Every car in Cambodia is a Camry. Most are eighties models: rusted, dented, mismatched hubcaps. The one we’re in has working A/C. Our driver says it’s a ’95. He smiles. We ride the southwest coastal road from Phnom Penh to Kep, cool.
Geoff Dyer describes Cambodia as a place where “a smile is both a denial of history and a victory over it.”
S. sits beside me, one leg in my lap. She’s reading an anthology of contemporary short stories by Thai women because there aren’t any anthologies of contemporary short stories by Cambodian women. Or men, for that matter.
More than Camrys there are motorbikes. Some hold three, four, even five(!) passengers. Helmetless children sit precariously between the handlebars and drivers’ bodies. “Look at that,” I say to S. from inside the A/C. “Terrible.”
One thing you notice in Cambodia is the lack of almost anyone over the age of forty.
We pass fields filled with frail cows. The cows are sickly thin, skin draped like blankets over humpy backbones. They look like donkeys wearing cow costumes. We do not ask our driver if these are “Killing Fields.”
Yesterday, in Phnom Penh, S. and I visited Tuol Sleng, where Pol Pot’s regime tortured and executed over 20,000 people. The space, a grammar school turned prison camp, and now a museum, is mostly intact. Rusted torture equipment is screwed into beds and floorboards; the floors and walls are stained. There is hardly any text, hardly any explanations, no narrative to speak of. Tacked to the walls are mug shots of the prison’s victims. One room houses clear containers filled with skulls.
People sob hysterically, including S. I’m hysterical too, but on the inside. I cannot cry—a side effect of anti-depressants.
We take a break, sit out in the sunlight. I hold S. to my chest and remind her that I love her, that love is a thing that exists in the world. “I can’t go back inside,” she says, then leads us back inside.
Among the photos I look for Bophana, a woman tortured and murdered here. I read Bophana’s story in a book before arriving in Cambodia; read excerpts of her love letters to her husband, and the false confessions she was forced to write during her imprisonment. Bophana refused to “confess” for months, refused to falsify her biography. She was tortured and imprisoned longer than any other prisoner at Tuol Slang, undergoing sleep deprivation, beatings, starvation, and genital mutilation.
To find Bophana’s face among these faces seems somehow important. I can’t find her face.
A tourist takes photos of the walls tacked with photos. He’s immersed in making images: checking light filters, taking time to set up shots. S. crosses the camera’s sightline, obscuring.
At one point in Robert Bingham’s novel Lightning on the Sun—a literary thriller set in post-war Phnom Penh—a grenade explodes in a public square. People bleed out in the streets; limbs lie separate from their owners. Bingham’s protagonist, a young American named Asher, sees a woman “lying inside her cart with her lower intestines, big bubbling worms, crawling out of her stomach.” Asher tries in futility to get someone with a cellphone to call for an ambulance, but the expat journalists are too busy taking photos. “Bugger off Asher,” says a British photojournalist. “Bugger off you’re in my light.”
According to a recent article in Heeb magazine, a new trend has emerged on the gay hookup app Grindr. German men have been posing—sometimes shirtless—in front of the Berlin Holocaust Memorial for their profile pictures.
Heeb’s Mark Dommu writes: “Despite these dudes’ incredibly bad judgment, doesn’t this sort of feel like the ultimate “Fuck You” to the Nazis?”
Last week in Siem Reap, S. and I visited the ancient ruins of Angkor. It is estimated that Angkor was the largest pre-industrial city in the world, a roughly 390 square mile space containing over seventy historical temples. Our guidebook recommends we hire a guide.
There is some confusion as to hiring a guide. The confusion occurs upon our arrival at Angkor. We think we have hired a guide, but it turns out that we have only hired a driver. Our driver tells us it is too late to hire a guide. He will drop us off and pick us up in his Camry at the three most impressive temples: Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat, and a temple the driver refers to only as Tomb Raider, because the Angelina Jolie film based on the video game of the same name was shot there. At the temples we’re on our own.
I get grouchy about having no guide. How will we understand the context? What will the bas-reliefs mean without someone to explain them? How will we know which path to walk through the ruins?
We buy a guidebook instead.
It is a hot day, over ninety degrees in the sun. S. and I wander through Angkor Thom, taking breaks to sit in the shade or admire the view or read the guidebook aloud to one another. I try to imagine life in full swing at this place in its heyday, but all I can see are scenes from HBO’s Game of Thrones. “This is just like Game of Thrones,” I say to S. “Totally,” S. says, “but Asian.”
The people with tour guides look miserable. The guides talk too much and walk too slowly.
The view from the top of Angkor Wat is particularly unparalleled. Beyond the castle walls is a long dirt road that leads to a footbridge over a giant moat, resplendent in the sun.
S. and I take photos of each other with this view in the background. We shoot into the sun, and the photos come out all wrong. The moment’s majesty cannot be captured. To show them to others would only undermine the photos’ intention.
During one break we watch a group of Korean tourists photograph each other. Sets of elderly couples take turns posing for the tour group on a stone tablet turned stage set. Each couple is encouraged to add their own pizzazz to the pictures. Some couples kiss like they’re in old movies. Others can’t stop giggling. One woman lifts her leg and wraps it around her husband’s body.
Geoff Dyer complains that by not taking photos at Angkor, he has placed himself among “the lowest possible caste of tourists: the unseeables.” He writes: “At some level, because we weren’t taking photographs at Angkor, we weren’t actually there.”
In New York, friends ask, “Why Cambodia?” “Why not?” we say. “Why any place more than any other place?”
Sometimes I tell friends that we are going for “adventure.” My mental image of adventure is culled from the movie The Beach, in which Leonardo DiCaprio finds a utopian community on a secret Thai island. In this mental image, I look like Leonardo DiCaprio. “You look nothing like Leonardo DiCaprio,” says S.
The Beach is based on a novel by the British writer Alex Garland. I read it for the first and only time at age fifteen on a community service trip to a small Caribbean island, where, with other American teenagers, I smoked pot, had formative sexual experiences, and occasionally laid bricks for a new schoolhouse paid for by our parents’ tuition checks. I remember thinking: “This would be just like The Beach if it weren’t for the fucking community service!”
When pressed, I mention a vague intention to write a piece about Robert Bingham.
Bingham lived the kind of charmed yet tragic life we know all about in America. The son of old money Southern newspaper magnates, he was published in the New Yorker at twenty-six and co-edited the most important literary magazine of the nineties (Open City). He was a nightlife persona, throwing parties in his downtown loft that brought together New York’s hippest film stars, musicians and writers. His story collection, Pure Slaughter Value, was lauded as the voice of a generation. He spent the mid-nineties traveling back and forth between New York and Phnom Penh, where he worked as a journalist, covering Cambodian politics for The New Yorker, and the local Phnom Penh English language newspaper. An intermittent abuser of heroin, he returned from Cambodia in 1998, got clean, got married, and wrote Lightning on the Sun. He OD’d on heroin at the age of thirty-three, five months before the book was to be published.
The story obscures the text. Published posthumously, Lightning on the Sun was never not framed by the narrative of Bingham’s personal tragedy.
“This novel leaves me in permanent awe, and permanent mourning,” blurbs Bob Shacochis on the hardback’s back cover.
Another explanation for Cambodia is a journalist friend. “I have a journalist friend there—she’s going to show us around, give us the insider’s tour.” “Oh cool,” say the people at the dinner party.
This is true in the sense that I have occasionally emailed with an American journalist who lives in Cambodia. I used to edit her work at an online magazine. She is an excellent writer. We have never met in person.
It turns out the journalist friend will not be in Cambodia at the same time as S. and I. She emails us restaurant recommendations.
Our driver says, “Peepee,” and pulls into a gas station. A man asks for money. He’s an amputee, legless, propped by a small plastic palette on wheels, like the yellow ones American janitors use to hold their mops. We know to ignore the amputee. Our guidebook has told us to ignore him, that giving him money will only make things worse. (For ourselves, presumably.) We don’t question the guidebook. We buy knockoff Pringles and pee.
Bingham’s jaded journalists ignore the suffering around them also. They never offer charity. They ignore it until it’s impossible to ignore, and then they take photos. Asher lords self-righteously over them, but he too ignores beggars at every instance. He describes the street kids as “Little hustlers, burgeoning extortionists.” He’s occupied with his own problems.
Our guidebook suggests carrying candy to hand out instead of money.
Asher’s problems are self-perpetuating. He is broke and too proud to ask for money from his family back in Chicago. He claims he can’t afford a ticket home. But because he is broke in the way that middle class white Americans are broke, and not in the way that street-begging Cambodians are broke, he is able to somehow spend $3000 on a large amount of heroin. The plan is to ship the heroin overseas, where his girlfriend, Julie, will sell it for twenty times the purchase price. Julie is then meant to arrive in Cambodia with the cash, where they will have an epic tryst by the beach, before Asher returns to the U.S. as a “merchant prince.”
Asher feels he must achieve “Nostos,” defined by Bingham as “the arduous Homeric journey homeward.”
“Currently I’m on a merchant prince kick,” says Asher.
As planned, things do not go as planned.
A Honda Dream motorbike overtakes our Camry. “That’s a Honda Dream,” I say to S. “The same kind Asher has.” “Who the fuck is Asher?” S. says.
My own story would be more exciting if I were riding a motorbike. You can rent them for cheap. I tell myself I will rent one for cheap once we arrive in Kep. I tell S. I’m going to rent one for cheap once we arrive in Kep. “No you aren’t,” says S.
There’s a moment in Geoff Dyer’s Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, when Dyer sees a freight train, and imagines “hopping it”—something he has always fantasized about doing. Instead he watches the train pass. Then he goes home and writes a scene in which a guy hops a train.
I put “India Song” by Big Star on my iPod because I remember it playing in a Wes Anderson movie during a montage of a train journey across India, and Cambodia is as close as I’ve ever come to India, and I want to feel, for a moment, like I’m in a Wes Anderson movie.
The song is about longing—longing to go to India—but the music materializes the fantasy, turns it into an auditory reality. Suddenly: the sounds of India. It is an act of conjuring.
Isn’t all art some kind of conjuring? Isn’t drinking? After eleven vodkas I do look like Leonardo DiCaprio. “No you don’t,” says S.
It turns out that “India Song” was never in any Wes Anderson movie.
In Lightning on the Sun, Asher and his girlfriend, Julie, have conjured their own, perilous circumstance. Of Julie, Bingham writes: “Since graduating she had been in the process of marginalizing herself. It was a lifestyle, marginalization. It was cheap and considered cool.”
Bingham writes: “Each year on this date Julie’s father granted her financial relief from whatever corner she’d worked her way into. The only caveat was that she provide full disclosure as to the circumstances of her trouble.”
“We should stay in hostels,” I tell S., in bed. “Travel by bus. Have adventures!”
“What do you think about this hotel?” S. says and shows me some pictures on her iPhone. The hotel looks luxurious. French colonial, white with white pillars, an unbelievable swimming pool. “We should stay there,” I tell S. “In that hotel. Whatever the cost! No other hotel will do! I hate hostels! I demand we stay in that exact hotel!”
S. is actually the one who wants to take the bus. I like my bourgeois luxuries. Our guidebook tells us that bus trips across Cambodia are relatively safe these days, but hold-ups still happen on occasion. I pass this information along to S. to scare her into hiring a driver.
The final section of Lightning on the Sun begins with Asher and Julie on a train from Phnom Penh heading in the direction of Kep. They’re making their escape. They have $70,000 and a big bag of weed. This is what they have conjured.
There are dead bodies in their wake. When Julie tells Asher that she crushed her boss’s skull with a flashlight before coming to Cambodia, Asher just says, “Ouch.”
Earlier in the novel, Asher is held up at gunpoint. Bingham writes: “Asher fell quite in love with the gun. In the light, the rust on the clip was splendid.”
The train tracks run parallel to the road we’re riding. We pass through Kamphot, where, in the book, the train is held hostage and the couple are kidnapped.
The rest of the passengers are executed with an automatic rifle. One woman dies holding her child. Asher covers Julie’s eyes, but he himself stays cool. He curses himself for taking the train as opposed to hiring a driver.
In Buddhism, there is something called the Middle Path. This path leads toward liberation and enlightenment. The idea is to do away with extremes on both ends of the emotional spectrum. The goal is similar to that of anti-depressants.
There has always seemed to me something distinctly un-American about the Middle Path. We are a culture invested in concepts of longing and desire. This is why capitalism will always prevail.
This is also why no Buddhist country has produced any kind of quality pop music. Where would pop music be without longing?
In this car, with the A/C on, I’m viewing my experience through the lens of what it lacks. Specifically, a motorbike.
My motorbike fantasy—I admit—is a class fantasy, a slumming fantasy. The people on the motorbikes are probably fantasizing about riding in A/C Camrys.
And yet, watching the bikers, I keep getting flashes of Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless, adjusting the slant of his fedora, doing his best gangster glare. The bikers pose, stylish with cigarettes, bangs over eyes.
In Phnom Penh, we stay in the white hotel from the iPhone photos. Our bed sits beneath a white linen canopy. I’ve been wearing a panama hat bought for two bucks (bargained down from six) at the Central Market. I wear navy linen pants and a white linen shirt and at a certain point I understand that I am playing at being a colonialist.
Bingham’s characters are also playing. They play games—tennis, backgammon—play at being the kind of WASP/macho-but-intellectual expats that only exist in certain films, or novels by Graham Greene and Hemingway.
After three nights in captivity, Asher and Julie settle into a semblance of routine. They play gin rummy. Bingham writes: “After twelve games, they retired to their hammocks, and fell into a deep untroubled sleep.”
In the market in Siem Reap, we laugh at the scores of Westerners costumed in native apparel: silk and cotton pajama-style pants and skirts decorated with bells and elephants; Cambodian blouses that puff out at the sleeves like pirate costumes; woven and metal bracelets; silk scarves. We laugh because they look like idiots—poorly wardrobed actors in their own imaginary films—and we feel superior.
Bingham is especially insightful on cultural micro-politics—what Asher calls the “political geometry of the city”—like a masseuse’s refusal to take a two dollar bill as a tip: “It wouldn’t translate at the Central Market currency stall. Asher pictured the confusion and distrust the presentation of such a strange bill might provoke. The woman who ran the stall would have to run and get her husband. There would be a prolonged conference behind the gold scale rubber-band-wrapped wads of money.”
S. changes a hundred into small bills at the Central Market currency stall. The woman at the stall holds the hundred to the light, suspicious. When she gives S. the tens and twenties, she recommends that she hide them out of sight.
S. and I are massaged at each possible instance. I get a “four-handed” massage—two women doing synchronized massage strokes on separate sides of my body. We are painted in a mixture of mango, milk and honey, wrapped in plastic, left to moisturize.
In Siem Reap, after several drinks, I convince S. to try a “Dr. Fish” massage. S. puts her bare feet in a fish tank. Small fish nip away the dead skin on S.’s heels. A group of tourists gathers to watch. I snap photos.
We laugh and laugh and a week has passed and now we too own six pairs of “fishman” pants, and S. has a blouse and a fake Chanel sweater and we’ve bought fake Ray Bans and tablecloths, and paintings, and purses, and scarves, and a flute as gifts, and I even bought a hand-woven bathrobe. All bargained down to criminally low prices that make us feel like we’ve won something until realizing that winning creates losers, and the losers here have already lost before our arrival, so really, what have we won?
Of Asher, Bingham writes: “He would not return to America penniless. That would be very un-American.”
On our last night in Phnom Penh, a child tries to sell us some woven bracelets. She walks around the restaurant, from table to table, carrying an oversized shoulder bag that weighs one side of her body toward the floor in a painful pose. The girl can’t be older than eight years old.
She is very cute—more than cute really, a beautiful child like the ones they put on pamphlets when they want you to donate money to an orphanage, or like the ones who act in movies about poor, beautiful children in stricken countries—but we have just bought bracelets from another beautiful child, and have nothing left to expend from our bracelet budget.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “Sorry won’t bring food on the table,” she says.
It is a line from a script, something she’s been taught to say. Still, it feels true. She stands for two aching minutes in silence, staring at us. We ignore her. She eventually walks away.
It feels like two minutes. Maybe it is only a few seconds.
The train tracks diverge, and soon we’re through Kamphot and into Kep, the ocean on our left. The next hotel is even nicer than the last.