It’s the holidays, and I want to talk to you about a very, very annoying Christmas song, one that nevertheless has a special, perverse place in my heart thanks to my time in Cambodia.
It’s called “Last Christmas,” and was created by those British songster scamps “Wham,” who you’ve probably never heard of outside of the context of awkward oldies stations if you’re under 30. Watch the hilariously dated video, which features people with big hair and even bigger beaver-fur bonnets (I guess that’s what they are) cavorting in the snow. There is infidelity and lots of glaring and confusingly rosy tans. It is a poem to 1985, which is, admittedly, a year I didn’t even exist in.
If you’ve spent any time in Cambodia, you probably have a slightly uncomfortable memory linked to Wham’s “Last Christmas.” The song may be a slightly embarrassing relic of the Time of Neon-Colored Windbreakers in the US, but in Cambodia, it remains a beloved holiday favorite. And you remember hearing it, at some moment when you didn’t expect it. Probably a moment that caused you bit of retroactive shame.
That’s because “Last Christmas” is everywhere, and it’s essentially impossible to escape during Christmas – especially if you spend a lot of time hanging out at bars. (Which, if you’re an expat, you almost certainly do). You’re ordering your fourth drink or so on the holiday, you maybe didn’t call everyone you should have called, your life choices are shown to you in stark relief – were these the right tones? And then on comes “Last Christmas.” End scene.
I cannot adequately explain why “Last Christmas” has permeated so deeply into the Khmer consciousness, and I’ve never heard an entirely adequate explanation from a Cambodian person. There are even Khmer covers, with impressively high production values and videos that feature great bales of probably dangerously chemical fake snow. I have been told the sickness has permeated into Vietnam.
It doesn’t matter if it’s not actually Christmas, I should add. If you’re in Cambodia, “Last Christmas” will make its inevitable, ambiguous appearance regardless of the season, or in fact, even the time of day. It’s kind of like the gentle to-and-fro of the tide. Accept it, or go mad.
I’ve noticed the closer it gets to 3:00 AM, the more likely people are to dance very badly to “Last Christmas.” It’s a regular fixture on the essentially immobile playlist at Howie’s Bar on Street 51 in Phnom Penh. If it goes on the playlist, I will probably have to go home and cry.
Since, I am a bit sentimental about “Last Christmas,” as objectively terrible and dated as it is, despite the number of times I’m heard it in the middle of August. I’m back in the states this Christmas, and whenever the song comes back on, I’m filled with nostalgia for the Cambodia version of the holiday season. The elaborate displays at the Nagaworld Casino, with Vietnamese and Chinese tourists in business suits snapping appreciative photos.
Slightly sloppy but endlessly good natured holiday parties. Cambodian parents buying tiny-sized Santa suits to torment their children with. The occasional burst of fake snow emanating from a friendly-minded bank.
Fake trees on the back of tuk-tuks. Being wished “Happy Merry Christmas” all the time, said as a single phrase. Delightfully warm weather on Christmas Day, and maybe a trip to the beach. And of course, finding yourself at a particularly disreputable hostess bar at 4:00 AM, filled with some combination of affection for humanity and mild, nagging self-questioning. But you’re pretty happy anyway.
If anything fosters an entirely appropriate sense of affinity for your fellow man despite it all, it’s an expat Christmas.
Protests against a Vietnamese officials statement about the historical ownership of Kampuchea Krom – what is now Southern Vietnam – continued into a third day on Monday, as members of various groups allied against the Vietnamese presence in Cambodia gathered outside the Vietnamese Embassy on Monivong Boulevard.
By my estimation, around 100 people were at the Embassy by 11:00 AM, and I was told that other activists had convened at the French Embassy and at the National Assembly – I’d appreciate it if someone could verify that for me.
Many monks had turned out to support the nationalist cause, and they had brought sundry burnable items with them. First to go was a flag, set ablaze to shouts denigrating the “Youn,” a term for the Vietnamese many feel is pejorative. (One of the monks told the Phnom Penh Post that the flag burning, while effectively symbolic, was also rather expensive).
People smiled and laughed as the flag burned, snapping photos with their mobile phones and tablets. The monks added a rather showman-like element to the burnings, posing dramatically for the cameras, and shouting their complaints about the Vietnamese and their spokesman’s statements about Kampuchea Krom into a large white microphone.
As the day wore on – punctuated with occasionally bouts of heavy rain – the monks brought out a sheaf of conical hats, meant to represent Vietnam, and proceeded to write upon then destroy them. “This blood is black blood” read the hats, which were alternately sat upon, spat on, and crushed beneath the sandaled, sticker-adorned feet of the activists present.
I chatted with a few of the activists who were present there, including 26-year-old aluminum factory worker Rakin Sok, who told me he works in South Korea and recently returned to participate in the protests. “Cambodia is not a free country – it’s Communist like Iran or China,” he said, noting that the government prioritizes benefits for foreigners (such as the Vietnamese) over those doled out to its own people.
“If we don’t have negotiations, we will burn the Embassy,” 45-year-old retiree Pearun Nuon told me, taking a harder tack that has been stated publicly before by the activists. “All Cambodian people, they don’t like Vietnamese people, you know – they’re thieves, they stole my country, they stole my land.”
There is, perhaps, some precedent here: in 2003, the Thai Embassy in Cambodia was sacked and partially burned, after a Khmer newspaper claimed that a Thai actress said Angkor Wat historically belonged to Thailand.
Nuon told me that there are “now around 4 million Vietnamese” illegally living in Cambodia, and expressed his desire that the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party take power in the next national election. “I hope some future new government will send them back to their country,” he said.
Chantou, a 29-year-old local government volunteer for the Chankarmon district, claimed that the Vietnamese largely control the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and by proxy, Prime Minister Hun Sen. “Ho Chi Minh always tried to drive away the government of Vietnam, to get Cambodia to belong to Vietnam,” he said.
While he believes that the Vietnamese enjoy special privileges, he prefers that the problem be brought to the Hague, rather than violently dealt with. A new government might help accomplish that, he said, albeit with the people’s consent. “Sam Rainsy has lots of promise, but if he doesn’t follow that promise, the people will protest, and Mr Sam Rainsy will stop his powers.”
Eighteen-year-old Em Chhuna told me he’d come to demand an apology from Vietnamese officials, claiming that the government is “under the slavery of the Vietnamese.”
“Last year I read a book by William Shawcross,” he said. “Even my King, Hun Sen, and others, they vote for Vietnam. Everything is prepared by Vietnam. I absolutely want Vietnam to leave Cambodia.”
Chhuna lamented that his neighborhood along the Tonle Sap in Phnom Penh was being taken over by the Vietnamese, but said he would be willing to accept a small number of Vietnamese immigrants if they arrived legally.
What does he think of these protest tactics? “It could become a violent demonstration,” he told me.
Anti Vietnamese sentiment has been part of Cambodian culture for an exceedingly long time, and has only been on the rise since the hotly contested 2013 elections, in which the opposition CNRP party made animosity towards the Vietnamese, and their supposed colonial desires, a central tenet of its platform.
Spearheaded by Khmer Krom minority groups, anti-Vietnamese Cambodians announced five days of protests at the end of this September, demanding apology from a Vietnamese embassy spokesman for his remarks about the ownership of the Mekong River Delta area.
Some context, perhaps, would be useful here. Kampuchea Krom people hail from what is now Southern Vietnam, a region that once was part of the Cambodian Empire prior to the 1600s. The Vietnamese began to settle there and eventually took Prey Nokor – now Saigon – from Cambodian administration. The French partitioned the region to Vietnam in 1949, and it was deemed part of South Vietnam by the 1954 Geneva Accords – a state of affairs that the Kampuchea Krom population has never accepted.
Distinctly unwisely considering the current political climate, Vietnamese Embassy first counselor Tran Van Thong commented in June that Kampuchea Krom had been part of Vietnam for a “very long time” prior the French hand-over, enraging many Kampuchea Krom people, and Cambodians who believe that Vietnam continues to hold colonial designs on their territory.
Today’s protest was the second of a planned five days of protest against the Vietnamese at the Vietnamese Embassy on Norodom Boulevard in Phnom Penh. A mixed crowd of various ages, genders, and professions – monks to motodops – gathered on Norodom Boulevard and were not allowed to pass past Street 240.
The group convened at the park near Wat Botum, speaking for a while about the need for teachers to recieve higher salaries. They then proceeded down Sothearos Boulevard, walking all the way to Mao Tse Tung Boulevard and the turn-off to the Vietnamese Embassy. With no evident plans to threaten Hun Sen or government offices, authorities let them pass unhindered, and permitted them to block traffic as they passed.
A metal roadblock had been set up at the rather French colonial looking Vietnamese Embassy, blocking direct access to the front. However, only a few police were in evidence, many napping, most looking rather under-stimulated. The authorities have promised to crack down on the protest, per the Phnom Penh Post, but there was rather little evidence of this on display at the Vietnamese Embassy this afternoon.
As the protest wore on and hundreds of people milled around curiously, someone burned a Vietnamese flag, and others stamped on Vietnamese flags, a sign of profound disrespect in Southeast Asian culture. Someone had made enormous quantities of anti-Vietnamese stickers, and they were being slapped with abandon on trucks, motorbikes, and, quite popularly, people’s asses and ankles. The stickers reminded me of the common 969 Movement stickers one sees constantly in Yangon, stuck on taxi-cabs, food carts, and lamp posts.
Protesters draped anti-Vietnamese posters over the barricades, and some derisively threw discarded boxes of rice and water bottles over them and onto the street. The police leaned on the barricades by the sidewalk and looked on with mild interest, some taking naps on the sidewalk by the embassy interest.
Tellingly, a massive police presence in full riot gear had been assigned to the area near Hun Sen’s House at Independence Monument – indicating that the Cambodian authorities are considerably more concerned about challenges to the ruling party than they are about threats to the Vietnamese.
Where is all this going, and how will Vietnam respond?
Phnom Penh’s Olympic stadium is saddled with a bit of a misnomer. Begun in 1963, the earthworks-heavy structure was crafted by revered Khmer architect Vann Molyvann, and was originally intended to host the 1963 Southeast Asian Peninsular Games. Politics got in the way, but the stadium and its 50,000 person capacity persist to this day.
Probably the most colorful incident in its history took place in 1965, when the now deceased King Norodom Sihanouk offered up the place for the FIFA World Cup.
The reason? North Korea, to the shock of everyone, faced Australia in a qualifier, and few countries were diplomatically suitable to receive the DPRK delegation. Sihanouk, a long time friend of North Korea, proved to be a handy go-between. Olympic Stadium hosted the matches in November of 1965, and in incidents that should prove rather awkward for Australian national pride, the DPRK won them both.
Some of its history is rather more dark. Prior to the Khmer Rouge invasion and during the troubled Lon Nol period, it served as a refugee camp and field hospital (per the records I’ve dug up), providing some measure of shelter to the thousands upon thousands of refugees who streamed into Phnom Penh from the countryside during this period. Upon the Khmer Rouge take-over of the city on April 17th of 1975, numerous military officers were taken to the stadium to be publicly executed.
Nowadays, the stadium is a pleasant spot in the center of the city that is particular favored by local Cambodians in curious spandex get-ups, footballers of various nationalities, and kids playing pick-up games. I admit I’d never been there before I got my Phantom 2, driving by it constantly but never managing to carve out the time or motivation to hop off the bike and have a look. Now, I’ve got a certain new-found appreciation for one of Phnom Penh’s architectural landmarks.
I shot (most) of these images during Pchum Ben, when the city was pleasingly quiet and empty as a result of the extended religious holiday. If you’re keen to do the same with your own UAV, it’s responsible to shoot at a time when the stadium is relatively empty. The security guards seemed profoundly disinterested in what I was up to, but I’d keep an eye out. It was also surprisingly windy around the stadium in late September, but once I was above 20 feet or so, it slackened a bit and the UAV proved easy to control.
I am regularly asked by acquaintances and friends why I hate backpackers. They are used to seeing my anti-backpacker screeds on Twitter or when they meet me at the bar, ready with my latest story about those horrible people who wear elephant-patterned pants and talk incessantly about spirituality. They conclude the obvious: I loathe backpackers and if I do not wish harm upon them, I do at least wish acute bedbugs.
Allow me to be honest: I don’t really HATE backpackers. Hate is a strong and meaningful word, a phrase that should properly be reserved for things that warrant it – such as, say, ISIS, neo-Nazis, and people who walk a bit too slowly on sidewalks. I would rescue a drowning backpacker. I would save a backpacker from feral dogs. I might give a backpacker marginally accurate driving directions. (I would not lend a backpacker money).
While I do not actually hate them, per-say, I do find them obnoxious, and that is really the root of all the effort I exert on mocking them, and why most expats I associate with share the same low opinion of their ilk.
For, picture this common scenario: you are over the age of 22 and a person of moderate aesthetic expectations residing in Southeast Asia. You spend time and money journeying to a supposedly bucolic island in the middle of nowhere, and on that glorious white sand, you find a pack of American frat-boys drinking Smirnoff Ice and hooting at one another. You are displeased. You thought you left this behind.
Someone proceeds to mock you for asking them to turn down the repetitive dubstep music. They are all doing shrooms and making out with each other and they are not even sharing their beer. Your displeasure turns to raw, vicious hatred.
The list of grievances – beyond this oft-repeated scenario – goes on. Backpackers show up at bars with acoustic guitars in the angelic hope of being scouted for “talent.” Backpackers will occasionally grow emotional for no particularly good reason and read you their poetry, which is inevitably heavily inspired by both Bukowski and that Kings of Leon song that really touched their hearts back in high school. Backpackers noisily demand that they be able to enjoy the trappings of home, from Family Guy reruns to chilled Snickers bars, wherever they noisily alight – cackling and domineering, like a flock of shitting starlings. Backpackers smell funny. Backpackers have better iPhones than you.
I could continue in this fashion, but it wouldn’t be very interesting. So, I thought I would explain with the assistance of some illustrations why I think backpackers blow, and maybe even offer some explanations for why I – and so many other expats – feel this way. (Hint: it comes down to self-loathing, kind of).
BACKPACKERS ARE THE WORLD’S LEAST OPPRESSED PEOPLE
Backpackers make for convenient targets because they are roughly the exact opposite of an oppressed group, the antipode of the world’s wretched, starving, and afraid. This makes them convenient: it’s true that making fun of disabled people, impoverished women, or the gravely mentally ill is cruel sport that is justifiably condemned by everyone with a conscience.
But backpackers are by definition among the planet’s most fortunate people. Unlike most everyone else, they are able to spend a good portion of the most productive and physically fit bits of their lives knocking around the world and doing inordinate quantities of shrooms.
Most are either attending a nice university or will soon head off to do so after gaining “life experience.” Most have nice families who care about them and wish they would get on Skype more often. Most will walk into decent jobs that appreciate how “worldly” they are after they finish contracting skin cancer in Sri Lanka.
All this makes them delightfully guilt-free targets — the Diet Coke and rice cakes of cruel humor. Mocking a backpacker does not harm them beyond the occasional bad feeling, but brings great pleasure to bitter expats undergoing existential crisis. Further, most backpackers are completely disinterested in the opinion of weird expats wearing business clothes in the first place.
Everyone (kind of) wins.
BACKPACKERS ARE HAVING WAY MORE FUN THAN US
Backpackers exist at an absolutely infuriating distance from real life, a division that often manages to annoy the piss out of locals and expatriates alike. Locals are often merely scraping by in their native country, subject to the whims of corrupt governments and poorly-planned economies. Expats usually are at least making a good faith effort at sustaining themselves in their new country (with varying degrees of success), and are subject to the usual concerns of paying their rent and soliciting paying work.
Into this situation, then, the backpacker saunters onto the stage with savings, a trust fund, or seriously poorly-advised credit decisions, and then proceeds to do nothing whatsoever but chill and eat marijuana-infused pizza.
At the same time, everyone else is selling fruit, closing real-estate deals, teaching English, driving tuk tuks, or analyzing political affairs — all pursuits a lot less fun than doing body shots off of mysterious but sexy Australians.
This can do nothing but breed a certain amount of resentment among people who are incapable of fucking off for two months to cover themselves in glow paint and drink buckets full of questionable liquor. Angry muttering ensures.
Backpackers, it’s true, do have their uses, as anyone who runs a business that caters to the drunk and stupid backpacker market will tell you. Purveyors of fine happy truffles or pizza, ladies who sell cans of Coca-Cola at Angkor Wat, the guy who does thousands of “tribal” tattoos each week: they acknowledge the economic usefulness of backpackers, but they’re probably not overwhelmed with love for them, either.
Expats aren’t often economically dependent on the backpacker market but will usually (under duress) cede one use for backpackers and their obnoxiously free-spirited ways: they are convenient if you find yourself lonely and questioning your existence at the dance club at two in the morning. And they don’t know any of your friends.
BACKPACKERS ARE CHEAP BASTARDS
Despite their obviously blessed position in life, backpackers are cheap bastards. Young Breeze may reside in a mansion in Malibu during her summer holidays, but while vacationing in Vietnam, she turns into a merciless penny-pincher – arguing virulently with aged women attempting to mark up cans of Coca-Cola by 50 cents in front of tourist attractions. They will always take the cheapest bus, even it has been known for decades that said bus is run by a professional thievery cartel and occasionally plummets off of cliffs. Hotel rooms filled with cockroaches, festooned with poorly-concealed blood stains, and set directly over a low-end strip club? No problem – it cost $3 less than the other place.
Backpackers are regularly seen savagely chiseling people over tourist trinkets, t-shirts, and things that have very visible price tags stuck to them. Some will even attempt to bargain with the wait staff at restaurants, apparently unaware that that is not actually a thing that happens. They will occasionally attempt to whittle down the price of a $5 souvenir t-shirt while at the same time texting on their latest-model iPhone.
Backpackers are also known for walking out on hotel tabs, absconding with random items in guesthouses and restaurants, stealing the toilet paper, and attempting to “borrow” $20 from you because they just haven’t quite been able to to get their mothers to Western Union them spending money yet. (Do not lend them $20. It is a trap).
They find their cheapness to be a point of pride, and will express both awe and derision if you mention spending more than $6 on basically anything. It usually goes like this: “You spent $12 on a three-course French meal, with wine? Ugh, are you insane? I just eat canned tuna for every meal, man.”
Despite their relentless bargaining, backpackers are more than willing to spend the average annual salary of a Cambodian farmer on liquor during their adventures through Southeast Asia. Pointing out this logical inconsistency only annoys and occasionally enrages them.
Backpackers are founts of bullshit spiritualism, a habit most likely directly resulted to the fact that they’re not actually worrying about making a living and thus are filled with a sense of serenity and happiness. This curious, opiate-effect of word travel is well known: many young people in Asia have informed all their friends on Facebook and thus the world that they are traveling to the Mysterious Orient to Find Themselves.
That’s fine to a point, I suppose, but the problem comes when you’re just trying to have a casual chat at the bar and someone wants to rave at you about how awesome Jack Kerouac is, or how that time they did pyschedelic drugs on the beach with roughly 15,000 students at Leeds University really saved their life man, or how they’re totally going to become a Buddhist monk next month, really. (I also believe that the movie “Into the Wild” – the point of which everyone seems to miss – ought to be banned with extreme prejudice).
This fondness for silly manifestations of spirituality is often wildly inflicted on the locals, who are dubbed “deep” and “so beautiful” by moon-bat travelers — who seem unable to appreciate that the locals are actually just fellow human beings trying to live their lives like anyone else, instead of exotic zoo animals with funny accents.
This grows especially ridiculous in Cambodia with its attendant Khmer Rouge history, where backpackers seem to feel the need to wax lyrical about how Khmer people “smile all the time, despite all the loss they’ve suffered.”
You are expected to nod and agree with the profound depth of this statement, as you are expected to smile and nod at all statements made by a backpacker with the faintest whiff of spiritual depth. Claiming you in fact think these observations about the solemn oneness of the universe (or whatever) are hilariously stupid will be greeted with mute incomprehension.
OH JUST A LITTLE SELF LOATHING
I freely admit that my public emissions of hatred towards backpackers are deeply rooted in self-loathing. I suspect this is not uncommon, and is part of the reason why backpackers are treated with such keen hatred by the expat community in most places.
The fact is that I often find it hard to figure out what differentiates me from them.
I mean, look: the below illustration is a typical backpacker.
And this is me definitely NOT being a backpacker. Somehow.
I think I’m not alone in my near-biweekly identity crisis. Most expats with functioning consciences are keenly aware of being interlopers in a foreign land, and we are also aware that in terms of both our appearance and our bank accounts, we are often rather hard to tell apart from the backpacking brethren.
Local people add to this sense of insecurity, scrutinizing us with amusement and saying “Oh, you LIVE here!” when you say something halting in the local language or express some vague knowledge of local geography.
I am often very afraid that someone in Cambodia will insist that I do NOT live here – and indeed, it has been a while since I really have. If I do not live there, where exactly do I live? Does that mean I’m just a backpacker who regularly showers and on very rare occasions collects a paycheck?
I take out this insecurity and lack of confidence in my social position on a convenient target: backpackers. Sure, I might be inept and suck at the language, but I’m not wandering around monasteries with my be-furred nipples hanging out of an Angkor Beer shirt. Nor am I haggling with an old woman over 50 cents.
I have fallen, perhaps, but they have fallen so much farther and don’t even *know* about it.
If you live in Phnom Penh, you’ve seen this guy. You may be this guy.
The krama symbolizes exoticism and a sense of adventure, while the beard symbolizes rakish virility. The Moleskine and large, unwieldy camera indicate they are serious Travelers who are not to be lumped in with the backpacking riff-raff.
I think it’s some kind of weird mating display, personally.
The rally on Friday was remarkable. A Mardi Gras atmosphere filled the air, and the CNRP supporters did a victory lap around Wat Phnom and kept going. Traffic stopped dead and people poured into the streets — including monks. Old men told me what they really thought about Hun Sen, speaking with remarkable frankness.
All is not sunshine. The CNRP’s rhetoric focuses increasingly on racial hatred of the Vietnamese and those of Vietnamese ethnicity within Cambodia. Meanwhile, allegations of extreme voter oversubscription and less-than-indelible ink run rife.
To feel jaded about one of the planet’s most impressive monuments, is perhaps, to be tired of life. Or it is just a normal state of the human condition: when confronted with wonder, we are inevitably prone to sorting it away into neat boxes, to (cleverly) making it less and less wondrous every single time that we view it.
So too, has this happened when it comes to me and the temples of Angkor in Cambodia.
I first visited Angkor Wat in 2010 when the idea of moving to Asia was still new and romantically exciting to me: I was set to begin my first-ever newspaper job but wanted first to spend a week wandering around Cambodia’s crown jewel (or whatever) before dropping into the 2 to 12 and the perennial agitated shouting of the newsroom.
So I went to Siem Reap — bought a flight out of Bangkok, instead of braving the dodgy trans-border bus — and waited expectantly in the flight waiting area, looking at the people around me for tell-tale signs of being seasoned expats: I imagined they would all possess thousand-mile gazes and weird scars and interesting clothing choices. I look back on it now and they were pretty much all Lonely Planet toting Dutch tourists wearing practical Khaki clothes, but it felt sort of alluring at the time.
We took a small turboprop with tropical fish painted on it over the great marshy expanse of Cambodia, which gleams like a mirror in the sun from a plane window, and dropped into Siem Reap at the small airport there. It is an old airport: one where you disembark down metal stairs in a Jackie-O esque fashion, stepping into a sweltering and sugar palm-tree festooned plains land. (A landscape that now populates both my dreams and my days — but then, it didn’t. This was before).
The first time I set foot in Cambodia. I was excited: it was a big moment. At the time, I didn’t know how big it would become.
My first Cambodian tuk-tuk ever was waiting for me at the airport to take me to my hotel, driving the ubiquitous motorbike-hitched-to-a-chariot thing that has formed a large part of my daily life and times ever since.
“Different from the Indian tuk-tuks,” I noted to the driver, who was aware of the context and agreed.
“Simpler,” he said, punctuating the statement with a typically Cambodian ironic burst of laughter.
There’s no need to run through the whole description of a first time visit to Angkor Wat, I’m pretty sure. Not here. There’s the shocking size of the place and its awesome antiquity, the creeping vines and austere and crumbling faces of the Apsara dancers the sweaty heat of the day, and the child salespeople who have somehow memorized every world capital at some uncertain point of study. If you have been, you know all of this.
I rented a bike that first visit (an idea i look back upon three days later as rather shockingly ambitious) and sweated my way miles in the sun to the temples, where I maneuvered around large shoals of guided tourists. I climbed to the top of a pyramid temple nearish the Bayon and sat there for a while as a light misty rain began to fall, alone at the top of the steps and watching birds fly from tall tree to tall tree.
In these moments, moving to Cambodia seemed like the best possible choice.
I then took a bus to Phnom Penh and began work at the Cambodia Daily. That is another story: through this, and the passage of months and experiences both excellent and horrifying, I became at one point or another an expat.
And I kept going back to Angkor — when friends came, when family came, when I was around. Because why go to Siem Reap without staring at it? Even if it did cost me $20?
But it has happened: even Angkor Wat has become familiar. I have become, as they say, accustomed to its face.
I would not say the thrill is gone now — but rather, I’d describe it as the sensation of going through a beloved book again that you’ve already read once or twice or three times.You love the book but have also internalized large bits of it — can anticipate what it is saying before it says it, have figured out the intricacies of the plot and can stare around the corners at what is coming up. You fill in large swaths of it without reading the words. It’s become part of you.
So too with Angkor and me these days, where I’ve found that I can tick off and describe the monuments almost before I see them, know exactly where to navigate to see my favorite carving or strange pillar, or that particularly mango tree swarming with pissed-off weaver ants.
To that insufferable normalizing bit of my brain, even an Angkor visit has become something like navigating a suburban neighborhood in a practical car to a Starbucks outlet: it is a thing I know, a direction I can steer myself in.
Perhaps Angkor has lost its exoticism with me but then I have gained something too.
A cultural marvel has become in some curious respect a personal friend, a closeness rendered to me by the singular advantage of my being able to visit often — just about as often as I’d like, whenever I’m willing to brave the bus-journey up from Phnom Penh and elbow aside a few European tourists to get to where I’d like to go. None of this is arduous.
Yes, there are small secrets still left at Angkor to me, and there are still smiling Buddhas wreathed in vine and pot shards buried in jungle, and forest trails and seasonal waterfalls — but the size and shape of the main temples have become well known and comforting.
It is not defeat but familiarity. It’s a love borne out of going again, and again, and again.
Drones invade our dreams in 2013, our blogs, and the sputtering discourse on television and on airwaves. Now the pundits have rediscovered the Cambodian carpet bombing nastiness of the Vietnam War era, and are making analogies left and right comparing small-scale drone strikes to the constant onslaught of metal and fire that rained down upon Cambodia. As a Cambodia specialist, I have issues with this — but this is for later.
I address today Mary L Dudziak’s New York Times editorial which takes a somewhat different approach to the Drones And Cambodia discussion: secrecy and that it is Bad News. Much to my surprise, I feel Dudziak managed to use the oft-abused Cambodia–drone strikes analogy without utterly manhandling it.
Most interesting to me about this little column is Dudziak’s assertion that the now-infamous “white paper” on drone use referred to a 1970 statement by John R. Stevenson claiming that “except for scattered instances of returning fire across the border, we [the US] refrained until April from taking such action in Cambodia.”
Now, this is patently false, as Dudziak notes: Nixon had in fact started the sweeping and murderous Operation Breakfast bombings more than a year earlier, operating in a sort of total secrecy that managed to confound observers both inside and outside the government for years.
Here’s what I like about this piece: although Dudziak makes the standard admission that the US carpet bombing of Cambodia was a major factor in the fall of Sihanouk and the rise of the Khmer Rouge — a point that is somewhat contested in research circles — she also admits that making an analogy between the mass destruction that was the Cambodian bombing campaign and the small-scale drone strikes that are our current reality is perhaps not the best idea.
To wit: “The Cambodia bombing, far from providing a valuable precedent for today’s counterterrorism campaign, illustrates the trouble with secrecy: It doesn’t work.”
Exactly. Good arguments against the Obama drone campaigns that use the Cambodian analogy focus on their secrecy and extrajudicial nature.
Bad arguments, on the other hand? They attempt to conflate the political situation of mid-century Cambodia with 2013 Pakistan, making dire warnings that drone strikes will set off some sort of Khmer Rouge like domino effect among the pissed-off-children of drone victims.
And that argument, if you ask me, displays both a remarkable lack of knowledge of the history of the Indochina war and is, well…downright preposterous. But more on that front later.
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Many of the most prominent surviving correspondents who covered Cambodia’s civil war gathered in Phnom Penh on Wednesday for the unveiling of a memorial to the “at least” 37 journalists who perished on Cambodian soil between 1970 and 1975.
Buddhist monks performed religious rites and Cambodian information minister Khieu Kanharith arrived to help inaugurate the black stone memorial, which bore the names of correspondents killed in the field.
Chhang Song, a former information minister under the deposed 1970s Cambodian leader Lon Nol, was also on hand to speak at the ceremony, as the “old hacks,” as some of them called each other, gathered to remember their fallen.
“Thirty-seven have died, but they have not died in my heart,” Song, who is now wheelchair-bound, said of the deceased correspondents.
“I have carried the names, the faces, the words of these people who died for their profession.”