18 May, 2010
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

There’s a supermarket near our hotel that stocks Cadbury chocolate for $3.80 US. I keep buying it. My rationalisation is that I’m paying roughly the same for it as I would back home. Besides, I need some pleasure. I was saving for this trip for so long in Perth that I rarely bought chocolate or alcohol or went out or afforded myself any luxury. I’m tired of that. I want to live like I did in Korea: encapsulating myself from the heat and foreigners outside, and filling my body with booze and chocolate. Yes, that seems healthy.

I applied for my Chinese visa yesterday (alone, since Chris was too weak to get out of bed). The Chinese embassy is a fortress-like structure topped with barbed wire, surrounded by guards and with what looks like a hasty brick wall cosntructed over its only driveway. Here I found that it was only possible to apply for a 30-day visa, not a 60-day visa like I wanted. The signs on the wall said you can apply for a 60-day visa with special supporting documentation, but I didn’t feel like arguing with a curt Chinese bureacrat behind a thick wall of bulletproof glass, so a 30-day visa it is. You can extend them once inside the country, and at the rate we’re burning through places we may not be there a month anyway.

I also picked up a bunch of amusing propaganda leaflets, such as “HOT NEWS: Tibetan And Other Ethnic Minority Cadres Have Become The Mainstay Of The Tibet Autonomous Region; Tibetan People Enjoy Full Decision-Making Power Over The Development Of The Economy And Society.” I’m not making any of that up; not even HOT NEWS.

This pamphlet informed me that “Tibet was peacefully liberated in 1951” and that, prior to this generous act of altruism by the Chinese government, “the lords could freely beat, punish, sell, present, or even lock up and kill the serfs.” Thank goodness China put a stop to all that!

I suppose this is just a taste of what’s to come. I also suppose that I’ll have to watch what I write while I’m in China. Expect an outflow of what I really think once I’ve left.

Went with Chris to the SOS International Clinic yesterday, where he spent some time with a European doctor of indeterminate nationality and found out that he has a bacterial infection. He’s on antibiotics now, so hopefully he can get red of the unrelenting exhaustion that’s been plaguing him since Bangkok.

Eating dinner at a steakhouse later that night, we had a long conversation about what we’re going to do. Chris has been sick for more than a week now, and being sick will not do much to endear you to a foreign country you dislike to begin with. And he didn’t experience the same uplifting of spirits that I did at Angkor Wat.

Chris and I are very different people and we’re on this trip for very different reasons. I was content at home. I felt some dissatisfaction, and certainly felt that I needed to either focus on a career or go be somewhere else, but I certainly didn’t have anything like the intolerable ennui that he felt. I am likewise content here; while I dislike Phnom Penh and South-East Asia in general, I’m content to wait around for a Chinese visa and continue backpacking. There are three things I dislike about this place:

1. The heat.
2. The overwhelming poverty and squalor.
3. The lack of anything interesting to see and do.

Take away any one of those factors (as happened at Angkor Wat, where 3 was removed) and I can probably tolerate the other two. I’m content to simply be in these places, to be on the move, to be somewhere other than Perth. I’d prefer to be more than just “content,” obviously, but I’ll settle for long periods of contentness intersparsed with a few days of awesomeness.

Chris won’t. He hates getting in buses and trains, and he hates cities, and he hates travelling the way we have been. He wants a motorcycle and he wants to be out in the wild away from everyone. This is why he was (and still is) strongly considering scratching Asia and flying straight to North America to purchase a bike and head down through the states and into South America. He’s not on this trip just to see something of the world, like I am; he’s trying to fill a hole, a hole of dissastisfaction. The only time he ever managed to fill that hole was while working in the Kimberley, at a remote eco-resort, out in the wild. It seems logical, therefore, for him to go and live in a similar place in Canada (also, fortunately, a country where an Australian can easily and legally purchase and ride a motorcycle).

He’s decided to see China, at least, partly because of an obligation to geographical convenience and partly because we think it may offer the things he wants. He’s not alone; I’m certainly looking forward to getting out of this equatorial sweat-box and escaping to high-altitude temperatures and dramatic mountain vistas. It’s still inevitable that we’re going to split up at some point. That sucks, obviously, but what I really want – both of us to be having an awesome time – is apparently no longer going to happen. And I’d rather travel alone than travel with a miserable Chris (which is a moot point anyway, since if he’s miserable he’ll leave).

Whatever happens, happens. Maybe one day we’ll meet up again and ride motorcycles from Murchison Promontory to Cape Froward. Or maybe we’ll both love China, and Mongolia, and carry on with the original plan after all.

If he does go off on his own he better fucking write his own journal and contribute to this blog. Otherwise the title will just look silly.

This is an odd change of subject, but we also went to the genocide museum today; Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, a former high school that was converted to a prison and torture camp under the Khmer Rouge.

Cliff’s notes for the Khmer Rouge: A communist group that seized power in Cambodia in 1975, led by Pol Pot. Declared Year Zero and forced everyone out of the cities to work in the fields in the hope of achieving an idyllic agrarian state. As with all communist regimes, it either couldn’t or wouldn’t try to achieve this goal without also removing freedoms of every kind. Ridiculous rice quotas were set that resulted in mass starvation. The regime was also extremely paranoid and hated “elitists,” defined as anybody who was connected to the previous government or was “educated” (i.e. could read, wore glasses, had been abroad…) All of these people were methodically tortured and killed, and as the Khmer Rouge’s paranoia deepened, it started to turn on itself and send its own officials to these concentration camps. One of the worst genocides in history, with an estimated one third of the Cambodian population killed, it was finally ended in 1979 when Vietnam invaded and put a stop to it.

The museum has exhibits on the history of the Khmer Rouge as well as showcasing what went on in this awful place. There are countless rooms containing iron bedframes and torture implements, with photos showing the corpses found strapped to them by a Vietnamese photojournalist.

Everyone who arrived at S-21 had a mug shot taken, and there are hundreds of these photos lining the walls in some rooms. Every single person you see was tortured and killed. Other rooms contain torture implements, paintings depicting what would happen there, human skulls, and illustrations of the Killing Fields – where soldiers would slam baby’s heads against trees or throw them up into the air to shoot at them. There are signs around asking you not to smile, which I thought was just a tad unneccesary.

Like the Hiroshima museum, it made me think a lot – largely about the guards, and how they could possibly do such things. There’s another room which explains that many of the guards were indoctrinated teenagers, who lived in constant fear of being imprisoned and tortured themselves. The paintings depict them as stern-faced, committed to the communist regime, brainwashed, utterly ruthless and uncaring. But I wonder if in reality they were nauseous, wracked with guilt, avoiding eye contact with their victims just as I avoid eye contact with the deformed beggars in the streets.

Of course, even if they were pushed into it with fear and threats, somebody was making those threats, somebody was frightening them. The buck has to stop somewhere. Like Hiroshima, you simply cannot comprehend how a human could do that to another human, directly or indirectly.

In spite of the signs asking you not to, people write shit on the walls, mostly American claptrap about God loving and saving the victims, or messages of peace and understanding – pleas not to let this ever happen again.

That’s the point of turning such a grisly piece of history into a tourist attraction, of course. As with Hiroshima, the message is: Look. Listen. Understand. Take note, because the more people who are horrified by these atrocities, the less chance there is that they will ever happen again.

The thing is, that while nuclear war has been successfully averted so far – possibly because everybody in the world saw what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and fully understood the consequences – genocide and torture and unjust imprisonment continues to happen today. The planet is, in fact, absolutely rife with it. It happens in the Congo, in the Sudan, in Burma, in North Korea, in Chechnya, in Tibet…

…and, of course, in the United States.

Go ahead and tell me that it’s okay, because the people the CIA tortures are (alleged) terrorists. The Khmer Rouge’s preferred buzzwords were “traitors” or “enemies of the state.”

It was also, incidentally, the United States that bombed Cambodia to shit throughout the early 70’s and contributed greatly to the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power.

Anyway, there’s something annoying about tourists going through this place, writing stuff like “never let it happen again!” and then doing nothing about the same atrocities that are being committed, perhaps by their own government, even as they scrawl their message on the wall. It’s just naive. I know I’m also doing nothing – that I continue, in fact, to buy expensive chocolate while beggars plead for money on the streets – but at least I have the decency to acknowledge it, and to feel somewhat bad about it.

You know, poverty is one thing, but deliberate cruelty is another. If you ever have money to donate, give it to Amnesty International.