on the other side of the river ten years ago. Police boats recently towed them here. They were considered an eye sore and a nuisance to tourists. As the new hotel is being rapidly completed for the tourist/property boom Cambodia is going through, their fate as refugees is being sealed again. Beyond the village of the boat people there are grand houses, walled, the walls topped with razor wire.
It’s Magrib, evening call of prayer, and the Cham rolled out their mats and erect a makeshift mosque. Nearby, a mosque made from brick and mortar, which reflects in the evening sun, is one they won’t attend to today. The Cham are Sunni preserving older rites than those of the modern imam.
Out where Kang’s brother lives, a gravel road slips away from the bitumen into lanes lined in 6 foot walls topped in barbed wire. The general in the house next door has added another 10 feet to his walls, and he’s topped his fence in razor wire. The wrought iron doors in the fences, leading into the compounds, are kept padlocked all the time.
Inside, there is a two-story cement house, square, with an iron roof extending out over the driveway in from the gates. At night the family, including whichever relatives have happened to call in, set up beds under mosquito nets, under the iron. I am sleeping in a back bedroom in the house, in a fabulous wooden bed with cupboards in the headboard topped by dragons.
The other room on the ground floor is a visitors sitting room with more honey coloured wooden furniture, couches and a table, and the shrine to the ancestors. Set apart from the house, at the back wall, is a separate two room cement building, one room a kitchen, the other room a bathroom and toilet. A garden runs along one side of the block, which is perhaps 70 feet deep and wide, and a little way across the front. For the rest, the ground is cement. Outside everyone wears thongs and sandals; they stay at the door when anyone goes inside.
By day a couple of Chinese roosters and odd hens, pullets and chickens roam the yard, while the young Alsatian dog sleeps tied up under a tree. At night, it’s the other way round- the chicken go into their own wooden house under a tree, and the dog roams, guarding the property.
Chinese New Year is just getting under way here, with red lanterns and tall limbs with lurid dyed flower buds on sale in the streets. I’ve been wandering through a big market here where the stall holders are doing their best to shut as quickly as they can. It is a huge yellow dome, with four covered rays coming out from it. The stalls have spilled from the shadowed roofed areas into tent covered arcades filling all the spaces between the rays.
But the beggars are still congregating at the Central Market and using the same old props. A lot healthier looking this trip. I was beginning to wonder how much it costs to rent a baby to wander around with, tapping tourists on the arm. I heard of one beggar using a dead baby for about a week, before the smell got too bad for the beggar to get close to the tourists. The word for “no”is one I’ve learnt very quickly. These days when they tug at my sleeve, I just nod no. It’s obviously a begging cartel and I don’t want to be part of it.
The moto and tuk tuk drivers hang all around the edges. Inside there are lots of old women who have borrowed babies to use as useful props when trying to hit tourists for a donation to a good cause – them. They are very quiet and polite and go away if you look and sound definite about the answer being “no”.
It will be nice to get my clothes back from the laundry this afternoon. Only had skirts for the past few days. I learnt quickly there’s an art to riding on the back of a motorbike in a Cambodian skirt and it’s an art I’ve not acquired yet. Wear jeans, I can hear you say ,dummy. The motos, scooter taxis, are far and away the best way to get around. Taxis that are cars are not so much cars as unmarked light commercial vans that ferry extended families.
Yesterday Kang hired one and took us around the Cambodian holiday spots just south of the city. Australians went in the front with the driver, and everyone else in the back. I thought it was full of his brother’s family and assorted nephews and nieces before we stopped at the turnoff to his sisters house. That’s when I found out how many people one of the vans actually holds.
His sister and sister-in-law did an amazing job of packing all the eating utensils in one basket, with condiments, a stockpot of rice and an esky filled with bottled water that slid neatly in behind the last row of seats.
If anyone ever goes to Wat Chisor, about 50k south of Phnom Pen, take the Lonely Planet advice and skip the path up from the south that the Angkor kings used – 400 steps of them and straight up. My knee gave out before my lungs, but it was a photo finish, at about step 302.
A worried family offered to get me 4 porters to get me up the rest of the way and down again about US$5”. The view was just fine from right where I was. “See temple, not walk for 3 days, not see temple, can walk, you take pictures for me” and gave Kang’s nephews the camera. They took far better photos of the temple than I could ever have taken. Every Khmer seems to be born with graphic arts ability hard wired into their soul. Or maybe I’m just a lousy photographer.
From Wat Chisor we went to the Phnom Tamao Wildlife sanctuary that houses the animals seized from poachers that cannot be released back into the wild. They looked healthier and better fed than the many beggars I saw on the street. The road in has long since lost its surface and is down into the shell grit and sand base under the rubble, making for arse thumping pot holes.
For most of the 6 km, it was lined with thin people begging. They had come from the villages back from the road. Those who were close enough to carry water with them in buckets splashed the road where they sat to keep the dust down. Those who had to get further away wrapped their chequered headscarves around their faces when the dust got too much to bear. Going in and out the road was solid with cars and scooters going both ways.
At both of these places, monks were on the outer gates, holding large arms bowls and doing a constant ongoing mass blessing with loudspeakers. Fortunately, the loudspeakers have not yet hit the streets on the backs of pick up trucks as they have done everywhere in Thailand.
Someone has just come in to the internet cafe asking for a phone to ring Australia. After Thailand and Laos it is odd to be constantly tripping over small traces of Australians, whether on the flyleaves of books in the reference section of the library, or in the streets.Don’t ask me where the kangaroo skin on the wall came from but it’s here, in the internet café, two doors down from the Foreign Correspondents Club.
Where the Bassac River flowed, past Wat Phnom and Riverside, to its junction with the Mekong, people had crept into the space between high water mark and the river’s level. Walking ghosts, bearing gaunt babies, wandered and followed people through the markets, soundless. Gentle fingers brushed elbows from behind. Rebuffed, they drifted away in an eerie silence. I’m learning.
Kang’s brother, the police officer, works very long hours, but makes sure he comes home to keep the household running smoothly. Yesterday in his full uniform, he looked imposing – peaked cap, white braid, white gloves, huge medals. I don’t know what rank he is, but he has studs and badging on the tags along the top of his shoulders. He can’t be too high because his family live in a modest household. The family don’t speak much English, but we get by. I’ve got a Khmer dictionary and they understand a few words. A smile is universal, in every language.
Like many Cambodian families, they were hit hard under the Khmer Rouge years. His father, and three brother’s died under the Khmer Rouge, and remaining 7 siblings survived. Kang, since my first visit in 2005, has relocated to Australia and his sister is in France.
A recent visit to the Tuol Sleng, the Genocide Museum brought home the bleak message. Making it worse were the two German men pushing their way around, leaning in to rooms in front of other people, staring, and aggressively taking pictures. They weren’t guards at Auschwitz in their past life, but they acted like it. Now where is my pepper spray? The walls were talking to me of past deeds. I had to leave Toel Sloung before I broke down from the sheer grief of the place. The death of Cambodians had now become a personal matter to me.