Bits of Bone

19 Feb 2008

Our fellow-travellers on the Vietnamese tour boat, cruising gently down the Mekong, are stunned when IÂ tell them that IÂ hated Cambodia. While I'd rather continue lying in the deck chair and watching life in the delta, to explain why, IÂ have to go back.

It wasn't the border crossing. It wasn't the scams. It was the beggars that did us.

They came in many ways and in many places. But a few images stayed with me. A man with no hands holding a stick with his wrists to knock down sparse fruit from a tree. Sharing a beachside swing with Lyn and two fruity cocktails while a desperate man dragged himself along the sand barely a metre in front of us. Two small children watching us drink our expensive - to them - beers. Not saying anything. Just standing right there, staring. And it's recursive; IÂ felt bad about feeling bad about it.

But even people with all their limbs are.. different. You can randomly grin at people in Thailand and, nine times out of ten, they'll grin back. It doesn't matter if you're cruising past in an air-con bus and they're digging holes in the road. This doesn't work in Cambodia. It only happened once.. and IÂ think that guy was Thai.

We didn't help matters by going to see S-21, the former extermination camp, and the killing fields at Choeng Ek, where the murders were carried out. We've now seen a few places that could be described as 'war-torn', and this wasn't even the most recent, but it was the most depressing. Our guide's father and brother were among the victims.

And once you've seen these things, it queers your whole mindset. The National Museum has a statue of harihara dating back to the height of Khmer power; now, coincidentally, one leg has broken off just below the knee. A restaurant mistranslates "take-away food", advertising that "you can be taken away". It's not even grim humour. It's just grim.

There are consequences. The English owner of one cafe has stopped feeling anything. He's morbidly overweight, drinking at ten in the morning, and doesn't even come in on time to open the shop any more. He's left that to his local assistant, who he treats like dirt. She pretends she's in on the joke. Anywhere else this would go staight to court, but in Sihanoukville, the ultimate old-boy's club, it's par for the course. The expat magazine on the table felt like it had been produced by high-school students, full of dirty in-jokes and self-congratulatory "fiction".

I could feel the change starting. Already, horrifically, I was recognising the beggars not by their faces but by the configuration of their missing limbs. And that's what I really didn't like about Sihanoukville. I didn't like what it had done to them, and I didn't like what it was doing to me.

We also met people who reacted the other way - incredible determination to do something. One Australian, running a tiny espresso joint as a front for an environmental operation, told us that everything always falls apart in this country, but "you just keep trying to do the impossible". As he talked, IÂ watched four tiny sugar ants trying to drag a raisin from the table up on to an overhanging pot plant, then across it to their nest. In half an hour they moved it six inches.

By the time we reached Siem Reap IÂ was ready to attempt the impossible, but volunteering here needs more organisation than IÂ had; by the time I'd set anything up, it was well past time to leave. As a coping strategy, IÂ became an incredibly ineffective negotiator; IÂ just couldn't bring myself to argue over a couple of dollars.

That's not to say that there wasn't beauty. The restaurant lights reflecting from the water on Sihanoukville's long, curving beach produced a nightly rainbow, seen from our balcony. Sunset over the weedy Boeng Kak lake left, for a moment, one pool crimson while its neighbour was dark blue. Long conveys of bicycling schoolchildren in impeccable blue-and-white uniforms were a surprise on Koh Kong's isolated, dirty roads. The beach is clean and the water is warm.

Oh, and the beer's cheap. Around Boeng Kak the going rate is anywhere between fifty cents and free (enjoy your five dollar pints, guys). This didn't change my alcohol consumption at all; as good a measure of prosperity as I've seen.

If we'd flown from Bangkok to Siem Reap, along the lines of our original plan, we'd never have seen any of this. Proximity to Angkor has brought plane-loads of cash to Siem Reap, and that's transformed the city. There are no beggars. I don't know, and didn't ask, where they've been taken. Even the everpresent hawkers are forbidden to cross a metal wire in the dust fifty metres from each temple; the enforcement must be dramatic, because they're absolutely unwilling to take a single step over it. There's a classy wifi cafe that would fit right in, anywhere in London, pubs everywhere and clean streets, at least until you get a couple of kilometers out of town. Siem Reap has been sanitized. It could be anywhere.

IÂ think the "real Cambodia"Â lies somewhere in the middle. As IÂ learnt later, some of our fellow-travellers found it; they skipped the "must-do" sights and went off to stay with their driver's family in remote villages, or talked their way into abbreviated diving schools on distant islands.

They did what we should have done, and what anyone who wants to enjoy Cambodia has to do:Â forget the past.