TBT - "The Trouble With Cambodia"

In 1995 I was busy in Asia setting up an export operation for reptiles out of Vietnam. When my visa was about to expire I decided to leave Vietnam and visit Cambodia for a few days. The Vietnamese Embassy in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh would issue me a new visa.

Flying into Cambodia on my own was an interesting experience. Unlike my first trip to Vietnam, no official government greeters (or tourist guides) awaited my arrival at this destination. And the place really did seem different then anywhere else I had ever been - but not in a pleasantly exotic way like Bali. Cambodia had still not recovered from the murderous genocide of 25% of its population by the Khmer Rouge and the savage war with Vietnam during the period of 1975 -1991.

Even though I was in the capital city of the country there was no real tourist facilities or promotional activities evident other then a big flashy casino. Before coming here I had read that some tourists were going to Cambodia to see the ancient religious temple of Angkor Wat - and of course some visitors to the country were going to the 'Killing Fields', made famous by the movie of the same name.

Phnom Penh at that time was a dirty, dusty, broken down shell of what was obviously a once nicer city, with no municipal running water or electricity. Each little shop along the main streets had their own small electric generators on the sidewalks with extension cords running back through the open front doors - forget about air conditioning! Trucks with huge water tanks stopped under the multi-story apartment houses and residents would throw down a rope to pull the hose up to their unit and signal the truck driver to pump up the water to their plastic storage drums.

In the small hotel where I stayed I asked the desk clerk about the big Black guys in the lobby with all the gold chains around their necks . New York pimps look out of place in Asia. He said they were Nigerian mules running heroin into Europe from the 'Golden Triangle' - the opium producing area in the north. In the three days I stayed in Phnom Penh I did not meet anyone that acknowledged they were American. In the bars at night I did meet a real bunch of colorful characters from around the world - merchant marines, soldiers of fortune, entrepreneurs of all sorts. A real mishmash of humanity and languages. It was sort of like the 'Creature Cantina' bar scene in the movie Star Wars.

Going to the central market is a must for me when traveling anywhere. An opportunity to find something different to buy and bring home. I bought an antique Betel Nut cutter and a brass container for the powdered lime used with the nut. No ordinary tourist junk for me! As much as I am used to seeing poverty and misfortune in third world countries, it was difficult to look upon the ravages of war evident in the many people I saw in the market. People of all ages had scars and were missing limbs from the continuing curse of millions of still lethal plastic land mines scattered about the country.

The 'highlight' of the trip was to go to the 'Killing Fields' nearest Phnom Penh at Choeung Ek. As I walked along the designated path in this park like setting it was a surreal experience. There was signs posted in several languages cautioning visitors to stay on the path as there was still live land mines in this area too! There also was young soldiers stationed at the temple that had that flat expression and dead eyes one sees sometimes in people who would hesitate from shooting you not because you are a fellow human being - but because they value the cost of the bullet more then they value you.

That is why the Khmer Rouge killed millions of their fellow countrymen in the 'Killing Fields' by putting plastic bags over their heads - cheaper then bullets.