(Excerpted from The Grateful Unrich…Chapter 21: The Ho Chi Minh Trail)
We’re up at 5:15 AM to catch the 6:00 minibus to Hat Lek on the Cambodian border. As I enter my 34th country, I refuse to pay the 100 baht health stamp. I win this round, but when I insist that I will pay the official visa rate of $20, I am outwitted. I ask for a receipt. The wily border official says, “The department head was just here yesterday and he asked $25 too.” I laugh and pay up.
We ride into Koh Kong on the backs of two scooters, the cool morning wind blowing through our hair. I have a nice conversation with my driver Sopai. He is very proud that Cambodia is entering the modern world and says the Thais are arrogant and keep stealing land at the border. Pride and a hatred of Thais will be two recurrent Cambodian themes. Sopai seems to speak optimistically about Cambodia more to reassure himself than with any conviction. No one in Koh Kong will take baht, he says, because they don’t like Thais. He takes us to the “bus station”, a guest house that runs minivans to Sihanoukville, which pays him a commission to bring them passengers. We’d known about this ahead of time, so were prepared to bargain. I pay for two tickets with my remaining baht and a polo shirt. I give Sopai some baht I’d hidden away and a Minnesota Twins t-shirt. So much for Cambodian nationalism!
The Khmers are more persistent and more dignified than Thais. Maybe it comes from the early Indian traders whose influence can also be seen in the mannerisms of the Cambodians. Maybe it comes out of long anti-colonial struggles against Thai, French, American and Khmer Rouge henchmen. The men are out front here. In Thailand the men were hiding and ashamed. Maybe you’d feel the same if your women were for sale to the highest bidder on a daily basis. In Thailand women run the shops. Here men take care of business and women tend to work behind the scenes. Women here seem protected by their men.
The minivan is full of foreigners. We pick up a Khmer at the crossroads from Phnom Penh. I strike up a conversation with him. He is a biology teacher and very gay. He makes a pass at me before realizing I am married. Four ferry crossings and five hours later we are dropped off at the front door of the immaculate $4/night family run Mealy Chenda Hotel.
Sihanoukville is cool and breezy. We order banana/pineapple crepes and a huge cup of strong coffee for $1.25 each. The sluggish days of Thai Nescafe are behind us. The Americans just bombed everything. At least the French left behind good coffee and excellent baguettes.
Cambodia is much poorer than Thailand and I instantly take to it. No nation on earth suffered more in the last half-century. You can feel the corruption here. While Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party claims to be socialist, I don’t see it. The visa in my passport says, “Kingdom of Cambodia”, whereas the Vietnamese visa I get today at the embassy here for $33 (Sihanoukville is the cheapest place to get one) reads “Socialist Republic of Vietnam”. Herein lies the problem.
Cambodia is a monarchy. Prince Norodom Sihanouk- which this town is named after- was a French/CIA drug-running stooge before backing the Khmer Rouge. It explains why an American we meet who says he’s been to sixty-five countries (who’s done that except military personnel) can openly sell marijuana at his guest house on Serendipity Beach, where he rents land from the police. There’s a huge port here. My guess is that narcotics smuggling is helping pay off Cambodia’s massive debt to the international bankers. An Irishman tells me that Chevron Texaco has been given Angkor Wat in a debt-equity swap.
Tonight we eat a nice shrimp dinner with Estrid from Denmark, whom we seem to keep bumping into. Her uncle just ran for Danish MP, so we talk about the ugliness of politics and how it thrusts families into an unwanted and constant spotlight- something Jill and I had experienced when I ran for Congress.
We get an email from Jill’s folks that we know can’t be good. “Call home as soon as you can”, it reads. We call from an internet café and find out that Jill’s nephew Patrick has died in a car accident this morning on his way to work. We both shed tears. They are suddenly sharing Khmer suffering in Poplarville, Mississippi.
We are offered an Angkor Beer factory tour by the keg delivery guy. “All you can drink while you’re there”, he tells us. Just pay me $4 for the ride out there. He would drink free too he assures us. We decline. Why bother when we can sit here at Rom Doul restaurant across the street from our hotel and drink two pitchers of Angkor for $3.50.
I sell the only Big Oil… book I brought with me to an Israeli guy traveling with a Dutch woman. They bore us with imperialist tales of how they can’t find good vegetarian food in Cambodia. I’ve never found better food anywhere. They whine at how they got ripped off at Seeing Hands Massage- a worthwhile charity for the blind. For their finale, they make a big scene on the beach, where a Khmer woman with children in tow spends at least an hour using a razor blade to remove the Israeli’s plentiful back hair. When she finally finishes, he refuses to pay her the $5 she had charged, saying she told him it would be 5,000 riel ($1.25). He degrades her and insults her, but she is hungry and persistent. We side with her. When he finally hands her a 5,000 riel note, she angrily rips it up and begins to sob. They embarrass us. We resolve to ditch them.
Yet another Euro-infant storms up to the counter at Jungle Vine restaurant, complaining wildly that he has poured salt in his coffee. The Khmers smile and laugh and give him a fresh cup. Try that at Starbucks asshole. Stories of death abound here. Rom Doul’s owner says her American husband died three years ago in a motorcycle accident. A tourist died here and wasn’t found for three days in her hotel room. There’s a wild-West dangerous feeling here. The country’s only port is here, there are casinos opposite the central bank of Cambodia, US dollars are the de facto currency and drug dealers appear on every corner. I smell CIA everywhere. Hun Sen is either a total crook or has no power in this Kingdom of corruption.
Battambang is Cambodia’s 2nd largest city. There are few tourists here. This is the real Cambodia. It takes nine hours to get here by bus from Sihanoukville, with a change of bus and lunch in Phnom Penh. It’s been a long day. I keep noticing how much the Khmer remind me of East Indians. They are always hawking, do lots of begging, and say, “Hallo”. As we leave Phnom Penh we pass numerous garment factories, as well as brick, logging and charcoal mills. Scrap wood is heavily utilized for fuel as the country is badly deforested. There are also many fish farms here, especially along the Tonle Sap River.
We see many small farms on the way and they are impressive. It appears that the government still encourages people to move out of the cities, just as the Khmer Rouge had done, though in much less brutal fashion. Land reform seems to have benefited many people in the rural areas. Little stacks of rice straw pop up in every yard. Each family has about ½ acre of private land for a garden and some small livestock. Pigs and chickens are everywhere. Adjoining a cluster of houses are vast rice fields which appear to be worked together and held in common. Roofs tend to be double-peaked so rain water can be caught and funneled into holding tanks inside the house, probably in the bathroom. Many farmers raise big flocks of ducks housed in small thatch huts and always with a pond. There is no fencing for animals. Some are tethered. Most just roam free. A sewage lagoon usually lies in front of the house next to the highway and is planted to water hyacinth- which helps break down the sludge quickly.
Private education funded by foreigners is common. We see British, US, New Zealand and Chinese-funded schools. All are in rural areas. Evangelical churches are also making inroads. Patrick was buried last night. This morning there is a Buddhist parade. Afterwards we buy a small caged bird from a hawker and set it free. It is symbolic. Little Patrick flew, his spirit freed from the injustices of this earth.
Hotel Chhaya costs $5/night. It is immaculately clean and comes with satellite TV, private bath and comfortable beds. There’s even a pager phone to the front desk and a pair of flip flops to wear. Satellite TV here is an interesting mix of Korean, Russian, Chinese, Indonesian, Thai, US, UK, German and Cambodia channels. Tonight we watch an interview on Indonesian TV of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. This would never happen in America. Mugabe is on the CIA “greatest hits” list for his refusal to play ball with the international bankers. Even CNN is far better here than in the US. Americans are treated like mushrooms. Keep them in the dark and feed them shit. How else would the empire survive?
Battambang is the place to observe the everyday struggle of the average Cambodian just to survive. This morning we find a small café serving strong Arabica coffee. It’s the best we’ve had the entire trip. Most coffee grown here is of the robusta variety and of poor quality. The owner of the café says she gets these beans from one particular region of the country near the Vietnam border and that it is very expensive. The best restaurant here is the White Rose, which serves up some of the best food in Cambodia for next to nothing. Their fruit shake menu is a mind-blower. My favorite is mango-pineapple-jackfruit, which sets me back $.50.
There’s something eerie about this town. This area was a Khmer Rouge stronghold right into the 1990s. Many people that either suffered or perpetrated the suffering are still living here. I feel the presence of ghosts. There is a general mistrust around town. People are sad, traumatized, and a bit jaded. It is a haunted city where killers walk free. In the end, after four days here I am glad to be leaving.
We dodge the touts who linger in front of Cchaya and find the bus station on our own. We order a strong cup of joe, fry bread and Cambodian tea at an adjacent Chinese joint and take the 7:30 AM bound for Siem Reap. Half-way, we buy green mango slices with chile- a Cambodian lunch favorite- from a vendor outside the bus window. The road is fine until we do the big turn around the north end of Tonle Sap Lake at Sisophan. Then it turns to absolute shit. This stretch of road gets more tourist traffic than any in Cambodia, since most tourists to Angkor Wat come directly from Bangkok. Why is it so neglected?
Some say the Khmer’s want sympathy from aid donors so they get more money. Others say the fancy hotels in Siem Reap keep it that way so their package flight-included tours will sell better. It’s probably a little of both. It’s a dusty bone-jarring ride. My insides hurt. A one-lane bridge is blocked by a broken-down truck. A long line forms and we stop at the back of it. People pile out of to survey the situation. Soon cars, trucks, tractors and buses are careening off into a rice paddy and down through a wash to get around the problem. Lucky for us it is the dry season. Luckier yet, we don’t hit a land mine, which are still scattered about this country.
We buy raw peanuts from hawkers outside the bus window. Again I notice how well the rural peasants are doing. There are many signs of socialism in action- shared wells, shared homemade tractors and an abundance of schools. At our lunch stop we meet a young girl selling bananas named Soti. She is proud to demonstrate her excellent English, which she has picked up from the throngs of travelers who have piled off buses here bound for Angkor Wat. She has a huge international coin collection which her family got unwittingly from low-bagger unscrupulous Khao San Road backpackers. The Thais call them bird-shit farang. She wonders if I can change them for her. I cannot. But she can tell we are different from most tourists. She gives us each an orange Buddhist bracelet, which we wear the rest of this trip. We buy fruit from her. Her father also sees that we are different and throws in extra bananas.
Dean Henderson is the author of four books: Big Oil & Their Bankers in the Persian Gulf: Four Horsemen, Eight Families & Their Global Intelligence, Narcotics & Terror Network, The Grateful Unrich: Revolution in 50 Countries, Das Kartell der Federal Reserve & Stickin’ it to the Matrix. You can subscribe free to his weekly Left Hook column @ www.deanhenderson.wordpress.com