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Tag Archives: Phnom Penh

Travels with Pavel: 24 February 2005

The traffic on the roads of Phnom Penh at 7 in the morning was extraordinary and already at that hour there were also students to be seen on the campus of the Royal University of Phnom Penh. The airport is small, well-maintained and almost bereft of passengers – except of course the Indians – of whom I counted at least four more besides me – who have the “privilege” of flying out and to rub salt into the wounds, there is a US$25 departure tax.

The best was however, yet to come. Two turns of the corner away, after I’d paid the outrageous departure tax, I stood in front of the immigration counter. There sat a lady officer in front of me and next to her another male officer. Quite calmly, very matter-of-factly the lady asked for a “souvenir, “Sir, US$5”! If it had not come just a few seconds, after parting with US$25 of hard-earned money, I might have actually considered handing over the US$5 – I am that kind of a numbskull at times. However, she caught me at just the wrong time, still smarting from the first payment. I didn’t give a damn anymore if they detained me but I had just enough wits about to me not to blow my top. Instead, I managed my most winningest smile and said, “Oh no, thanks, I’ve got plenty of souvenirs. I’ve spent over 20 days in Cambodia.” After that, it was merely the motions that had to be gone through.

The flight actually took off five minutes before time. And cruising at low altitude, I got an idea for the first time of anything approaching extensive forests and hills in Cambodia and they were quite beautiful. An hour later, the descent into Bangkok was through dirty brown clouds of pollution.

At the Bangkok airport, I saw the biggest collection of Chinese citizens I ever saw in any one place – and all Muslim Hui at that. The entire planeload of them was there in the transit area, mostly aged people with a few middle-aged and younger ones, sleeping, resting, chatting, making tea. Probably going to or coming from Mecca. A most unexpected sight coming in from Cambodia.

KLM 0877 was delayed – snowstorms in Europe apparently and I had been sweating in the heat just over an hour ago – but Pavel, still limping from the wound I’d given him falling from the moto, and I finally met up in the departure lounge a couple of hours. We hugged like long-lost brothers. We played Praší for a while and then watched a small army of Thai men and women march up and down our plane cleaning and unloading and loading food trays.

Once on board, we decided to celebrate Pavel’s birthday. To the first airhostess who came around, Pavel placed his order – “Can I have one gin and tonic and one vodka with orange juice, please?” The matronly airhostess fixed a beady eye on the potential drunkard in front of her and said simply, “No.” Pavel and I were a bit taken aback and at a loss for words. The airhostess finally noticed me and the confusion on our faces and putting two and two together said, “Oh, it is for the two of you?”

To make up for her mistake, I think she was rather liberal with the vodka in the vodka and orange juice. Or perhaps, she mixed it in proportions she herself consumed. Whatever, it was a proportion that was a bit too much for me and I was soon high in more ways than one.

Back to cold Taipei. From 6:15 in the morning today when I woke up, to 6:30 in the evening when we landed in Taipei, it’s all been smooth sailing I should say, flying – Phnom Penh to Bangkok to Taipei – 3 airports, 3 countries, 1 day.

Epilogue

The ink in my pen has still not run dry but my journey draws to a close. 28 days of living out of a rucksack – backpacking they call it. For me, they were days in a country that was both strange and familiar, days that both brought back memories of childhood and plunged me headlong into new experiences.

To be reminded, to remember – are memories merely ties that bind us to the past, mere will o’the wisps that are of no profit or are they the vital lifelines that enable us to rise again, renew ourselves and give context to our everyday lives? Who knows? All I know is this – it helps to have your friends along for the ride.

Travels with Pavel: 23 February 2005

I haven’t spent 20 days at a stretch at home in a long time – I have done that in Cambodia. My last full day in Cambodia was spent finishing King Arthur’s Legend and reading a very interesting series of essays on taxation by Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers, a book I’d picked up from a second-hand bookshop in Sihanoukville. Pretty heavy stuff for a tourist to be carrying around.

Lunch was a long-drawn out affair as I quizzed Sreenivas-ji on a number of matters and fell to talking later with a Kashmiri who called himself Jim and whose home is on the Pakistani side  of Kashmir. He was last in Kashmir in 1998 and presently holds a British passport. Seven years is a long time away from home, especially when home is Kashmir. Jim is in the IT field and works in Holland while his family lives in Britain. Circumstances might differ but he’s another of the dispossessed who haven’t the freedom to return home when they like. Jim still talks about “probably be[ing] arrested” even if he ventured into the Indian side of Kashmir with a UK passport.

Among other conversations I had over lunch was one about the differences between butter, cheese, paneer and the like and how each was produced. The Swedish guy at the table didn’t seem to know it nor the Irishman who’s been teaching English in Busan in South Korea for the last two years. And the EU spends the largest amount of its subsidies supporting the Common Agricultural Policy. And driving a lot of farmers in Africa out of business in the process – surely the average European ought to know more. Both Swede and Irishman were agreed, however, that the Greeks probably knew best about the secrets of making cheese. And so we come back to the “southern peoples” again.

Travels with Pavel: 18 February 2005

“It’s raining” that’s what Prší means and Pavel did not know why this Czech card game he was teaching me was called so. I didn’t care much since after the first few games, which I lost, I began winning quite a few. That was enough to make Pavel want to play pool with me later so that he could beat me and have his revenge. Strange game it might be with 32 cards but I think I like it, especially since it is one of the few games, I seem to have as good a chance as the opposite player of winning. At chess or pool, not even the law of averages can conspire to give me a win. I’m thumped almost every time.

It was to escape the oppressive heat of our lodgings that we took off for Same Same But Different for its Happy Hour and relaxed with some music and drink. I also decided to give Pavel an advance birthday treat with – what else, a bottle of beer.

Earlier, I’d found 200Baht in the side pocket of my rucksack. Where that came from I don’t know. I didn’t remember putting it there and how many days it travelled there in its dark corner, with every possibility of getting lost and never being missed, I don’t know, either. The atheist just smiles, while the believer goes “Hallelujah!”

Travels with Pavel: 15 February 2005

I wonder how they let me into Cambodia by land. The Thai embassy in Phnom Penh – actually the guard at the counter who wouldn’t even let me in to the main building – said that unless I was resident in Cambodia, I could not get a tourist visa to return to Thailand overland. As an Indian, I could only get a visa on arrival at the airport. I had to fly back to Thailand, as the official at the Indian embassy had told me. Pavel, of course, could walk on his hands or pole vault across for all the Thais cared. So that’s another lot of US dollars that I would have to spend to keep the Indian flag flying high in Taipei instead of in prison in Phnom Penh.

Gandhi and Me in Phnom Penh

Pavel came up with the idea of arriving exactly on the 24th at Bangkok so that I wouldn’t have to pay visa fees and proceed directly to the transit area and fly to Taipei. With my talent for attracting trouble, I’m likely to end getting lost again and with a 2-hour window to boarding my flight to Taipei, I knew I was likely to do everything within my power to cut things as fine as possible. Just the way it’s always been with me.

We are also extremely short of money. If the present situation does not call for a lot of prayers from the believer in the team, I don’t know what does. Are things as bad as they look? Or is it all just perfect?

Watching the Tom Hanks starrer, The Terminal about things that can go wrong with visas and at airports – Pavel had very considerately asked the guesthouse manager to screen it for my exclusive benefit – it was hard to miss the fact that in the end, it was only the Indian (Gupta, in this case) that got socked.

Travels with Pavel: 13-14 February 2005

At the village of Kampi on the way to Kratie, the Mekong came into view with the setting sun reflected in its slow waters – a sight for tired minds and bodies beyond the point of feeling any discomfort. We were on the return leg from Banlung  and the hot, dusty, bone-jarring ride cooped up this time in the inside of a Toyota Land Cruiser instead of bouncing around on the tailgate of a pick-up was infinitely more dreary than any of our trips so far. Unlike the trip into Banlung in the cool evening air, we were left more dead than alive at the end of it. There was a boy barely into his teens, I think, and Man Friday to the driver, who was perched on the top with our luggage and a standing moto. How he survived the ride is a mystery to me. Pavel, meanwhile was a sight to see, caked in dust at the back – and so I guess, was I.

The boat ride we wanted from Kratie to Phnom Penh didn’t exist. It went only up to Kampong Cham and cost US$5 to US$8 per person, depending on who you spoke with and we were seriously short of money. So we settled for a 10,000Riel big-bed room at Star 2 Guest House – the half a dollar extra was for the TV that came with the room. Pavel helpfully pulled out the plug in a bid to convince the mercenary proprietress to keep the rent to US$2. No such luck! So I went to sleep watching Zee Music.

Earlier just when we thought we were likely to starve for the night, we found food, meat and rice – a little of both – for 700Riel each. Tickets to Phnom Penh by bus – the last two seats for US$5 each – finished off the last of our American currency. Talk about a well-planned trip – I’ve become too used to riding my luck.

The morning of Valentine’s Day was not much fun at the back of the 7:15 bus for Phnom Penh. It was cramped even for me and I can only imagine Pavel’ discomfort. The high point of our trip was that with 500Riel (we were now into three figures in Cambodian currency), Pavel and me shared a fried spider – finally! Once we plucked up the courage to do it, we were left regretting we didn’t have enough money to have a spider each to ourself. The spider was quite tasty really. With another 500Riel we bought three appams with sugar, coconut rinds, etc, etc, whatever you call it back in Kerala, tasted just like home. This country really is a lot like home, right down to the music videos.

2330hours

I am really hopeless as far as my sense of direction goes. That or I simply don’t pay attention to where I’m going. As soon as I have 20 metres clear in front of me, I start dreaming, I miss turns, forget all about time. And I was supposed to meet Pavel in a nearby Internet cafe, but I ended up way, way off from my destination. I finally hired a cycle rickshaw – City of Ghosts style – me in front, cyclist at the back. The few times I’ve had the experience with the cycle-rickshaw wallahs in Delhi, I’ve never even attempted to bargain with them. I feel terribly guilty of being transported around literally by the sweat and toil of another human being – I usually walk if I can help it. This time thought, given our own straitened circumstances, I negotiated the price down to 300Riel. Wasn’t really necessary. I ended up paying the US$1 the guy asked for, the guy was sweating in the heat and he asked with a smile close to desperation.  Not much chance of me leaving any kids of mine a decent inheritance, I guess.

Saw Team America at our guesthouse – talk about taking the freedom of expression, too far! But funny movie all the same.

Travels with Pavel: 7 February 2005

So Laos didn’t happen. All the polite pleading, trying to say I’m the ‘good guy’ – ie, an Indian with a valid passport and a good education – didn’t work. Proceeded next to the Indian embassy nearby, in high fury and ready to give my Ambassador an earful. The guard at the gate made me fill out a form, first.

I went in first and only then could I get Pavel in. Watched Zee News in silent mode for a while before a staffer with a pepper-coloured French beard – Mallu/Tamil it seemed to me – turned up to speak to me. We spoke in English, I explained my problem and got another one in return – I can’t leave Cambodia either, it seems. Except by air. There’s a good reason, I think, why Indian missions abroad have a nasty reputation among citizens and foreigners alike – no news is good news.

Cambodia-India Friendship-NIIT

Pavel and me made our way disconsolately back to Boeng Kak, decided to have a sumptuous Indian lunch at a South Indian restaurant. The restaurant is run by Sreenivas from Hyderabad, who’s also lived in Nagpur for many years. Language of communication this time, is Hindi. Sreenivas is the Indian chef in the only genuine “Indian” restaurant in the area – the other two are Pakistani and the rest are Cambodian. Sreenivas hasn’t been home in nearly four years. Why? “Arre yaar, behenchod phas gaya na!” (“Well man, sister-fucker, I got screwed.” – is the translation most approximating the feeling and content). He was cheated by an agent in Mumbai of several hundreds of thousands of rupees. After being promised a job as a chef in a Tokyo 5-star hotel, he was left stranded in Ho Chi Minh City instead, as the agent skipped town. Srinivas then spent two years in Vietnam working at a Pakistani (Indo-Pak war, anybody?) restaurant and another one named “Urvashi,” before arriving in Cambodia to improve his fortunes.

His clientele today included another Indian, from Tamil Nadu who said he was just traveling around Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Cambodia and back. We fell to talking in Tamil about the miseries of being an Indian national trying to obtain a visa for traveling in the region. Another of Sreenivas’ guests spoke shudh Hindi, was basically from Nizamabad in Andhra Pradesh but had lived a long time in Uttar Pradesh, taught Sanskrit and Philosophy at the Sihanouk University for Buddhist Studies. Had been here for six years and spoke Khmer well as well read and wrote the language.

I am trying to find a good thing about not being able to travel to Laos. I’m still pretty disgusted and feel sorry that Pavel’s stuck with me as well. Finally, got to reading one of the writers in The Road to Damascus. She writes several things more clearly than I understand them in my head. I sense the truth in her writings but as a part-time Christian, I am still too attached to the world to let things go or be. Else why would I not be more at peace with myself, despite the setback? Instead, I’m composing a mighty missive in my head to the Indian Foreign Minister, which I doubt he’ll ever read, even if I put it down in bits and bytes, let alone act upon.

So now, no Laos and trouble expected ahead. “For truly, I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” Faith.

Travels with Pavel: 6 February 2005

In a dusty corner of Phnom Penh, along a street where a rather elaborate function with lots of security personnel and Buddhist chanting was going on was the huge sign that announced “Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crime” or S-21. Also at the corner stood “Tuol Sleng Internet” and almost bang opposite the barbed wire walls of the museum along an unpaved track, the “Tuol Sleng Guest House.”

Pavel didn’t want to see the inside of the museum. I did. And at the end of it, I wondered what I’d gained. In about 40 minutes, I’d lost all the pleasantness I’d associated with Cambodia – the grandeur of the Angkor Wat and the temples around it paled into insignificance, nothingness, the beautiful paintings on the roof of the Throne Hall in the Royal Palace, the thousands of silver tiles of the Silver Pagoda and its priceless Buddhas, all nothing, nothing against the recounting of the evil, that I’d just seen.

It was children, teenagers that carried out the tortures of grown men and women in S-21 during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Children and teenagers, who were employed to engage in cruel and barbaric torture in the service of the state. Evil, somehow is too short a word to describe this.

Duch, the chief of S-21 is depicted in a smiling pose in his photograph at the entrance to S-21, as also are some of the child perpetrators of the crimes. And in the photographs of the victims with numbers pinned to their clothes, and in one case, on to his bare chest, a variety of expressions – of powerlessness of disbelief. The face crumples up and it is hard to stop the tears from flowing, it is hard to pretend any longer that you are brave. And yet, amidst the sheer terror, also stood out expressions of defiance. Men can despite everything die with dignity no matter the manner of their death.

Pavel told me that when his sister, went to Auschwitz, apart from the facts on view, the weeping of the Jewish visitors made it all the more terrible an experience. At S-21itself, the photographs, the interrogation chambers, the cells with their instruments of torture on display, the skulls piled up in showcases were not in any way more bearable for the lack of weeping visitors. In a tropical climate, the chill of that place seemed to seep into my very bones, to constrict my breathing. The guidebooks uniformly call the people of Cambodia “warm hearted” and indeed, they were. Where does evil come from then?

And the graffiti on the wall under a staircase in one of the building blocks says it all: “This is socialism”, “Don’t forget Abu Ghraib…”, “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children” by Bobby Sands who died on a hunger strike in a British prison to which somebody had written not very complementarily about the IRA. And “Blair, Bush. Bollocks!”

The world goes round and round, Khmer Rouge, IRA, Bosnia, Rwanda, Abu Ghraib. Who learns anything at all? The movie, “The Killing Fields” is a must-watch for every tourist in Cambodia. We too watched it later in the evening.

To the Lao embassy tomorrow. The travel agencies won’t help procure visas for Indians, Nepalis, Pakistanis and Afghans among a few others unless they produce flight tickets. I’d already asked Pavel yesterday, “Who the fuck gives a damn about Laos, anyway?” My Indian pride is pricked, Pavel can obtain a visa and enter the country overland. What MEA fuck-up produced this “respect” for Indians, I wonder? And funnily enough among the photos outside the Lao embassy we passed by today is one of former Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and company meeting with their Laos counterparts. Mekong-Ganga Initiative, my foot! We’ll see about this tomorrow.

Travels with Pavel: 5 February 2005

0805hrs

For a 7:40 bus we were picked up at 7:35 and with three stops in a space of 150 metres, we are transported to the bus station not a kilometre away where we are left to our own devices by the driver who does nothing but point at a bus with a line of tourists already in front of it. And so comparing Khmer character for Khmer character on the bus with our ticket, we figure out that it’s the bus we’re supposed to board but it’s too crowded and we switch to another bus of the same company which the driver tells Pavel is departing in 10 minutes. Well, as soon as the first one leaves, the time increases to about an hour. Mystified, Pavel leaves his seat to find out from the driver what’s happening but returns soon enough with the acquired wisdom “nobody wants to talk to me.” Meanwhile, we hope nobody will evict us from our seats which we’ve comfortably occupied towards the middle the bus instead of our original numbers at the back. Phnom Penh is six hours away, or so they say.

1224hrs

Lunch break. Mashed meat with a complicated name that as usual I didn’t even attempt to remember. Instead, I ask the girl again, “chicken?” which promptly sends her into hysterics against the nearest pole.

This place also sells deep-fried spiders as a culinary delicacy. Sukhon in the Lonely Planet, Suk Heng is this place. 一樣嗎?

2248hrs

We arrived at Phnom Penh sooner than expected and quickly found ourselves a room at Same Same But Different which the Lonely Planet describes as “same same and the same.” It’s an ok place, so far and overlooking the Boeng Kak, Pavel and me stretched our legs and talked about various things through a long walk through the city and dinner. Saw the Wat Phnom and Wat Koh and the confluence of the Mekong, Sap and Barsac rivers – the Quatre Bras.

Pavel at the Same Same But Different guest house

Saw an Indian couple at Wat Phnom and a very bored looking Indian youngster apparently waiting for somebody by the Indian flag on the promenade at the Quatre Bras. Contrary to the common impression that Indians are outgoing – the come-up-to-you-curious-and-smiling-all-the-time types – Indians out of India can’t wait to get away from other Indians soon enough. Or maybe that’s an attitude of city-slickers generally.

Today’s topics for conversation between Pavel and me included the attitude of “these southern peoples” particularly the Greeks with their siesta times, and that consequently they were likely to be left behind in economic development even by the newly-joined EU members from Eastern Europe as they had been already, by Ireland. Hmmm… us Malayalees/Keralites, we are a “southern people,” too. And I’d quite agree that we’ve been more or less left behind by the rest of India as far as industrialization and economic development were concerned but on the bright side, we got lots of greenery to show for it. And Mallus like Greek shipping tycoons have always made their fortunes under any flag but their own.