An American Abroad

Siem Reap is #7

I was pleased, but not surprised, to read just now that Siem Reap, Cambodia, was rated the seventh friendliest city in the world by Conde Nast Traveler.

When I was there in late April, I was so impressed with place that I wrote “After a few days there, I left thinking that even if Angkor was not just a tuk tuk ride away, Siem Reap would be a fine place to visit or to live.” Nice to see that the posh readers of Conde Nast think so too.

Cambodia: Angkor Thom, Part 2

[Read Cambodia: Angkor Thom, Part 1.]

In Angkor Thom, there is a riot of images carved everywhere into the living rock.

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But nearby Bauphon looks like a Greek temple, with its rectangular design and column-supported roof.

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Bauphon is a mess, archaeologically speaking. In the sixties and seventies, archaeologists began a restoration project which involved pulling out stones (most of which had collapsed) and cataloging their position. Then when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, the records of what stone goes were were destroyed or lost. Later restoration crews had to try to figure out how to put the place back together. I suppose they did as well as could be expected, but it’s obvious even to my untrained eye that some things just aren’t right.

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Out in back of the ruins, however, I met some oxen who consented to a few pictures before turning their asses toward me in disdain.

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I also saw some machinery–a well? a pump?–that I couldn’t identify.

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By the time I completed a circuit of Bauphon, the tourist throngs had arrived: hundreds of folks all wearing the same hat or T-shirt so they won’t get separated from their particular group. The young women in these groups were particularly insufferable, posing for pictures among the ruins for their husbands or their girlfriends like wanna-be fashion models using Angkor as mere scenery. It’s like they came here to make Angkor all about themselves. Grrr.

My modest contribution to the genre is below.

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It was hot. Even the Cambodians say it’s hot. And that’s saying something. By about 11:00 in the morning it was about 100 degrees and my shirt was soaked with sweat. I was seriously thirsty, but to the Cambodians’ credit, there are no snack bars or food sellers in Angkor except at the faraway edges. So I hailed a tuk tuk and headed for my guesthouse.

On my way back, I passed my first elephant. This one was carrying a father and two little girls up the hillside by Angkor Thom — $20 round trip. I also passed more gibbons, whole families of them — with babies.

After rehydrating, I packed up and headed for the airport to catch a flight to Laos. I was a little worn out, sunburnt, ant-bit, and blistered from my three days of exploration in Cambodia. I decided that when I got to Laos I’d take a vacation from my vacation and spend my time exploring local pubs rather than archaeological ruins.

Cambodia: Angkor Thom, Part 1

Angkor Wat is stately, symmetrical, and tasteful, a formal masterpiece — but Angkor Thom, just a few kilometers away, is a feral looking pile of stones.

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Angkor Wat is Queen Elizabeth: dignified, careful, and articulate. Angkor Thom is your crazy uncle who wears mismatched socks, drinks too much, and is given to ranting in the supermarket.

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Angkor Wat is the Taj Mahal. Angkor Thom is a folly like The House on the Rock.

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Angkor Thom is a crazy-making place, one that looks to’ve been designed by an alien madman. It’s the least earthly structure I’ve ever seen. In its confounding layout and rugged design, it looks like something from the Stone Age.

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And what it lacks in Angkor Wat’s symmetry, size, and fame it makes up for in massive Buddha faces carved into its spires. (The facial recognition option on my Sony NEX 5n picked them out immediately.)

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There are also some outbuildings that provide a calming classical contrast to the wildness of the main building.

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[Go on to Cambodia: Angkor Thom, Part 2]

Cambodia: Siem Reap

Siem Reap was a pleasant surprise. Since it’s the town closest to Angkor, I expected a ticky-tacky tourist town, just a place for people to stay en route to the ruins. It is a tourist town, but as the genre goes, it’s a nice one. It’s here:

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The first thing I did upon getting to town was to get a haircut at the Fine Day Barber Shop. There is a certain frisson about not being able to communicate well with your barber.

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And as he put the straight razor to my neck, I wondered if the tens of thousands of tons of bombs that America “secretly” dropped on his country 45 years ago killed many of his relatives.


I also found that the Angkor National Museum does a good job of showcasing and explaining Angkor civilization and putting the area’s ruins in historical context.

The town has a lovely and well-tended park that runs along the Siem Reap River, which cuts through the middle of the town.

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For those whose tastes run more toward the vehicular, Cambodia’s climate does a good job of preserving the classics.

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There are many shops, ranging from the tony to the homespun — and even the latter are neat and tidy.

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After living in Yuxi for ten months, I found myself craving non-Chinese food. Especially enjoyed the beef stew at Molly Malone’s, an Irish pub run by a half-French half-Cameroonian man and his Irish wife. I swapped lies with him while holding down the Bullshit Corner at the bar.

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On another night, as I wandered around town, I caught sight of Boston Red Sox posters hanging above the bar at Belmiro’s Pizza & Subs. Being a former Bostonian, I wandered in for the first pizza I’ve had since Christmas. It’s a great establishment, run by Belmiro Barros, a self-described “kid from Marion, Massachusetts” who got sick of a career in international finance and decided to open a restaurant in Siem Reap. Pizza and conversation were both very good.

There were posters up in the coffee shops and guesthouses advertising jazz concerts, dance recitals, a circus, and art gallery openings. After a few days there, I left thinking that even if Angkor was not just a tuk tuk ride away, Siem Reap would be a fine place to visit or to live.

Cambodia: By Motorcycle to Chau Srey Vibol, Part 2

[Read Cambodia: By Motorcycle to Chau Srey Vibol, Part 1 here.]

There were no tourists at Chau Srey Vibol. None. No ticket booth, no tour guides, site maps or plaques either. It was just an ancient pile of stones about 75 meters behind a Buddhist temple at the end of a badly rutted dirt road. I had the place all to myself, save for a couple of saffron-robe clad shaved-headed monks from the temple who briefly came over to check me out.

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When I was a kid, I used to build cities with Jonathan Poneman in his basement. We’d use cardboard boxes, Lego, Hot Wheels tracks, pieces of wood, erector sets, alphabet blocks, and anything else that struck our fancy. Our metropolises were very elaborate. Then, in a frenzy of joyful destruction, we would kick over all we had so carefully built, scattering blocks and boxes and buildings like angry and capricious gods.

That is what Chau Srey Vibol looked like. There were pediments scattered like Lincoln Logs, window frames strewn about like Lego pieces, enormous stone blocks tossed about as if they were 1,100 year old pieces of styrofoam.

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After taking about 100 photos, I got back on my moto, feeling wonderful. I rode along singing Steeley Dan inside my helmet at the top of my lungs to no one but myself: “Bodhisattva, won’t you take me by the hand?” Children coming home from school, dressed in immaculate blue pants and white shirts waved at me in delight. And I waved back.

Cambodia: By Motorcycle to Chau Srey Vibol, Part 1

I went to the outskirts of Siem Reap to pick up my moto (which is what people here call anything with a motor and two wheels). I was handed the key to a battered Honda Dream, a Frankencycle of a scooter’s front end and a motorcycle’s back end.

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At the garage, a greasy guy lurched toward me and offered me a Bombay Sapphire Gin bottle. A little early in the morning, I thought, but why not? I reached for the bottle, but the guy pushed by me, flipped up the Honda’s seat, and poured the contents of the bottle into the gas tank. This is how a Khmer-style gas station works.

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Once I left Siem Reap, the pavement gave way to deep red dirt. I rode slow, given that the previous night’s rain had left muddy patches, but the Honda held to the track surprisingly well. About 10 km out of the city, I looked across rice fields to see the three towers of Angkor Wat way in the distance.

The Cambodian countryside was peaceful, lush, and compared to other rural areas of Asia I’ve seen, relatively prosperous.

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I passed by many houses built up on stilts and painted dusky red with dusky blue trim. The ground floors are concrete pads that are used as garages, porches, and patios. There are stairs or thatched ramps leading up to the living areas.

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I don’t romanticize poverty. But there are different ways of living poor. The Cambodians seem to do it artfully. Their houses are clean and tidy outside. Things are built and arranged with a strong aesthetic sense.

Around lunch time, I saw a sign for BBQ and stopped. I was led down a path through the jungle to a single guy who had a fire going. “Meat or no meat?” he asked. “Meat,” I said. I was led further down the path past several outdoor porches built on piers over a small lake to the very last one.

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This was my private dining room. It had some hammocks, a bamboo floor, and straw mats. I snoozed for a bit until the cook brought me a plate of grilled chicken, pork, and sausage–delicious and far more than I could eat.

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I ate while looking out over the lake.

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Then I was on my way again. I stopped for gas here . . .

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. . . and decided to go with the Johnnie Walker Red this time.

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I passed various Buddhist schools, temples and monasteries. Several of them had similar murals painted on their walls that looked like something out of Hieronymus Bosch. A Buddhist conception of the torments of hell?

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My destination was Chau Srey Vibol, an unrestored temple complex built in 900, i.e., 200 years before Angkor Wat. It was not easy to find and the roads were bad, but I made it — and it was a highlight of my trip.

Read about it in Cambodia: By Motorcycle to Chau Srey Vibol, Part 2.

Cambodia: Angkor Wat

On my first full day in Siem Reap, I got up at five and was out the door by six, hoping to beat the tourist hordes. I hailed a passing tuk tuk and, after a twenty minute ride, hopped off at the end of the ancient stone causeway that crosses the square moat surrounding Angkor Wat. The temperature was already at least 85, but I got chills as I saw the 900 year old ruin looming ahead of me. I have wanted to come here for many years. I thought: finally.

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Angkor Wat is as hard to photograph as it is to describe. It’s so monumentally large that a single photo can’t capture the grandeur of it all. Every stone surface is carved with intricate depictions of the Hindu mythos, with trees and flowers and chariots and warriors and wagon wheels and fantastical animals. And from every corner, mammose goddesses look on.

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The complex is constructed as a series of squares within squares. There are long corridors faced with support columns or with windows made of closely-adjacent stone pillars designed to let light in but keep arrows out.

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Once you’re within the outer walls, there are multiple entrances and stairways leading to the inner chambers.

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Inside the temple itself are several shrines to the Buddha, which are still attended to by the faithful.

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Around the temple are several smaller buildings which were used as libraries.

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I spent almost five hours there, after which the heat, the exhaustion, the amazement, and the multitudes of tourists took their toll. I could have easily spent five days. I took another tuk tuk back to the guesthouse and slept for three hours.

That evening, there was a tropical rain storm. I sat on the covered rooftop deck of the Seven Candles Guesthouse and wrote up my notes as the power blinked on and off and little geckos scurried over the walls.

Ready for Vacation

Today was our last day of work at Shane English Yuxi before the May Day vacation.


JJ (left), Silas (right) and I are in our professional vacation attire and ready to go. JJ is heading to Beijing. Silas is heading to Guangzhou. And I’m heading to Cambodia and Laos.

Cineprepping for Cambodia

I’ll be traveling to Cambodia and Laos at the end of this month. To get ready, I’ve held my own private film festival; call it cineprepping.

There aren’t very many movies about Laos. Fittingly, the only one I could find is called The Most Secret Place on Earth. There are, however, enough films about Cambodia to give me a sense of how that country is viewed in the Anglo-American pop cultural imagination. And now there are some native Cambodian entries in the genre which, naturally, have different foci.

The Cambodia movies focus primarily on the nightmarish reign of the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979; secondly on the role of the American government in paving the way for the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power; and thirdly on the failure of America and the European powers to provide humanitarian aid once Vietnam finally drove the Khmer Rouge from power. In short, it’s grim viewing and I’m going to need a vat of Zoloft and some Marx Brothers comedies to recover my usual good humor. “The feel-good movie of the year” has yet to be made about Cambodia.

All three of these aspects of recent Cambodian history are presented in Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia, which was made by Anglo-Australian journalist John Pilger in 1978. Pilger makes no secret of where the responsibility for the deaths of between 1 and 2 million Cambodians lies. In describing his movie, he writes:

Year Zero not only revealed the horror of the Pol Pot years, it showed how Richard Nixon’s and Henry Kissinger’s ‘secret’ bombing of that country had provided a critical catalyst for the rise of the Khmer Rouge. It also exposed how the West, led by the United States and Britain, was imposing an embargo, like a medieval siege, on the most stricken country on earth. This was a reaction to the fact that Cambodia’s liberator was Vietnam – a country that had come from the wrong side of the Cold War and that had recently defeated the US. Cambodia’s suffering was a willful revenge. Britain and the US even backed Pol Pot’s demand that his man continue to occupy Cambodia’s seat at the UN, while Margaret Thatcher stopped children’s milk going to the survivors of his nightmare regime.

Pilger’s documentary was never shown in the US, but after it aired in the UK, viewers there sent over ₤45 million in aid to Cambodian relief efforts. The film was later cited by the British Film Institute as one of the ten most influential documentary films of the twentieth century.

Swimming to Cambodia (1987) is a Jonathan Demme film of a Spalding Gray monologue performance.
It’s quirky and amusing on the surface, as Gray recounts his experience playing a small role in another Cambodia movie, The Killing Fields. But beneath Gray’s charming bemusement runs a real current of anger. He says:

This [American] bombing [of Cambodia] went on for five years. The Supreme Court never passed any judgment on it and the military speaks with pride today that five years of the bombing of Cambodia killed 16,000 of the so-called enemy. That’s 25% killed, and there’s a military ruling that says you cannot kill more than 10% of the enemy without causing irreversible psychological damage. So, five years of bombing, a diet of bark, bugs, lizards and leaves up in the Cambodian jungles, an education in Paris environs in a strict Maoist doctrine with a touch of Rousseau, and other things that we will probably never know about in our lifetime — including, perhaps, an invisible cloud of evil that circles the Earth and lands at random in places like Iran, Beirut, Germany, Cambodia, America — set the Khmer Rouge out to carry out the worst auto-homeo genocide in modern history.

No wonder, perhaps, that Gray committed suicide in 2004.

The movie that Gray played small role in, The Killing Fields (1984), is probably the most well-known of the Cambodian atrocity genre, but it hasn’t aged well. Perhaps we’re all inured to genocide and killing on an industrial scale by now.
But I think there’s more to it. The movie tries to use an interracial buddy story about American journalist Sydney Schanberg and Cambodian photographer Dith Pran as a framing device for the tale of how Dith Pran survived in and escaped from a Khmer Rouge concentration camp. Perhaps the Schanberg part of the story was put in to sell the movie at the box office; a film with an unknown Asian hero and no American good guy would’ve been a tough sell in 1984 (and still would be today). But the two stories don’t mesh well and the lack of chemistry between the Schanberg character (played by Sam Waterston) and Dith Pran (played by Haing S. Ngor) is painful.

The most well-known Cambodia movies has to be Apocalypse Now (1979). It’s usually thought of as a Vietnam movie, but Cambodia is the protagonist’s destination, the location of the very heart of darkness. Click to play my favorite lines:

The story revolves around Colonel Kurtz, a highly decorated but unorthodox American soldier who, after years of combat in Vietnam, goes both AWOL and crazy and sets himself up as the ruler of a tribe of murderous fanatics in the Cambodian jungle, where they live as if they were back in the stone age.
After watching all the other movies in the Cambodian genre, it’s hard not to see Kurtz as a stand-in for the Khmer Rouge itself.

There are five common themes running through these four films which I think sum up how Westerners view Cambodia today.

(1) Cambodia is a secret, mysterious, and bizarre place. (2) Its people are unfathomably brutal. (3) Westerners aren’t supposed to be there. (4) Westerners bring war with them when they arrive and (5) leave destruction and starvation behind when they leave.

Western filmmakers seem to have lost interest in Cambodia in the 21st century and have moved on to other atrocity stories. One Cambodian filmmaker, however, has started to explore his country’s recent history and social psychology.

L’Image Manquante (2013) (English title: The Missing Picture) reflects on the fact that there are few existing photos of life in the Khmer Rouge labor camps. A visual history of the most traumatic event in the country’s history is absent. There are, of course, officially produced pictures, such as films of Pol Pot addressing a gathering of nervous Khmer Rouge officials or visiting an artificially enthusiastic group of Cambodian people. These clips, which are included in the film, are at least a start in the process of trying to explain how and why the Khmer Rouge exterminated between a quarter and a third of their fellow Cambodians.

To compensate for the missing pictures of life under the Khmer Rouge, filmmaker Rithy Panh illustrates his personal narrative with oddly empathic clay figurines, which are sculpted and painted in great detail and set into elaborate dioramas.
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The effect simultaneously distances the view from the literal horrors of the atrocities of the time while forcefully driving home their emotional effects. The process of carefully creating these figurines seems to give the filmmakers and the viewers some way to comprehend and make peace with the past.

The other native Cambodian film, S-21: La Machine de Mort de Khmère Rouge (2003), is also directed by Rithy Panh. It uses a technique I first saw used in The Act of Killing (2012), a documentary about the Indonesian death squads of the 1960s. In both movies, the filmmaker coaxes the murderers, torturers, thugs, and jailers of years ago to re-enact their actions for the camera. Surprisingly, the war criminals seem very eager to perform.

In this documentary, Rithy Panh brings two survivors of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison — a former high school that was used as a detention and torture facility by the Khmer Rouge — back to the premises, which is now a genocide museum.
S21 - regulations
There they confront some of their guards and torturers. It’s a good set-up, but viewers who are seeking explanation, catharsis, understanding, or remorse will come away disappointed. The former Khmer Rouge jailers appear to have walled themselves off, psychologically and morally, from the atrocities committed by their younger selves, and Rithy Panh cannot penetrate their defenses. I was left with little doubt that if a 21st century version of the Khmer Rouge ever came to power, they would find plenty of willing partners among some of the people I saw in this film.

(By the way, I’d love to get my eyes on Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll (2012), which sounds a little more upbeat than all the movies with Death, Killing and Apocalypse in their titles, but I can’t find a copy to download. Would any of my readers care to shoot me a copy?)