Writer's Block

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Friday, April 15, 2005

From my 2003 South East Asia travel diary

Edging Towards The Killing Fields
August 20, 2003

I decided to hire a driver for the day to take me to the major sites that every tourist hits in Phnom Penh. There really isn’t any tourism infrastructure or mass transportation system in Phnom Penh; tourists simply “do it themselves” by hiring a driver or hopping on the back of motorbikes from place to place to get around town. Instead of taxis, there are motorbike drivers for hire all around town, waiting on busy street corners and in front of major buildings and sights, there at every turn. There’s no need to hail them, they know how to single the tourists out and solicit them for business. They offer a cheaper alternative to hiring a car for a day. They’ll take you anywhere on the back of their motorbike for a few bucks a ride. Since I was traveling on my own, I opted for the luxury of having a driver for the day at the cost of $20, which was more than the cost of one night’s stay in the guesthouse! I only had one day, a specific list of things to see and I didn’t want to be hassled or stranded somewhere.

The sky had been overcast when I arrived this morning, but now the sun was out. I stepped out of the guesthouse wide-eyed and momentarily distracted by a group of drivers who stood directly in front of the guesthouse entrance all lined up with their vehicles. One of them motioned me over to his car and I began to walk over, but out of the corner of my eye I spotted Mr. Ni who I realized was motioning me towards his jeep.

My list of sights to see included the Killing Fields, the National Palace Museum, the Tonle Sap riverfront, a temple, an open market, the silver tiled pagoda, and the S-21 prison. Mr. Ni assured me that one day would be sufficient to see all Phnom Penh’s major sights.

Not knowing where to start, he suggested that I head for the Killing Fields first since it was located outside of Phnom Penh. He said that it was quite far and that it could take close to an hour to get there.

“How far away is it?”

“Twenty kilometers.”

Twenty kilometers! I had already noticed that everyone drove around 30 to 40 km/hr, but this didn’t seem to add up.

As we drove out of Phnom Penh, buildings shrank from view and the changes in the landscape were barely noticeable, since what civilization Phnom Penh has is laid out like a suburb with buildings and local businesses concentrated in clusters or miniature communities, spread far apart. There were subtle changes as the paved road became dirt, then a rough dirt path that didn’t seem to have been yet made amenable for the use of motorized vehicles. It was like a path that gets worn into existence over time, by repeated, following footsteps that carve a path through a grassy field. I imagined the tracks made by toiling masses of people, animals and primitive vehicles- the masses relocated and murdered during Cambodia’s unfathomable genocide masterminded by Pol Pot and carried out by the Khmer Rouge.

We went through fields and into the outskirts and what looked like slums to me, but where I suspect most Cambodians live rather than in the city of Phnom Penh. Soon there were few motorized vehicles of any form in sight. Then I realized that we were the only automobile on the road. I probably saw two other cars during the rest of our drive. Otherwise there were a few cattle and carts and people on bikes and motorcycles. The “road” had become an elevated strip of red earth and our surroundings had transformed into scenes of green hillsides in the distance and vast green rice fields.

We drove into shanty communities. On both sides of the road were shacks and simple, beaten down Mom and Pop businesses weathered by time and use. There was a beverage stand, a local barber, food stalls, and makeshift stands which consisted of foldable tables displaying trinkets, fruit or clothing for sale in yard sale fashion. As I looked around, I noticed that many foreigners had opted to ride on the back of motorbikes or to rent bicycles to get around. I had the sense that the people who lived in these communities were entrenched in their lives, more than just miles away, worlds away from Phnom Penh. I wondered how frequently, or if ever some of them ventured into Phnom Penh. I didn’t see many automobiles around these parts. Even when I was in Phonm Penh it didn’t seem as though many people owned cars. Most of the locals seemed to get around on motorbikes.

The one hour of travel time that Mr. Ni had estimated, apparently wasn’t due to traffic jams. Soon the “road” became an obstacle course, the previous day’s rain had washed away much of the “road” leaving puddles and potholes, Mr. Ni told me. The road was barely wide enough to accommodate two automobiles; Mr. Ni used the entire width to weave around the puddles and potholes.

He drove in a stop and crawl fashion, ebbing towards our destination. When my driver dropped his speed to 10km/hr and fastened his seatbelt, I mentally prepared myself for the bumpier and longer than anticipated ride ahead. It was quite rocky ride; it was as though we were constantly going over speed bumps, all the while, I was trying to record my observations my diary and my notes are an almost completely in coherent mass of scribbles.

“Now I see why you drive a jeep.” I quipped. I was glad that I had decided to hire a car for the day.

Along the way, I made Mr. Ni stop a few times so that I could snap shots of the pristine farmlands, hillsides and farm animals. Each time I exited the jeep, Mr. Ni promptly came round to open the door for me. It embarrassed me and I felt like a spectacle. It was so plainly obvious that I was a lone foreigner being chauffeured around town. More than a few times I noticed curious onlookers- a family or group of locals huddled a few feet away catching a glimpse of the person being chauffeured around in the black jeep. I felt the weight of stares and saw the cocked heads of locals on motorbikes as they drove by rubbernecking for a glimpse. And I wonder what they made of me- an Asian woman who looked much like them, but so clearly a tourist.

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