Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Khmer Notes: The Cambodian Smile

The ruins of Ta Prohm
In his narration during the opening shots of the 1984 Academy Award winning movie, “The Killing Fields”, the main co-protagonist, New York Times writer Sydney Schanberg, called Cambodia “a country [he] grew to love and pity”. The first time I saw the movie in the early 1990s in Canada, I couldn’t help but share the sense of pity Schanberg felt. However, I honestly couldn’t figure out what’s to love about a country so war-torn as Cambodia.

And so, when the
opportunity was presented to me during a 7-day stay in Cambodia just a few weeks ago (thank God for the ASEAN Summit), I promised myself to learn as much as possible about this country and its people. I knew that I could never be able to understand, appreciate, and love Cambodia the way Schanberg did. But I’d be damned if I didn’t at least try.

It’s not so difficult to feel a ping of pity towards the Cambodian people. Compared to some of the people in Southeast Asia (especially when compared to us living in the sub-region’s archipelago), the Cambodians, to say the least, have endured a tumultuous history. In plain French, “they’ve had it f#&*in’ hard”.

At the turn of the century, they had to fend off the French colonialists, who were finally kicked out in 1953. But as the Vietnam War progressed in the 1960s, Cambodia was dragged into the conflict. Vietnamese troops entered Cambodia in search of refuge and resources, and the Americans went in pursuit and blanketed Cambodia with napalm, agent orange, dart cluster-bombs, you-name-it. Between 1964 and 1975, around 2.76 million tons of ordnances were dropped on Cambodia, more than the Allies had dropped during World War II; it made Cambodia the most heavily bombed country ever. During that period, up to 150,000 Cambodian civilians were killed.

And then, there was the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge regime, which killed
around 1.7 million of the country’s 8 million population. The regime experimented with re-creating an agrarian society, purifying the Khmer population from its “enemies” through executions, starvation and forced labour. Ethnic minorities like the Chinese and the Muslim Chams died by the thousands. But most of the regime’s victims were ethnic Khmers: doctors, lawyers, teachers, and anybody assumed capable of intellectually usurping the Khmer Rouge’s backward ideology were systematically wiped out.

The Khmer Rouge was finally driven out by Vietnamese forces.
However, relations among the different factions within the Cambodian society remained violent. Between 1979 and 1987, up to 230.000 people died of residual conflicts. The Khmer Rouge had returned the country to the dark ages: no police or legal system, no schools, no books, no hospitals, no post and telecommunications, and no commerce. Not only that, those who had survived the nightmare continued to live in uncertainty, fearing one day that the regime would once again return.

Three decades of conflict had also caused around 600.000 Cambodians to be displaced,
many living in refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border. Cambodia was also littered with landmines, resulting in around 40.000 people becoming amputees, many of them children. To this day, there may be as many as six million mines and unexploded ordnances in Cambodia. Even the Lonely Planet Guide that accompanied me (a pirated copy I bought in Phnom Penh for US$ 5) warned about going astray from marked roads around the country.

With this as a background, one would have to be skeptical about finding the Cambodian
smile that I’ve heard about so much. But as my days in Cambodia accumulated, I began to feel the warmth of the people, their friendliness towards foreigners, who in the past had done nothing but wreaked havoc on their soil.

Mr. Seng, the day manager at Asia Hotel in Phnom Penh, always had a full smile on his face. When I asked about making a trip to Siem Reap,
he always tried to give a voice of reassurance, indicating that he can and will arrange a pleasant trip for me there. On my last day at Asia Hotel, as I handed over the keys to my room, he asked, “How was the room, Mr. Santo?” When I told him that it was worth more than the US$ 40 per day I paid for, Mr. Seng blushed, bowed and said “Thank you, you’re so kind”, with a grin from ear to ear. He kept his promise, the arrangements in Siem Reap were indeed pleasant and hassle-free.

Throughout my stay in Siem Reap, I was taken around on a tuktuk, driven by a short, kind man who calls himself Baby. I thought it
was a weird name for a guy, but he later told me that it was because he was the youngest in the family. As I ventured to Angkor Wat, and took in the beauty of Bayon, Baphuon and Ta Prohm, Baby explained to me in his broken English how Angelina Jolie’s “Tomb Raider” had caused a sudden hike in the flow of tourists into his country, particularly in Siem Reap. God bless Angelina, I thought.

Baby used to be a farmer, cutting lotus flower and paddy for around US$ 80 per month. When I
asked him if he liked being a tuktuk driver, he answered with a smile, “Of course, driving tuktuk, many tourist give me tips!” On the way back to the hotel, we stopped by his house, made of dried coconut leaves. His 1.5 year old boy was running around without pants, and at the back, his brother-in-law was taking a shower with underwear still on. “Next month Khmer New Year… before New Year I’m happy… after New Year I’m sad,” he explained, adding “Before New Year I have money. After, no money”. He said all this with a big smile on his face.

On the river Tonle Sap, I met Sam Bo and his boat-driver partner, Vy. Vy is a Muslim Cham, who greeted me with “assalamualaikum” when he found out that I was from Indonesia.  Throughout the trip, Sam Bo told me stories of his “floating village”, where everything actually floated. There was a floating grocery store, a floating church, school, pig-sties and chicken coops, and even a basketball court. I saw a kid swimming in the murky shallow waters, smiling and waving at me taking a photo. Another also wanted his photo taken, but the boat was going too fast for me to zoom and click in time.

Sam Bo recounted how the
country has progressed so much under Hun Sen. He told me about his sister, who is now working in a clothing factory near Phnom Penh, making US$ 150 per month (or US$ 200, if she clocked in enough extra hours). Sam Bo’s words brimmed with confidence, a seeming belief that things will get better. “No more war in Cambodia. Economy is good. More people happy”, he added, while looking at the sun lowering over the horizon. And as the boat neared the shore, Vy pointed out (with a big smile) to the mosque with new orange paint, a standing symbol of increasing tolerance among ethnic groups in Cambodia.

I guess, for a country that has suffered so
much in recent history, maybe most Cambodians believe that things could never get worse. The only way is up, and they seem to be upbeat about it. The days of fearing the return of the Khmer Rouge are over.

Cambodia appears like a country coming to terms with its past. The signs of history
are all around them, reminding them of the folly that men can do. I saw it in the eerie walls of Tuol Sleng prison, and the faces of Buddha destroyed by grenades. But in the end, no one seems to dwell on these, preferring instead to move ahead. An Indonesian friend there told me that the country’s politics remain susceptible to conflict. But somehow, from the people, I got the sense that they’re just tired of conflict.
Bayon smile

As I looked at pictures I had taken at Bayon, I couldn’t help remembering that the faces emanating from that grandiose temple had all shown big smiles. Indeed, even the gods appear to be smiling at the Cambodian people.

In the end, was all of this enough to make me learn to love Cambodia the way Sydney Schanberg did? Not really, maybe a few more weeks there would’ve done it for me. But at least, it has made me feel less pity towards the Cambodian people. Because that’s the one thing that I failed to discover behind the smiles greeting me throughout my stay there.

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