Monday, September 3, 2012

Holiday in Cambodia

image: might this be a preview of what New York City will resemble 1,000 years from now?

Hey, all, I have finally returned to the U.S. after a refreshing (if exhausting) two weeks abroad. It sure is nice to get completely away from the American media machine for awhile and visit places where life is, if not better, at least different from our soul-deadening suburban nightmare.

On this trip I got about as far away from DC as it is possible to go, visiting Indochina for the first time in my life. Among the stops on the itinerary was a couple of days in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and the famous ruins of Angkor. At first, the idea of vacationing in Cambodia was a little surreal. Growing up in the 1970s, I had vivid memories of the Killing Fields--both the news stories and the subsequent movie. So I mentally prepared myself ahead of time for the kind of hassle that usually accompanies visiting the world's poorest countries where the crumbling or non-existent infrastructure coupled with nightmarishly inefficient or corrupt bureaucracy can make travel quite arduous.

As it turned out, I needn't have worried. Despite the fact that Cambodia is still among the world's worst places, with a dirt poor population and a venal and vicious government that does virtually nothing for the country but pocket foreign aid money, that same government is so dependent upon the hard currency that flows in from booming Angkor tourism industry that Siem Reap has been turned into a tiny bubble of unreal prosperity floating on a sea of abject destitution. As such, both the ruins of Angkor and the modern city of Siem Reap provide interesting lessons for those of us westerners who constitute what I call the "reality based community."

First of all, a few words about the ruins of Angkor--they are, quite simply, an amazing site to behold. I'll admit that I knew little about them before I started preparing for this trip, and I was quite astonished to learn that they are actually the remains of what was circa the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the largest city on the planet, with over a million residents spread out in an area roughly the size of Los Angeles. The city and its many temples were built by powerful kings during Cambodia's glory days, when the Khmer Empire controlled much of what is modern day Thailand, Vietnam and Laos.

The ruins themselves are quite spectacular, with the photo above providing only one tiny glimpse of an area that takes several days to see, even travelling in an automobile with a local tour guide. The highlight is Angkor Wat, the huge Buddhist temple that lies at the center of it all and has been called the largest single religious monument in the world. Despite having been abandoned, stripped of everything of value and allowed to be overrun by the jungle for nearly half a millennia, its former grandeur and ostentation is still quite evident. Standing atop the huge stone edifice, you can still feel the power wielded by the Khmer kings, who at the empire's height were among the world's most powerful monarchs.

And yet, here is the rub. Despite literally being a combination of New York City (commercial hub), Washington D.C. and the Vatican, after the downfall of the empire in the early 15th century Angkor was not only abandoned, but forgotten so thoroughly that it was all but completely unknown to the world at the time the French "discovered" it in the 1850s. The photo shows the gigantic trees that literally grow out of the stone walls any place where they have not actually been removed. At one time, the entire site looked like this. We westerners who sit smugly in our own modern temples confident that we have built a civilization representing "the end of history," as Francis Fukuyama so ridiculously phrased it, should pay close attention to what the ruins of Angkor portend for us when the fossil fuels on which we have so foolishly built our societies to be totally dependent upon do finally run out.

It was sobering enough to consider the ruins of Angkor, but I actually found the nearby modern city of Siem Reap to be just as enlightening in its own way. The World Bank's most recent data (2011) lists Cambodia's GDP per capita at a paltry $900 per year, ranking it 159th in the world and barely above such notoriously poor countries as Haiti, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. And yet it is likely that few of the approximately three million tourists who now visit Angkor ever year are at all aware of the abject poverty the prevails in most of the country.

The Siem Reap airport, where we flew in from Bangkok, is small but the facilities are probably more modern than most American airports. Not only is there a huge selection of duty free shops selling such unnecessary luxuries as Gucci and Coach that represent six months' salary for the average Cambodian, but the terminal also features a Dairy Queen franchise where you can soothe your sweet tooth without risking eating one of those weird jungle fruits they sell in the market stalls throughout Southeast Asia. When we arrived on our propeller-driven puddle jumper, there were more officers at the immigration counter than passengers on our plane--all the better to get the tourists through the terminal and out spending money in the local economy as quickly as possible.

The tourist hotels range from Holiday Inn quality (where we stayed) to full fledge resorts for those who have to travel in style no matter where they go. There were plenty of decent restaurants that few locals could ever afford to patronize, including a buffet place we went to that was overrun with hundreds of Vietnamese there on package bus tours to the country their government invaded and overran to drive out the notorious Khmer Rouge in 1979. Looking at all those prosperous middle class denizens of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City really brought home the utter futility of America's last big colonial war of the previous century.

Siem Reap did have a more traditional large open air market area, but it didn't take long for me to realize how unnaturally orderly it was compared to similar markets I walked through in Bangkok. Clearly, the place was being tightly controlled and patrolled by the tourist police (yes, that's what they are actually called) to ensure that none of the big spenders who pass through are robbed or unduly hassled by the ever-present children hawking postcards, tour books and cheap trinkets.

Being a newbie to the country, I made the rookie mistake of exchanging $40 at the airport for Cambodian Riel in order to have some walking around money. Incredibly, the exchange rate was about 3800 to 1. As it turned out, I shouldn't have bothered and had a hard time spending even that small amount of cash. As I quickly learned, every local who works in the Siem Reap area desperately wants dollars rather than their own virtually worthless currency. The prices in all the shops and restaurants were usually listed exclusively in dollars and people would actually get annoyed when I tried to pay them with Riel. One shopkeeper my wife and I bought some sodas and bottled water from actually had to pull out his calculator to figure out what the price of his own merchandise was in his own nation's currency. It rendered pretty laughable the idea that the U.S. dollar is going to collapse any time soon. Someone should send a memo to all the gold bugs and Ron Paul supporters out there.

The real unexpected kicker was the billboards around town advertising the local golf resort. Yes, it's true, you can go play the links on a finely manicured lawn placed smack dab in the middle of a the same nation where there are weekly casualties from all the landmines that are still laying about the countryside. Personally, I think the golf course would have been far more interesting had they gone ahead and left land mines in the sand traps, but then again I've always hated that boring ass, elitist sport.

I was still trying to comprehend who exactly would travel to one of the world's most unfortunate countries just to get in 18 holes when it hit me what it was that I was really witnessing. Siem Reap today represents the vision of what the whole non-first world would look like if the neoliberal economists, neoconservative strategists and rampant globalizers were to get their way and peak oil and resource depletion were not a factor.

Imagine a world where every former hostile government has become complacent and bought off so that every spot on the globe that a wealthy tourist might want to visit features facilities brought up to first world standards that the locals could never afford to enjoy themselves. Imagine a world where the spending of these wealthy tourists is one of the prime sources of income for the quisling governments who keep troublemakers, such as anyone who might agitate for social justice, in line--by force if necessary. Imagine a world so homogenized that you can kick back with a daiquiri by the pool after a rousing round of golf in the very same city where a couple of generations ago Brother Number One forcibly hauled all of the educated professionals out to countryside to be slaughtered en masse in the name of building a nightmare dystopia so horrible as to be beyond even the darkest visons of our best science fiction writers.

Because you see, that's what the bastards really want. And if you are one of the lucky few who can afford (and are of a mindset) to buy that Coach handbag as you are waiting at Siem Reap airport to board the plane that will whisk you to your next exotic destination, it must seem like paradise. But for those poor subsistance level farmers doing the backbreaking work in the debilitating heat and humidity of the nearby rice paddies, or for the slum dwellers of Phnom Penh who sell their barely pubescent teenaged daughters into service in the many brothels of Bankgok, it is a dismal nightmare and one from which they will never awaken.

One last observation, and this has to do with the power of denial. Shortly before we departed Siem Reap, we visited the local war museum, which is run by the Government of Cambodia. A survivor of the wars against the Khmer Rouge who had lost one leg and whose body was full of shrapnel was happy to show us the gallery of old Russian and Chinese tanks, artillery pieces, mortars and other weaponry on display and relay for us tales of the horrible things that happened to his country during that awful decade of the 1970s when Pol Pot was the world's most successful if least acknowledged practitioner of mass genocide.

But there was one peculiar aspect of the presentation. All the displays indicated that the weapons had been captured or used in battles during the final 1979 conflict that drove the Khmer Rouge from power. We were lectured on the evils of communism and the bad perpetrated by China and Russia in supporting the Khmer Rouge, which might have been expected from a survivor of that brutal period. However, there was not one mention in the displays or by our guide that it was the communist government of Vietnam which ultimately rescued its beleaguered neighbor from that hideous evil.

It's not that I would have expected fawning gratitude--after all the Vietnamese were motivated to act for the usual reasons of realpolitik rather than out of any humanitarian concerns--but it is quite obviously an inconvenient truth for the Government of Cambodia and its lust for western tourism dollars and foreign aid. Better to let those visitors to the museum who are ignorant of Cambodia's recent history think that the Cambodian peasants spontaneously rose up out of the killing fields to overthrow their Khmer Rouge oppressors. After all, as the old cliche has it, the truth is the first casualty of any war, especially when the terms of the peace are being dictated half-a-world away by a declining empire which in its hubris foolishly believes that it will never go the way of Angkor.

Bonus: "So you been to school...for a year or two...and you know you've seen it daddy's car...thinkin' you'll go far"


  1. "Come quietly to the camp.
    You'd look nice as a draw string lamp." Perfect choice of song. There are insufficient words to describe the degree to which the Dead Kennedys rocked ...

  2. This was wonderful, Bill-thank you! I appreciate hearing about far-flung places that speak to the transience of this life. It makes me think of this: When I was just a kid my grandma took my mom, my sister and me to Mexico. I kept asking where the people were that created the Pyramid of the Sun. I never got an answer. This haunted me to the point that I worried about it a lot.

    Then, in a well-intentioned move, my family gave me some history books (they noticed I liked that sort of thing) that detailed the Egyptian era. I asked about them as well, with similar dismissive results. I started crying a lot when I'd look at the books and I became very scared. I didn't yet know how to hide my weirdness. I'm better at it now- as most of us are as we get older.

    I worried about it to the point of having stomachaches in grade school. I couldn't think that such powerful people could simply vanish and I wasted time when I should have been playing, worrying about disappearing like these people. I was probably about an inch away from being taken to a psychiatrist.

    But now that realization is forgiving and comforting. I am older and can ignore the fright. The daily nonsense will pass; all that matters is rising above the petty- it will all be dust soon anyway, even with the best intentions. It won't matter who made the most money or who had the most power. Only the soft impressions will take.

    I think a person is only fully human when the passing of others moves them - even if it was so long ago. And it's a manner by which to be fully connected to those who lived before. It's fully possible that we might be one of the last generations that will walk this earth and I figure that all that matters is love and caring while we are here. I fail that often, but it's good to remember that the concrete and powerful will not last. It is a heady topic for those not anchored down with religious dogma- you actually have to examine feelings that weren't given to you as a birthright, but I think it feels obvious what is important, even if it comes to us at 3 am or in a shadowy notion when other thoughts quiet. Okay, that's my moment of soft for the day.

    Now this joke from my daughter to clear the palate:
    "Why did the waiter pee in the old man's soup?"
    "Because he really wasn't a very good waiter."

  3. Oh wait. That was California Uber Alles. Whatever. With the DKs, it's all good. :-)

  4. Welcome back to the Land of the Lost, Bill

  5. I imagine the ruins of New York will look far more decrepit for a couple of reasons - the Cambodians built more massively in stone rather than concrete and totally-rusted rebar and there will be no problems with ice in Angkor Wat. Once water gets into the buildings' fabric and freezes there'll be massive structural damage.

    Oh, and another great post. Sadly the forces of global tourism are way ahead of you, although the sanitised golfing in a third world resort type of tourism might be on the way out.

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